The Wellspring of Love (Nathan Merrill Memorial Service)
February 19, 2023 Speaker: Brian Wilbur Series: Special Occasions
Topic: The Glory of Christ Passage: Philippians 2:3–11
THE WELLSPRING OF LOVE:
A Scriptural Meditation for the Memorial Service of Nathan Merrill
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: February 19, 2023
Series: Special Occasions
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
I consider it to be of great importance what we are doing here this afternoon. For one thing, we are giving our attention to the Lord’s handiwork. Scripture invites us to ponder the works of the Lord, and one of His works is Nathan Merrill. The apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 2, calls Christian believers, who have been saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ – Paul calls them God’s handiwork: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) It is fitting that we meditate on Nathan’s good works, which includes good work, so long as we remember that these good works are the fruit of God’s gracious work in him. In other words, Nathan’s good works are a window through which we may discern God’s good works. Therefore, we express appreciation for Nathan, but we give praise to God, who is the sovereign source of every blessing.
There is a second reason why it is of great importance that we are gathered here today: Scripture tells us that those of us who are still alive ought to gain wisdom when we ponder a man’s death. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” To put it simply: funerals and memorial services are a profound reality check in a way that Super Bowl parties are not. In view of the certain prospect of death, Moses – the man of God – offered this prayer: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) Life is short: your life is like “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Of course, our relatively short lives do not have to be wasted lives, since Scripture assures the Lord’s faithful servants that – in the Lord – their labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). But the stakes are high: Ecclesiastes, the same book that told us to “lay it to heart” that each of us has an appointment with death, goes on to tell us that the larger point to consider is that each of us has an appointment with God after death: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14) For each one of us, this appointment with God will go one of two possible ways. As Jesus teaches in Matthew 25, the attentive, faithful, and righteous ones who demonstrated their love for the Lord will enter into the realm of eternal life, but the unprepared, unfaithful, and unrighteous ones “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). As a Christian preacher, I consider it a duty and privilege to take this occasion to set before you a heart of wisdom, so that you might be prepared to stand before the Lord without shame when this earthly life is over.
By all accounts, Nathan lived a wise, purposeful, industrious, and productive life – not at the expense of relationships, but in the context of relationships and in the context of serving other people. Erwin and Berta, Proverbs 10:1 says, “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.” You have the comfort of knowing that Nathan was a wise son who had a believing and generous heart. Della, Calvin, Anna, and Charlie, in time you will come to understand that the deposit of steadfast love that your heavenly Father put into your hearts through your earthly father, is a most valuable possession that you will carry with you all your life. Kate, the Lord gave you one of His choice servants for over twenty years, and then the Lord called him home. Scripture does not minimize the grief, and yet the grief is accompanied by hope:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
Nathan grew up in a Christian home, and he was a part of South Paris Baptist Church for his entire life. As someone who came into this church only five years ago, I didn’t know Nathan for a long time. But it is clear that Nathan had a faithful, gentle, and unassuming presence among us. He wanted to help and use his gifts for the betterment of the church family, and he had a refreshing disinterest in the limelight. He didn’t seek attention or recognition. But quietly, year after year, he served others. He lovingly served the little ones through our church’s nursery ministry. He taught our 3rd and 4th grade Sunday School class. Last year he relocated our church library to a larger room, and of course he set it up in an aesthetically pleasing way. During his work on the church library, on one day he let my son work alongside him on the project. Nathan also undertook the sizable task of decorating our church’s sanctuary in ways that befit whatever season we were in (Christmastime, Eastertime, the Fourth of July, and so on). He did a wonderful job. A few years ago, when Covid was on everyone’s mind, our church was using the front entrance much more than normal in order to keep foot traffic uncongested. I asked Nathan if he could give the neglected front entrance area a homey, welcoming look, and of course he knew exactly how to do it, and he did it. I could go on: several years ago he prepared the food for a seder meal for the church’s celebration of Passover; a few years ago he made orange-zested cinnamon rolls for a fellowship time following a baptism service; and, on a more personal note, Nathan and Kate were apt to give us some homemade goodies from their productive homestead. In fact, a few years ago, Nathan and Kate prepared several meals for my family, and gave them to us so that we could enjoy them over the course of a week. In these and other ways, Nathan has left a large and loving imprint upon our church family.
One man, a newcomer to our church family within the past couple of years, made this comment:
“Nate… was an important part of the whole scene. One of the first to say hi to us when we came for the first time. A genuine and gentle soul. I will miss seeing the tender love between him and his children. A wonderful demonstration of a father’s love.”
We live in a world of so-called experts, of academics preoccupied with theories, of social engineers who attempt to impose those theories on others, of politicians who make bloated promises. So often the grand theories that people dream up are so detached from real life. One of the things I love about Nathan Merrill is that he was ‘boots on the ground’ and ‘salt of the earth’ – loving and serving the actual people that were around him. One of my favorite quotes is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German man who resisted Nazi aggression. Bonhoeffer wrote, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” When you love your dream of community, you attempt to squeeze others into it and you squeeze the life out of people. Nathan wasn’t attempting to fit everyone into some grand strategy to build something awesome. Nathan loved people – and that is how you build true community and make a lasting impact. He honored his parents; he assumed the manly responsibility of being a husband to a wife; he had and cherished his children; he valued other children, in the nursery, in Sunday School, in the classroom; he worked hard and gave generously to others.
NATHAN’S CHARACTER REFLECTED THE BIBLE’S TEACHING
Now, as I turn our attention from the Lord’s handiwork (Nathan) to the Lord Himself, I want to emphasize that the character Nathan exhibited is reflective of biblical teaching. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32) “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) Nathan was a model practitioner of Paul’s instruction to Titus, which I’ll read in just a moment. But what must be understood is that these character qualities do not come naturally to sinners, which we all are, but rather these character qualities are the result of humbly receiving God’s grace, by which God forgives our sins and transforms our hearts. Therefore, Paul says:
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us” (Titus 3:1-5).
He saved us – this is what I must talk about, this is what Nathan would want me to talk about, this is what Nathan’s Christian family members want me to talk about. For most of you, the memory of Nathan will fade in the years ahead. But the transformative knowledge of God’s salvation can be inscribed on your soul by the Holy Spirit, and when that happens, the reality of it never fades away.
If you are a believer, then hear what follows as a reminder of the gospel that you love. If you are on the fence or have wandered away from the faith, consider this as an invitation to come home. If you are an outsider to the Christian message, consider this as an opportunity for you to ponder what it might possibly look like for you to walk through the front door of the Christian faith.
THE GRACE OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST
As I said earlier, Nathan’s life is a window into the Lord’s grace, and the Lord’s grace is what we must see. In Philippians 2, Christians are instructed to walk in love – which means to not be addicted to serving yourself, but instead to be eager to serve others:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
What a beautiful way to live? Not selfish ambition, but humble service. Not self-exaltation, but honoring others. Not focused narrowly on your own interests, but large-hearted concern for the well-being of other people.
Many people, of course, are always trying to draw other people into their self-serving schemes. Self-serving schemes are characteristic of sinners, which we all are: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) To be a sinner means to be in rebellion against God: instead of desiring to do life God’s way for God’s glory, sinners want to do life their own way for their own glory. God sets before us the path of righteousness, peace, and life, but all we like sheep have gone astray. Lost sheep need to be found. Wayward sinners need to be saved from their disobedience.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the reality that frees people from their God-ignoring, self-serving, misguided and ruinous schemes. Who Jesus is and what Jesus did are so weighty, that His life leaves an indelible impression on those who trust Him.
So, after telling Christians to “count others more significant than yourselves” and to pay attention “to the interests of others”, the next verse immediately says:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
In the following verses the incomparable character of Jesus Christ is revealed to us. But the point of verse 5 is that “in Christ Jesus” there is a refreshingly beautiful mind – mindset, attitude – to be found. Having a humble mindset, having a mind to honor others, having an attitude of service – these wonderful dispositions are found “in Christ Jesus” – and the reason they are found “in Christ Jesus” is because Jesus displayed these very characteristics in order to bring us salvation.
Philippians 2:6-7 begin to tell us about the glory of Christ’s self-giving love:
“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:5-7)
This takes us right to the heart of the Christian gospel. From eternity, “Christ Jesus… was in the form of God”. Elsewhere the Bible calls Jesus the Lord, the Word, the Son of God who shared glory with the Father before they brought the world into existence. Remarkably, “Christ Jesus… did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”. It is common practice among human beings with high social status, to regard their high social status as a reason not to get their hands dirty, and to use their high social status in order to shield themselves from suffering and to opt-out of lowly service. Most human beings seem interested in pursuing upward mobility and, once they’ve attained it, keeping it. But that was not the attitude of our Lord. He enjoyed equality with God, but He didn’t regard His incomparably high rank as a thing to be held onto and used for His own advantage. Instead, He was willing to do whatever the Father commissioned Him to do. He was willing to become a man who would embody the Father’s will as a lowly servant.
And so it is that the One equal with God “emptied himself” of the glories and honors that attended His high position, and He “[took] the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” From “the form of God” to “the form of a servant”: God became a man, the Lord became a servant, the glorious one became a lowly one. He didn’t live on this earth as a prince coveting comfort, wealth, and power, but as an ordinary man, a carpenter’s son, a backcountry and small-town preacher who revealed and explained God’s will, invited a group of apprentices to learn from him, forgave sinners, healed the sick, cleansed lepers, and blessed children.
As important as these activities were, His main purpose in coming was to die. The next verse in the Philippians 2 passage says,
“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)
God’s Son not only became a man, but a humble and obedient man. The Lord of glory not only became a servant, but a suffering servant who suffered a shameful and publicly humiliating death. Why? Why in the world did the divine Lord bother to become a man who would be acquainted with suffering and grief, and would be executed by being affixed to a Roman cross? He must have been up to something, and there is nothing more important than for you to know what that something is.
Jesus said that He “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
When Jesus inaugurated the communion meal on the eve of His death, He gave the bread to His disciples and said, “This is my body, which is given for you.” (Luke 22:19) Then He gave the cup to His disciples and said, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27-28)
The prophet Isaiah beautifully foretold the sacrifice of Christ:
“he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
What was Jesus up to? He laid down His perfect and sinless life as a substitute in our place. We are the ones who should be crushed and ruined for our sins, but instead He took our sin, guilt, and punishment upon Himself. He was pierced, so that we could be pardoned. He was forsaken, so that we could be reconciled to the Father. He was stripped of dignity, so that we could be clothed with His grace, His excellence, and His righteousness. The Good Shepherd died, so that the sheep could live. He descended to the depths and spent everything He had, so that He could lift us out of the grave and welcome us to His banqueting table. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
Have you ever considered the impact of believing this gospel of Christ’s self-giving love? If the most excellent, most holy, most righteous, most loving person in the entire universe – Jesus Christ our Lord – was willing to leverage His infinite riches for a poor sinner like me, then how can I do anything else except to humbly bow down before such bountiful and overflowing grace, and live the rest of my life to know Him and make Him known, to do life His way, and to love other people for His sake?
Jesus is, after all, worthy of highest honor. The Lord of glory became a suffering servant in order to break the power of sin and death; and, having broken it through His death on the cross, He burst forth from the tomb on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Death could not hold the Holy One (Acts 2:24). And now, God the Father wants everyone in the world to know that He is exceedingly pleased with His dearly beloved Son. The Philippians 2 passage concludes:
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
The One who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, is now exalted as sovereign King at God the Father’s right hand. Therefore, every human being on earth should swear allegiance to Jesus and learn to follow Him on the path of humility, obedience, generosity, and loving service.
Friends, the Father is gracious and invites you to come and honor His Son and be forgiven for all your sins. But take this to heart: the Father will stand against you if you stand against His Son: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:35-36)
For believers like Nathan who honor Jesus as Savior and Lord, we have the promise of eternal life, which shall come to fruition in the new heaven and the new earth, which the Lord has promised to His people. On that glorious day, God will comfort His people with unhindered joy: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) In the meantime, while we walk through this valley of tears, we know that our Lord watches over us and strengthens us, even as we look for the day – the day that we’re just about to sing about – that day “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more,” that day when “morning breaks, eternal, bright, and fair,” that day “When his chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies”. As Scripture says: “[Now] we see in a mirror dimly, but then [we shall see the Lord] face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
 From the hymn “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” by James M. Black
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