Preparing to Die Well | Genesis 45-50
Brian Hedges | March 21, 2021
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Genesis; we’re going to be in Genesis 45-50 this morning. This is the final message in this series. For about ten weeks or so we’ve been looking at the lives of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and today we come to the final days of Jacob, as well as Joseph, for that matter. Joseph dies at the very end of Genesis 50. But our focus is going to be especially on the final days of Jacob.
As many of you know, one of my favorite books is that great Christian classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. John Bunyan wrote this allegory about Christian and his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, and all of the challenges and trials that he meets along the way. He finds himself depressed and despondent in the Slough of Despond; he has to climb Hill Difficulty; he has to face off against evil in the Valley of Humiliation. At one point he finds himself imprisoned in Doubting Castle, the prisoner of Giant Despair. There are all of these things that he has to face in his journey to the Celestial City, until finally he gets almost there and he sees the gates of the city. The gates of the city are there within view, he’s almost at the end of his journey, he’s there with Hopeful; and there’s one more trial to face. This is what Bunyan says.
“Now I further saw that betwixt them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over. The river was very deep. At sight, therefore, of this river the pilgrims were much stunned. But the men that went with them said, ‘You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.’”
Of course, the river is death, and it’s when they face the prospect of death that they find this final trial before them, and Christian finds himself very despondent in the face of death. It’s only as Hopeful is quoting Scripture to him, pointing him to the promises of God as he’s crossing through the river, that his foot is finally able to find the bottom, and he’s able to get through.
I want us to talk this morning about how to face death as Christians. Now, this is urgent and relevant to every single person in the room, because there is a 100 per cent mortality rate in the human race. Every single one of us is going to die. Listen, you are closer to death at this moment than you ever have been.
That’s the reality, and we have fresh perspective on this because over 500,000 people in our country have died in the last year. You think about what a world-changing event 9/11 was, when 3,000 people died in one day; multiply that by (what is that?) 150 times or more people have died in the past year because of COVID-19, living through this pandemic. This is a world-shaking event we’ve been through, but it’s really just reminding us of the reality that’s been there all along, that we live in a fallen world, fallen because of human rebellion and sin, and the wages of sin is death, and every single one of us is mortal, and we will have to face death.
I think our culture doesn’t do death well. We don’t tend to think about it. When it does come up—and I’ve especially noticed this in the last few months after facing death more personally myself—when it comes up, for example, on television, it’s usually in comedy, and people are making fun of death. That rings really hollow once you have actually faced death personally.
I know that many of you have faced it in this past year. A number of us have lost loved ones. In my own family, we’ve lost four people in the last year, one because of Covid, an extended family member, and then my paternal grandfather and both my wife’s mother, Linda, and my mom, who both died in the fall. So this is personal. This is coming from a really personal place for me this morning.
I think one of the things that has happened for me in walking through these deep waters over the last year is not just new compassion, but new empathy for those who suffer the mourning and the grief that comes with death. When I first became a pastor, my mentality was basically that I’m called to preach the word, preach the gospel, what I really want to do is preach Sunday by Sunday and lead a church; but the small print in the job is doing funerals and weddings. I think I really unfeeling even stated that publicly early in my ministry, and it was probably discouraging to some of the older folks in our congregation.
My perspective on that has changed quite a lot now, because I have come to see just how crucial the role is of helping prepare people to die well and helping people grieve well in the face of death. We can either be prepared or not and we can either grieve well or grieve poorly. Because this is something all of us are going to face, I want to help us this morning.
So this is going to be a practical message about death, and the reason I’m doing it is because death is right at the forefront of these last several chapters of Genesis. In fact, almost every time Jacob speaks from Genesis 42 till the end of the book, almost every time he speaks he says something about death.
For example, Genesis 45:28 (this is when the brothers come back from Egypt, they tell him that Joseph is alive), this is what it says. “And Israel [that’s Jacob] said, ‘It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.’” Death is right on the horizon for him in his mindset.
Then in chapter 46, when Joseph and Jacob are finally reunited, they embrace each other and weep on each other’s necks for “a good while,” the text says, and then in verse 30 (Genesis 46:30), “Israel said to Joseph, ‘Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.’”
Then again at the end of chapter 47 Jacob gives Joseph very specific instructions about his burial and what’s to take place after Jacob dies. Then, in chapters 48-49, you have two full chapters that are essentially Jacob addressing his children and his grandchildren before him impending death. Now, I haven’t looked this up or counted verses or anything, but I think this is the longest speech of anyone in Scripture on their deathbed. So you have a lot of space that’s taken up here with Jacob’s dying thoughts and dying words.
There’s a lot going on in chapter 49, especially, as Jacob states this blessing over his 12 sons and also words of rebuke and correction. There’s a lot that’s prophetic there, where the shape of the nation of Israel is kind of seen in seed form in chapter 49. I’m not going to focus so much on that; read the commentaries if you want to get into those technicalities.
What I want to do is take a very practical approach and look at three things this morning: preparing to die well, responding to the death of loved ones, and hope in the face of death. I think those are three things that all of us need. We need to know how to prepare for our own deaths, we need to know how to deal with death when it happens in our families, and we need to know whether there’s hope and where that hope is found.
1. Preparing to Die Well
Older Christians, Christians of other generations, talked about this a lot. They wrote whole books on it, they certainly devoted major segments of their books. For example, Thomas á Kempis—this was a pre-Reformation Catholic mystic who wrote that famous book The Imitation of Christ. About two thirds of it are really good, the other third not so good. Thomas á Kempis, nevertheless, helpful in this regard, said, “Happy is he that always hath the hour of his death before his eyes and daily prepareth himself to die.”
Nobody talks like that. You’re not going to find a bestseller at Barnes & Noble or any Christian bookstore on how to prepare daily for death. We don’t think that way. Yet, every single one of us is going to die. We certainly ought to be preparing ourselves for it.
Well, I think Jacob’s words as he nears death—I think Jacob’s words and his actions give us some insight. Now, I understand that this is descriptive, not prescriptive. We are reading narrative and we’re seeing what Jacob did. These are not necessarily commands from Scripture. Nonetheless, I think there’s an example here for us that is helpful and practical, that I hope will be helpful for you, and what I want to give you are four practical things to do to prepare to die well. Alright?
This is relevant for everyone. Even if you’re a teenager you should be thinking about this, but especially, some of you are older and you’re nearing the final days of your life. Maybe you’re in the final decade or the final 15 years or so. Some of us are probably in our final year or two. We need to be prepared. So, four things.
(1) Here’s number one: Keep a pilgrim perspective. Look at chapter 47:7-10. This is when Joseph brings Jacob and presents him before Pharaoh, the Pharaoh of Egypt, and what Jacob says here I think is very helpful. Genesis 47:7, “Then Joseph brought his father Jacob in and presented him before Pharaoh. And Jacob blessed Pharaoh. Pharaoh asked him, ‘How old are you?’ Jacob said to Pharaoh, ‘The years of my pilgrimage are 130. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.’ Then Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from his presence” (NIV).
Notice that he says, “The years of my pilgrimage.” That’s the way he describes his life: “The years of my pilgrimage.” Or your version might say, “The years of my sojourning.” In other words, he’s picturing himself in a certain way as someone who’s on a journey, whose whole life has been a journey, it’s been a pilgrimage. Bunyan probably got his title, The Pilgrim’s Progress and this image, he probably got it from Jacob and from other passages like this in Scripture. This is the way Scripture teaches us to envision our lives, that we are pilgrims. As the old spiritual says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” That’s right.
Now, there’s a sense in which this world, when it’s newly created in the new heavens and the new earth, this world, planet earth, in its redeemed state will be our home. But the world as it now is is not your home, Christian! You’re passing through. If you are to be prepared every day to die well, you have to have a pilgrim mindset, a pilgrim’s perspective.
What that means is that there’s a certain degree of detachment to the things of this world, that you are not overly attached to things that will be taken from you, overly attached to things that will change, such as your home, your job, your family, your friends. Now, there’s a certain degree of attachment that of course is appropriate. We should love our family and our friends. But you know how Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 talks about those who were married as though they were not married, right? Those who were slaves as though they were free; those who were free as—you know, he relativizes all these social distinctions. What is he saying there? He’s saying that we are to be detached from the things of this world because this is not where our true home is.
I think that is the first step for us in being prepared to die. Everything that presently is true in your life apart from Christ, apart from the things of God, spiritual reality—everything else in your life is going to change. Everything! Every relationship. You know, it occurred to me, and this may seem a morbid thought, but this is the way my mind works. It occurred to me on the day before my mom’s funeral last November, and I was there with my two brothers and my sister and my dad at the funeral home, and it occurred to me that one of us will be the last one who buries all the others. That is inevitably going to happen, and that’s going to happen in your life, it’s going to happen in your family. One of you is going to be last. Everything is going to change. Everything is going to be taken away. We have to keep a pilgrim’s perspective if we’re to deal with that.
Somebody who did this well was Jonathan Edwards. He preached a wonderful sermon on the Christian as a pilgrim, and in his resolutions—he wrote these 70 resolutions when he was, I don’t know, 19, 20 years old—he talks a lot in his resolutions about death and being prepared to die. Here are just three of them; this isn’t nearly all of them. You should read all of these resolutions.
Resolution number 7; he said, “Resolved never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.”
Number 9: “Resolved to think much on all occasions of my own dying and of the common circumstances which attend death.”
Number 52: “I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live if they were to live their lives over again. Resolved that I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age.”
That’s wisdom. That is living with the reality of your death always before you, living with a pilgrim’s mindset. That’s first.
(2) Number two is, recognize the brevity of life. Notice that Jacob says in verse 9, “My years have been few and difficult.” Now, he’s 130 years old here, so his years certainly don’t seem few; he lives for another 17 and dies at the very ripe old age of 147. By the way, there are nonbiblical sources from the ancient world that also record extreme old ages for people at that time. This is not implausible at all.
Here’s a man who lived to a very old age, and yet when he describes his life he says, “The years of my life have been few and difficult.”
Well, no doubt Jacob understood what all of us understand, that the older you get the faster your life seems to go by. I mean, isn’t that true? Somebody once said,
“When I was a child, I laughed and wept;
When as a youth I dreamed and talked,
When I became a full-grown man,
When older still I grew,
Soon I shall find in passing on
Your life is brief. Scripture describes it as a vapor, as a mist that quickly disappears (James 4). It appears for a little time, and then vanishes.
Some of you have heard me share this before, but someone mathematically calculated a schedule. If you were to compress one person’s entire life into one day, with the various ages represented by points on the clock from seven a.m. until midnight (seven a.m. being birth, midnight being death), this kind of gives you an idea of how much time you would have left.
At age 15 the time would be 10:25 a.m. At 25 it would be 12:42 p.m.; at 35, 3 p.m. At 45, 5:16 p.m. I’m almost 47, so that means on this scale I’m in late afternoon. At 55, 7:34 p.m.; at 65, 9:55 p.m.; at age 70, 11 p.m. The last hour, the last round, the last period of life. That’s how fast it goes by.
We have to reckon with that if we are to be prepared for death, that our years are few. The brevity of life, the frailty of life, how quickly it will pass. That gives us perspective.
(3) Here’s the third lesson: It’s to be humbled for the past but hope in God’s promise. I think the reality is that the older we get and the more we reflect on our past lives, the more regrets we will have, the more things we will look back on and wish that we had done differently.
I remember hearing Paul Tripp one time say that when we are young we are like astronauts: we’re looking ahead, we’re looking up to the stars thinking about our lives. But when we become old, we’re archeologists; we’re digging up the past. When you dig up the past, sometimes you feel regret. You wish you had done things differently, you wish you had been a better parent, you wish you had been a better spouse, you wish you had been a better grandparent, you wish you’d worked harder at job; you especially wish that you’d been more faithful to Christ, that you had shared the gospel with more people. So many regrets!
What do you do with those? Well, Jacob acknowledged, “My years have been few and difficult.” Some translations say, “My years have been few and evil.” Then notice what he says afterwards: “They do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.” I think he looks back and he sees Abraham and Isaac and he thinks, “They were better men than I’ve been.”
What do you do when you feel that way? Well, be humbled by it, but don’t be paralyzed by it. We all have reason to be humble; none of us should be so devastated by our mistakes and by our sins that we lose hope. Even Jacob has hope as he’s facing death.
We see that in a couple of ways. One way you see hope is when he gives instructions to Joseph concerning his burial in chapter 47:29-31. I think this is significant theologically, and it gives us some practical insight into Jacob’s faith. Verse 29, “When the time drew near that Israel must die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, ‘If now I have found favor in your sight, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal kindly and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt, but let me lie with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burying place.’ He answered, ‘I will do as you have said.’ But he said, ‘Swear to me.’ And he swore to him. Then Israel bowed himself upon the head of his bed.”
Why is he going to so much trouble to say, “Don’t bury me in Egypt, bury me with my fathers”? I want to suggest to you that this is not just sentimentality. It’s not just, “I want to be in the family graveyard.” It’s not just that, it’s that Machpelah, the burial site that Abraham had first purchased to bury Sarah, was the first plot of ground that Abraham ever owned in the promised land. It was the down payment on God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants. I think Jacob is holding onto that promise, the promise that God is giving not just a family, but he’s giving land, and that in some mysterious way this promise is still yet to be fulfilled. At Hebrews 11 describes the patriarchs, they were looking for a city whose builder and maker was God. They had hope beyond this world; they were trusting in the promises of God.
One of the ways you see this in chapter 46. When Jacob is on his way from—he’s in Canaan, but it’s a time of famine; now he’s on his way to Egypt to meet Joseph, and there he will die—he’s on his way, and he stops on the way at Beersheba. Beersheba was where his father Isaac had lived and had worshipped. This is Genesis 46:1-4, and what’s amazing is that when he stops to make a sacrifice to the Lord, this is the last time we have recorded in Scripture that God speaks directly to Jacob, and what he says is significant.
Genesis 46:1: “So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again. And Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.’”
You see the promise there? “I will go with you to Egypt, and I will bring you up again.” He’s going to die in Egypt, but God says, “I will bring you up again.” There’s a promise there. I think Jacob is holding onto that promise, the covenant promises of God, and when he says, “Don’t bury me in Egypt, bury me in Canaan,” it’s because he has hope that even in the face of death there is still redemption to come.
You and I need hope when we face death, either our own or the death of our loved ones. One of the things I think we wonder if we will have is dying grace, grace to face death ourselves or grace to face the death of our loved ones.
I mentioned last week Corrie ten Boom. When she was a little girl (she tells this story in The Hiding Place) she witnessed the death of a baby, and it really shattered her. It shook her to her core. She started thinking about the mortality of her family, the reality of death, and she was just distraught as she thought, “How in the world will I handle it if my parents die?”
She spoke to her father about this, weeping and crying, and her father sought to comfort her. This is what he said: “Corrie, when we go to Amsterdam on the train, when do I give you the ticket?”
She said, “You just give it to me right before we get on the train.”
He said, “That’s right. I don’t give it to you in advance; I give it to you right when you need it. And God will give you the grace you need when you need it. When the time comes, you’ll find what you need.”
Brothers and sisters, I’ve found that to be true, and it’s something that we can hope in. We can hope that God will give us the grace we need to face our own death, to face the death of our loved ones.
(4) Keep a pilgrim perspective, recognize the brevity of life, be humbled for the past but hope in God’s promise; and then number four (so important), communicate with your loved ones.
Virtually all of chapters 48-49 are Jacob talking to his children and his grandchildren. It begins as he adopts the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, blessing the younger, not the older, a consistent theme we’ve seen in Genesis; then with his words to his sons in Genesis 49.
Now, as I’ve said, there’s a lot of prophetic material here, and that’s important, but not my focus this morning. But on a practical level, I think we can see three things that Jacob does in his words to his family that are important for us.
The first thing you see is testimony of his faith. He gives testimony of his faith in God and God’s faithfulness to him. You see this in chapter 48:15-16. It says, “He blessed Joseph and said, ‘The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my Shepherd all my life long until this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys.’” He’s blessing here Joseph’s children.
Notice there a threefold invocation of God: “The God of my fathers, the Lord who has been my Shepherd…” He says this hundreds of years before Psalm 23 was written. “...and the angel who redeemed me.” Remember that Jacob especially had these encounters with the angel of the Lord. He saw the angels ascending and descending the stairway in chapter 28 and he wrestled with an angel till the breaking of the day in Genesis 32. He was very conscious that God had very personally been involved in his life, saving him, rescuing him, redeeming him; and he calls on this God, this God who has helped him, who has shepherded him, and he says, “May this God bless you.” He’s giving testimony of his faith.
Listen, brothers and sisters; one of the most practical and important things you can do for your family as you prepare for your own death is to leave something behind for them. Leave written record of your faith. Speak to them; give testimony to God’s faithfulness in your life.
One of the most precious things for me in the past several months has been when people have sent me photographs, screenshots of things that my mom wrote—an inscription to a book—someone that I haven’t seen in 30 years, but mom gave them a book years ago, encouraging them to seek the Lord. Somebody takes a picture of that and sends it to me on Facebook, or family members find letters and send those. It’s so precious. For Holly, one of the most helpful things for her was getting her mom’s Bible and seeing the notes that were written in that Bible that are a testament to her faith in God. Listen: leave something behind for your family, a testimony of your faith. That’s one thing you can do.
Here’s the second thing: bless your family. There’s blessing here as Jacob blesses his children, his grandchildren. There are very specific-to-those-circumstances blessings, as this is the covenant family, the family through whom God will bring the Messiah; but there’s still a principle there. Bless your family, encourage them, speak words of encouragement, grace, and comfort to them.
Then there’s also a note of warning. This is something that maybe we would tend to avoid, but I think can be very useful, something that in God’s hands can be used to bring great good to our children and grandchildren. For Jacob, when you read chapter 49, he’s blessing his children, but his first three sons, Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, his words to them are not particularly encouraging. Reuben had committed immorality with Jacob’s concubine, and therefore he lost the rights of the firstborn. Simeon and Levi were behind the massacre of Shechem and Hamor in Genesis 34, and Jacob condemns that violence. So with his final words he’s actually correcting his three older sons for their sin.
I remember reading something from Spurgeon’s autobiography, something that had really impressed him deeply as a child. He talks about how his mom would read to him as a child these evangelistic books, like Richard Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, and would exhort him to deal with sin and to go to Christ. But this is one thing he said that really struck me. He said, “I cannot tell how much I owe to the prayers of my good mother. I remember her once praying, ‘Now, Lord, if my children go on and sin, it will not be from ignorance that they perish, and my soul must bear swift witness against them at the day of judgment if they lay not hold on Christ and claim him as their personal Savior.’”
There’s real warning, warning from a parent to a child. You who are parents and grandparents, your words have great power and great significance in the lives of your family. Some of your family members need warning. They need warning, and that’s one thing that you can do, whether it’s in a letter or whether it’s final words—kindly and gently and lovingly, and yet urgently exhort them to repent and to turn to Christ and to deal with sin.
This is how we prepare to die well. It relates to our perspective on our lives (we’re pilgrims), our perspectives on the brevity of life, our perspective on our own sins and mistakes, and yet hope in God’s mercy and our engagement with our families. Jacob prepared well.
He actually dies at the end of chapter 49:28-33. I won’t read it all, but I will read verse 33. “When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people.” Again, there’s an indication here of life after death. He was gathered to his people, and this is days before he’s buried with his fathers, so there was some kind of reunion here with Abraham and with Isaac.
That’s really the first main point, and I’m almost out of time, so I’m going to be quick on the rest of the message here.
2. Responding to the Death of Loved Ones
How do we respond, then, to the death of our loved ones? How do we respond when those around us die? You see this in chapter 50 with the response of Joseph to the death of Jacob. Three things to note.
(1) First of all, don’t be ashamed to grieve. Genesis 50:1: “Then Joseph fell on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” Verse 3 says that “the Egyptians wept for him for 70 days.” Then drop down to verses 10-11. “When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation. And he made a mourning for his father seven days. When the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, ‘This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians.’” There’s grief here. He weeps when his father dies and then mourns for seven days at the burial.
Listen, grief is a normal, natural human response to death, even for believers. The reason for this is because death is the great enemy. We were not created for death, we were created for life, and death rends apart body and soul. It tears family members from one another. There’s a great separation that happens at death.
Scripture describes death as “the last enemy.” Even the Lord Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. When Jesus died on the cross, he died crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He approaches death in Gethsemane with strong crying and tears. There’s grief, even as Christians.
I think we need to reckon with this. Sometimes I hear pastors say at Christian funerals—they gather everybody together, and with a big smile on their faces they say, “This is not a time for grieving, this is a time for celebration!” I know what the good man is trying to say, but I also know that there’s something in that kind of wording that is contrary to the way Scripture describes death. We do celebrate the homegoing of the believer who’s in Christ; we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. That’s true. But there’s still grief, and we need to reckon with that as believers.
Listen, it is right to weep, it is right to grieve. You will grieve when it comes. I certainly—I wept like a little child when I found out my grandfather had passed away. I wept at my mother-in-law’s funeral, and I cried more tears the week leading up to and then the days following my mom’s death, more tears in that week than I had in the previous ten years put together. Don’t be ashamed to grieve. It is a normal response. We grieve; we do grieve with hope, but nevertheless we grieve. Don’t be ashamed of the tears.
(2) The second thing is bury your deceased, bury your loved ones. Again, there’s a lot of attention given to the burial of Jacob in Genesis 50:4-7. I want to make two comments about this.
Burial, first of all, is a key part of closure, and there’s a reason why we need to do this. We need to somehow officially recognize the departure of our loved ones from this earth. I think perhaps one of the hardest things that some folks have had to endure during the pandemic is burying a family member and not being allowed to have a funeral. I know some of you have probably faced that. But we need to do that; we need the closure.
Then, I think also there’s something to be said about burial itself as the mode in which we deal with the remains, the human remains of our loved ones. The reason I mention this is because people ask me this. This is one of those questions that people ask me as a pastor. They’ll ask me, “Is cremation okay or do we have to do burial? What’s the Christian perspective on this?”
More and more people are being cremated today than ever before, and the first thing I want to say is that there’s nothing in Scripture that condemns cremation. Certainly there’s nothing about cremation that limits the power of God in resurrection. God can resurrect and will resurrect all human beings, regardless of how their bodies were either buried or cremated or whatever.
That being said, there’s still a pattern in Scripture. In Scripture, the pattern is burial. What you see is over 200 burials in Scripture; only two times were the remains burned, but 200 times buried. There are good theological reasons why I think Christians should prefer burial when possible. There may be financial reasons why it’s impossible, there may be other reasons why it’s impossible; but when possible, I would recommend burial.
I found the words of Russell Moore, president of ERLC for the Southern Baptist Convention, helpful. Listen to what he says. “The question is not simply whether cremation is always a personal sin, the question is whether burial is a Christian act, and if so, then what does it communicate?” He says, “Of course God can resurrect a cremated Christian. He can also resurrect a Christian burned at the stake or a Christian torn to pieces by lions in a Roman colosseum or digested by a great white shark off the coast of Florida. But are funerals simply the way in which we dispose of remains? If so, graveyards are unnecessary, too.”
Then he says this: “For Christians, burial is not the disposal of a thing; it is caring for a person. In burial we are reminded that the body is not a shell, a husk, tossed aside by the real person, the soul within. ‘To be absent with the body is to be present with the Lord,’ but the body that remains still belongs to someone, someone we love, someone who will reclaim it one day. The body and the soul will be reunited in resurrection.”
Therefore, if you were to ask me about cremation, that’s what I’d say. It’s not a sin; if you need to do it, it’s okay; but here’s the pattern, and there are good reasons for burial.
(3) Here’s the final way to respond to the death of loved ones: carry on with life. Genesis 50:14: “After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.”
Listen, you can’t rush grief, and mourning takes time, and even months later there are still moments where Holly and I feel a fresh wave of grief and loss, the loss of loved ones. Many of you who have faced this also know that experience. But you can’t stay there. You can’t live in continual mourning the point where you are withdrawing from family and job and your life; you have to return to it. You return as a pilgrim, but you have to return and live faithfully. Joseph did that, and we have to do that as well.
3. Hope in the Face of Death
Finally, is there hope in the face of death? You know the answer, but I want to give it to you briefly. I want us to end on a gospel note, so this is my conclusion. There is hope in the face of death, and I’m using the word “hope” in the biblical sense of the word: a certain and a confident expectation of good. This isn’t a mere wish, this is something we have every reason to have confidence in. That hope, of course, is found in the gospel, in the death and the resurrection of Christ.
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ died for our sins. He died as a substitute for sinners, he took the death we deserve, the punishment we deserve; he himself faced death.
Hebrews 2 tells us that “through death he defeated the devil, who had the power of death and kept people in bondage to the fear of death.” He defeated the devil! He disarmed the devil. He triumphed over him; he vanquished the power of death.
In Acts 2 in Peter’s sermon he tells us that when Christ died that the grave could not hold him. The grave couldn’t hold him. He conquered it, he vanquished it, he triumphed over it. Therefore, because of the death and resurrection of Christ, we do have hope. We have hope that death is not the end, we have hope that there is resurrection that is certain for the Christian, we have hope that even in our death, even when we face death ourselves, if we face it in Christ, we face it as those who will be welcomed with open arms into the loving embrace of our Savior. “To be absent with the body is to be present with the Lord.”
In Romans 8, Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’” He’s looking here right in the face of death, and he’s asking, “Can anything separate us from Christ?” Listen to his answer in verses 37-39. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Death cannot separate you from the Lord, and there is hope in the face of death.
One of the lowest points in Martin Luther’s life was when his beloved daughter, Magdalena, died from the plague. She was 14 years old. He was shattered, heartbroken. When they were nailing the lid on the coffin, he cried out, “Hammer away, hammer away; on Doomsday she’ll rise again!”
Luther wrote a resurrection hymn that somebody handed these words to me the night before my mom’s funeral. I was so moved by them that I read them the next day, and I think these are powerful. It’s a powerful image, a powerful picture of Christ defeating death. I want to end with this.
“Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands
For our offenses given,
But now at God’s hand he stands
And brings us life from heaven.
Therefore let us all rejoice
And sing to God with heart and voice
Loud songs of hallelujah.
“It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life;
The reign of death is ended.
So the Scripture makes it plain
That death by death’s own sword is slain.
Its sting is lost forever; hallelujah.”
God, how we thank you that the sting of death has been taken once and for all by Christ, our Savior. We thank you that he defeated death by dying in our place, and that now he has risen from the dead. Therefore we do have hope this morning. Though we are all mortal and though we will all face the death of both loved ones and eventually our own deaths, my prayer this morning is that we would be well prepared and that we would be well armed with the hope of the gospel, so that we would not be devastated. We will grieve, but not as those who have no hope, and as we face death we will face it with the confidence that Christ our Captain has gone before. He’s already blazed the trail through death and beyond. His resurrection guarantees ours, and therefore we have hope.
Lord, may that hope go deep into our hearts this morning. For those who are grieving today I pray for special encouragement and consolation. For all of us, I pray for renewed perspective on our mortality, and Lord, perhaps for some this morning it was a wake-up call, and if so I pray that there would be serious thoughts and consideration of our mortality and the need we have for your grace and for the hope of the gospel.
As we come to the Lord’s table, may we come with our thoughts fixed on Christ’s death on our behalf and the hope that that gives us. We pray that you would draw near to us as we draw near to you, and we pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.