"Lessons Learned in the House of Mourning"
Sept.5, 2010 Eccles.7:1-4; Mt 5:4
CAN DEATH BE A BLESSING?
This sermon is about "Lessons learned in the house of mourning" - it's largely Scriptural, but also prompted by the death of my dear mother less than a month ago, August 14.
Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." When you're mourning a loved one, it may not seem like much of a blessing. How can mourning be something positive?
St Francis of Assisi said, "Blessed be God for our sister, the death of the body." Heh? Ought we to bless God for even the phenomenon of death which is so much feared among humans? What kind of 'spin' can turn death around into something to praise God for?
The wonderful truth is that as we consider what the Bible reveals about our human condition and God's great promises, death too can be transformed by the reality of Jesus Christ into something framed not by fear, but faith.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE KNOWING JESUS MAKES IN THE HOUR OF DEATH
We read a surprising statement in Ecclesiastes 7:2: "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart." Take it to heart - you and I are bound to die, sooner or later. That's the human destiny ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden: how are we going to prepare for that, adjust our lives accordingly? Up front as a believer I have to say (and this would probably be the main take-away from today's sermon), "What a difference knowing Jesus makes in the hour of death!"
"The wages of sin is death," the Bible says - and divine justice demands that God's wrath ultimately be revealed against godlessness and wickedness (Rom 6:23; 1:18). Woe to us if we remain in that state! "...Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it." (Mt 7:13) Jesus depicted hell as a place of darkness, agonizing pain, fire, darkness, and miserable isolation - nobody wants to go there (Mt 8:12 13:42 22:13 25:30 Lu 16:24). Yet that's the justly-deserved fate of sinners who reject God. How then can this be turned around, so death is actually a GOOD thing?
It all hinges on what we make of Jesus and His promises. For example, John 5:24 - "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life." Note the perfect tense, as if referring to an action that has already been accomplished in the past: "HAS CROSSED OVER from death to life." A 'done deal'. Eternal life comes from hearing Jesus' word and trusting God, who was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting our sins against us (2Cor 5:19). That right there is the cure for our terminal eternal disease.
Once you've taken that step - everything changes! No need to fear death's outcome anymore. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him --" (1Co 2:9). God has something much better waiting for believers beyond this earthly existence. Early on in his ministry, Paul wrote to encourage folks in Thessalonica who were feeling sad about fellow believers who'd died. They would see them again! 1Thess 4(13f, 16ff): "Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him...For the Lord himself will come down from heaven,...and the dead in Christ will rise first. [they get priority treatment!] After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore [and here's the whole point he's writing this] encourage [or, comfort, console] each other with these words." (1Th 4:16-18) What happens after death for the believer is not some indefinite vagueness; our next awareness will be of awaking with Jesus in a new, un-perishing, glorified body! What could be bad about that?!
One of the most explicit chapters in the New Testament that confronts death-bogies head-on is 1Corinthians 15. It begins with a matter-of-fact recall of the experience of the first eyewitnesses: that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, raised, and appeared to many, over a period of time, on a variety of occasions (vv3ff). That historical fact anchors our whole worldview. Christianity is not so much a philosophy based on ideas, but a logical consequence of an event, the resurrection of Jesus: "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.BUT (and that's a ginormous 'but'!) Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." (vv 19f) That fact transforms our final destiny in this life: vv 55-57, ""Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." So death is changed from an experience to be dreaded to one that's shot through with triumph and victory because of what Jesus has accomplished for us sinners at the cross.
James Dobson writes, "The final heartbeat for the Christian is not the mysterious conclusion to a meaningless existence.It is, rather, the grand beginning to a life that will never end."
DEATH HAS A WAY OF PUTTING THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE
Deaths have a way of throwing the brakes on, causing one to pause momentarily and pull aside - much like the vehicles meeting the hearse that pull over as a sign of respect. Death can help us put things in perspective in life and answer the question, what ultimately matters? What's the point? What's of real lasting value? What's life all about?
The book of Ecclesiastes ('the Teacher / Preacher') ponders deeply such questions. He's bothered by life's apparent meaninglessness, its circularity - people rushing around but not really getting anywhere. A prominent theme is that life seems vanity, pointless, useless, hollow, fleeting, vain. 1:2 NRSV, "Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity." 1:14, "I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless [vanity], a chasing after the wind." 2:3b, "I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives." What's worthwhile, of most value, most important. So, he experimented; being a ruler with vast resources at his disposal, he experimented with pleasure, with work, with vast building projects, with higher learning. With what result? 2:17, "So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind."
Make some allowance for the guy - he's pre-Christian, he didn't have any New Testament, this was long before Jesus was born. His worldview was largely limited to this earthly life only. But slowly Ecclesiastes does come to acknowledge there is a point to life, IF viewed in relation to God's grace. 5:18f, "Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given him-- for this is his lot.Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work-- this is a gift of God." 2:24, "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.This too, I see, is from the hand of God..."
The Preacher found that death has a way of putting things in perspective, nudging a person to consider what all their hustling about is for - what's the POINT? So in chapter 7 we come to our text - "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart...The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning..." (Ec 7:2,4)
WHAT'S OF LASTING VALUE? NOT RICHES
As we noted, the Preacher in his experimenting had vast resources at his disposal, yet he did not find these satisfied. Riches in themselves are not of lasting value. 5:10f (cf 13-16): "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.As goods increase, so do those who consume them.And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?" I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: "Those who love money will never have money enough.How absurd to think that wealth brings true happiness! The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it.So what is the advantage of wealth - except perhaps to watch it run through your fingers!"
The vanity of wealth is echoed by Jesus' teaching: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal." (Mt 6:19) "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." (Lu 6:24) On your deathbed, money is absolutely no help to you. A better investment is to have stored up treasure in heaven by giving to the poor. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote, "When a man dies he clutches in his hands only that which he has given away in his lifetime."
BRING GLORY TO GOD - THROUGH A GOOD NAME
What's the main point of life? What can truly give meaning to our existence? The Bible suggests our chief aim should be to bring glory to God, our Maker. "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." "...In order that we...might be for the praise of his glory." "...Those who are God's possession-- to the praise of his glory." "...Filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ-- to the glory and praise of God." (1Cor 10.31; Eph 1.12,14; Php 1.11) We've been put here to make much of God - as if holding up to people in the world a telescope magnifying His goodness, beauty, power, and excellence.
So, how do we do that? "A good name" would be associated with what Paul calls 'the fruit of righteousness.' Ecclesiastes 7:1 points out, "A good name is better than fine perfume..." NLT "A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume..." Prov 22:1, "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold." A Manitoba judge posing nude on the internet, or RCMP officers watching inmates have sex, brings dishonour on the legal system. On the other hand, Christians acting honourably brings glory to God. Paul writes in Romans 2:7, "To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life."
...THROUGH FAITH'S APPRECIATION OF GOD'S GOOD GIFTS
A second way to glorify God is by recognizing and appreciating God's good gifts through believing, especially receiving Jesus Christ. In Ecclesiastes 5(19f) the person who understands work and wealth are 'a gift of God', who allows God to "keep him occupied with gladness of heart" is the one who truly 'gets it' in life. Chapter 2 asks, 'without Him [God], who can eat or find enjoyment?' It's 'to the man who pleases Him' that God gives wisdom, knowledge, and happiness...' (2:25f) So the key is receiving these things in relationship to God, connected to Him by faith's perception.
In the New Testament, Hebrews 11 underlines the importance of faith for a life of significance: "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." (Heb 11:6) We are saved by grace through faith (God's gift), not by works (Eph 2:8f).
This makes all the difference in the case of deaths such as my mother's. She had a deep faith - as a young boy I remember passing her bedroom at nighttime and seeing her kneeling in prayer; she and Dad regularly used the daily Upper Room devotions and attended church, plus each week she'd read my sermon Dad would print off for her from the internet; to her later years she was part of a women's Bible Study group; her notes for her funeral listed nearly a dozen favourite hymns - so, in a way, even though she had died, she continued to testify through her selection of music.
Faith recognizes God's gifts, especially Jesus, and that makes all the difference for eternity. Athanasius wrote, "For man is by nature afraid of death and of the dissolution of the body; but there is this most startling fact, that he who has put on the faith of the cross despises even what is naturally fearful, and for Christ's sake is not afraid of death."
...THROUGH ACTION PROMPTED BY FAITH
The Preacher concluded in 3:12f, "I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil-- this is the gift of God." Faith doesn't mean we do nothing. Rather, trusting and resting in God energizes us to do His will. Paul wrote that, being saved through faith, we are "created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Eph 2:10) At judgment, God will give to each person according to what he has DONE (Rom 2:6). Remember that pivotal chapter about hope in death, 1Corinthians 15? How does it conclude, after celebrating the awesome victory over the grave God has given us in Jesus' resurrection? V58, "Therefore, ...Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." Not in vain - Christian action is not 'vanity' or 'meaningless' to use the language of Ecclesiastes. There's a point to doing good under God's direction.
At Mom's funeral, Reverend Cameron chose the scripture Proverbs 31 because it reflected Mom's busy, productive, hard-working lifestyle. Her hands, though old and gnarled, were working hands: after a day outdoors helping with the dairy cows and barn and garden chores, she'd often sit at the table in the evening doing some darning or other needlework. Her dedication prompted diligence.
(MISC.) DO YOUR SURVIVORS A BIG FAVOUR
I'd like to throw in a couple of miscellaneous insights from the house of morning. One is, do your survivors a big favour: pre-plan your funeral. Notice I said 'pre-plan' not 'pre-pay': the latter's optional, it shields your estate from the extra shock of funeral costs (and in Mom's case it worked out fine because the interest earned covered the increase due to inflation) - but pre-planning is the main emphasis here. It's a big help in what's already a stressful time for your surviving family members; so much nicer to be spared a multitude of decisions, to simply agree with the choice of casket already made. Mom had gone further and provided an abundance of material that could be worked in to the funeral service itself (readings and hymns). The gravesite had already been purchased in advance so that was one other detail that didn't require attention.
I found the visitation and funeral process helpful in grieving; we were walked through it step-by-step. The open casket and interment at the cemetery also helped me accept the reality and finality of what had happened so quickly. Scripture says "the worker deserves his wages" (Lk 10:7; 1Tim 5:18) - in our case, that certainly applied to the funeral directors! Jeff Lockhart and his father Paul were friendly, sincere, and competent in their handling of arrangements. They went the extra mile in their service, setting up hundreds of chairs after 10:30 at night for the visitation next morning at 9:30; procuring cups of tea and a cushion for Yvonne to rest. Their services carried more a hint of ministry than of marketing or commercialism.
THE GOOD SIDE OF GRIEF: BRINGS US CLOSER
Ecclesiastes 7:3 states, "Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart." NLT, "Sadness has a refining influence on us." People don't normally think of sorrow as a good thing; how can this be?
It was a blessing that all the remaining family - children and grandchildren - could come together for the funeral. We had great support from hundreds of friends and extended family. My siblings and sisters-in-law put countless hours into finding and scanning photos, helping Dad with thank-yous, and sorting Mom's things. It's a time when you need hugs and handshakes; a funeral reinforces the relational side of life which matters more than the material. EMC President Delsaut came in person to the funeral, which meant a lot. Many cards, emails, and online condolences were received. All of these were little gestures of love that helped us feel supported. My Dad said it was as if he had an umbrella over him the whole time, through others' prayers and concern.
2Corinthians 1(3f) says, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (Mt 5:4) At such times of grief, the God of compassion causes His comfort to overflow from your life to mine; so, somehow, even at a time of mourning, we experience God's goodness through other believers.
MAY ALL WHO COME BEHIND US FIND US FAITHFUL
"A wise person thinks a lot about death," the Preacher says (Eccles 7:4a). Even writing a sympathy card can become an occasion to stop and praise God for the significance of a life. One high school classmate of mine, a daughter of one of Mom's Bible study friends, wrote in the card she sent: "Your mom was an inspiration to me.When she walked across the lawn to sit in the shade at mom's 80th birthday party, she exemplified powerful determination and deep devotion to a friend.She was simply an amazing woman.I feel blessed to have known her and will carry that memory in my heart - something to reflect upon whenever I feel a task is too daunting."
When we die - what impression will WE leave upon the next generation? Is it a memory that blesses and inspires, that witnesses to the strength God gives? In the words of a song, "May all who come behind us find us faithful."
Tyron Edwards observes, "Death has nothing terrible which life has not made so.A faithful Christian life in this world is the best preparation for the next." Let's pray.