A Christmas Funeral Meditation

A year ago this week, my good friend Bozy went home to be with the Lord. I had the honor of preaching at his memorial service on Dec. 22, 2016, reflecting on the Savior who was born to give his life for us.

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When I arrived in 2010, one of my first visitations was to Bozy, who had recently returned home from the hospital. Little did I know that Bozy would become a dear friend to me, as we would often talk on Sundays, go out to lunch, he would have my family over to his home… of course there would also be more hospital visits and assisted living visits over the years, but even in the hard times, Bozy was always an encouragement to me, pointing me to Christ, reminding me of God’s goodness. I’m grateful to have known him as a brother in Christ, and as a friend. And it’s an honor to be able to open God’s Word today.

As you know, Bozy died on December 11. Here we are, on December 22, just a few days before Christmas. And for those of you loved Bozy, especially family, it’s hard going through Christmas without someone so dear. We associate Christmas with joy and family and togetherness… and yet this funeral speaks of separation, loss, and death.

The juxtaposition of Christmas and death can be discouraging, confusing. But then again, perhaps this forces us to ask ourselves: What is Christmas really about? What good is the warmth and sentimentality of Christmas, if it crumbles before the reality of death? Or is Christmas good and glorious enough to deal with a day like today, even in the face of death?

Oh friends, in the midst of a Christmas season that is so often filled with distractions, we want to look to God’s Word, and be reminded of the real reason for our hope.

Let me read from Luke 2 of the account of the birth of Jesus:

Luke 2:8        And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:13     Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

Luke 2:14     “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

Christmas is about the arrival of Jesus, the Savior. But this Jesus is not just a mighty prophet or a powerful warrior. No, as we see in vs. 11, he is Christ “the Lord”. The Lord is the divine title used throughout the Old Testament to refer to God, the Maker and Ruler of Heaven and Earth.  And now, as the shepherds watch in terror, God’s angelic armies have come to announce His arrival on the earth. This is the promised Messiah, the descendant of David who would rescue all of God’s people and bring about peace on earth.

But how are these poor shepherds to find him? What is the sign that God has done this?

12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

What a strange sign. Not what we would have expected. With the angel armies announcing the arrival of the Savior… you would expect something different…maybe a royal coronation or priestly ceremony. But instead, you have two humble signs: a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. What does this sign mean?

Wrapped in cloths

Well, let’s think about the first part of the sign: You will find a baby “wrapped in cloths” or as the old King James put it, “wrapped in swaddling cloths”. And of course, that would be a perfectly normal thing for any newborn child in any Jewish household in the first century… or for that matter, in any household today. Babies are helpless. They need to be protected, to be warmed from the cold, and so a mother swaddles her baby.

Perhaps what’s so extraordinary about this, is simply that it is so ordinary, so human. The God of Angel Armies is now a swaddled baby, as much a baby as any of us were at one point. But the sign here is not only about Christ’s humanity. It’s about his frailty, his mortality, and points to his coming suffering. Here at the outset, we see what will characterize Jesus’ life. Not comfort and ease and worldly power. But as the prophets foretold, he would go on to be “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.”

Hated by the religious leaders, misunderstood by the fickle crowds, experiencing the hardships of a homeless life… Jesus was familiar with suffering. But this suffering would only be a foreshadowing of the greatest suffering he experienced. At the end of his life, he was abandoned by his disciples, betrayed by his countrymen, and handed over to the Romans to be crucified on a cross, dying the shameful death of a criminal.

After his death, a man would ask for permission to bury Jesus’ body. And so Luke records:

Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.

The body which once was swaddled in cloths at the beginning of his life, is again wrapped in cloths at the end of his life, and placed in a tomb. It’s no accident that so much of religious art depicts the nativity scene in a cave, reminiscent of the tomb that Christ, wrapped in cloths, would once again be laid in.

What kind of Savior is this?

A funeral reminds us that our biggest enemy in this life is not the government, or that difficult co-worker or neighbor, or global warming… No our biggest enemy in life is death. Because no matter how good life may be today, we are all headed for death.

One of the things I loved about Bozy was how young at heart he was. He lived a life marked by vigor. Rosemary Clow tells me about the Hinson retreat a number of years ago, where Bozy, in 70’s (or maybe 80’s?) rode a zip line down and dropped into a frigid lake.  I’m sure our insurance agent would not have approved of it.  But that’s the point.  He was full of life.

And yet Bozy also knew the reality of death. The tragic loss of his son, Ken. The weeks and months spent caring for his wife Shirley through her terrible decline all the way to her death. And certainly he saw the deaths of many, many dear friends here in his church family. Along with that, he saw his own decline… my last visit to Bozy, to see him bedridden, working hard to breathe… Bozy understood that death was his enemy.

Friends, this is why Jesus came. Death is God’s judgment on us for our sin. All of us here have sinned against God, have lived as if we were God, rejecting His good and loving reign over our lives.

But God, in His mercy, sent His Son into this world, taking on our humanity, living the life of obedience that we should have lived, and then offering that life as a sacrifice on the cross, bearing the judgment and death that we deserved, in our place.

And yet three days later, Jesus rose from the dead in glory, proving His victory over death! And He ascended to heaven as the Lord of Life and Savior of the World. Friends, this is what Christmas is all about. Not the sentimentality of a swaddled infant. No, but the arrival of the Savior who would slay death by his own death, and who guarantees eternal life for all who will repent of their sins and trust in Him. As one ancient theologian said,

“He was wrapped in swaddling bands, but at the resurrection he released the swaddling bands of the grave.”

Friends, as we grieve the death of our friend, realize that this is why Christmas matters. A Savior has been born to you. A Savior who bears your sins, and conquers your death.

Lying in a Manger

Let’s think about the second sign given by the angels: You will find a baby “lying in a manger.” A manger is basically a feeding trough for animals. Now this is an unusual sign. You normally don’t find babies lying in a manger. Luke repeats this sign three times throughout the narrative, pointing to the uniqueness of the sign. We would have expected to find the Lord in a palace, lying on a royal bed. But instead, we find him in a stable, lying in a manger.

What does it mean? Well, we see something of the poverty of the Messiah in this. Jesus came not as a ruler, but as a servant. As He himself proclaimed, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

And this serving is what would characterize his life and ministry…. proclaiming the truth, healing the sick, befriending the outcast, feeding the hungry, confronting injustice, casting out demons… Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. And he didn’t do this for money or fame… No, he did this because of love.

But the greatest service that he offered was his passion at the end of his life. Because there, at the cross, he gives us, not blessings from afar, no, he gives us Himself.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered with his disciples to celebrate the Passover meal. And during that meal, this is what Luke records:

Luke 22:19               And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Luke 22:20               In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

 And so the one who once lay in a place of feeding for animals, now goes to the cross, offering his body and blood for the feeding of mankind.

Friends, this is what it means to come to Jesus.

For some people, they think receiving Jesus means knowing about him intellectually.

For others, it means having a kind of sentimental attachment to him for past memories or during the holidays.

For others, it means seeing him as an example of virtue or justice.

Those things aren’t necessarily bad. But they miss the most important point. To receive this King most fundamentally means that we partake of His body broken for us, His blood shed for us. It means we receive His death for us, personally. We lay down our efforts to justify ourselves, to commend ourselves to God, to try to make ourselves right before God… and we accept his service for us. We come to that manger, dirty, imperfect, brutish… and by faith, we feed on the Bread of Life.

We’ve talked a lot today about Bozy’s service to the church. And we could go on all afternoon with more stories. He had a plaque hanging in his room, commemorating over 40 years of service in Hinson’s children’s ministry. One of my recent memories is Bozy in his 80’s with his bad back and bad knees volunteering to clean and disinfect toys in the nursery. Bozy was a servant of God’s people. But this makes sense, because he was reflecting the character of his Savior. His Savior did not come to be served, but to serve, and having been so lovingly served by Christ, Bozy wanted to serve others too.

During my last visit to Bozy, I asked him what he would want for his memorial service. And this was his response:

“Don’t praise me… I didn’t do it… The Lord did. So you can say that He used this old guy with a silly nickname who was around there for a long time… but I’m so thankful that He did it.”

As much as Bozy served, he was convinced that fundamentally, he was someone who had been served and loved by Christ.  And he looked forward to seeing His Savior face to face. We trust that Bozy has made it home, and is rejoicing with his Savior.

But this service is not for him. It’s for us. For us who continue to experience the suffering of this world and sin in our hearts. For us who will one day encounter death and stand before God to give an account for our lives. Oh friends, what are you relying on for that? Your past religious performance? The family you’ve come from? Your own standard of goodness?

Friend, all those hopes will fall short of God’s glory. But our hope was never meant to be in ourselves. Rather, Christmas reminds us that God has provided a far better Savior.

Oh friend, even today, turn to Jesus Christ… the Lord who was wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger, in order that death might be defeated, and that we might partake of his life.

Friend, this Christmas season, in the midst of death, hear what the angels declare: a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

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