A sermon delivered August 14, 2021 at the Burial of Joyce Archer, beloved sister in Christ to the New Creation family.
Again, it is a deep honor to be here this morning, sharing in this with all of you. The body of Christ at New Creation both mourns with you and rejoices over the faithful life of our sister in Christ. Joyce blessed me and family dearly. She encouraged and discipled many in her life and greatly supported the Lord’s work in our parish. There are so many stories I could share with you about Joyce and many more that each of you could and will add to this day.
But this moment right here is not so much about eulogizing Joyce. And in a sense, I don’t have to. I know what made Joyce Archer great. What made her great was her Savior. And so this moment is about glorying in the hope that she herself owned and exuberantly showed forth! I know she’d want that.
In fact (now that I’ve said I wouldn’t eulogize her, I’ll spend just a moment doing that!), I can remember one Sunday morning when she thanked me for striving to put Christ at center of every sermon. So, we’re going to do that today in her honor as we look at Psalm 23. Let’s pray.
Lord, we are in the vale of sorrow, looking through blurry eyes this morning. Help us to know and follow the Good Shepherd this day. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Ultimate Song of Comfort
Early on in COVID, I saw on the news that Yo-Yo Ma, the famous cellist, led an endeavor called “Songs of Comfort.” The way it worked is that people would post an online video singing or playing the song which brought them the most comfort during this tumultuous time.
Well man, I have got a song of comfort for you. David’s psalm, Psalm 23, is the ultimate song of comfort. It has fed millions down through the centuries. It needs no introduction. Christian or not this morning, you probably know this chapter. But you may not fully know its power and impact. I hope to unpack a bit of that with you today.
Knowing the Good Shepherd (Vs. 1-3)
As we read from John 10, Jesus unequivocally called himself the Good Shepherd. He did this in front of the Bible teachers and scholars of his day. Now that’s the equivalent of throwing down an unpinned hand grenade in the middle of the room. Jesus isn’t plucking this title out of thin air. All throughout the Old Testament, the Good Shepherd is always God and God is always the Good Shepherd.
And so David begins by saying, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Now that’s an amazing statement. The Lord (infinite God!) … is my shepherd (personal and present guide!). This psalm bursts the seams of our own, merely human, concepts about God.
Here on earth, Joyce knew that dynamic because her relationship to God was based on the finished work of Christ alone. To be around Joyce was to know that all of life is lived under the auspices of the Good Shepherd – the God who is personal. To know his intimate involvement and attention. To know that he cares for each of sheep, “making them to lie down in green pastures” and drink “still waters.” Joyce didn’t have some generic belief in God. No, she believed God. She believed the Good Shepherd.
In verse 3, the psalmist declares, “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.” The first part literally reads, “He brings me back.” Jesus declares that he is Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. He is the one, who at great cost to himself and because of his own integrity, left his home, gave up his riches, tracked the sheep down, and paid the price to bring each one home.
I know that for Joyce, the Cross of Christ was her all. Her faith and hope weren’t grounded in mid-air, but in the solid person and work of Jesus. Christianity isn’t pie in the sky. It isn’t make believe. It’s rooted in the infinite and yet personal God who came into our world to deal with our condition and bring us back. Christians tie their faith to history – we believe that our God literally came into our world and brought us back.
Following the Good Shepherd (vs. 4-6)
Hold that thought as we talk now about verse 4 and move to following the Good Shepherd. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Something subtle but so important happens in this verse. The psalmist goes from speaking about God to speaking to God. The Good Shepherd appears to the comfort of the sheep. “I will fear no evil: for you are with me!”
On Monday, I had the privilege of celebrating Holy Communion with Joyce and John. As any of us would, Joyce struggled to understand her suffering and her disease. I shared with her directly from this verse and I simply preached the gospel to her one more time. We spoke of the solid hope of knowing Christ Jesus. About how he is the only Shepherd qualified to walk us through of valley of death, because he alone has already been there and won the victory over sin and death, hell and grave. Today, I don’t have to wonder about who Joyce’s Shepherd is, but I do ask you this morning – who is yours?
We spoke also of the hope of the Christian, and how the psalmist never contemplates living in the valley of death. Instead, he is walking through the valley. How in Christ, the Christian’s best days are always in front of him. She responded that day in simple faith, saying, “That’s a good word.”
Now here we can deal with the question that is on many of our minds. And that is the question of why. Why the reoccurrence of the cancer? Why wasn’t Joyce healed? I can’t answer every lingering question there, but I do know someone who can.
And I can with confidence say this: God is often working in ways that are different and bigger than our own. Let me try to put like this.
Imagine a son who’s turning 16 asking a father for ownership of his used car. Now in my case, I drive a Ford Fiesta, so let’s say it’s a Ford Fiesta. The Father says, “No, at the moment, you can’t have that car. It’s not right for you. But if you wait on me, I’ve got a Mercedes-Maybach [mai-baak] GLS 600 paid for and in storage. When the time is right, it’s yours.”
You see, for the Christian, it all ends in healing and glory. That’s promised. Right now, Joyce is being fitted for the resurrection of the body. She is at rest. She is well. Joyce lived and died with bold faith in Christ. We will see her again – so we believe and so we confess in the words of the Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” In Christ, Christians have always believed that death is no more powerful than sleep. It is a goodnight and not a goodbye.
But there’s more. Where does this psalm end? Verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
It ends with dwelling, perfectly dwelling, with the Good Shepherd himself. In the end, God can give us no better gift than fellowship and communion with himself. I heard Philip say it perfectly: “To live is Christ, and to die is [to] gain [Christ].” (Philippians 1:21)
It gives me great joy to know that heaven has gained such a Christian as this. Such a Christian who loved the presence of God – who loved God for God’s sake. She called herself the handmaiden of the Lord. She was up early (really early) praying, interceding, worshipping. She prays still now, only now its by sight and not by faith.
As always, C.S. Lewis says it better. Listen to what he says:
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” (Mere Christianity)
Now those words can be spoken over even Joyce’s suffering. But they can also be spoken over yours. Over your bereavement and loss. They are true for all who, now and in the age to come, dwell with the Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd. Amen.