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A Time to Weep

Christians should both grieve and hope in the face of death.

Some years ago, there was a Presbyterian student who went away to college and made himself obnoxious to his fraternity brothers by always talking about his Presbyterian heritage. According to this student, everything about Presbyterianism was first-rate. That might have been all right at a Presbyterian college, but it turned out in this case that most of this man's fraternity brothers were Baptist, and they weren't about to let him get away with it. So they devised this plan.

One evening on the weekend, they slipped some sleeping powder into his coffee. And when he passed out, they loaded him into a car and drove him out of the city into a remote area to a graveyard. They had done their work well. They had already prepared by having deposited a large coffin there with the lid open, on a flat tombstone. And they put their friend in the coffin and hid behind the neighboring tombstones to see what would happen when he should wake up.

Well nothing happened for a long time. The night passed. Dawn came. The sun began to rise and the long rays of the sun were casting gray shadows through the graveyard, causing the mist that had collected on the ground to rise slowly, in a somewhat spooky way. And they were hiding and clasping their hands, saying, "It won't be long now."

Sure enough, the time came when they heard a noise from the casket. And then they saw an arm come up and stretch itself. And then another arm. And then their young friend sat up and looked around. And they were saying, "This is it. He's going to look around, see where he is. He's going to scream. And then he's going to jump up and run out of the graveyard, and we're going to laugh about it for the rest of our lives."

And instead, the young man looked around. And then in a loud voice said, "Hallelujah! It's the resurrection morning and the Presbyterians are the first ones up!"

I don't know whether it's right to begin a study of such a somber theme as death with a funny story. But it is at least evident, I think, whether by means of that story or in other ways, that our religious convictions, or lack of them, do affect the way we look at death. The tragic part of the story is that in our time and culture—and I speak of American culture—which was once undergirded with strong religious convictions and therefore handled death well, has become replaced by a secular spirit with tragic results.

Now we're studying Genesis and we are in the latter chapters, where death is a major theme. We have just seen the death of Jacob, the patriarch. In the last verses of the final chapter, we'll find the death of Joseph. And in the verses constituting the first part of this last chapter, Genesis 50, verses one through thirteen, we have Joseph's reaction to his father Jacob's death. And the point I want to make is that this gives us a pattern, an example, of how Christians can properly respond to what even the Bible calls the last enemy.

We can deny death.

Franz Borkenau is a political commentator and historian who has said you can understand cultures well by analyzing how they think about death. According to Borkenau's analysis, there are three different ways cultures think about death, three different approaches.

One he calls a death-accepting culture. This would have an example in ancient Greece, which I'll talk about in a moment. There is what he calls a death-defying culture. The Judeo-Christian tradition is, in his judgment, an example of that. And then in addition to a death-accepting culture and a death-defying culture, there is what he calls a death-denying culture. That is one that pretends that death doesn't exist. He sees our own culture as an example of that trend.

Richard W. Doss has written a book on death (The Last Enemy: A Christian Understanding of Death). He was asked to do this by the Forest Lawn Association, a great funeral establishment on the West Coast in Southern California, the association about which Johnny Carson used to make so many jokes. They wanted to find out what a true Christian theology of death and the funeral would be. And so they commissioned Doss to write this book, and he began by analyzing the way death is regarded secularly in American life. He points out that we try to deny it by the way we refer to all aspects of death and the funeral.

He says if a person dies in a hospital—and generally people do today—it's announced that the patient expired. And the attending physician then signs a vital statistics form. The patient no longer remains a patient at this point. He becomes a loved one. The remains of the loved one are removed to the mortuary, where the family arranges the memorial estate.

After preparation, the loved one is placed in a slumber room, sometimes called a reposing room. If he's a member of a church, the minister announces from the pulpit, in very ministerial tones, that Mr. Jones has now gone home or passed to his heavenly home. The newspaper says Mr. Jones, beloved father, has passed away.

Doss says if you're so coarse as to mention in a matter of fact way that Mr. Jones died last week, the neighbors in some cases think that you have poor taste and perhaps you're indiscreet. And so we use softened language to try to deny the harshness of death's reality. Doss asks why this is so. And he gives some analysis of it, which I think is helpful.

He says one reason in American culture we tend to deny the reality of death so much is psychological. Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology was not right in everything, but I think he was right in this: much of what we do flows from hidden and often denied fears or phobias, one of which is the fear of death. According to this theory, the more one is confronted with the reality of death, the more one denies it because it's too frightening to cope with apart from a religious context.

Look at American life and the exposure most of us have to death through television, where you see real life pictures of those who have died or been murdered. It may be seen daily on the news; or the newspapers that shout to us about death from the front pages; or even fictionalized accounts of death or violence, which we see both on television in various programs or in the movies. It's perfectly evident that our culture has been confronted with the reality of death more than any other culture in all the long history of the world. Even in periods of the religious wars of persecutions, when people were dying right and left, the average man didn't always see it. Yet it's the case in our culture that our children, because of television, see more of the reality of death before they go away to grade school than most people in other cultures saw perhaps in a long, long lifetime.

And so as a result of that, it's not at all surprising that we have a tendency to deny death for psychological reasons.

The second reason why we deny death is cultural, according to Doss. And it seems to me that this is true as well. We live in a youth-oriented society. The worth of a person in our society is measured by what he or she can produce. And this is why old age isn't well regarded, and why death is certainly denied, because one doesn't produce anything then. Wholeness is measured only in terms of thinking and acting young.

In the Bible, death is referred to as the last enemy. But in our culture, death isn't the last enemy; it's an enemy that's to be defeated here and now. Our weapons are gyms, spas, health foods, face-lifts and other body-enhancing pastimes and procedures. We want to remain eternally young.

What Doss concludes, however, is that although these other factors are probably partial explanations of why our culture acts as it does, the ultimate and most important reason for our denial of death is religious. You have to understand that ours used to be a more religious nation. It doesn't mean that all people were Christians, but there was a Christian, a religious milieu that permeated society, from the settling of New England by the Puritans to the conquest of the West and the great Methodist preachers, revivalists who travelled throughout the country and established churches along with those of other denominations.

In that kind of context, death fit in. Life was understood to be under the sovereign direction of an almighty God. Death was understood in terms of Christian theology. It was the result of sin, the wages of sin being death, and it was transcended by Christ's resurrection and the expectation of our own. In a culture permeated by that kind of theological framework, life consisted of birth and growth and marriage and service and old age and death and beyond that, the joys of being with Christ in heaven. People could handle death in that context.

But Doss says this: Western man has rejected God and religion. The 20th century has seen a virtual abolition of the traditional Christian framework, with no new proposal to take its place. Secularization has separated modern man from older understandings of man and society and in so doing, has separated death from the means by which it has been explained for so many years. And as a result, death has been isolated and denuded. With no meaningful framework for understanding death, our culture has adopted a style of denial and avoidance.

The problem of course, is that death cannot be avoided. We can go through an entire lifetime refusing to face this reality. But suddenly death crosses the threshold of our own home. Someone within our home dies. Or death enters the home across the street and we're terrified. There has to be a better approach than that of our materialistic, youth-oriented culture.

We can accept death.

The second approach to death that this man Borkenau mentions is a death-accepting culture, and for this he gives the example of ancient Greece. Perhaps the best-known death in history, apart from that of the Lord Jesus Christ, is the death of Socrates. The death of Socrates is an example of exactly what this man is talking of. Socrates was the philosophical mentor of Plato. And Plato is the one who tells his story in his dialogues, particularly the story of his death in the Phaedo.

Socrates had been sentenced to death by the rulers of Athens on the charge that he allegedly had been corrupting the youth of Athens by his atheism. What that meant was that he didn't take the existence of the Greek gods in a strictly literal manner, though he talked about them. He was sentenced to death, and the time came when he was to drink the fatal hemlock, the poison, that would cause him to die.

And his friends, the young men of Athens, Plato, Crito and the others, were gathered around. And they were sorrowing. Not Socrates. Socrates used the occasion together with these young men to think about the significance of death. When the time came for him to drink the hemlock, as Plato says, he quite readily and cheerfully drank the poison and perished.

The question is, What gave Socrates the strength to die in that manner? And the answer is obvious. It was his commitment to reason. Earlier in one of the dialogues, the Crito, Socrates explains his reason in reference to the length of his own life. He said, "I'm 70 years old. It's not given to man to live much longer than that. So why should a man who is 70 years ago shrink from death?" He took consolation in that kind of rationalistic commitment.

Chiefly, however, the faith of Socrates, through reason, was based on his understanding of the immortality of the soul, a Greek idea. According to Greek philosophy the soul was related to the immaterial world, the world of spirit, which was good and imperishable. And the body, by contrast, was related to the material world, which was evil and therefore perishable.

As long as an individual and his soul or spirit is tied to the body, he's born down by the physical nature and the soul is unable to function as the soul should function. The way to escape from that kind of captivity is by death. Death is the soul's friend. It liberates the soul. This is the kind of argument that Socrates put forward when he was talking to these young men.

Well, that particular philosophy seems to have stood Socrates in good stead. But it's nevertheless the case that most people find it hard to die serenely simply on the basis of a philosophical hope. Whatever the case may be where the person who is dying is concerned, death is nevertheless separation and loss for those who are left behind. Plato is Socrates' star pupil; yet at the end of the Pheado, when Socrates drinks the hemlock, Plato himself confesses that he, like all the others, burst out into weeping at the sense of the loss of what he calls such a wise and just companion.

Well you ask the question, Is that all? Is there no approach other than that? Are we faced with the alternative on the one hand of denying death's reality or simply accepting it on the other with a kind of philosophical stoicism, hoping that in the moment of our death or the passing of a loved one, we have the fortitude of Socrates?

We can "defy" death—Like Joseph

Franz Borkenau thinks that's not the only choice. And anyone who knows the Biblical material would agree with him at that point. Borkenau speaks of what he calls a death-defying culture. And he finds it symbolized in those words with which the apostle Paul poses what we know as the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians. "Oh death, where is your sting? Oh death, where is your victory? Thanks be unto God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."

I'm not sure that phrase "death-defying" is the best way to talk about the biblical hope, but it comes close enough because it recognizes on the one hand what I would call biblical reality. Death is a real thing and an enemy, which the Bible is certainly clear to affirm. And therefore it's a cause for sorrow. It is a time of loss. But on the other hand, the Bible also recognizes that death is not the end and that those who have died in Christ are by the portal of death carried into the presence of God where they enjoy liberation and victory over sin and death which is its consequence.

We have an example of a proper approach to death in the story of Joseph weeping over his father, which we find in Genesis 50, which means simply that the first part of this in a certain sense has all been introduction to what we find here. I notice a number of things about Joseph's response to his father's death. And we need to treat them briefly.

The first thing, the most noticeable of all, is his grief. Joseph was no stoic. We're told in verse 1 that when his father died, Joseph threw himself upon his father and wept over him and kissed him. And then he entered upon a period of grief, which to our way of thinking was almost unbelievably long. First, there was a period of mourning in Egypt that was 70 days long: 40 days for embalming and then an additional 30 days of formal mourning—a month of mourning.

And then Joseph approached Pharaoh indirectly to ask if he might have permission to honor his father's request to be buried back in Canaan. The family, sons, and the immediate entourage, and as we're told, Egyptian nobles and friends, made a journey back to Canaan. That would have taken at least another three weeks—a funeral procession of three weeks!

And then when they got back to Canaan, they're on the edge of the Jordan and the threshing floor of Atad. We're told that they had another period of mourning, a week, seven days, in which the Egyptians mourned primarily. And then presumably, leaving the Egyptians there at the Jordan, the sons of the patriarch bore his remains across the river, up to Mamre, to the cave in the field of Machpelah where at last they buried him and that was a period of mourning as well. You put that all together and you have a period of mourning that extended over several months.

But I ask the question: What would you think of someone in our culture or society who would mourn at that length? Somebody who would carry out a period of formal grief for the departure of a spouse or a child or someone who was particularly close to them for several months, and in various stages? Most of us would think that was extraordinary and abnormal. We would say no doubt that the person had been deranged by the loss. We'd give them a sedative to quiet them down. If necessary, we'd lock them in their room and keep watch over them to make sure they don't do any harm. Yet we look at Joseph, and Joseph wasn't deranged. Joseph was a model of faith. As a matter of fact, what we seem to learn from him in these earlier chapters of Genesis is that he's one of the most self-possessed men in all the pages of the Bible. And yet Joseph gives vent to his grief in this period extending over such a long amount of time.

I wonder if we're really wiser than Joseph, even if we give Christians reasons for it. We say, "Well you know, they've gone to be with the Lord," and of course that's true. And we say, "We'll see them again one day," and of course that's true. Or we say, "Well I mustn't show too much grief, because if I do that, what will my neighbors think?" And that isn't so true. Are we really wiser than Joseph at that?

I have a friend, a woman lives in California who is strong in faith and very sound and self-possessed who lost her husband in a plane accident. It was out of the blue, some years ago. It was a great blow. And yet she said to me that in spite of the faith and the help of friends and all of the things that go into getting one back on the track after a loss like that, it is only now, perhaps I think almost half a dozen years later, that she feels she has really overcome the grief properly and is beginning to enter in upon life once again in the fullest manner. That's an honest confession of what actually happens in the case of a loss of one we deeply love. And I would say on the basis of this and other Biblical evidence that it is not wrong— and on the contrary, it's actually beneficial—for us to give vent to the grief which we quite properly feel.

The second thing I notice about Joseph's response to the death of his father is his service to his father's remains, wrapped up in this matter of the embalming. Now embalming wasn't a Jewish way of dealing with death. It was Egyptian. We know that. We also know something of what it meant in Egyptian thought.

It was a way of cheating death, as it were, certainly cheating death of its normal ravages, which result in the decay of the body. And in anticipation, preservation was almost in Egyptian theology a guarantee of a preservation of life and the happiness of life's pleasures in the life beyond the grave. In some Egyptian thought the only way you really entered upon the felicity of the life beyond the grave was to be involved and have the body preserved in thus manner.

We're not to think that Joseph had any of those false ideas in mind as he had his father's body embalmed. Joseph didn't think that if his father's body was embalmed somehow that would guarantee that he'd be gathered to his father Abraham and Isaac before him and enjoy the felicity of heaven. He didn't think that at all. But on the other hand, he didn't hold back from doing the natural thing that was expected in memory of the one who was departed in terms of the cultural expectations of his time. So he had the body embalmed and honored and mourned and then finally transported to Canaan in fulfilment of his father's wishes.

I think this means that funerals and the memorial services and other things that attend the death of one in our time are not un-Christian but are rather a way we rightly honor the memory of the one who is gone and testify to Christian convictions.

Which brings me to the last point. Not only did Joseph grieve for his father, not only did he perform a proper cultural service to the body which remained, but Joseph also fulfilled his father's wishes and honored the promises that he'd made. His father had been very concerned that he not be buried in Egypt, though that's where they were living at the time. When he died, he wanted his body to be taken back to Canaan and buried there in the tomb of his ancestors. And this is what Joseph determined to do.

I can't help but think that this must have had a beneficial effect on the Egyptians who accompanied him on that return journey. I can't help but think that Joseph, who was so evidently in charge of everything, took charge of the funeral and the grief process itself and used it as an occasion to testify of spiritual things.

And so also do we. The apostle Paul wrote for those of his day saying, "We do not grieve like the rest of men who have no hope." Oh we grieve, but not as those who have no hope because, as he goes on to say, "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." This is the faith to which we testify even as we comfort one another with these words.

(c) James Montgomery Boice

Preaching Today Issue #25

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Sermon Outline:


I. We deny death

II. We can accept death

III. We can "defy" death—like Joseph