One of the things that we learn from Scripture is the fact that it is the part of wisdom to be mindful of your own mortality. This is one of the important functions of funerals and memorial services. Not only do we honor the deceased, as has been done here today very ably, but we also reckon with the fact (and perhaps wrestle with the fact) that we are all in the same condition; we are all mortal.
And so it is that Scripture says:
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Eccl. 7:2–4, ESV).
Now this is not a requirement for us to be morbid, but it is a standard that summons us to be mindful. Mindful, not morbid.
This is a journey that all of us are on. Some don’t believe it is a long journey—they feel that the only journeying is here and now in this life, and when we die, the journey is all done, all over. According to them, the journey is done because we are done. Others—the writers of Scripture among them—teach that death is a departure point, but never a cessation. We don’t cease to exist when we die, but we find ourselves delivered into the hands of God. According to the Bible, when we die, we leave one place in order to go to another.
But even this way of putting it does not express the reality completely—because we are, all of us, in the hands of God now. It is just that death makes this reality impossible to ignore, which is why it is the part of wisdom to prefer the house to mourning to the house of the jesters and comedians.
The real issue that confronts us, or which would be confronting us if we were paying attention, is this. What kind of people are we becoming?
A moment ago, I referred to the fact that in death we (in an unmistakable way) are committed into the hands of God—in the words of the cliché, we go to meet our Maker. When we first start to grapple with this, our natural tendency is to resort to a bookkeeping metaphor—with virtues in one column and sins in another, and a fervent hope that we don’t come out in the red.
But the bookkeeping analogy won’t do. If God were to mark iniquities, as the psalmist says (Ps. 130:3), who could stand? If God were to say to any one of us that He intended to go through our lives with a fine tooth comb, I trust that the universal reaction to this would be something along the lines of oh, no. Nothing but red ink.
So if it is not the bookkeeping approach—because every last human being would fail that kind of audit—then what kind of approach does it need to be?
The issue is what kind of person we are in the process of becoming. Apart from Christ, apart from the kindness and forgiveness of God in Christ, we all start from a poor position, and we progressively make things worse. We are becoming more selfish, more self-absorbed, more consistently invested in the self. Left to ourselves, we want to become the wrong kind of creature entirely. But when God intervenes, when God softens our hearts, He makes it possible to start heading in a different direction. When that happens, the process of becoming has a blueprint to follow. At that point, the pattern we are being conformed to is the pattern established in the life of Jesus Christ.
But it is only possible for the life of Jesus to take root in us if the death of Jesus has previously taken root in us. That is what the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are all about. Wisdom directs us to be done trying to save ourselves, and to simply look to Christ. He summons us to do nothing less than that, and He also summons us to do nothing more than that.
If any of you have ever spent time in a lawn chair at the beach, staring at the waves that come into the beach, you know with what monotonous (and soothing) regularity the waves hit the sand. But it would be truly odd to your companions if you were to point to the 503rd wave to hit, and try to convince them that it was somehow truly unique. The repetition is too pronounced to say anything like that.
Since the beginning of human history, each generation has been a wave that takes shape, gathers force, hits the sand, and slowly recedes. This is simply how it is. We must not be surprised by it, and everyone here is part of a gathering wave—either this one, or the next one, or perhaps the one after that.
And while our mortality means that we are as transient as a wave, we have to remember that God is immortal. He is eternal. He is immutable—the Father of lights, without shadow or variation due to change. He is not like a transient wave at all. And this unchanging God is just, kind, merciful, holy, loving, wise, and good. As Abraham said many centuries ago, pleading with God on behalf of the wicked city of Sodom, “shall not the judge of the whole earth do right?” He certainly shall. He will do nothing apart from the right, nothing against it. We may certainly trust Him. We may trust Him with everything.
We may trust Him while we are here, in the house of mourning. He invites us to give our aches to Him, our sorrows to Him, our grief to Him. When we do so, through the blood of Jesus Christ, and as the text said earlier, the heart is made glad.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.