02-21-2021: First Week in Lent

Just yesterday (Saturday, February 20), the Life Team of Our Savior blessed our church and community by offering an “End of Life” seminar. It was well attended. I was glad for that.

The keynote speaker for the event was Genevieve Marnon, the Legislative Director for Right to Life of Michigan. I know Genevieve. She’s a great servant of the cause for life, and as you’d expect, she gave great insight into a multitude of things facing the Church in America when it comes to end-of-life decision making. All who took advantage of the day’s events were well fed.

We were also joined by Gary Borg from Lynch and Sons Funeral Home. I know the folks at Lynch and Sons well. Some years ago, Thomas Lynch, being the friend and writer that he is, wrote a kindly endorsement for my first volume of The Angels’ Portion. Knowing Tom’s directors to be top-notch, as expected, Gary’s words were valuable as he explained the funeral home’s role in the process, giving helpful tips to families for navigating what is likely to be a taxing and turbulent time.

I was tasked with kicking off the event. My topic: “How to Prepare for a Funeral Service and Beyond.” Of course, I did what I could to fulfill the expectations of this topic, being sure to talk about the nature and theology of a funeral service, as well as emphasizing and encouraging faithful practices. I talked about how to be proactive in planning one’s own funeral, and I went through the basic steps of what families should do when a loved one’s last breath occurs.

But before I could speak to any of these things, I felt the need to steer into an honest discussion of what sits at the core of the conversation.

Death.

There is the temptation to avoid the word “death” altogether. I, on the other hand, give the word a capital “D” in every sermon I write. Why? Because Death is no small thing. It’s owed our attention. It’s big. It’s powerful. When it’s lurking, you know it’s there. When it steps onto the scene, there’s no questioning its intentions. Shakespeare personified Death in this way, too, describing it as keeping court, as sitting and scoffing at the pomp of man, waiting for the inevitable moment (Richard II, III, ii, I, 160). When Death has passed through, the devastation is real. It leaves behind things that are tangible to each of the human senses. You can see its shadow in the pale skin of the deceased. You can touch and know the coldness of its labor. It even has its own smell. The people who’ve been powerless to stop its savage work on a loved one have red cheeks and bloodshot eyes. They’ve tasted the salt of their own tears. When there’s no more heavy breathing and the life-support machines have been stopped, the silence is thunderous.

W.B. Yeats once wrote that Man knows Death to the bone (Death, 1933). And he’s right. For the victim, it leaves nothing untouched. For those left behind, it cuts into the depths of their being, and its scars are long-lasting.

Against the overwhelming evidence of Death’s strangling might, in an attempt to be at peace with its inescapable work, I’ve heard some refer to Death as a friend, something to embrace as good. Yes, it’s true that an end to mortal suffering can be counted as a blessing. But the verity of such a statement isn’t so for the reasons the mortal flesh would conjure. Death is not a blessing. It’s a curse. It’s not natural. It’s completely foreign to God’s design for creation. He makes sure we understand these things in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:19. In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Saint Paul makes sure we never utter the words, “Death is a friend.” It’s not a friend. It’s the last bitterest enemy of Man.

Before we can even begin to fathom the glorious purpose and momentum of a Christian funeral, we need to be wise to what we’re actually dealing with. Death is everything I’ve described. It’s real, and it’s coming for all. Each of us will breathe our last and be returned to the bosom of the earth. We don’t know how or when it will happen, we just know that it will. And when it does, what will we do? What shall we expect from and for those around us? Where is our hope in the midst of the mess?

A Christian funeral beholds Christ right in the middle of it.

In the midst of the initial sadness—Christ. When the machines are being unplugged and rolled away—Christ. When the plans are being made at the funeral home—Christ. When the readings and hymns are being selected and the obituary is being crafted from memories—Christ. When the bell tolls and the service begins, when the casket is closed and the mortal remains are covered by the pall—Christ. When the sermon is ringing out to the listeners—Christ and more Christ! Yes, the loved-one in the casket will be remembered, and likely in some heart-warming ways. Nevertheless, none of these will rise to the prominent station of “most important.” At a Christian funeral, Jesus owns that spot. And so the unmistakable communiqué to be dispatched to the troubled community will be the Good News of Death’s cure—the great heralding of Death’s utter defeat at the hands of Christ.

A Christian funeral is to be nothing less than the proclamation of this Gospel—the overabundant proclamation of the world-splitting news that Death no longer rules the spaces between heaven and hell because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, Death is no longer the believer’s lord. It is not the believer’s master. It is not the believer’s end. Jesus has seen to this. He said so Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Trusting in the divine Son of God, the One who throttled Death by His own demise on Calvary’s cross, believers—both in the casket and in the pews—can be sure that Death has been remedied. The process itself, no matter how it may unfold, is now only for believers to close their eyes and exhale a last breath in mortality, and then to open their eyes and inhale the freshness of eternal life in the nearest presence of Christ in heaven.

Christ made sure of this.

If we don’t understand these things, a funeral can devolve into a circus sideshow very quickly. If we don’t empower our pastors to direct our funerals in a Godly way, being sure to leave behind very clear instructions for our families, then our own funerals very well could become less of what Christ would desire and more of what the unbelieving world would do to find peace, which ultimately means everyone in attendance will be left searching for hope in all the wrong places.

Lent is a good time to have a seminar like the one we had. This is true because Lent takes seriously what plagues humanity, knowing the immensity of the Lord’s work to save us from it, while at the same time knowing that Easter is on the very near horizon.

My prayer for you this day is that you would know the immensity of the Lord’s work, too, and that you would look to Him in all things, being assured of eternal life through faith in Him. Lent reminds us of the serious nature of the wage for Sin, which is Death. Easter reminds us that neither has a hold on Jesus. This being true, by faith in Him, they don’t have a hold on you, either.