I’m glad their times, seasons and activities brought them here. I know you are, too. I loved visiting and hearing the stories of their Alpha days over at Bonnie’s Branch. They always seemed to be laughing together, even when they were telling me about the painful things they were going through with Betty’s health. I have such fond memories of watching them help each other get their robe and mic on when they were Lay Assistants on Sunday mornings. Always together. Until now. And it sucks.
And yet. And yet. That piece we heard in the first reading from Nehemiah contained Betty’s favourite verse: “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8.10) And I wonder if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ wants us to hear his voice in it today especially. “‘This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” (Neh 8.9) They were just back a long exile in Babylon, you see. An exile ten years shorter than Betty’s life. Seventy years. A long time. They were weeping for joy and for all they’d lost. We weep, too, for Betty, and what we’ve lost in her death, but there’s joy, too. Joy for a good life full of love and a good marriage and good memories and children, grandchildren and a great grandbaby. O yes, there were hard things, too: pain and separation, chronic pain in her back, and a mind starting to play tricks on her and she knew it. But if there was ever a woman over whom the Lord had joy, it is Betty Atkinson. So this day is indeed sacred as we honour her and worship the One who created her.
The title they put in the Bible for the reading we heard from John’s gospel is “Jesus Comforts His Disciples.” Why did he feel he needed to comfort them? Because he knew what was coming and that they would soon be grieving over his death. Jesus, who has a hand in Betty’s and Barry’s lives, and in all of ours, too, knows about and experienced times like this. His words are intended for our comfort, too.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” (John 14.1) he says.
“You can say that all you want,” you or I might reply, “but my heart IS troubled. I miss Betty. She’s left a hole in my life. I’m glad she is no longer in pain, but I miss her and I wish she didn’t have to go just yet.”
So, “trust in God,” Jesus says, “Trust also in me.”
“Trust in what? What are you offering?”
“A room in my Father’s house, prepared and ready for you where I am.”
“Fair enough. That sounds pretty good but, Lord,” we might say, like Thomas, “we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way? Besides, it seems we have to die to get there. What sort of comfort is that?”
I think Betty Atkinson had an insight into what Jesus meant. As I mentioned, her favourite Bible verse was “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8.10) Note whose joy is our strength. Not Betty’s (although she did possess a full portion of Fruit of the Holy Spirit joy [Gal 5.22] pressed down and running over) Not mine. Not yours. It’s the joy of the Lord, no matter how you and I feel. Joy-of-the-LORD strength gives the eyes of our hearts the ability to see through pain and grief to
things like the “greater things,” Jesus promised Nathaneal in John’s gospel with “heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man,” (John 1.50-51). It was joy-of-the-LORD strength in Acts chapter 7 that empowered Stephen and filled him with the Holy Spirit so he could see the glory of God, and Jesus standing at he right hand (Acts 7.55) as he was being stoned to death. Joy-of-the-LORD strength brings comfort when times are tough and when things don’t make sense. Joy-of-the-LORD strength empowers us to trust that when Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6) is not only the best way through times like this, but is also a truth that is completely trustworthy, and promises a life which is not only abundant, but everlasting.
With the joy of the Lord as her strength, Betty Atkinson followed the way Jesus provided; believed, taught and lived by the truth he is; and lives the life he was, is now and ever shall be. With the joy of the Lord as our strength, we can do the same.
Let’s pray: Lord Jesus, you claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. If what you claim is true, please guide me, teach me, and open to me the reality of who you are. Give me an understanding that is coherent, convincing, and leads to the life that you promise. And may your joy be my strength.