We gather today to remember the life of Bluefford Gordon Hancock. Many of the Bible passages I will read today were marked in Bluefford’s Bible as important passages to him. Yesterday, George Ray said Bluefford emphasized it was important to understand the different types of soil and how each can affect a tree when it is planted. That reminded me of a parable Jesus told.
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:3b-8, NIV)
The seed was the gospel of Jesus Christ. The soil is one’s heart, how one responds to the gospel message and to Jesus. Bluefford was good soil. He produced a crop a hundredfold more than what was sown. Many of you here today are part of that crop. You are part of the fruit Jeremiah mentions in chapter 17 of his book,
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jer 17:8-9, NIV)
Bluefford had a star beside the first part of that verse, “blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.” This was very descriptive of Bluefford. He loved his Lord and sought to trust him more each day. Even when periods of drought came, such as in the last days of his life, when his body was in pain, yet he bore the green leaves of life for he drank deeply from the river of life that his Savior Christ Jesus provided to him. With the prophet Habakkuk, he could say, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food . . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” (Hab 3:17-18, NIV) This call to praise God even in the difficult times of life was not only bracketed in Bluefford’s Bible, it received both a check mark and a star. I imagine that was shorthand for a Bluefford truism, “Son, you can take that to the bank!”
The Christian hope has always been rooted in the belief of the resurrection of the dead. This hope grows out of the teaching and life of Jesus Christ himself. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus was dead and in the tomb for four days, Jesus stated to Lazarus’ sister Martha,
“Your Brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11: 23-26, NIV; emphasis mine)
What did Jesus mean that those who believe in him would never die? It could not mean physical death, for we know from the story of Jesus that he himself died on the cross and was buried in a tomb. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The witness of the first Christians was that God raised Jesus from the dead three days later. In the Revelation, Jesus proclaims, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last. I am the living one; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever. And I hold the keys of death and Hades [the grave].” (1:17b-18, NIV) Because Jesus holds the keys to the grave, we can have confidence that this is not the last word in the story of Jesus’ servant, Bluefford Gordon Hancock. He will certainly live again. Bluefford was confident of this, for not only were these words bracketed in his Bible but he wrote the words “Rev 1:18” at the top of the page and had those words underlined!
Now, in the story of Lazarus, Jesus—who had just emphasized that he was the foundation for the Christian hope in the resurrection of the body—did an interesting thing. Jesus knew that he was the resurrection and that those who believe in him would live again. He knew that he was about to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead. Yet when Jesus arrived at the tomb, John’s gospel tells us, “Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” (John 11:35-36, NIV) So it is ok for us today to mourn the loss of Bluefford. Jesus himself experienced the impact of death; he wept when confronted with the reality that death cuts us off from those we love. Even though death did not have the final word in the story, for Jesus raised Lazarus back to life, Jesus cried because of the momentary separation. Bluefford felt that momentary separation from his wife Katie, his daughter Penny, his brothers and other family members, but now that separation has ended. We feel the separation today, so it is ok to grieve, to cry, but as Paul told the Thessalonians in his first letter, Christians are not
to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those [like Bluefford] who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And we will be with the Lord forever.
And then Paul says, “Therefore, encourage each other with these words.” (1 Thess 4:13-18, NIV; emphasis mine) Paul’s words were words of encouragement. Those who believe in Christ will be with Bluefford again, when the dead are raised and Christ brings his eternal kingdom in all of its fullness. For the Christian, death has no sting, no victory, because it does not have the final word (1 Cor 15:54-55).
John had a vision of the kingdom of God in the Revelation,
I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. . . . I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4, NIV)
So it is ok to shed a tear today for the loss of one who was so significant in our lives. But one day, those who are in Christ will be raised to eternal life. On that day, God himself will wipe away any remaining tears. He will mend our broken hearts and heal our broken bodies.
The beauty of that restored creation described in the Revelation must have thrilled this old horticulturalist’s soul. For John writes,
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. (Rev 22:1-3, NIV)
But what is underlined in that passage is not the trees of life, nor their fabulous yield rate, nor even the medicinal value of the plants. What Bluefford underlined in this passage was the phrase, “his servants will serve him.” In fact, flipping through his Bible, one finds verse after verse marked with calls to serving others, caring for others, loving others. If you want to know how to honor Bluefford, it would be to fall in love with his Savior Jesus Christ as much as he was and to be a servant of Christ daily in the lives of others. That is what Bluefford was looking forward to in the next life, and what he did so faithfully in this one.
Now there have always been those who questioned this belief Christians have in the resurrection of the body. Paul addressed these questions in his first letter to the Corinthians:
But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own kind of body. . . .
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural [soulish] body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural [soulish] body, there is also a spiritual body. . . . The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. . . . And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. (1 Cor 15:35-38, 42-44, 47, 49, NIV)
The famous preacher D. L. Moody once noted many people call this passage from 1 Corinthians 15 the “burial service.” But, Moody argued,
I think it is an unfortunate expression. Paul never talked of ‘burial.’ He said the body was sown in corruption, sown in weakness, sown in dishonor, sown a natural body. If I bury a bushel of wheat, I never expect to see it again, but if I sow it, I expect results. Thank God, our friends are not buried; they are only sown! (Great Sermons on the Resurrection, p. 61)
So, for now, we do not bury the body of Bluefford Hancock as we might put away something that has served its purpose. We do not even bury Bluefford as we might hide away a great treasure we seek to protect. Instead, we sow him into the ground this day, knowing that one day the Lord Jesus Christ will raise him from the dead. And we can hear the voice of Christ even now saying to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt 25:21, NIV)