A Service of Remembrance for the Life of Larry Jens Christensen

March 26, 1935 - January 17, 2007 | Minneapolis

I want to thank the family for this privilege of having a part in the funeral service for Jens. Thank you, Vicki, in particular for being a friend over the years and for asking me to have this part. It’s an honor to be here.

Gaining a Heart of Wisdom

Funerals have different meanings for different people. They are times of great grief for some and they’re times of great thanksgiving for others, and sometimes for the same people. They are times of great relief for others, after long suffering, and times of gaining wisdom, I hope. Because — at least this is the way I walk through funerals — I take them as rehearsals for my death. I don’t know if you’re strange like that, but every time I’m at a funeral, I think of it as a rehearsal, “Okay, I’m going to be in that coffin someday and things will be said about me. I wonder what they will say about me.”

And I think about my life in regard to leading up to that moment. That’s an opportunity for great wisdom because the psalmist in the Bible wrote this, speaking of God:

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
     like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
     in the evening it fades and withers (Psalm 90:5–6)

The years of our life are seventy,
     or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
     they are soon gone, and we fly away (Psalm 90:10).

So teach us to number our days
     that we may get a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).

So every time I stand in a place like this, I say, “God, would you please teach me to number my days so that I might get a heart of wisdom?” And I think what he means is just realize your days are not going to be long. Even if they’re 80, they’re not long. It gets faster and faster and faster. And as you stand at age 62, or 73, or 71, or 80, it just goes very fast. And your memory starts to fade, and that means your life collapses down into a smaller part, because you can only remember a little bit of it. It feels like it was a very small thing as you come to the end. And all of that’s intended for wisdom. So what I hope happens here is that I can so speak and we can maximize the meaning of this for the sake of all of us becoming wiser.

Always Living in the Presence of God

Now what would that mean? Well, a wise person sees reality for what it is, right? A fool sees what’s not there and acts on the basis of imaginary things. Wise people see what’s really there. They think, “Is God really there? Is heaven really there? Is hell really there? Is the truth really there? Is Jesus really there? Is the cross really there? What’s real?” A wise person sees what’s real and then builds his life around reality. A fool misses what’s real and builds life around things that aren’t really there, and at the end regrets tremendously the way he lived. So my hope is that we would be wiser because of this day.

Here’s a word that would help us get a piece of wisdom. This is from the book of James in the Bible about presumption about life and death. See if you fit here. Are you wise or are you foolish in relation to this? Here’s what he says:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil (James 4:13–16).

That’s amazing. So the Bible says that if you say, “I’m going to Duluth tomorrow, I’m going to spend a week there, I’m going to do some business, and then I’m coming home,” you’re a fool. Because you don’t know if you’re going to go to Duluth tomorrow. What you ought to be thinking, at least, is, “If the Lord wills, I’ll go to Duluth tomorrow, and if he doesn’t, I’ll die.” The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. We are totally dependent on God’s grace to stay alive. That’s wisdom. It’s foolish to be presumptuous. We ought to live. The Bible says in the consciousness that God is God, we’re not.”

I just think about my heart. I said to the people a week or so ago, “I want to be a coronary Christian rather than an adrenaline Christian.” Adrenaline gives you strength to get through something like a funeral, and then you collapse and you need some more energy later. Adrenaline lasts for a moment, gives out on you, does what it’s supposed to do, and gets you through a crisis.

The heart just never gives up on you until you die. All night long it’s beating. When you like your heart, it’s beating for you. When you forget about your heart, it’s beating for you. The heart just goes on beating, and beating, and beating, and beating, until you’re done and then it stops.

I want to be that kind of person who lives in the presence of God all the time. I don’t want to have a God moment here and a God moment there. A funeral is a God moment, and maybe Sunday is a God moment. Losing a friend, that’s a God moment. Being in an accident, and thinking, “Phew, that was close” — that’s a God moment. I want to be a God-aware person because God is the most real thing in the universe. He made it, he holds it in being. Let’s live our lives ever in the consciousness of God.

The Criterion of Our Readiness

So here’s the question, and Vicki, I believe — maybe the whole family — teamed up in giving this answer with this text, but the question is, when you rehearse your death at a funeral like this, thinking, “How’s it going to be with me?” what’s the criterion by which you will assess your readiness?

Now, they chose a text and I invite you to look at it with me. It’s printed here on the inside folder. This text gives the answer to that question. So let’s read it and then I’ll just take a few minutes to talk about it. This is Paul now, and this is the second letter he wrote to Timothy. This is the last letter he wrote. He’s probably in Rome, and he gets executed by Nero soon after this. So he knows that’s coming. It’s right around the corner. He’s going to be killed. He’s probably about my age. We don’t know for sure when he was born, but he says:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (his second coming).

What was his hope? Before we look at the criterion of readiness, what was he hoping for? And you can see it right there. He hopes for a crown of righteousness, which is about the fifth line down. He says, “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me . . .” Now what is that? So he’s coming right up to his death. You are coming right up to your death, soon. Jens came right up to his death last Wednesday. What’s the hope on the other side? Paul’s hope was that God, the righteous judge, was going to put a crown on his head.

Now, it’s not a crown like he’s going to be the king of the universe, as if God takes the crown off his head and puts it on Jens’s head, or your head, or my head. That’s not what’s happening. God doesn’t say, “Okay, now you’re God and I’m not God.” This is, “I have run the race.” This is that kind of crown you get in the end, like a wreath that says, “You won the race.” You finished the race, so you get a wreath. That’s the kind of crown. So the crown signifies you finished. You crossed the line. It might be first place, second place, or third place. But you finished the race. Here goes the wreath on your head. There’s applause, a welcome, and you take your stand. You get gold, silver, or bronze. That’s the picture.

The crown is put there by a righteous judge, which means there are no steroid tricks in this race, as if a few months later you have to do a blood test and they take the crown away — “He didn’t really win the Tour de France.” This is a righteous judge. He knows exactly whether you’ve used steroids or not. So there will be zero tricks. The righteous judge puts the crown, the wreath, on the head, and it signifies righteousness. This is the crown of righteousness.

The Problem of Righteousness

Now this creates for us a mega problem, doesn’t it? Which is why I’m a Christian and why I love the gospel. Because the gospel solves the problem we’re up against here. And the problem is that I’m not righteous. Jens was not righteous. You found ways of saying it delicately, right? He was “tenacious” and “hardheaded”. Let’s face it, he wasn’t righteous, and neither are you, or I. And we face a righteous judge.

We all know this, intuitively we know this. You don’t hardly need a Bible to tell you this. Your conscience bears witness that God is righteous. You think, “I have a conscience. Where did that come from? I condemn myself for doing bad things and I reward myself for doing good things, and I feel bad when I do bad things. Where did that crazy thing come from?” Monkeys don’t act like that. Humans have a conscience because they’re created in God’s image. We know God is righteous and we are little images of God. And we fail over and over. He never fails.

And here’s a picture of Jens, or us, we pray, receiving a crown of righteousness. You ran the race, you finished it, and here’s the crown. And inside we know, “I don’t deserve this crown. They called me hardheaded at my funeral.” So how can it be that Jens the imperfect, or Piper the imperfect, or Livingston the imperfect, or all of you the imperfect, can from a perfectly righteous judge receive a crown of righteousness? How can such a thing be?

Now right here, if you look at this church, this is a Baptist church. Most of you are not Baptist, I’ll bet, because Jens was Lutheran. He came here and sat right over there, over and over again. He never joined this church. I think he could never get himself free from his Lutheran tradition to being Baptist. He thought, “Oh, those are such strange people — holy rollers. All kinds of weird stuff they believe.”

Nothing I’m telling you right now as a Baptist pastor — I stand this pulpit most Sundays — is distinctly Baptist, okay? We have this clear. Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran Church, if he were standing here, he would say exactly what I’m saying, all right? I’m getting this straight out of Lutheran theology. Let’s just relax here. This is not a Baptist thing I’m saying here. And what I’m about to tell you about how in the world we imperfect people can be accepted and crowned by a holy, righteous judge is shared across these denominational lines. And the answer is, “I have kept the faith.” See that there? I have kept the faith.

Now faith in what is the question? Like me? Faith in me? Self faith? No way. If you trust yourself, you get what yourself deserves. What Martin Luther, and I believe Jens, I pray, trusted in, was Jesus Christ. That’s what we’re talking about. Paul says, “All who loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8), which is the appearing of Jesus. He trusted him.

The Substitute for Our Sins, the Source of Our Righteousness

Now, what did Jesus do that makes him worthy of our trust so that we, the imperfect, can receive a crown of righteousness? And the answer is, God sent his Son into the world, Jesus Christ, to do two things for us. He died to bear our punishment, because we know we deserve it. And he died to live an absolutely perfect life, because we haven’t been able to live a perfect life. And if we trust him, his punishment becomes our punishment, and his righteousness becomes our righteousness. And we are free from punishment, and we are home with righteousness.

Faith in Christ means Christ becomes our righteousness and Christ becomes our punishment. Let me just read you a couple of verses from the Bible so you know that’s just not my idea. This is just straight out of the Bible. This is Galatians 3:13, one of Paul’s letters:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us . . .

That’s awesome. That’s just awesome. You, Jens, and I, are under the curse of the law. The law says, “Be perfect, as I am perfect.” We say, “I can’t be perfect.” And the law says, “You better be perfect, because judgment will fall upon you if you’re not perfect. God is perfect, and judgment falls upon you if you’re not perfect.” And we say, “I’m imperfect.” And God, out of amazing love for rebels like us, sends Jesus. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law having become a curse for us. So there’s one verse about how he took our punishment.

Here’s one about how he became our righteousness. This is Philippians 3:9, the letter to the Philippians. Paul says:

[That I may] be found in him (that’s what happens when you trust in him, you’re united to him), not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith . . .

In other words, it’s an alien righteousness. It’s not my own. Or 2 Corinthians 5:21 says:

For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

This is the great exchange. This drove Martin Luther and shaped everything he wrote, and all great theologians who’ve loved the gospel. The great exchange is that Jesus Christ takes our sin, and our guilt, and our death, and our punishment upon him. And we take his righteousness, and his life, and his holiness, and his perfection upon us. And it’s imputed to us by faith, so that when we get to heaven and we face a righteous judge like Jens did last Wednesday, the only plea in this courtroom that will pass is, “I trust your Son, not my goodness.” That’s the only thing.

Get Wisdom

So please get wise for Jens’s sake, your sake, Christ’s sake, the gospel’s sake, and your loved one’s sake. Get wise and act in accordance with reality. And the reality is you and I, and Jens, are unrighteous. We’re not good enough. I don’t deny that Jens was a good person in the sense that he did everything he said he did. He could have been a wicked person, and he wasn’t a wicked person. He didn’t kill you, he didn’t beat you.

He could have been a lot worse. I don’t mean that we are all as bad as we could be. I just mean measured against God, we miss. And we know it. Our conscience bears witness. We need the gospel. Jesus came to give the gospel, the good news. The gospel is that Jens depending on himself parishes, and Jens depending on Christ lives forever in joy. And so do you. So that’s wisdom. And oh how I pray God would make it plain.

Let me say one last thing. What does it mean to keep the faith and to run the race? Fight the fight? But this is strange, because, I mean, is faith easy or is it hard? Fighting sounds hard, and racing sounds hard. I mean, marathons are hard. Boxing is hard. You get beat up. So when he says, “I fought the good fight, I ran the race, I kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7), and all of those are kind of parallel things, is faith easy or is it hard? And the answer is, looking at it one way it’s really hard, and looking at it another way, it’s really easy.

I’ll close by just telling you how hard it’s going to be for you and how easy it’s going to be for you, if you believe like this. Let’s say you have a disease like cancer or diabetes. Is it easy or is it hard to rest in the all-sufficiency of Jesus when you have a disease? And the answer is that nothing could be easier than to rest. But what could be harder than to keep on believing that God is for you when you suffer so much? You see how it is. It’s not that faith requires great mental or physical effort. It just requires relaxing in his arms. Like the letter you read, from dad in heaven.

Or here’s one other example. Which is harder, to make a fortune, or give a fortune away? Well, to make a fortune is hard, because it takes a lot of effort and savvy, but to give it away is hard for a totally different reason. You think, “Now I love it, I lean on it, and I depend on it.” What could be easier than to give your money away? Unless you love it. Now that’s the sense in which faith is a fight, and faith is a race.

In one sense, nothing is easier than faith. Faith is just saying, “I can’t cut it. Jesus is perfect. I totally rely upon him and receive him to be my righteousness, my treasure, my life, my all.” Nothing could be easier, unless you love something else more, which is why it’s hard.

So I will pray now as we close and as Scott sings, that the gospel would be commended to you by Christ, who is alive in heaven today, by the power of his Spirit, so that it would land upon you, not as something where you say, “I don’t think so. I don’t think I want to go that direction,” but rather as something where you say, “That’s just too good to be true, why would anybody not want that?”