We at Pleasant Ridge have had a chance, in recent weeks, to help one of our own finish her course in this world. And on Saturday we had a chance, in the shadow of her death, to gather together and meet with the Lord. I trust that many were encouraged, both by looking backward on the life of a sweet saint, and by looking upward to Christ who is our hope.
And, in the light of those events, it occurs to me that it would be good to put in writing those reasons for gathering that so many of my congregation have heard me mention, time and again, at memorial services and funerals through the years. Why do we gather at such times? Or, more properly, why should we gather? Why is it good to come together in the Lord’s presence in the shadow of death? Four reasons:
First, to thank God for human life. We human beings are fallen, to be sure; desperately broken and in need of a Savior. And yet the image of Himself that God wrote on mankind from the beginning still remains. In distorted fashion, yes. Like looking at a face in a shattered mirror. But still there is much of the image of God – much that made us the crown of His creation – left in mankind. And thus, there are characteristics in every human being that are worth giving God thanks for – and all the more so when that person was among those who are being daily transformed back into the image of Christ. Some of them are spiritual qualities; some natural abilities; some quirky personality traits; some memorable acts of kindness. But there are reasons to be thankful for every human life. And the thanks is not to be generic, as in the nonspecific verbal waltz around the thanksgiving table when we all say what we are thankful for, but never talk about to whom. No, no! Funerals, memorials are times to remember, and even to laugh, and to praise certain virtuous human qualities … and to directly give thanks to God.
But then they are also times to turn to God, not only in thanksgiving, but to seek God’s comfort in the face of death. Humanity was indeed made in God’s image. And we were, therefore, created good. Indeed, had we remained what we were created to be, death would never have entered the equation. But Adam fell. And we fell with him. And now we face this ultimate reality of death because of it. It was not supposed to be. But it patently is. And no matter how long we may prolong it … if we live long enough, we will all stand over a casket eventually. And what then? Where do we turn then? Eventually it will be that the person to whom we wish to turn is the very one over whom we are mourning. And even when we do have human shoulders to cry on, they cannot suck out the poison that has been injected into us by death's sting. Only God in Christ can give us ultimate hope. Only the one who has the power over death (and who, by His resurrection, and has gained the victory over death), can take away the sting. And so, when walking in the valley of the shadow of death, we must seek comfort … and, again, not generically so, but specifically from God in Christ! That’s why we read scripture and sing songs at memorial services, and beside gravesides. Not out of tradition or sentimentality, but because they point us to Him who alone can remove the toxin from the thorn of death. He is our comfort!
But then we gather for a third reason, and that is to think soberly about eternity. Most of us will live long enough to stand over the casket of a loved one. And, unless Jesus returns in our lifetimes, we will all live long enough to be, ourselves, the departed loved one. And so it is good, when someone we love departs this world, to reckon with the reality that we will someday follow them beyond the veil of this life. And in that day we will go, not to oblivion, but to a place – either to heaven, or to hell. We’re not very good, as a culture, at pondering these things. But if we think of our mortality at no other time, the funeral of a loved one ought to bring it to the front burner of our minds … and we ought to consider just where we will spend the eternity that is to begin for us sooner than we’d like to think.
And finally, it is good to think about where we will spend eternity because such thoughts provide a platform for us to reflect on the great salvation provided for us in Christ. We are the crown of God’s creation. And we were created, in the beginning, good. But a brief look in the mirror shows that we are not what we should be anymore – neither as a human race, nor as individuals. “All have sinned” and “the wages of sin is death.” That’s why we find ourselves at funerals – because sin, in general, has brought physical death into the world; and because our own sinful natures and actions demand an eternity of conscious torment thereafter. And if that is the reality, why all the glowing talk about heaven at these services that we attend? No one deserves to go there!
Well, no one except for Christ, who was born without a sin nature, and who was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” And, because He had no sins of His own for which He must die, this Jesus was able to pay, on the cross, the death penalty for ours … for every person whom God would bring to believe on His name! And so the death curse is reversed! And even Jesus did not remain in the grave! And, if we belong to Him by faith, we will not remain there either. For Christ is coming again, and “the dead in Christ will rise” to “always be with the Lord.” And this is a great comfort when we find ourselves, as we did yesterday, at the memorial of a believer. But these truths about salvation and eternal life in Jesus are also the great offer that needs to be made whenever we gather in the shadow of death. Not everyone who files into the chapel or the church building knows this Christ. But everyone needs to! And what better time to tell them than when the reality of eternity, and the need for eternal comfort, are staring them in the face? Death is not the end! And judgment need not be the destination! For Christ has come to redeem for Himself a people so “that whoever believes in Him shall not” ultimately “perish, but have eternal life.”