Unlike most of you present here this afternoon, I never had the privilege of meeting and knowing Stephani. This is my loss for judging from everything I’ve heard, she was a sweet, loving, caring young woman who loved her family; loved her friends; loved nature—Stephani loved life. And she was taken from this life, she was taken from your lives, all too soon.
After Nina and I first spoke about having this time of remembrance for her and John’s precious daughter, I went online to read the comments left on the online guestbook by some who loved her. One person wrote how Stephani helped her get through many dark times—so much so that she didn’t feel she would be here today if she hadn’t met and known her. She went on to observe how Stephani had a “huge heart and a beautiful soul.” Another noted that Stephani “was a beautiful young woman.” A third referred to her as a “beautiful angel.” And if you haven’t had a chance to read the remembrance from her parents, Nina and John, on the back of the bulletin I encourage you to do so. The brief description they provide of their dear daughter is a wonderful snapshot of someone who loved and lived life to the fullest. And so we gather to remember Stephani—and celebrate her life—and grieve that she is no longer with us.
As I’ve pondered what words of hope and encouragement I might share with you this afternoon, I was reminded of an account recorded in the Bible of a time when Jesus Christ—who by his words and deeds demonstrated that he was not only human but also God who made us and everything that exists—wept. His weeping was similarly for someone whose life had ended all too soon. He similarly wept for someone he knew well. For Jesus had a special relationship with three siblings named Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. And at the opening of the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel we’re told that one of them, Lazarus, lay sick. So his sisters, knowing Jesus’ love for them (verse 6) and knowing that he had the ability and power to heal Lazarus, had a message sent to him, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (verse 3). Jesus, who is love; Jesus, who is life, received word that one whom he loved was sick. Lazarus’ sisters, knowing how much Jesus loved them (verse 5), no doubt hoped that he would come quickly and heal their brother.
However, tragically, Lazarus died before Jesus arrived. Yet Jesus went to him, nonetheless, telling his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up” (verse 11). Since his disciples misunderstood him, thinking he meant that Lazarus was literally sleeping (verses 12–13), Jesus told them more plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him” (verses 14–15).
When Jesus arrived at the home of the three siblings, he was met by Martha, one of the sisters, who said to him, “Lord,… if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Even though her brother was dead, Martha knew that Jesus—again, who was not only fully human but also fully God—was able to give him life, if not now, then on the day of resurrection (verse 24). And then Jesus spoke to Martha words that have ever been the heart and center of Christian proclamation, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Martha and Mary knew this about Jesus. They knew he was LORD of the universe and Giver of life. This is why they had sent for him.
Indeed, as Jesus went on to the place where Lazarus lay dead, he was met by Mary, the other sister, who falling at his feet spoke the same words that Martha had spoken, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (verse 32). And upon seeing that all who had gathered were weeping, we’re told that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (verse 33). And it is as this point, after going to see where Lazarus had been laid, that we’re told, “Jesus wept.” And so we have to ask, “Why? Why did Jesus weep? Why did Jesus, who would go on to bring Lazarus back from death (verses 43–44), weep? Why would he weep if he knew Lazarus would live again?”
Well, we’re not told the reason why but we are told that as Jesus approached Lazarus’ tomb, he was “once more deeply moved” (v. 38). And as they rolled the stone away from the front of the tomb—tombs in those days were often caves blocked off by a stone that was chiseled so it could roll—Jesus prayed, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (vv. 41–42). And then he who is the resurrection and the life brought Lazarus back from death to life (vv. 43–44).
I chose to share this account with you this afternoon because though I never had the privilege of knowing Stephani, I have had the privilege of knowing the very Jesus spoken of here since I was 18 years old. It is this Jesus Christ, fully human and fully God, who made Stephani—and made me—and made everyone here—and made everyone who has ever lived. For Christ who made us is the eternal God. Christ who made us is the living God. Christ who made us is a compassionate God. And as God, he knew that the beautiful world he had made—a world whose beauty Stephani embraced in the love she expressed for her family, and friends, and animals, and wildflowers, and sunrises, and sunsets—Jesus knew this beautiful world was marred by evil and suffering and death. And he grieved over such evil. But he didn’t simply grieve. No, he sought to do something about it because he loves us so very much. Therefore, he who as God and Spirit had ever existed chose to enter time and come in human form, in the form of the man Jesus Christ. Listen to how John, one of those who was closest to Jesus, explained this in the third chapter of his Gospel: “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” God didn’t send his Son, Christ Jesus, to condemn but to save. He sent him to save us from all evil. He sent him to save us from all suffering. He sent him to save us from death. And if we but believe in him, he will freely and graciously give us his eternal life. For to see Jesus is to see God. To believe in Jesus is to believe in God.
God’s compassion is seen in the fact that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (verse 32) when he saw Mary and others weeping; and in the fact that he himself wept (verse 33) when told to go and see his friend who had died;
God’s tenderness is seen in the fact that Jesus was “once more deeply moved” when he came to the tomb of his friend (verse 38);
God’s mercy is seen in the fact that Jesus knew that people were more likely to turn to their Father in heaven if they could see him bring his beloved friend back to life and thereby demonstrate that he is the resurrection and the life and that all who believe in him, though they physically die, yet will live eternally with and through him. For as he said to his Father, this historical account about Lazarus has been preserved for us so that all might believe (verse 14) and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is he who sent his Son, Jesus Christ, that they might believe in him (verse 41);
God’s generosity is seen in the fact that he who was God came into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ, again, not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him. For he is the only means God provided for conquering evil and suffering and death. What is more, Jesus Christ is moved by our suffering; he is moved by the loss brought on by death; and this is why he came: he came to take away our suffering.
And I can testify to you this afternoon that once we turn to him, he will never let us go. And so I pray that you will turn to him. For our heavenly Father loves us with a love that is beyond human love. He loves us with a love that is able to carry us from this life into his eternal presence when this earthly life is over. No one in heaven or on earth can love us as he does; no one in heaven or on earth can understand our suffering and pain as he does; no one in heaven or on earth can comfort us as he does. Isn’t this why we’re gathered here in this church this afternoon? Because we know that in addition to the comfort we can provide one another, we seek a comfort that transcends, that reaches beyond, our earthly lives. We seek a word from God who made us. We seek the comfort of the God who made us for himself. And as we remember Stephani this afternoon, we can take comfort in knowing that, as is true for all of us, her life ever was and continues to be held in God’s hands.
We grieve together this afternoon because the earthly part of Stephani’s life has ended. But our love for her endures. Our love for her continues to live for she continues to live. As Beulah Malkin’s poem on the front of your bulletin states, once someone we love enters into the garden of our hearts, they make that garden perfect and complete. And I know that Kyler—and Kayden—and little Ezra—and Nina—and John—and all of you who knew and loved Stephani now feel less than perfect and complete for she has left a hole in the garden of your hearts. Even as we celebrate the joy and beauty and wonder of Stephani, I know you are hurting and grieving that she’s been taken from you.
And I encourage you to weep for this is why God gave us tears;
and I encourage you to hurt for this is why God gave us hearts;
and I encourage you to pray—which is nothing other than talking with God—for this is why God gave us souls.
Let him know your pain. Tell him how much you loved Stephani. Tell him how much you miss her. Ask him to comfort you. Thank him for giving her life. Thank him for allowing her to be such an important part of your lives. And know that God hears you. And loves you. And weeps with you. And seeks to comfort you.
Let us pray.