“How Christians Bury Their Dead” Genesis 23:1-20 September 6, 2009
SI: We’ve been studying the life of Abraham, Genesis chapters 12-25.
He’s called the father of those who believe.
His life is a pattern of faith in Christ.
We come this morning to the beginning of the end of Abraham’s story.
Three big events in a row mark the end of Abraham’s walk with God in this world.
First, Sarah’s death.
Second, Isaac’s marriage
Third, Abraham’s death.
So today we start with the death of his wife of many, many decades—
his princess, Sarah. That’s what her name meant.
And in Abraham’s response to his wife’s death,
we see what it means to walk by faith.
INTRO: Do you ever think about what you want at your funeral?
This past week I found Handel’s Messiah in a stack of CDs in the car.
I popped into the car stereo and one of the pieces caught my attention.
It’s very short. A tenor is singing words from 1 Corinthians 15.
“Behold, I tell you a mystery.
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
And when he finishes singing that line—at the last trumpet—
a trumpet starts to play! It’s very moving.
And I thought: Wow, that would be a great way to end my funeral!
The preacher finishes his homily.
And in that quiet moment the tenor sings 1 Corinthians 15.
He sings about the last day when Christ comes
and the trumpet sounds, and the dead are raised.
And then, a single clear trumpet will start to play
and they’ll wheel out my casket with me in it. I could almost picture it.
I even wondered if maybe Marvin Jones would be willing to sing that tenor part.
However, there is a big kink in my plans.
When I mentioned them to Allison but she reminded me that she doesn’t
particularly like Handel’s Messiah, and she doesn’t want me to die.
I’ve made you laugh, but we all know that when those days really come,
when you bury a parent, or a spouse, or maybe even a child,
those are the hardest days of all.
How do Christians deal with death?
How do Christians bury their dead?
Abraham’s life, as we’ve seen all along in this study, is presented to us
as the example and pattern for a life of faith in God.
Think of that verse we read earlier from Isaiah 51.
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from
which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your
father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
And as we’ve looked at Abraham and Sarah in our study over these months,
what have we seen? Faith in a great God.
Faith in the Lord of the covenant.
Through all the events of life, this couple walked together by faith.
They held on to God together, they trusted him in everything.
Now, as we come to the beginning of the end,
we see Abraham still walking by faith in God but he’s walking alone
because he’s walking to the funeral of his wife.
And this is how we see his faith displayed, in two ways—in grief and in hope.
That’s the pattern Christians are to follow as we bury our dead—
faith in the Lord expressed in grief and in hope—just like father Abraham.
So let’s look at both of those points as we examine this story.
MP#1 Believers bury their dead with grief.
This is the only time in all of Abraham’s life story that we are told he wept.
I’m sure there were other times in his 175 years when he had shed tears,
but this is the only time the Bible makes a point of mentioning them.
Not when he left Ur, not when he sent away Ishmael,
not when he was told to sacrifice Isaac—but here, at the death of his Sarah,
his princess, he mourned and wept.
Is that what you expect from the father of the faithful?
Abraham, of all people, believed in eternal life and the resurrection of the dead.
Hebrews 11 tells us that he was looking forward to that better city.
He knew that Sarah had lived a long life and was a peace with God.
So you would think that his great faith would keep him from weeping.
That he would say, Praise the Lord, I don’t have any reason to cry.
We’re not going to have a funeral, going to have a celebration of Sarah’s life.
But instead, his great faith opens the floodgates of weeping and mourning.
Here’s why. Faith enables you to see death for what it really is—our enemy.
The Bible calls it the last enemy. It’s the last enemy we face in this life.
Yes, we believe death is a doorway into heaven.
Yes, we believe death is swallowed up in victory.
But we also believe that death is not good, not a part of life,
not the way things are supposed to be.
There is a curious phrase Abraham repeats twice in verses 4 and 8:
“bury my dead out of my sight.”
This may just be a Hebrew way of expressing burial,
but it suggests the pain of separation which death brings.
Before death, our loved ones are in our sight. We see them.
If they are away from us for a long time, we look forward to seeing them.
That’s what we say, I can’t wait to see you.
With death they are out of our sight.
Abraham and Sarah had shared their whole lives together.
She had been with him when they left Ur.
She had shared his anxieties when they moved to Canaan.
She had waited with him over the years as they longed for promised son.
Together they had seen that son grow into a man.
Abraham wanted to be with Sarah for the next thing God would do in their lives—
the marriage of Isaac and the birth of grandchildren, but that was not to be.
Sarah died and left a gaping hole in his life.
In our hearts we long for the ones we love to live forever, healthy and strong.
We want to live forever in the same way.
The Bible says we have eternity in our hearts.
And that longing is not an unrealistic fantasy—it’s a longing for Eden.
It’s a deep and true remembrance of how God made us,
to be his kings and queens and to live and reign forever on the earth.
But sin entered through the fall, and death through sin.
It’s not natural. It’s the curse.
The non-Christian world often says that death is natural.
Death is part of life. We’re all part of the circle of life.
I read an article in Newsweek last week titled “We Are All Hindus Now.”
Said America was founded by Christians (interesting admission by Newsweek).
76% of Americans call themselves Christians (lowest percentage ever).
But the article’s premise is that America is becoming Hindu nation in terms
of our religious thinking. Two areas Americans rapidly adopting Eastern
thinking—belief that all paths lead to God, and belief in reincarnation.
Death is natural. It’s part of the circle of life. Everything that dies is reborn.
Reincarnation denies grief. Not saying Hindus don’t grieve their dead.
They do. But they do so in spite of their belief in reincarnation.
Because reincarnation means that death is perfectly natural.
So grief at death is irrational. Why weep if this is just the way things are?
In fact, that’s the ultimate answer of Eastern religion—that was Buddha’s premise.
Suffering is an illusion, death not good or bad, just is.
But Abraham wasn’t a Buddhist. And Jesus wasn’t either. Jesus wept.
Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus. He wept with Mary and Martha.
Even though he knew that in just a moment he would raise Lazarus from grave.
The only possible reason Jesus could have wept at that moment,
is that he saw as a man of faith, that God’s good world has been broken
by sin and death. And that the last enemy, even though it will be defeated,
still brings loneliness and sorrow.
Awesome that we serve a God who weeps at the graves of our loved ones.
All of this shows us that as Christians, we ought to be the first to affirm grief
and tears when someone dies. It is right for faithful Christians to grieve
when death touches the ones they love.
The Apostle Paul tells us to weep with those who weep.
There is nothing wrong with calling a funeral for a Christian a celebration.
That’s very important for some people, to celebrate going home to be with Lord.
Long tradition of that. For 2,000 years Christians have sung hymns at funerals.
But we need to realize that for some good, faithful Christians,
it doesn’t feel like a celebration at all. They just want to remember and grieve.
We should never make Christians who are grieving feel unspiritual about their tears.
A minister commenting on Romans 12, “Weep with those who weep” said:
“I once preached the funeral for a man who had died in his thirties. Afterwards, I was
consoling his widow when her former pastor from another town came up and tried to get her to stop crying by saying, ‘Well, praise the Lord! Scott’s in glory now!’ I wanted to punch him in the nose. Let her weep!”
Wise words: There is a time to laugh and a time to weep.
Christians, of all people should know the difference.
There’s another aspect of this that is a little more subtle.
Every society has boundaries for grief. Expectations of how you are to grieve.
How extreme it should be, how long it should go on.
I mentioned in a sermon a few months ago, a funeral Allison and I went to in St.
Louis for the brother of one of her students—an African American family.
Some things were the same. Same Gospel.
But the expressions of grief were very different from white Presbyterians.
As Christians, our faith should enable us not to judge people who go beyond
what is socially acceptable for grief. For us that mostly means when we think a
person is grieving too long and needs to get on with his life.
It is certainly possible for Christian to grieve in a way that is debilitating and sinful.
There is a kind of grief wrong for Christians. Paul calls it grief without hope.
On the occasions when Christians grieve without hope,
their friends need to come along side of them, and gently remind them of hope
they have, and challenge them to move ahead with the work God has for them.
And that leads us perfectly to the next point . . .
MP#2 Believers bury their dead with hope.
Following the example of Abraham, we bury our dead in the hope of the
resurrection and the life of the world to come.
Did you notice anything about this story that seems unbalanced?
There are only two verses devoted to Sarah’s death and Abraham’s grief.
But there are 18 verses about the funeral arrangements.
If we were writing, would have focused more attention on the emotional aspect.
Abraham’s words of grief and his remembrances of Sarah.
Instead, we have a detailed account of his business transaction for burial plot.
This is why: Abraham was doing more than burying his wife.
He was making a statement of faith. He was expressing his confidence
in God’s promises concerning the land of Canaan and the future.
Three times in Abraham’s life, on three important occasions, the Lord
spoke to him and said that one day his descendants would possess the land.
It was one of the central promises of God’s covenant with Abraham.
So when Sarah died, he went to the land owners, the Hittites, and he
told them he wanted to bury his wife. And they said: Bury her for free.
But Abraham wanted more than one grave. He wanted a plot of ground
with a cave in it that would become his family tomb for generations.
When Abraham buried his beloved, he wanted it to be a sign of his hope
that God would fulfill his promises and give the land to his descendants forever.
In later years, Abraham’s descendants made the cave in Hebron
the family cemetery. Abraham was buried there.
Later Isaac and Rebekah were buried there, and Jacob, and Leah.
But we need to go one step deeper with this:
Abraham’s hope went far beyond the land of Canaan.
When Abraham rose from weeping over Sarah, his first words to the Hittites were,
“I am an alien and stranger among you.”
Those words have resonated with believers ever since.
During the time of Moses, when God gave property laws for Promised Land,
He said that family land must not be sold permanently because:
“the land is mine and you are but aliens and sojourners.”
When King David made his great prayer of dedication over the building
materials for the Temple he said to the Lord:
“We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers.”
And this is a theme repeated over an over in Scripture.
In each case, even later in Israelite history when the whole land of Canaan
was actually in their possession, the true people of God used Abraham’s
expression to confess that their home was not really there.
They are still strangers and aliens, waiting for a better home, another country.
And what is that other country? It’s the resurrection life.
It’s you and me and our believing loved ones who have died, resurrected—
with glorified and beautiful bodies, powerful and fully attuned to the Holy Spirit.
Bodies like Jesus’ resurrected body. Souls made pure.
It’s the life of the world to come. The new heavens and new earth.
This world redeemed.
It’s that country where the lion lays down with the lamb,
and where the tree of life bears fruit every month of the year,
with leaves for the healing of the nations.
It’s that land where there is no darkness, and where every tear is wiped away.
It’s heaven in the fullest sense. Everything good about life magnified
and purified for our use and enjoyment and the glory of God.
Was Abraham hoping for that country? Of course he was.
As Hebrews 11 clearly states about Abraham and Sarah:
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth . . . they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
The city God has prepared for us is the New Jerusalem
How does the New Testament comfort Christians who have lost loved ones?
In a number of ways. It assures us of God’s care and presence.
It tells us that the spirits of believers are at peace with God.
But the big way, main way the New Testament comforts is to say over and over—
put your hope in the resurrection and the life of the world to come.
And if that doesn’t comfort you much, it means you haven’t though of it enough,
and you need to develop your sanctified imagination,
and like Abraham, start hoping for the city of God.
And you need to express your hope in concrete ways, even if don’t feel like it.
You need to talk about heaven. Sing about heaven.
Talk about your expectation of seeing your loved ones again.
And there is another way. When those sad times come, and you lose a love one,
you should bury your dead, in the hope of the resurrection.
Notice, I said bury. I want to address something that may seem insignificant—
cremation verses burial for Christians.
My own view of this has been evolving. For years my position was simply this:
The Bible doesn’t forbid cremation, therefore it’s a matter of Christian liberty.
But I’m coming to the position that there’s more to it than that. Three thoughts:
First, burial was the practice of believers in the Bible from beginning to end.
All the Patriarchs and wives were buried. Godly kings of Israel buried.
Jesus was buried. Our victory over sin described as being buried with him.
The early church buried their dead. It’s been our practice from the beginning.
So we shouldn’t lightly abandon this practice for personal or expedient reasons.
Second, burial affirms the Bible’s teaching about human beings.
We are unique creatures. We are a unity of body and soul.
Our personhood is attached to our whole person, not just our souls.
We talk about the body, even dead bodies with personal pronouns, he, she, they.
“They who are in their graves will hear his voice and rise to life.”
Burial affirms the value and importance of the body as a unique creation of God.
You might say, What’s the difference, it decays eventually anyway.
True, but that in no way detracts from the significance burial places
on the importance and value of the human body.
Third, burial affirms the Christian view of salvation.
For Christians, our ultimate and final salvation is the resurrection.
On that day our self-same bodies will be raised alive and transformed.
We will recognize each other at the resurrection.
One of the ways the Bible presses this home is that over and over it describes
the believing dead as sleeping. We are laid to rest in the grave as in a bed.
We sleep, and then we awake at the dawning of the last day.
The souls of believers that are right now with God in heaven are at peace.
But the Bible also says that the blessed souls in heaven groan,
longing to be clothed with their immortal bodies.
Being a soul in heaven is not our final salvation—the resurrection is.
And burial best symbolizes and affirms that hope.
Remember that Newsweek article I mentioned: We Are All Hindus Now.
Listen to the observation this secular magazine makes about American beliefs.
Christians traditionally believe that bodies and souls are sacred, that together they comprise the “self,” and that at the end of time they will be reunited in the Resurrection. You need both, in other words, and you need them forever. Hindus believe no such thing. At death, the body burns on a pyre, while the spirit—where identity resides—escapes. In reincarnation, central to Hinduism, selves come back to earth again and again in different bodies. So here is another way in which Americans are becoming more Hindu: 24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we’re burning them—like Hindus—after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, up from 6 percent in 1975.
What is salvation for Hinduism?
It’s when the soul is completely released from the body and no longer
goes through the cycle of reincarnation. Salvation is a soul without a body.
That’s why cremation is a statement of faith for Hindus
and for all the other great pagan religions.
It affirms their belief that the body will ultimately be destroyed.
Am I saying cremation is a sin? Absolutely not.
Can’t call something a sin that the Bible doesn’t call a sin.
I’ve done funeral services for Christians who were cremated and I always will
I’m saying that Christian burial can be an expression of our hope
of the bodily resurrection in a way cremation can’t.
At the very end of Genesis, when Joseph was dying in Egypt, he gathered his family
and made them swear that they would one day take him back to Canaan and
bury him where Sarah and Abraham and others were buried.
They couldn’t do it right away, so the embalmed, him.
And then 400 years later, during Exodus, took bones with them, and laid to rest.
Our practical minds say, what difference did that make?
Joseph’s soul was with God in heaven. Who cares what they did with body?
But Bible takes another view.
Hebrews chapter 11 praises Joseph for his request to be buried in Canaan.
Calls it an act of faith in Christ.
As we face those most difficult of days—the death of loved ones—
let’s do so with faith in Christ—faith that grieves the loss and pain of death,
just like Abraham and Jesus wept at the tombs of their loved ones.
And faith that hopes in a glorious resurrection of the righteous.
You might remember I told you a few months ago that Allison and I were
riding the motorcycle out in the county. Pulled into a cemetery.
It’s up on a hill, in the Trimble area. From top of hill, a nice view.
While we were there, car pulled up, elderly woman got out.
She was there to visit the grave of her husband.
She was a Christian, started to talk about her hope in Christ.
We commented together, that when he comes, and her husband rises,
he’ll have a great view of the eastern sky.
At the end of the service we’re going to sing In Christ Alone.
The third verse always makes me smile:
There in the ground, His body lay, Light of the world by darkness slain.
Then bursting forth, in glorious day, Up from the grave he rose again.
Jesus Christ has blazed the path for us.
One day all his people will wake up with him into a new morning.
Abraham believed that, and Sarah did too.
Let’s follow the example of our father and mother in the faith.