Psalm 23; Romans 8, selected verses; John 3:14-17

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The whole story of the Bible can be summed up as a message of God’s love. From the moment God spoke the creation into existence, God has loved the world and has been seeking a relationship with the people in it. That mighty love of God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s own son, to be with us and to show us what living in love means.

It is good for us in times of sorrow and loss to be reminded of God’s love for us. As we think about Isaiah and how his life was ended all too soon by COVID-19, we might wonder where God is, if God really loved Isaiah, and if God really loves us. We might even be thinking that God doesn’t love us because we feel sad, angry, disappointed, lonely, or discouraged. We may be wondering how we’ll get through the days, weeks, and years ahead without Isaiah’s presence in our lives.

One famous scholar and teacher of the Bible was once asked about the greatest discovery he had made while studying the Bible. He thought for a moment, and then said there was one truth that really had become real to him as he spent more and more time studying the Bible and trying to know God better. And he said that truth was this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It’s an important truth for us to ponder as we gather today to face death in the midst of life.

While living and walking as a human on this earth, Jesus gathered to himself men, women, and children without regard for social status or position, wealth, power, ability, or understanding. He welcomed all persons into his presence, accepted them in their need and ministered to them in his love. He loved and reached out to them, even when they didn’t want to receive him.

It was out of his love that Jesus spoke to his followers, and anyone would listen, including a religious leader named Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to explore Jesus’ message. During their conversation, Jesus said to him, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

Eventually, Jesus’ followers witnessed the violent way that Jesus left them. They saw him arrested, crucified, dead and buried. In that time, they must have felt abandoned, uncertain, afraid, sad, and lonely. What would they do without Jesus? How would they go on?

They did not have to wonder long, because on the third day, something wonderful happened. While Jesus’ infinite love had held him on the cross, on the third day God’s everlasting love raised Jesus from death into new life. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we discover a new truth that gives us hope:  that nothing in all creation, not even death, cannot separate us from the love of God. Isaiah Rayle knew his mighty love of God personally.

Isaiah Paul Rayle was born in Bluffton on September 10, 1983, to parents Tom and Tammy Wiler Rayle. He was the oldest of their three children and grew up and lived in Findlay his whole life. As a child, Isaiah was strong-willed, determined, and some would even say, stubborn. He enjoyed family visits to Americana Amusement Park near Hamilton and to King’s Island.

He always loved sports. In high school, he followed the Findlay Trojans’ teams and served as an equipment manager for the football team. He went to every game he possibly could – something he was known for into adulthood. He also followed the University of Findlay Oilers, the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. He loved watching WWE wrestling, basketball, and football.

Isaiah was a boisterous fan, proud to cheer loudly. A couple of years ago, he told me that he hadn’t been able to get to a Findlay Oilers basketball game for awhile because of various circumstances. But when he was finally able to get there, another fan in the stands recognized his cheering and approached him after the game. The person said he’d been missing Isaiah’s cheering during the games and asked why he hadn’t been there. Isaiah explained that he was having some trouble and ball games were something he had to drop. The guy invited him to use an extra season pass he had, just so the Oilers team could be encouraged by Isaiah’s enthusiasm. I talked with someone today who said Isaiah’s fan spirit at local athletic events will be missed.

When I first met Isaiah, his love for and pride in his children, Alex and Neomi, were apparent. He brought them to church and strove to get them involved in groups. He sometimes told me about some of the challenges and struggles he faced as a dad, and he always said he wanted to be there to show his love and encouragement to them. I could see a sparkle in his eye when he talked about Alex and Neomi. Over the four years I knew him, he told me often how much he loved each of you, Neomi and Alex.

Neomi shared with me how her Dad would always ask her how her first day of school went. He listened as she talked, and then he always had encouraging words for her about how he hoped she’d have a good year. It was an important ritual moment for them.

Alex loved watching sports – especially WWE wrestling – with his Dad. They not only watched it but talked about it long before and after the matches were over.

About 20 years ago, Isaiah was invited by a fellow high school student to check out the youth group at St. Andrew’s. He started attending youth group and then church. He committed his life to Christ and became a member of the church in 2001. He served for the past five years in our tech booth ministry that provides support for sound, video, and live streaming during our worship services – including today. He also sang from time-to-time with Celebration Band in our contemporary service.

That faith sustained him throughout his life, and he turned to it often. Sometimes he called or stopped by the office just to talk about how things were going. He was often thankful for blessings in his life. There were also times he called or came by because he was struggling, upset, or worried. We would talk, Isaiah sharing his thoughts, feelings freely, struggles, hopes, and fears. Whether he asked for prayer or not, we always prayed before he left, and he often said that the prayer helped him feel calmer, think more clearly, and feel more hopeful – even though his physical circumstances had not changed. He knew God loved him and was with him through everything.

It was his faith that sustained him through the period leading up to and through his most recent time of incarceration. Isaiah turned to several in his church family for support and found listening ears, loving hearts, and faithful prayer warriors to encourage him. We talked and prayed many times before he went away, and he often said that what hurt the most was knowing he would have to be away from his kids. After he returned, he shared with me how his faith was so important to him and how Jesus loved him and brought him through.

When he was diagnosed with COVID-19, he texted with me, and we talked and prayed on the phone. When he was admitted to the hospital, he called me, saying how scared he was. We talked and prayed again, though I could hear how hard it was for him to get his breath as he talked. After that, we exchanged some texts, and I sent him some prayers by text. He appreciated visits and phone calls from family and friends. Through his three weeks in the hospital, Alex kept me posted and reached out, asking for prayer. We prayed with Isaiah in the ICU, his family gathered outside to express their love one last time before he passed away. He was surrounded by his loving family and wrapped up in his Savior’s arms of mercy as he breathed his last in this life.

Isaiah knew the love of God through Jesus in his life. He knew he had done nothing to earn God’s gift of saving grace – he could only boast in the love and grace of God.  He realized that God knew him before he was born. God had knit his body together and breathed into him the breath of life. Like a shepherd, God led him through green pastures, and when, like a lost lamb, he wandered away, God his Shepherd went searching for him and brought him home.

Isaiah’s life – even with his struggles and challenges – points us toward the Lord he knew, who promises never to abandon us. Like a shepherd, he calls out to us and invites us to follow him beside still waters. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death at times like this, we may feel alone or afraid; but Jesus our Good Shepherd walks with us through these moments and through all of life. Now, Isaiah knows more completely the joy of eternal life and peace for those who believe in Jesus Christ and who follow Jesus.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  God did all this, even though we didn’t want or ask for this gift. God did all this, even though we, at times, might reject, despise, and blame God for our problems. God gave God’s own Son even for those times we question where God is and whether God is real, especially in the face of a tragic death like Isaiah’s and all the bad that happens in the world. Out of a love deeper, broader, and higher than we can even imagine, God gave up everything to reach us and offer us the gift of life now and forever with Christ.

Today that simple truth reminds us of the love that invites us to receive the gift God offers us:  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so … Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.” If you don’t know that love, then I invite you to open yourself up and receive the love that God offers you – the same love that Isaiah knew in his life.

Let us pray:  O God, whose love will not let us go, thank you for walking with us and holding us close as we journey through this valley of death’s shadows. Thank you, Jesus, for giving us yourself and proving your live for us in your life, death, and resurrection. Thank you, Spirit, for loving and comforting us as we remember Isaiah today and every day. Speak the truth of your love into our minds, our hearts, and our lives today; move in us, and help us to respond by receiving your love and seeking to walk with you each moment of each day, beginning today. In the great name of Jesus. Amen.

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