John Sergey Funeral Service
January 5, 2009
It was about ten years ago when Marlene and I made a hospital visit together. We went to West Suburban Hospital to visit Eugenie Longinow who was not long for this world. She was then in her eighties, her husband have died sometime earlier. And she was ready to go home to heaven. I don’t remember much about the visit except that when we read Psalm 23, Eugenie lifted her hands, feeble and trembling, and tried recite the words with us. When we got home, I called John and told him I thought Eugenie was going to die that night. I’ll never forget his prayer at the end of our conversation: “We thank thee, Lord, for the death of the saints of God. Some go before and some after, but one by one your children pass from this life directly into your presence.” I don’t think I had ever heard anyone give thanks for the death of God’s saints, but it is entirely biblical and John’s prayer lifted my heart.
And so when Steve called last Monday night with the news of John’s passing, my only response was to say, “Thank God.” And then, “The battle is over, the victory won.” “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” So the Bible says and so we believe. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Sometimes when people die, we say, “I lost so-and-so.” But a thing is not lost if you know where it is. And we know without a doubt where John Sergey is today. He is “with the Lord.” Jesus said to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” We like to debate the meaning of certain words, and we want to know what “paradise” is like. Well, we could speculate but our guesses would be only that. Just guesses. The most important part of that phrase is in the two little words–"with me.” Today you will be “with me,” Jesus said. Going to heaven is not going to a place, like going to Chicago or St. Louis. Going to heaven is going to a person. Heaven is where Jesus is. Everything else is just details.
HOW THEY LOVED HIM
That’s where John Sergey is this morning. One week ago he closed his eyes on earth and he opened them in heaven. And he saw the Lord Jesus Christ. And he saw Helen. Life for John was never the same after she passed away. It was my privilege to travel with John and Helen not once, but twice to Russia, once just before the collapse of the Soviet Union and once a year after the fall. On that first trip we spent 17 days traveling from Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) to Moscow to Samara on the Volga River and then back to Moscow. Everywhere John went, he was welcomed the way we would welcome Billy Graham. I remember especially in the church in Samara, people crowded around him because they had heard his voice over the radio for many years, and now at last they had seen him in person. If I said John was like a rock star, well, he wouldn’t like that comparison, in fact I can see him frowning at me and saying, “Now, Pastor Ray, you shouldn’t say that.” Okay, so he wasn’t a rock star but he was a hero to the Russian Christians because he never lost faith that one day the iron hand of Communism would be broken.
Everywhere we went and every church we visited, people came up to him. Old ladies. Old men with tears streaming down their faces. Saying, “When we couldn’t come to church we would turn on the short-wave radio and we would listen to you.” One lady said, “My family and another family always got together to hear your broadcast.” Another man said, “All the Bible I learned, I learned from you, because we couldn’t go to church in those days.” That man said to John, “I think you’re responsible for a whole generation of Russian Christians.”
For long years he went to a recording studio here in Chicago and taped Bible messages that were broadcast via shortwave radio all across the USSR. During the dark days believers huddled around their radios to hear that booming Russian voice preach the gospel and call sinners to repentance.
I mentioned Helen for a reason. They were inseparable. If John was the public face of their ministry, she was the one who held it all together. He depended upon her for everything–and never thought she would go before him. Now at last they are reunited in heaven. Helen called me her “big boy” in Russian, and every Easter she would greet me with “Christos voskres!” and I would answer (after she told me what to say) “Voistinu voskres!” And then she would hug me and kiss me on the cheek. I miss that.
As for me personally, it is no secret that John Sergey was and always will be one of my heroes. I will tell you what I will miss about John Sergey. I will miss his prayers. He had a voice like the voice of God, and when he prayed, he brought the whole church into the presence of God. He loved to pray–and he prayed all the time–and when he had finished praying, no one else wanted to pray. If I had to pray, I always wanted to pray before John, not after him.
I don’t suppose anyone prayed for us more fervently. One day John showed us his prayer list. Written in his own hand, the list was very long because it included his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, his many friends in America, and the many pastors and Christian workers he has befriended and taught during his sixty-plus years as a missionary to Russia. When I looked at the list, I saw that he had written “Pastor Ray and Marlene” near the top of the list, behind only his family members. Shortly after we moved, John called to see how we were doing, and to wish us a happy Thanksgiving, and to say that he loved us and to assure of his continued prayers. At one point he mentioned that every night before he going to bed, he prayed through his entire prayer list. “It must be a mile long,” he said. Then he added these words, “When I come to your names, I feel warmed in my heart as I think of you and Marlene, and I feel as if I can meet you at the throne of grace.”
What else should I say about John? He was old school all the way. Wore a suit most of the time. Believed in hard work, prayer, trusting in the Lord. I was blessed to serve with John on the elder board for many years. When we elected elders, he was on the board from the beginning. I always felt better when he came to an elder meeting because John had so much experience that there nothing he hadn’t seen before. Nothing bothered him, nothing tripped him up.
This I also remember from the elder meetings. John rarely got into deep discussions, preferring to let others duke it out. But when he spoke, everyone listened. He had a way of opening his hand and making a small gesture like this. Then he would say, “Let God lead.” I suppose I heard him say that a dozen times, and it has become a motto for my own life. “Let God lead.” Don’t force the issue. Don’t be in a rush. Don’t try to do God’s work for him.
Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me and life will be easy.” He said, “Follow me, and life will be tough, but it will be worth it in the end.” Seventy years ago God called John Sergey to bring the gospel to the Russian people. Long before I was born, John was burdened to preach the gospel in Russia. Back then, it seemed so hopeless, almost impossible. The iron grip of Communism held millions in spiritual captivity. Atheism was the official ideology of the Communist Party. During the days of Stalin, millions of people died and Christians were severely persecuted. Pastors were thrown in jail and often killed. If you were a pastor, you knew at any moment you might be arrested. Pastors disappeared and did not return from jail for years, if they returned at all. But through the long years of darkness, John Sergey kept working to bring the gospel to Russia. He never lost faith that one day the doors would open and Communism would be relegated to the trash heap of history. He made some people angry by telling them that one day things would be different in Russia. As it turned out, he was right. Fifty-plus years ago, he started preaching to the Russian people by means of Trans World Radio. Week after week through short-wave radio, his messages reached believers and unbelievers. And John Sergey, our John Sergey, became known all over Russia. And long before it was popular, he would travel to Russia to preach. He preached in big towns and small villages. Everywhere he went, people knew him from his radio ministry.
After our second trip to Russia, we gave a report to the church one Sunday night. John sat down and played a medley of hymns on the piano. One of them was the old favorite—"When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” He sang the last verse:
Let us labor for the Master from the dawn to setting sun.
Let us talk of all His wondrous love and care.
Then when all of life is over and our work on earth is done,
When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.
Then he went right into a wonderful old gospel chorus—"So Little Time, So Much to Do.” That was John Sergey.
STILL BEARING FRUIT
One final word and I am done. When John celebrated his 90th birthday last year, I called to wish him a happy birthday. Even though John’s health had declined, he was still full of joy in the Lord. He declared over the phone, “God has been so good to me! I thank him for his goodness, his grace, his mercy, his faithfulness. It is only by his kindness that I have seen my 90th birthday.” And he continued to testify to me how the Lord has sustained him throughout all the years.
“Pastor Ray, I pray for you and Marlene every night.” He enquired about my health and Marlene’s health and wanted to know how God was leading us into the future. He asked about our boys and about China. Then he prayed. That brought back memories of many times when he would come to my office early on Sunday morning and pray with me before I preached. I prayed for him, and then he prayed for us again. We had a prayer meeting right over the telephone.
Many years ago John showed me Psalm 92:12-15.
The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the LORD;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the LORD is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
That was John Sergey, still bearing fruit in his old age.
HIS FINAL YEARS
It is no secret that the last few years were difficult for John. Death for him was a release from the sufferings of this life. At a moment like this we all realize our own mortality and if we are honest, we realize our total dependence on the Lord. “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). The Bible says that the Lord is full of grace and abounding in compassion and his mercies are new every morning. We are told that God is the “Father of Mercies,” which to me means that because of Jesus Christ, we are invited to come, not to an angry God, but to a friendly Father who waits for us to call out to him. John 3:16 tells us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life.” It is with great certainty that I say this: The Lord who loved John also loves us too. Jesus has opened the door to heaven, not only for John, but for all who believe in Him. And that’s very good news on a day like this. Death will not win in the end. Jesus has defeated death, and everyone who trusts in Him will share in his victory eternally.
Run to the Cross! Place your faith in the Son of God who loved you and died for you. “But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The gift is for you, and it’s yours free for the asking. Reach out and take it. Open your heart to Jesus and welcome him as your Lord and Savior. Then no matter what happens today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, you’ll be ready when your time on earth is finally over. For those who believe in Jesus, death is not the end of life, it’s the doorway that leads directly to heaven.
Long life is a mixed blessing in that if you live into your 90s, nearly all of your contemporaries are gone. Like King David of old, John Sergey served his own generation according to the will of God, and then he went to be with the Lord. When an ancient Greek king died, one of his eulogists wrote of him, “Hold him in your hearts as he was in his glory.” I knew John Sergey in the days of his glory, and that is how I will always remember him.
He was and is and will always be my hero. To his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he has left you a godly legacy. He has shown you how to live and how to die. Set your feet on the same path that John Sergey walked for so many years, and that road will lead you one day to heaven.
He is with the Lord. The battle is over, the victory won.
Let the people of God rejoice because Christ is risen from the dead. And to my dear friend, John Sergey, to whom I owe so much, I simply say, thank you. Rest well, John. By God’s grace, we will see you again.
“We thank thee, Lord, for the death of the saints of God. Some go before and some after, but one by one your children pass from this life directly into your presence.
And now our brother John has gone from this life. For a little while he is gone from us, but he is not gone from you. We thank you that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. We thank you that we have not lost him, but you have eternally found him. He is in the presence of the Lord where there is fullness of joy forever.
Thank you that all your promises are Yes and Amen in Christ Jesus.
I pray for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Touch each heart and give strength and peace. Thank you for John’s legacy. May it continue across the generations in the lives of those who knew him best.
We rejoice that for John, the best has already begun. Help us to keep believing until that day when the Lord calls us home too. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”