Jeremy Sarber / The Bible Readers Podcast

What happens when you die (the funeral of Betty Lou Lee)

Betty Lou Lee, 75, of Angier, North Carolina, passed away on Tuesday at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington. I officiated her funeral on Thursday at 2:00 p.m. in the chapel of Bryan-Lee Funeral Home in Angier. My message was titled, “What happens when you die.”

Welcome

On behalf of the Lee family, I want to thank everyone for being here. Your presence and support mean a lot.

I believe a funeral serves two essential functions. First, we honor the life and legacy of the deceased. Second, we give closure and—I pray—comfort to the ones she left behind.

Old Testament reading

Ms. Betty was a spiritual woman. She was always reading and quoting the Bible. I first met her a year ago when her husband passed away. I was profoundly encouraged by her strength in the midst of her heartbreak. I came to understand how she could be so strong. With all of her heart, soul, and mind, she believed in God. She trusted him with her life and the lives of those she loved. Her testimony echoed the prayer of Moses in Psalm 90 when he writes:

Lord, you have been our refuge
in every generation.
Before the mountains were born,
before you gave birth to the earth and the world,
from eternity to eternity, you are God.

You return mankind to the dust,
saying, “Return, descendants of Adam.”
For in your sight a thousand years
are like yesterday that passes by,
like a few hours of the night.
You end their lives; they sleep.
They are like grass that grows in the morning —
in the morning it sprouts and grows;
by evening it withers and dries up.

Our lives last seventy years
or, if we are strong, eighty years.
Even the best of them are struggle and sorrow;
indeed, they pass quickly and we fly away.
Who understands the power of your anger?
Your wrath matches the fear that is due you.
Teach us to number our days carefully
so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.

Lord — how long?
Turn and have compassion on your servants.
Satisfy us in the morning with your faithful love
so that we may shout with joy and be glad all our days.
Make us rejoice for as many days as you have humbled us,
for as many years as we have seen adversity.
Let your work be seen by your servants,
and your splendor by their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us;
establish for us the work of our hands —
establish the work of our hands! (Psalm 90:1-6; 10-17)

Remembrance

Ms. Betty was known for her positive, upbeat disposition. She loved everyone more than herself. She was outgoing, willing to strike up a conversation with anyone. She prayed tirelessly for those around her—her sons, their wives, her daughter, and anyone who came into her life even briefly. She prayed for them. She encouraged them. She spoke to them about her personal refuge, the Lord our God.

She also took the advice of the Bible when it says, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and enjoy the good life. It is also the gift of God whenever anyone eats, drinks, and enjoys all his efforts” (Ecc 3:12-13). Undoubtedly, she could be the positive person she was, praying for and loving others because she knew her life was a gift from God. She could be happy working in the dirt with her hands, growing flowers, because God gave us these simple things in life to enjoy. She could rejoice in God’s blessings as she painted and worked on her arts and crafts.

As Moses wrote, she learned to “shout with joy and be glad all [her] days” (Ps 90:14). Though she knew the end would come eventually, she could sing the classic hymn, “Abide With Me,” which says:

Hold out Thy cross before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Thy morning breaks and earthly shadows flee
In life and death, Lord, abide with me

Music: ‘Abide With Me’

In honor of your mother and for the benefit of your comfort, let’s quietly meditate as we hear that song, “Abide With Me.”

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, abide with me

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile
Thou hast not left me though I oft left Thee
On to the close, Lord, abide with me

I need Thy presence every passing hour
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be
Through cloud and sunshine, abide with me

I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, tears lose their bitterness
Where is thy sting death? Where grave thy victory?
I triumph still, abide with me

Hold out Thy cross before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Thy morning breaks and earthly shadows flee
In life and death, Lord, abide with me
In life and death, Lord, abide with me

New Testament reading

Just last night, I asked Chris, “Did your mom have any favorite Bible passages?” I loved his answer. He said, “Yeah, all of them.” So I’ll read one of my favorites which, if I had to guess, was probably one that gave Ms. Betty a lot of hope. Every believer can turn to Romans 8 for encouragement. This life isn’t easy, but we have a hope for something greater to come, something which nothing in this world can take from us.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. Not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Now in this hope we were saved, but hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? Now if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.

In the same way the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because he intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare his own Son but offered him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the one who died, but even more, has been raised; he also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

Because of you
we are being put to death all day long;
we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:18-39)

Message: ‘What happens when you die’

Whenever we face death, even the death of a believer, whose faith was strong to the end, we are left with questions. I want to help you understand what has happened to Ms. Betty and what is yet to come. I want to give you strength and hope in this time of bitterness and sorrow.

What happened to Ms. Betty on Tuesday? I’m not talking about her body or her vital signs. What happened to the part of her we can’t monitor with a machine or stethoscope? What happened to her soul which God created in his image?

On Tuesday, Ms. Betty went home to be with God. The Bible says, “We would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2Co 5:8). There is no safer place to be. As I’ve read:

I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

When we come face to face with our mortality, we need to remember that death doesn’t have the final say over us. It may seem that it does because everyone dies. Who can stand against death? Please know there is someone greater than death. He did stand against death and won.

When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden in the beginning, God unleashed the curse of death on humanity. What does that tell us? It tells us that death is not more powerful than God. God holds even death in his hand.

Here’s the good news. God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, “bore our sins in his body on the tree [the cross]; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1Pe 2:24).

Jesus proved himself greater than death. He says, “I was dead, but look — I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death” (Rev 1:18). In other words, we may deserve eternal death for our sins against God, but Christ suffered death in our place, rose again, and ultimately defeated death on our behalf. He is stronger than death. He holds the keys of death.

During his time on this earth, Jesus told his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn 5:24). Why? It is because that individual has turned to the only one who was capable of conquering death. The believer clings to Christ for salvation and everlasting life, and I know Ms. Betty did.

Just before his execution in Nazi Germany, one Christian pastor wrote these last words to a friend. He said, “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.”

Death certainly feels like a bold punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. It’s all over, we think, but it’s not over, not for the children of God. It’s not over for Ms. Betty. She’s more alive right now than she’s ever been. Maybe a stethoscope can tell us what happened to her old body, but only God can tell us what happened to her soul. Only God can tell us what will happen to her body in the future. The Bible promises:

Listen, I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52)

What happened to Ms. Betty? She went home. What will happen to Ms. Betty one day? Even her body will rise from the dirt. It will be transformed into something perfect and glorious, something that can never age or feel pain again.

The joy of what is to come is overwhelming to me. We will forget every trial and sorrow of this life. The light will dawn and chase away every last shadow. God will wipe our tears, remove our tragedies, and heal our hearts. He says, “I will create a new heaven and a new earth; the past events will not be remembered or come to mind. Then be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating” (Isa 65:17-18). In that day, God will make all things new.

Do you believe that? Ms. Betty did. I do. Countless martyrs went to their untimely graves believing that. Once the Spirit of God convinces you of the reality of everlasting life through Jesus Christ, you can never be the same. You don’t want to be the same. Your perspective dramatically changes. You lose all fear. You become the strong person as Ms. Betty proved herself to be because you have confidence in God. You can even taunt death as one of the apostles did, saying, “Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting?” (1Co 15:55).

I once read the story of a man driving home from his wife’s funeral. His three young children were crying in the backseat. As he searched his mind for a way to comfort them, a large truck pulled up next to their car at a stoplight. It cast a dark shadow over them, blocking the sun. The man turned to his children and asked, “Would you rather be hit by that truck or its shadow?” His daughter said, “The shadow, of course.” He said, “That’s right. That’s the way death is for a Christian. Jesus was hit by death for us. We’re only hit by its shadow.”

The loss you feel today is only a shadow. The truth is, your mom is alive and well. She’s better now than she’s ever been. If it were possible, she’ll be even better one day when Christ returns, and God makes all things new. Not only will her soul be alive and well, but even her body will be made perfect.

In the book of Revelation, we read John’s vision of the future:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.

Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Until that day comes, Ms. Betty’s spirit is with God. Just a few days ago, Christ welcomed her into heaven. Do you know who else was there? Mr. Lee, your father, her husband.

I pray you can leave this place speaking these words to yourself:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Prayer

Let’s pray together.

Heavenly Father, I thank you for your abundant grace. You know the loss this family is suffering, but you are with them. Give them peace as they remember the faith of your child, Ms. Betty. Turn their hearts to you so they may share in her hope. Allow them to see that death is only the beginning for those in Christ. We praise your holy name. Amen.

Music: ‘It Is Well With My Soul’

We’re about to hear a song which expresses the degree of confidence your mother had in her life because of her hope in Christ. “It Is Well With My Soul” was written by a man who lost his four daughters in a shipwreck. Later, as his own ship passed over the very place where they drowned, he wrote these lyrics.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul!

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Benediction

Our holy and merciful God, as we say goodbye, we trust this dear woman is with you. Once again, I ask that you give her family peace. Allow them to say in their hearts, “It is well with my soul.” In Christ’s name. Amen.