A minister in a small town was having trouble with his collections. So one Sunday he announced from the pulpit: “Before we pass the collection plate, I would like to request that the person who stole the chickens from Brother Harvey’s henhouse to please refrain from giving any money to the Lord. The Lord doesn’t want money from a thief.” The collection plate was passed around, and for the first time in many months, everybody gave.
What is that old saying, “Two things are certain, death and taxes.” We probably prepare better for the taxes than we do for the death. Yet, one of the major issues of scripture is to prepare us for our death.
After attending Brooks’ high school commencement I came to the conclusion that the commencement speaker is like the body at an Irish wake. They need you in order to have a party, but nobody expects you to say very much.
As ministers, our role is to prepare the congregation for the party! But unlike the commencement speaker, what I have to say is very important. For the believer and the non-believer, there are two certainties – we will either die one day or we will be raptured before our death. Paul writes: Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
In scripture the style of burial wasn’t as important as the preparation for death. The believers lived their lives as if today was the last day. How sudden that change can come; …but we will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye….It is a loving act to prepare for death, but many live in fear and are afraid of tomorrow. When and where possible, make funeral arrangements. At the very least have a living will. When Vickie was battling her cancer, it became necessary to put into writing what we had often talked about not having heroic measures taken to prolong life. I remember how angry she got with the doctor when she was admitted to the hospital that last time and he asked for her “living will.” For her, it seemed he was giving up. Perhaps that is why many of us avoid “living wills,” we feel it forces the doctor to give up hope.
When we are prepared for death, we make the task of dying easier for ourselves and for those whom we love.
Traditions around the world dictate the different styles of burial. In some places because of space and tradition, cremation is the option used in death. Most places choose to bury their dead. By far most of those bury in the ground. Some by tradition like the American Indian, buried above ground. Others like in southern Louisiana bury above ground because of the high water table. In the middle east burial was the preferred style. The wealthy were buried in caves or tombs dug in the sides of hills. The poor were buried in the ground in no special fashion.
Why this fashion of burial? Early Jewish tradition dictated that at the resurrection the graves would open and the bodies would come forth. Job writes, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; The body of Moses is retrieved from death by Michael and given to God. Even in the New Testament we find evidence of this: The graves in Jerusalem breaking open following the crucifixion of Christ. It was Jewish belief that no dead person should be embalmed or cremated. The body came from the ground and to the ground it must return. Nothing was to interfere with the deterioration of the body as it prepares for the resurrection. Our American traditions come from this background.
As a Christian, what shall be do with this earthen vessel when our life has ended? What comes of this body, this earthen vessel, is of little importance. You hear the minister standing at the grave, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but the spirit has returned to God who gave it….For the Christian, the body has served its purpose, it is the spirit that goes on and never dies. In death the body and soul separate. The body decays and the soul returns to God who created it.
Is it acceptable for the Christian to be cremated? Yes! Burning the body does not destroy the soul. Paul in the great love chapter writes, If I surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Paul held no fear of how he died or what happened to the body.
Whether we are buried at sea, give our bodies to science, or consumed in an atomic bomb, the spirit returns to God. Paul says, “with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. What will rise? I don’t know, but it will be spiritual not physical. John says, I Jn 3:2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Paul writes to the Church at Rome and saying nothing can separate us! Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Not even death!
Did you hear about the classified ad that read something like this: “Lost – One dog. Brown hair with several mange spots. Right leg broken due to auto accident. Rear left hip hurt. Right eye missing. Left ear bitten off in dog fight. Answers to name ‘lucky.'” Lucky? Of course! That was a lucky dog. He was lucky because, with all those things wrong with him, somebody still wanted him and was willing to pay to get him back. Isn’t that the story of the gospel? With all of our sin and rebellion, God still loved us enough to pay the ultimate price to win us back to Himself.