A sermon on Bessie's 'joy book'
Our beloved and faithful sister in Christ, Bessie Andersen, passed away on Feb. 1st, 2018. This is the message from her funeral service on Feb. 7th.
As I was talking with some of Bessie’s children over the past week, they had mentioned the special place of Philippians in their mother’s life. This special place goes all the way back to when she was a college student at Northwestern. She called it her “Joy” book because it kept her joyful. So today as we remember her life, I’d like to take a little time and meditate on what gave her inspiration for living.
Over 40 years ago, Bessie’s husband passed away. Bessie told my wife and I the story once that for the year afterwards she was preparing to meet the Lord as well, and was giving things away and all that, but it just so happened that God continued to give her life, and after a year, she said something like, ‘Well, I guess I better keep on living.’ In this small way I think Bessie mirrored Philippians 1.21, ‘For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ She knew that in her death, she would encounter her Lord and savior Jesus Christ, but in the life that God gave her, she lived in Christ.
Now the book of Philippians as a whole helps us meditate on this one thought: those in Christ ought to follow the example of Jesus who became like a servant who suffered to the point of death, even death on a cross. But in his suffering and ultimately in Jesus’ death, there is life for those who love him. So we can rejoice: because there is no enemy which we need to fear.
Now it is important we understand this: in the light of death, there is a place for rejoicing. How is this even possible? How can we experience the death of a loved one or even approach death with anything but hopelessness? You see, Jesus’ death wasn’t like any other death. And Philippians tells us why in a few different ways.
First: it was different because of who Jesus was.
Second: it was different because his death meant something to the world.
Third: it was different because he was raised from the dead.
Let’s think about each of these things. First: Jesus was different. How is that? Philippians 2 says it all. Jesus shared in the very nature of God. This means that he lived a perfect life. But he endured the bitterest death. He not only endured it but he submitted himself to it, death on a cross. We see in this great humility that though he was God, he made himself nothing; yet also that he is worthy of all worship as God and in fact God has exalted him so that at his name every knee should bow and confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Second it was different because it meant something to the world. Now you see most deaths happen without the whole world noticing. Every day the newspaper obituaries are filled with a new generation, and it was how they lived that meant something to the world. In passing away, there isn’t much more for them to offer. Not true with Christ. You see there was great significance in his death. We would say that it was in his death that the punishment of death would lose its sting and its victory. Paul references the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah and his servant songs, and his most famous part of that song is Isaiah 53, ‘6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned-- every one-- to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.’ (Isa 53:6-9 ESV)
In other words: he lived and died and gave his life as a sacrificial lamb. In his death, he bore the sin of many just like the Old Testament sacrifices of lambs and bulls. That means his death has effects on me, and potentially on you.
Third, his death is different because he was raised on the third day. The bible is a clear witness that Jesus lives even to this day. If he bore the weight of sin: which is, if he bore the weight of the punishment for sin which is death, then his life is a new kind of life. The bible calls this the firstfruits. He is the beginning of the resurrection. In Philippians 3.8-11, we heard this read this morning. ‘8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-- 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’ (Phi 3:8-11 ESV)
Paul the apostle was rejoicing that he could be found in this Jesus and could know the power of his resurrection. Because of these three things, Jesus’ death was radically different than any we have observed.
So if he did it to cover the sins of many, how can we be found in Jesus? The gospels make this very clear: as we come to know who Jesus is and how his death was so qualitatively different from us, we see our own sin and evil. If you spend any time thinking about this, you ought to be astonished at this fact. It isn’t like there are those people who have it figured out and they never do anything wrong to anyone. We all fall into sin in one way or another, either in doing wrong against ourselves, others, or God When we realize this, the Bible is also clear that there is a punishment that fits such an offense: that is death. We’ve already heard how the death of Jesus took God’s punishment like a sacrificial lamb. But we must respond. We must turn from our sin and we must believe in this message of Jesus. This is what Paul means when he says that he was able to rejoice because he could be found in Christ and that he was able to know the power of the resurrection: because he turned from his sins and believed in this message of Jesus we read about in Philippians and the rest of the New Testament.
Because of this message then, Paul can so profusely speak about rejoicing in the Lord always, ‘again I will say rejoice.’ It is because he has heard this message and responded.
And I think that this is what Bessie might have appreciated about Philippians. It isn’t just this happy go lucky book without a foundation. Instead, we find that because of the message of Jesus, we have the strongest foundation for rejoicing: even in the face of death. And so Paul could say, ‘For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ Death was only the beginning. He knew the power of the resurrection that was in Christ, and so did Bessie.