Last Roll Call

I was humbled last weekend to preach the funeral of a dear sister, new member of our church and soldier in the U.S. Army. Her memorial service earlier in the week was my first experience with a military funeral. Folks warned me about the “Last Roll Call” and they were right. It was a moving experience filled with great dignity and honor.

So it was a tremendous privilege to preach Cindy’s funeral, which was followed by a military burial. It was out of town so many of our church couldn’t attend. Therefore, I want to post the funeral message as an encouragement to our folks and maybe to the handful of others who may read it.

We often cope with a loved one’s death by asking what they would want us to do in light of it. Jesus told a parable (Lk 16) about a man who had died and begged Abraham (in heaven) to send someone to inform his brothers about the eternity he was now experiencing. Abraham said that what God had already revealed was sufficient to inform them about eternity.

So, what would Cindy have us do and know now? We need not sensationalize or speculate about eternity. God has not kept us in the dark, or left us to process death any way we can. He has brought the truth about death and how he deals with it to light. And Cindy would have us know what God has already revealed in Scripture. Sufficient is God’s revelation in his word to instruct us as to what awaits us all, and what Cindy now knows.

So, I hope to briefly help us think about a few things God has already taught us and about which we need not be confused and what Cindy would tell us were she able to.

One, God grants life for the sake of eternity.

In Psalm 39, the psalmist asked God to make him know how transient his life was. He spoke of every man’s life being a mere breath. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Whether we are 44 or 84 when we die, life for us is a blur all the same. We’ll all ask, “Where did the time go?”

God gives us our brief life to prepare us for eternity. Solomon wrote in Eccl 3.11 that God has put eternity in the heart of every person. There is in all of us this longing for more than this life. There is this yearning that someone has to make right all that’s gone wrong with this world. And it is foolish to presume ourselves invincible, that this life is all there is and that we’ll have tomorrow to figure it out.

So, I think God is teaching us not to waste life on this life, but invest every moment in eternal things. He demands that we not avoid what he has clearly woven into the fabric of our souls: the sense of eternity and how he deems that we spend it.

Let’s not assume we’ll have tomorrow (or this afternoon) to answer the questions our soul has today. As unlikely as it was last week to us that we’d be here, so might it be next week for any one of us. Jesus asked what profit there was to gain the whole world but lose your soul.

I’m confident Cindy would say that you and should spend far less time preparing for the next gadget, promotion, or achievement that may not come and prepare for eternity that is certain for us all—sooner than later.

Two, heaven is a glorious reality for Christ followers.

We emphasized at our church last Sunday that we’re not to pity Cindy, but be jealous of her! She confessed Christ and was baptized into his church in Germany. As a church we joyfully affirmed that confession. So, as Paul wrote in 1 Thess 4.13, we do not grieve without hope.

God brings us again to the reality, received and known by faith in Christ, that a real heaven awaits those who are his. Cindy did not enter eternal life last Thursday morning. She merely transitioned in the eternal life she already possessed by faith in Christ.

We get easily wrapped up in and discouraged by the burdensome trappings of this life such that we don’t meditate on the glorious blessings of the life to come. We are to always be heavenly-minded to be earthly good.

So if you are a believer in Christ today, then rejoice that God has renewed your hope and confirmed your faith that this life is not all there is. Cindy’s death (albeit difficult) is a means of grace to us. God reminds us that will make all things right one day.

Three, following Christ is the only way to truly make sense of death.

All of us ask “Why?” and “How?” at times like this. And we’ll be frustrated if we don’t understand what God is doing to orchestrate history to a certain end. Cindy’s death is not some random event that slipped under God’s radar. Rather, it is part (albeit difficult) of the unfolding of his plan to have a people for himself.

The Bible says that all death is a result of man’s fall into sin. Our deaths may not necessarily be caused by some particular sin, but that we die is because we have all sinned against a holy God. Death, according to Scripture, is to be no surprise to us.

But, God does not leave us without hope. It is in this hope we shared with Cindy for the last several months. In fact, it is this hope that dominated my last conversation with her about two weeks ago.

In Christ, God took on the penalty of our sin on the cross (that otherwise keeps us eternally dead and subjects of his wrath) and raised him from the dead to prove Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to redeem his people. And therein provided the way God deals with death: by resurrection.

Now, all those who trust Christ face death with the certain hope that our sin does not have the last word. Rather, as Paul wrote in 1 Cor 15.48-49, our earthly bodies will give way to heavenly ones.

Friends, we all want to shake our fists at God sometimes, but our arms are too short to box with God. God has given us a sure way and remedy to deal with death. It’s not by keeping us from it, but by raising us from it.

All those in Christ have this promise: “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8.11). That is the surprising thing about all this: that a holy God would transform the likes of us into sons and daughters of heaven.

So what would Cindy want each one of us to do today? I can tell you based on the authority of God’s Word, that she would want us to come to Christ. She now knows the surpassing glory of Jesus and would not want any one of us to waste one more moment in unbelief and the illusions of this life. She now knows that there is no hope of understanding all this apart from him. And that Christ is worth all you and I have.

We were moved this past Wednesday as Cindy’s memorial service ended with the last roll call. Three times a deafening silence followed the call for Master Sergeant Cynthia Lee Tillery to report for duty. It prompted to me imagine a roll call in heaven last Thursday morning, when “Tillery” was called to report. And all the redeemed rejoiced to hear her say, “Present, My Lord and Savior.” And after hearing for years the voice of her sergeant say “Well done, Soldier!” she was pleased to finally hear the voice of her Savior: “Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant.”

So, friends and family, God would have us mourn Cindy for now, but do so full of hope that heaven is home to those in Christ and Jesus is our everlasting reward. Amen.

After the graveside ceremony, a young soldier who was part of the funeral detail pulled me aside. He said to me, “Thank you for speaking about Christ.” He’d participated in his share of funerals and everyone talks about God (generically), he said, but very few talk about Jesus. We embraced in the truth that there is no other name under heaven by which man must be saved (Acts 4.12).

I left encouraged that Christ was heard, but staggered that such was unusual funeral fare. The name of Jesus remains an offense or a stumbling block (read Acts 4). But it is the name of Jesus we must leave with all people.

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