There are few things more difficult and few things more important than being with a family who recently lost someone they love. To be with someone who breathes their last is a trust and a responsibility we have with those we love. It’s a reminder that God how issues our first breath is with us when we breathe our last. I remember visiting a mother in the hospital who had recently received a terminal diagnosis and she struggling with fear. Because of the reality of the hope she had at that moment I reminded her that no matter the outcome God was with her: “Everything is going to be ok.” Her countenance changed and she died a few days later. Everything after was hard but it’s been ok she is free of pain and with her savior. Her family whose hearts are broken are trusting Jesus through the storm.
There is a phrase in Latin Memento Mori, which means in English, “Remember, you must die.” Talking about death, understanding death, and living with the knowledge you will die have all fallen on hard times. We live in a culture that idolizes youth and beauty and believes that money is how both those prizes can be achieved. The reality is that we do much of what we do in America because we are running from death. We struggle with anxiety and worry in this life because we have expunged death from every aspect of our daily life.
I go to and perform many funerals in a year. There was a season in my life I attended or performed a funeral nearly once a week. The thing that always struck me was there are no kids at funerals. There are very few teens and college-age kids at a funeral. Most people don’t go to their first funeral until late in life. This detachment and stigmatization of death have created a culture that fears death more than anything else.
This culture of positive confession and beautiful people has infiltrated the church. This detachment and paralytic fear of death that most Christians have has put us out of touch with some of the most critical and far-reaching themes of the Bible. Themes of salvation and forgiveness, sin and death, and suffering and victory.
If you have been to an older church, you would have had to walk through tombstones to come and celebrate the Lord’s day. Preachers used to have a skull they would put on their desk as a reminder that they were dying. They were preaching to people who were dying. And if you want to reach those who are dying, you do it by thinking A LOT about death, not by coming up with positive messages to avoid it.
At every funeral, I perform I read this text from Ecclesiastes 7:1-4.
Wisdom for LifeEcclesiastes 7:1–4.
1 A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume.
And the day you die is better than the day you are born.
2 Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies—
so the living should take this to heart.
3 Sorrow is better than laughter,
for sadness has a refining influence on us.
4 A wise person thinks a lot about death,
while a fool thinks only about having a good time.
Funerals serve a purpose in this life. They are to as the Psalmist says in Psalm 90 Cause us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom. A wise person thinks A LOT about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time now.
The reason this is so foolish is that we have it backward. We don’t think about heaven because our hope isn’t in heaven; it’s in the things we can gain an acquire. We don’t long for heaven with the homesickness that we should because we are so focused on making this life our best life. We have bought into the lie that aspects of evangelicalism have been selling to the world. If you believe God enough, if you follow him, you will have everything this world has to offer. We want a BMW more than we want heaven. Because our hearts want happiness and we think things will give us that.
The sad reality is the gospel in our time has been obscured. Obscured by the outright fear of death and the idolatry of wealth. What makes this doctrine so pernicious and sinful is we have exported it to the world. I was talking with a friend who works with refugees from Nepal. He told me that in Nepal, people have grabbed ahold of this idea that our happiness is a direct result of the amount of faith we have. If we believe God enough, we will not have sickness, sorrow, or death. This is what the American church has exported to a world. A world that is dying for the hope that only the gospel can bring. They need hope, and we fill them with false promises for things that don’t matter.
Before you long for a life that is imperishable, you must accept that you are perishing along with everyone you care about. You must recognize that anything you might accomplish or acquire in this world is already fading away. Only then will you crave the unfading glory of what Jesus has accomplished and acquired for you. And you need to recognize you are going to lose everything you love in this world before you will hope in an inheritance kept in heaven for you.Matt McCullough
Recently a church made the news in a week-long exhibition of trying to raise a young girl who had tragically died at too young of an age. What that church didn’t realize is their denial of death doesn’t make Jesus beautiful to a watching world. Our next-door neighbors who are without hope rightly fear death. When the church says, they believe in a God who conquered death, but lives like death must be and can be avoided, our neighbors find nothing in our message that can give them hope. Matt McCullough, in his excellent book on Remembering death, says this about the prosperity gospel this church propagates.
“The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that—those who have lost the test of faith.” There is no graceful death in prosperity teaching. “There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability.”Matt McCullough
I know this to be true because I was on the receiving end of the jarring disappointments that the denial of deaths inevitability produces. The jarring disappointment I felt so often leads people in their anger to walk away from the church. Still, for me, by God’s grace, it opened my eyes to see the beauty of the gospel. We can not see and appreciate the beauty of Easter until we see and understand the power of Good Friday.
If the gospel seems irrelevant to our daily lives, that is our fault, not the gospels. For if death is not an everyday reality, then Christ’s triumph over death is neither daily nor real. Worship and proclamation and even faith itself take on a dream-like, unreal air, and Jesus is reduced to something like a long-term insurance policy, filed and forgotten—whereas he can be our necessary ally, an immediate, continuing friend, the holy destroyer of death and the devil, my own beautiful savior. By avoiding the truth about death, we’re avoiding the truth about Jesus. Jesus didn’t promise us so many of the things we want most out of life. He promised us victory over death.Walter Wangerin
When we are honest about death. We see the beauty and the necessity of the cross. Growing up, I couldn’t reconcile how we as Christians called the day that Jesus died Good Friday. The reason I couldn’t reconcile that is that I saw Good Friday as the death of Jesus, not the death of death in the death of Christ. Good Friday is an annual reminder that Jesus died to conquer death. The promise Jesus made to us is that he conquered death. Death no longer has the final say.
Honesty about death will lead you to grief, but grief not about the end of our life but grief that death is not only a reality but an inevitability. There is something within each of us that recognizes that we were made for immortality. When we experience the jarring nature of death it should not surprise us or overwhelm us should create in us a longing and a hope.
My favorite poet says this about death. He says that where death before had been my executioner. Now because of Christ’s death has become my gardener because of Jesus because of the life death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, death can only plant me into everlasting life.
We fear death when we love things that are daily dying rather than Christ who conquered death and promises us the hope that can only be experienced through the immortality that the gospel provides. This is why Good Friday is so important it forces us to confront death so we can fully embrace Christ.
I leave you with this powerful quote from Matt McCullough
Honesty about death leads to grief, and grief over what’s true about this world leads to hopeful longing for the world to come. But there is another way in which our heightened feeling for death’s sting clarifies our hope for redemption and resurrection. It helps us see that any hope we have rests completely on a Savior who died and rose again. No other hope will do. The Heidelberg Catechism opens with a clear and profound question: What is your only comfort in life and in death? I love this question for the assumption underneath it. Any comfort in life must also provide comfort in death. If the object of our hope can’t stand up to death’s onslaught, it can’t offer true hope in life either. There are many things in which we hope throughout our lives. Things we look to for meaning and purpose. Things we accomplish or acquire. Pleasures we enjoy. People we love. We trust these things to deliver. We hope they will endure. And one by one death topples them all. When you live with honest grief over what death does to life, you recognize that you cannot afford to settle for vague platitudes, for some abstract feel-good hope that things will work out someday. Resurrection as an idea or an aspiration is empty and unsatisfying. For us to know true hope, we need something we can lock onto. We need a living, breathing resurrected person. We don’t need an ideal. We need a Savior. I believe this need for a concrete, personal hope in the face of death explains why Jesus orchestrated the Lazarus event the way he did. He knew what his friends needed to see—and that we’d need to see it too.Matt McCullough
All I can say is amen. We need a Savior.
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