This past Saturday, I preached at a funeral for one of our college students who tragically lost his life. Over 700 were there for the service, but for those who missed it, or for those who’ve ever lost someone too soon, here’s the text of the sermon I shared:
As we come here to remember and celebrate the life of Park Stevens, I know there is one question that stands preeminent in our thoughts: why? Why did this tragedy have to happen? Why did he have to die so young, with so much life still in front of him? Why did this happen to Park? He was a good kid. He never hurt anyone, unless you were on the opposing line from him, but then you were asking for it. Why?
The short answer is, “We can’t fully answer that.” God’s ways are far bigger than ours. He sees the big picture in ways we could never understand. I could give you some Bible verses, make a logical argument from Scripture about the sovereignty of God. But here, in this moment of grief, as we try and process Park’s death, that answer doesn’t seem to be enough. Any time we come up against overwhelming tragedy, our minds fail to grapple with the onslaught of grief, leaving us to deal with emotions and questions that can leave us paralyzed.
While I might never be able to fully answer the question “why” in such a way as to take all the emotional pain away, there are three things we can hold on to that can help us all begin to process this tragedy.
First, we need to know that God’s heart hurts with us through this tragic loss. It’s easy to get this picture of a callous and cold God up in heaven, not seeming to care when life gets snuffed out so young. Just the opposite. God’s heart grieves at the pain and loss inflicted by sin and evil in the world. God grieves with us. In Psalm 34, the Bible says that “God is close to the broken-hearted.” Why? Because he loves us. And because he’s lost a son too. Dean, Gail, family and friends, I know that the pain will be overwhelming at times, but I want you to know that God is right there with you. His heart breaks with yours, and he knows what you’re walking through. He will be with you till you make it through on the other side.
Second, we can all take hope in the fact that Park ultimately won the most important game of his life. As you’re all aware, football was integral to who Park was. He lived for it; his football teammates were his family. And yet he knew that there was something even more important than football: his relationship with Jesus Christ. When Park was 8 years old, he made a decision to follow Christ. That changed everything about the way he lived his life. Gail told me about the first mission trip he went on. Mom wanted to make sure he had everything he needed for the trip, so she bought him a brand new pair of shoes. Park goes on the trip, has a great time, comes home without the new shoes. Mom’s trying to figure out why he came home without his brand new shoes, and he said, “I met someone who didn’t have any shoes. I had other pairs of shoes, so I gave him my new ones. He needed them more than me.” That’s just who he was. He was a different person because he had given his life to Jesus.
To use a football illustration, at the end of the day, individual statistics are nice, but ultimately irrelevant. You can get caught up with your personal stats, how many tackles you made, how many yards you ran. But at the end of the game, individual stats are secondary. What matters is whether or not you won the game. Football is ultimately about winning games. In the same way, we can get caught up with our individual stats in life, how much money we make, what career we have, how successful we are in life. But in the end, those individual stats don’t determine whether or not we win the ultimate game. Make no mistake, the ultimate game, the game that determines your eternal destiny in either heaven or hell, is won or lost on one thing alone: what you do with Jesus Christ. At an early age, Park decided to give his life to Jesus and make Jesus his Lord, his head coach. After that, he’d already won the most important game he’d ever play.
And now, because he made that decision, we believe that Park is in heaven. I believe he’s looking down on us now. He’s touched at this incredible show of affection, but I don’t think he wants you to grieve for him. He’s in a better place. He’s in the presence of his Creator. And he hopes to see all of you in heaven one day.
And that’s the third thing that we can hold on to: Park’s life can still have purpose. One of the toughest things about death is that it can seem that everything stops, that Park is done having an impact on this world. But that’s not true. In John 12, Jesus said this about his upcoming death on the cross: “I tell you the truth: unless a grain of wheat is planted in the ground and dies, it remains a solitary seed. But when it is planted, it produces in death a great harvest.” Because of Jesus’ death, all of our lives have been forever impacted. In the same way, Park’s death, although tragic, can still have in an impact far beyond his life.
Think about it: here, in this moment, with hundreds and hundreds of us gathered together, the gospel of Jesus Christ has been shared with more people at one time than Park was ever able to see while he was alive. I know there are some of you that have not made a decision to give your life to Jesus. Maybe you’re still concerned about your individual stats. Maybe you think you’ve got time because you think you’ll live forever. You can have fun now and get serious later. If you truly want to make something good come out of this horrible tragedy, then give your life to Jesus. You can do that now, in the quietness of this moment, in your heart. Then, whatever your individual stats are in life, you’ll know that you’ve already won the ultimate game.
Park has now joined the “great cloud of witnesses” that the Bible talks about in Hebrews 12. His turn is over. It’s our turn now. How will we live this one opportunity we have called ‘life’? What will we do that lives long after we’re gone? What legacy will we leave behind us? In honor of Park, let’s live well; let’s live big; let’s live a life that honors the God that Park placed his trust in.