Sylvan was a neat guy. He was 94, deaf as a post, and still drove. He and his wife Delores lived on their farm, by themselves, a few miles out of town. He had been a farmer for many years, and was always active in his church. One of his daughters told me she always remembered him singing hymns on his tractor from across the field. We sang 7 or 8 hymns at his funeral. He died in the same room, in the same farmhouse, on the same farm he was born into. That’s continuity. I envy people with those kinds of roots.
Sylvan always made sure to tell me I was doing a good job. At first I politely thanked him, but then he kept doing it. It was nearly every week. I really appreciated that. Not many stop to say “good job” — and that’s not why I do what I do — but it was still comforting, nonetheless.
For this sermon, I added to it in the pulpit. For the second half I preached through Isaiah 65: 17-25 and applied all the wonderful things it says about heaven to Sylvan. (I don’t remember exactly what I said; I invite you to read through it and ponder all its riches for yourself.) It was my privilege to preach for his funeral, even if I had to leave a pastor’s conference in the Cities and drive back and forth to do it. They don’t make many like him anymore. I wish I’d gotten to know him better before he passed.
“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (josh 24:15 kjv) [side note: I didn’t preach out of the KJV; sometimes it’s just nice to see a familiar verse in a different translation.]
How do you get to heaven? It’s a valid question, especially today. How do you achieve eternal life? Is it your own doing, or is it a gift of God to you? Looking at a person’s life, we might conclude that works are the way to heaven. But that’s not the case. God has to give it to you. He alone gives eternal life. You’ve chosen Joshua 24:15 as the verse for Sylvan’s funeral sermon. These are words that describe his life. They could well have been his motto. They’re not the reason he’s in heaven, but they point us to the reason he’s in heaven. Sylvan is in heaven because of the work of Christ in his life. Today we mourn our loss, but we also celebrate what Christ has done for him. This verse will guide our thoughts: As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
Sylvan was known as a servant of God while he was alive. He was always active in our church. He helped out in many ways. He was always encouraging and supportive of the work of the gospel. Even in the short time I’ve been here, I remember Sylvan came up to me numerous times and told me I was doing a good job. He raised his daughters to be Christians. He taught them love and forgiveness by his behavior. He led them to their Savior and encouraged them in their faith. He provided a model of a cheerful, humble man of God.
None of those things were Sylvan’s own doing. God worked through him to accomplish all those things. As wonderful as all those things are, Sylvan never would have been able to do them on his own. Sylvan was born a sinner, and he had to struggle with his flesh every day like we all do. All his good works are evidence of his faith. Christ had claimed him in baptism and made him his own child. God had worked in Sylvan’s heart and given him faith, and from that faith flowed a life of good works. Just as you can tell an apple tree is an apple tree because it gives apples, so you could tell what Sylvan was because of the fruits of his faith. God’s Word had so completely captured his heart that it transformed him. It made him a child of God and finally brought his faith to completion a few days ago.
One of my favorite memories of Sylvan is from when the school kids from St. Johns in Redwood Falls sang here a few weeks ago. It was also a Communion Sunday, so Sylvan was sitting in the front row with several other of our members. The children were singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and from my seat in the front I saw Sylvan mouthing the words with them. He couldn’t always hear so good, but he could sure hear that. Jesus the Good Shepherd called Sylvan to faith in him, and through God’s grace Sylvan listened. He became one of God’s flock. God used him to lead his family and who knows how many others to faith in him. Even through your tears, you can take that as consolation today. Now Sylvan has heard the Savior tell him, “Well done, good and faithful; well done.”
Now Sylvan serves the Lord forever. I’m told that Sylvan loved to sing. You may have noticed that we’re singing a few extra hymns today. That’s good. Faith needs to sing. It needs to give voice to what it knows is true. Sylvan is still singing. Now he sings before the throne of God. He’s part of the great choir of the saved, who gather around Jesus’ throne and worship him. He’s singing praises to the Lamb of God, who’s the reason he’s there at all. Jesus died and rose from the dead to earn our salvation. He wiped away our sins. He made us into his very own people. He crushed death and destroyed all its power. Now for a Christian, death is just falling asleep. God gave Sylvan a long and fruitful life, and then he allowed him to fall asleep and wake up in heaven. That’s what death, our greatest enemy, has become – just falling asleep. Death has become the way we enter eternal life, because Christ has destroyed death by rising from the dead. Jesus is alive, and he gives life to all his own. In Christ all will be made alive. We just celebrated Easter, where once more we gave thanks for Jesus’ resurrection. The same Lord who appeared to his disciples still lives today to give you comfort in your sadness. He lives to dry your tears and to carry you through all the long dreary days ahead of you. He lives to bring his children safely through the valley of the shadow of death to himself, just as he has done for Sylvan. It’s true, Sylvan was a faithful servant of God. That was God’s working in his life. We can give thanks for all that God has done – for Sylvan’s life, and for his eternal life after his death in this world. Thanks be to Christ, who has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. God be with you. Amen.