In Memoriam +Ruth L. Bercot 1923-2015+
April 10, 2015 A+D
St. John 14:1-6
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ruth was always counting heads. I don’t think she ever got over those kids running around the house. To her last day she was trying to keep track of every one of them. She was always telling me how many of you she had to her house for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner and how many didn’t make it. If my memory serves, she had all of you at her joint 90th birthday with Paul except 1 grandchild. I am not sure if I got that right, but I should have because I heard it reported many times. It didn’t really matter to me, I just listened. The numbers were only numbers to me, but it mattered to her – a lot. The numbers weren’t just numbers. They had names, your names. She wanted all of you with her all of the time. I don’t know if she is paying any attention to us right now, I doubt she is, but if she is, you can bet she is counting.
And she could be. She could be paying attention to us. That is not just a throw away idea for a children’s book or cartoons. She is not an angel in heaven looking down, but we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. In his revelation, St. John saw the souls of the martyrs in heaven crying out for the saints on earth. Ruth wasn’t a martyr, but she is a saint – not that she didn’t have sin or even that she was better than most people. She was a saint, a holy person, because she was baptized into Christ. She was forgiven by Christ and belonged to Him. God declared her to be righteous and innocent by grace through faith.
So it is possible that she is counting right now. Death has been defeated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. No one who believes in Him ever dies. Ruth believed in Him. She has not died. She lives. That is not a euphemism. I mean it literally. She has suffered physical death, but not eternal death. She is not dead. In Christ, she lives.
The Scriptures do not speak of physical death with euphemisms, but they do use metaphors. The Bible is brimming with confidence in the forgiveness of sins won for us by Christ and the resurrection of the dead on the last day. Since Ruth liked to count, I’ve counted six deliberate metaphors that the Bible uses for the death of a Christian. In order of frequency, they are (1) falling asleep, (2) being gathered to one’s people, (3) resting from one’s labor, (4) being in Abraham’s bosom, (5) being at home with the Lord, and (6) departing to be with Christ. Those are not euphemisms meant to avoid the truth or to put something in indirect speech to soften something unpleasant. Those metaphors are descriptions of what actually happens.
We believe that when Christians suffer physical death their bodies enter into something akin to the state of sleep while their souls go to be with the Father where they are in perfect bliss and joy. That is the state in which Ruth now waits. Even if she watches and counts, if she pays attention to the details of your life, she is not sad and you are not disappointing her. That is because she is perfectly at one with the will of the Father. She has a better perspective than we do. She sees how God is guiding you, using suffering and hardship to lead and train you. She rejoices in how He loves you and sees you through. So your pain, if she is aware of it, doesn’t bother her. She sees the end. She trusts God to be good and to work everything together for good. It is not unlike a mother watching a child struggle to learn to read. The child might find it frustrating and even painful, but the mother isn’t bothered by it. She wants the child to grow to his potential. She knows the pain is temporary and that is not quite as significant as it seems at the moment. Or it is like a mother reading letter from a son at Marine book camp. The son complains and part of him wants to quit. But she knows that when it is over, when he has that accomplishment under his belt, that he will be proud of what he has done. No marine, after the fact, says, “I wish it had been easier.” Rather that hardship has formed them and they are proud of it. That is how the saints look at us.
In any case, Ruth’s body now waits, in a sleep-like state for the resurrection on the last day. On that day, body and soul will come back together again and it will be as though she awakes from a sleep.
We believe that the soul of the Christian is gathered to his or her people, which is much the same as being taken to Abraham’s bosom. At death, the soul of the Christian goes to be with others who have departed this life with the sign of faith, that is, that they go to what we usually call heaven. There they await the resurrection and the new heavens and the new earth. They don’t go wait someplace alone. They go to their people, their loved ones who have preceded them, and also to saints they never knew, but who are very much their people.
Death is a kind of rest. The Christian who dies is free from struggling against sin and suffering from this life’s many sorrows, free also from worry and anxiety. Any counting in heaven is pure joy at how right it all is. There is no one missing, no disappointments. The Lord has worked all things together for good and all of the elect are right where they should be.
The souls of the dead depart from this life to be with Jesus. That is their true home. They don’t only go to their people, to a place of bliss that is free of labor and sorrow, some paradise, but they go to and to be with their Lord. The Bible doesn’t imagine heaven as beautiful golf courses and trout ponds and all of our favorite hobbies. Heaven is described as the saints in joy gathered around their Lord, the Christ who was slain but who lives, and the saints don’t find that the least bit boring. It is the most interesting, the most joyous, the best thing there ever was. That is why Ruth may not be counting us right now. She has better things to do.
It is with this understanding that Christians can embrace death. It is not that it doesn’t hurt, that we aren’t sad or even afraid. Ruth has been taken for us. There is a painful separation. She cannot come back, but we can go to her. We are sad not for her. We are sad for ourselves and eager for the time when we too shall be relieved. Still, even in our sorrow, there is much to be thankful for and in which to rejoice. God Himself has taken up our cause in Himself. He has become one of us in order to die for us. His Sacrifice has made atonement for our sins, has met the demands of Justice on our behalf, and has ended Satan’s claim upon us. Jesus is risen from the dead and He declares that we are His. We belong to Him. Death and the devil can’t have us. That grace bestows joy in the midst of sadness, hope in the midst of grief, and allows us to say with Job without any bitterness: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
In His mercy, the Lord has granted Ruth a blessed end. He has graciously taken her from this vale of tears to Himself in heaven.
We are still here in the vale of tears, but we’re not alone. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Some of them might be counting heads. Whether they are or not, the Lord Jesus is. He is with us. He is counting heads. He is counting hairs on those heads. He cares deeply about the details. He loves you mor than you love yourself. He is working out your salvation, planning your reunion in the place in His Father’s House that He has prepared for you.
Jesus lives. So does Ruth. Someday we will as well and the count will be exactly right.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
 John Stephenson, Eschatology (Dearborn, MI: The Luther Academy, 1993) 38. Stephenson gives a list and references for these ways which the Scriptures speak of death.