Today I have the privilege of leading in the funeral of a godly woman from our church family. Over the past five years, I visited Mary Atherton often, and was constantly encouraged by her godliness. By many standards, Mary had a very hard life: born in Saskatchewan, raised on a farm in a sod house during the Great Depression, moving to Brantford with her husband and little ones, soon after losing that husband to cancer. But Mary saw the hand of God in those bitter providences: it was through her coming to Brantford that she first heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and became a Christian. And it was through the death of her husband, that her whole family moved from Saskatchewan to support her, and they all became Christians. Today, two of her younger brothers are pastors, still serving the Lord, even though they are past regular 'retirement age'. I could go on with the stories of this woman's godliness, but instead I thought I'd copy/paste the notes I'll use to preach Mary's funeral sermon this afternoon. I realize that the written form usually pales in comparison to the spoken sermon, but some of the quotes by Mary herself were too amazing for me to pass on. Read and be encouraged. . .
To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
There are many people here who have known Mary their whole lives. I only had the privilege of knowing Mary for the past five years, but I count the many visits I had with her a special privilege.
I am a pastor, so visiting an elderly person to bring them encouragement is a regular part of my life, but when I visited Mary, I’m not sure who was encouraging who.
As I walked in the room her face would brighten and she’d make a fuss about making sure I had a comfortable place to sit. Most often we just sat sharing, catching up. She’d especially ask about my family and then about our church. After a while I would ask Mary if she’d like me to read from the Bible and her face would brighten up and she’d always say ‘Oh, yes’. She was not able to come to church so I’d often read to her the passage I had just preached on, and share the sermon with her.
Then I’d ask her to pray. More than anyone I’ve ever met, Mary prayed like she was in the presence of God.
There is a reason for this: she was in the presence of God.
Mary lived her life with an awareness of the presence of the God she worshipped, and a longing to be with him forever.
That is why Keith read the first passage of the Bible he did - from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In that passage the Apostle Paul is thinking about what he desires most, life or death.
On that surface, that’s a strange question. But this was not morbid thinking, this was a man who knew Jesus as Saviour, and had a sure hope of an eternity that made the best joys of his life pale in comparison.
As he reflected he simply said, ‘to be with Christ would be better by far’. In other words, Paul was saying, when I die, the joys I’ll experience will far outweigh any joys I’ve ever experienced.
Did you notice what would make heaven great for Paul? Not primarily seeing loved ones again, or streets of gold or mansions.
No, he said, the best thing about heaven is that I’ll be with Christ. I’ll be with him forever. I’ll be with him in unbroken fellowship forever.
I had Keith read this passage because of something Mary once said to me. At a time when she was in the hospital, I came into her bedside and this is what she said to me:
“Often when I close my eyes I think of what it will be like to be with Jesus, and I’m so happy I laugh out loud”.
What an amazing hope to live with. Today, that hope is realized for Mary!
But not only did Mary yearn to be with her God and Saviour in heaven, but she also yearned for everyone who knew her to have this same Jesus as their own personal Saviour.
Through the years as I visited Mary, our discussion very often turned to the many, many, close family members who she prayed for daily, and who she longed to have become Christians.
That is why she took so much care to help shape her funeral service. She not only wanted this to be a celebration of what God had done in her life, but she longed for her funeral to be a means of other people facing the reality that all of us will die some day, and when we die we will answer to the God who created us.
A year and a half ago Mary fell and broke her hip. Most of us, including Mary, knew that her life was fragile. She lay, frail, in a room with three other patients, and enjoyed visitors of her own, and listened as visitors came for the other patients.
When I visited her that time in the hospital, this is what she said to me:
“It’s grievous to me that no one talks about Jesus in here. They come in and I hear them talking about how much they drink and the things they do when they are drunk. It’s an empty lifestyle. . .and a hellish one – God won’t let them into heaven if they live like that!”
We can picture the look Mary had on her face, and the tones she used. As soon as I left that hospital room, I wrote that quote down so I’d remember it.
To the person who didn’t know Mary a quote like that may sound like she thought she was better than other people; a sort of holy roller.
But those of us who knew her can sense the humility and broken heartedness with which she said those words.
Mary did not think she was better than other people, but her heart did break, as she knew that there is a line, a difference between people who are truly Christians, who will be with the Lord when they die, and those who are not, who will be shut out from God’s favour for eternity.
That is why Keith read the second passage printed in your bulletin.
This was Mary’s favourite Bible passage, the one that she asked me to focus on at her funeral. Look again at what it says:
Romans 1:16-17 - I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
I just quoted a very hard statement by Mary, that talks about the kinds of people God will not let into heaven. Now, in Mary’s favourite Bible passage, we find the way that every single person can be forgiven of their sinful lives that offend the God Mary worshipped.
Our passage sums it up in one word. It is salvation for everyone who what? Believes! Or, later, it is a righteousness that is by what from first to last? Faith!
That is the truth that Mary cherished her whole life, and that she yearned for her family and friends to know.
Like Paul, who wrote Romans, Mary was also not ashamed of this gospel.
Hellish sinners, people who live their whole lives without regard for God, without worshipping God, doing really bad things often, or doing really good things and having the audacity to think that they are right with God because of those things, this good news is for everyone.
Mary learned early in life that no matter who you are, or how horrible your life has been, or how good your life has been, you do not measure up to the perfect standards that the Holy God who created you, requires. But God did not leave us without hope, even though we deserved to be without hope. In the ultimate act of love, God sent his only Son, Jesus, to be born a baby on the first Christmas. Jesus lived the perfect life that you and I failed to live. On the cross, Jesus died the death that you and I deserved to die. Jesus, the perfect one, was called the lamb of God, because he was sacrificed for our sin. God poured out his wrath on Jesus, so sinners could be forgiven. And not only are sinners forgiven, but our passage says that in this gospel a righteousness of God is revealed. In other words, people who come to Jesus for forgiveness, also are given his perfect righteousness as their very own. When God looks on a Christian, he sees the perfections of his son, Jesus, and he delights in them!
If you pray to God and confess to him that you have not been living to honour him, and that you need his forgiveness, God will hear you.
If you ask him to forgive you all of your sins, and to help you change, he will hear you.
If you come as you are, sinful, dirty, messy, and know that Jesus died for your sins, he will hear you.
If you turn your back on your old way of living, and come to God saying you need to be forgiven, and that you want to follow Jesus, God will hear you and you will become a child of God.
Although your sins have made you dirty and guilty, you will be washed clean before God.
Although you have nothing to offer God, the perfect righteousness of Jesus, will be given to you as a gift.
God will look on you with delight.
And one day, he will welcome you, a forgiven sinner, into heaven, into the presence of Christ, to worship him in highest delight, for eternity.
This is the truth that transformed Mary’s life and now, her eternity. This is why we are here this afternoon celebrating a beautiful life well-lived.
Mary recognized that she was a great sinner, but that Jesus Christ is a greater Saviour.
Mary would have told you that any good in her life came because the God who had forgiven her also changed her from the inside out throughout her life. Mary would take no credit for her beautiful life.
It was all because of God.
And now, Mary’s prayers for us have been silenced. I often wonder how many blessings come to people who do not trust Jesus as Saviour, because an old saint somewhere is praying for them, and God is answering their prayer.
But the chance to become a Christian yourself is not lost. Mary yearned for this for each of you. As we close I encourage you to consider these eternally weighty, precious truths.