One Bible verse has been often in my mind over the past couple of weeks. Ecclesiastes chapter 7 vs 4: “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”.
During this holiday season of Christmas and New Year, we are often in the “house of feasting”. We have happy carol services and serve lots of food; we go to parties, we sit down to huge Christmas dinners, wear silly hats and pull crackers. But there have been many years when I’ve also been in the “house of mourning”, sitting with folk who have been bereaved, attending funerals. Solomon asks which is better. And his answer is that it’s better to go to a funeral than a party.
It’s better to go to a funeral than a party
Why? Because every funeral I attend is a reminder that I too must die – “this is the end of all mankind”. And I need that reminder. In a society which avoids the thought of death, I need to be reminded that life is short and that I must be ready for its ending. “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after that the judgment” (Hebrews ch 9 vs 27).
In the past week, I have been present at two funerals. I expect to attend two more in the next week or so. And as I write, I am waiting to hear that one more friend has left this world. I received an email yesterday to tell me that one of a dear South African friends is dying of cancer. The news this morning was that he had slipped into a coma. Martin Holdt has been one of the great pillars of gospel witness in South Africa in recent years. My first visit to South Africa was at his invitation. He cared for me then and on subsequent visits. Anne and I drove round South Africa on our honeymoon in the car he lent us.
As a man approaching retirement age, he was released last year from his settled ministry at Constantia Park Baptist Church in Pretoria, in order to begin a new church-planting ministry. At an age when most men are looking to relax, he was looking for fresh opportunities to preach the gospel. And now his work is cut short. Those who attend the “house of mourning” and grieve with his family, will rejoice to know that he is safe for ever, and resting at last. But will they be stirred to use their days to the full in the service of his Saviour? Will they learn the lessons we should learn in the house of mourning?
Death is always horrible, an unnatural intruder, an enemy
A funeral can never be a happy occasion. Death is always horrible, an unnatural intruder into God’s world, an enemy invited across the threshold by our foolish father, Adam. Paul calls death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians ch 15 vs 26). “Jesus wept” at Lazarus’s tomb (John ch 11 vs 35). “Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him” (Acts ch 8 vs 2). And yet at a believer’s funeral, there can be comfort, thanksgiving, and even joy.
I attended Andrew Vasey’s funeral in Darlington on Wednesday and found myself giving thanks for God’s grace shown in so many ways in, through and to that man. Andrew was for many years an elder at Geneva Road and a wise counsellor and encourager to many other churches. He more than any other man encouraged Andrew Swanson to begin his work in N Cyprus, and made it practically possible. In God’s kind providence, the Swansons were in the UK when the news came through of Mr Vasey’s illness. So they were able to spend time with him before his death and to attend the funeral. Andrew Swanson gave a moving testimony to the part Mr Vasey had played in the work in Cyprus. At the very start he went out there to help them find a house, buy a car and make other practical arrangements. And all through the years he’s been their adviser, encourager and friend. Without him, Andrew Swanson told us, the church in N Cyprus, might never – humanly speaking – have been established.
I sat and listened, and gave thanks to God for a life lived humbly and sacrificially in the service of Christ – and for eternal blessings that have flowed from that life to so many people.
Then yesterday, we gathered in our own church building to grieve for the death of Edna Barton, friend to so many of us – “Nanna Barton” to my children. And yes again, it was a sad occasion, and yet one where we found many reasons for rejoicing. I was able to tell Edna’s family the story of how she came to Christ in her later years after the death of her second husband. We sang together her favourite hymn. Long ago she told me that she wanted us to sing “Jesus Lover of my Soul” at her funeral. And then, just in case I forgot, she wrote down the request on a piece of paper and left it in her hymnbook. So I read to them her words: “There are several hymns that I like but I have chosen this one as my favourite, Jesus lover of my soul. I have always liked this hymn but as I have got older and now I have come to know and trust the Lord, the words now have a deeper meaning for me.” I was able to tell them just what the words meant to her. She meant it when she sang,
“Thou O Christ art all I want,
More than all in thee I find;
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
Heal the sick and lead the blind.
Just and holy is thy name,
I am all unrighteousness;
Vile and full of sin I am,
Thou art full of truth and grace.”
I preached on her favourite Bible passage. Again that was her wish. She wanted people to know how precious Psalm 25 was to her. How strange that she – a lady who seemed to be without an enemy in the world – should love a psalm that talks so much about enemies! “Let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me… consider how many are my foes and with what violent hatred they hate me…” (vss 2, 19). Ah, but she did have her enemies, great forces which threatened to overwhelm her, and which she battled against – illness, weariness, depression, self-pity. So I was able to talk about how Christ answered her prayer and gave her victory over her enemies. And how she faced the last enemy, Death itself, without fear, confident that she was safe through Christ.
There in the house of mourning, I felt something of Paul’s joyful declaration in the face of death: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O grave where is your victory? O death where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians ch 15 vs 54).
I’m afraid the next funeral I attend will be very different. I expect to be at the funeral next week of an elderly (and distant) relative. He was a church-going man, a Bible-reading man, a man who showed respect for Christ and his word. Yet, those family members who knew him best had no certain assurance that he was a believer. We have reason to hope, but we cannot declare with certainty that he is safe with Christ now. So what comfort can we find in that house of mourning? We will find comfort in God himself. We will worship God who gave this man life and preserved him for so many years. We’ll declare our confidence in God’s wisdom and justice – yes, and in his delight in showing mercy. There is comfort in those truths. But there will still be a dark shadow over us as we worship – the shadow of uncertainty and fear for this man’s eternal destiny. And surely we’ll search ourselves. “Be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure…” (2 Peter ch 1 vs 12).
Thankfully the last funeral on my list is of a man whose calling and election were sure – the son in law of dear George and Muriel Lambert. I never knew Fred well, but I used to see him regularly when I visited George and Muriel, and came to respect him deeply. He had a simple, certain confidence in Christ, and lived a life of transparent faith, love and good works. I have many reasons to honour his memory and give thanks for his life.
Feasting and mouring in 2012
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting”. I hope that all of us will go often to the house of feasting in 2012. I hope that we’ll have many happy social occasions, many celebrations, many times of sheer fun. I hope that there’ll be many times when the church meets and we find ourselves bubbling over with sheer happiness. “God…richly provides us with everything to enjoy”. But for most of us there will be times in 2012 when we’ll sit down in the house of mourning, when we’ll be grieving because the last enemy has launched another attack on our families, our circle of friends or the church. Let’s make sure that each time we go to the house of mourning, we learn there the lessons we need to learn. Above all, let’s take each occasion of grief as a reminder to prepare ourselves for the day when we face the last enemy.
I found these words on a gravestone in the churchyard at Mellor: they have stayed in my memory for many years:
“Weep not for me
Thou too must die
But fly from sin
On Christ rely.
Life is uncertain
Death is sure
Sin is the wound
Christ is the cure.”
Are you ready? One day, all who belong to Christ will meet in the house of the Lord, where all mourning is over, and the feasting goes on for ever. Will you be there?