Close to Death
Joseph of Arimathea
31 July 2019
I get to stand over graves with a fair amount of frequency. It's my job. I am there for families that are grieving the loss of a loved one. While carrying out my tasks as a Christian pastor, I am also learning about my own mortality at that graveside. This is a good thing to learn. God is often shoving my face in the reality of my own impending death. Death is often front and center for a Christian pastor in all its spiritual dimensions. Some years ago, I had an early morning call telling me that one of our congregation's parochial school teachers was being rushed to the hospital with severe flu-like symptoms. She did not have the flu, but was suffering a heart attack. By the time I arrived at the hospital, she was dead. Doctors had done all they could for her. I made my way back to the blazingly white emergency room strewn with discarded medical packaging, to pray over the remains of this now elevated saint. This was hard duty in the quiet room dedicated to life, now pervaded by death.
The composed face of the blessed saint told me of my own approaching death and I wept for myself as much as for those who would mourn her passing into immortality. What our culture tends to hide away in funeral homes and in the sterility of hospitals, pastors are privileged to see up close and personal. That is good. Pastors need to be quite clear on the reality of death so that they can preach God's people out of it. They must understand mortality, so that the glory of the immortal life with Christ can be fully glorified here on earth. They must know what we are being saved from to be clear about what we are being saved for.
We cannot add a single breath to our life, when our Father requires it of us. Death reinforces our desperate need for a God who has defeated death. We live in that faith all our days, and that faith enables a certain joyous ambivalence about death for us Christians. It is not a thing to be avoided at all costs, but a thing to be met with the joy of a bride rushing to meet her bridegroom. It is a translation to a new life. Death defeats death, as it was so defeated by Christ. There is an air of celebration about the Christian funeral; certain as we are about the eternal destiny of those who die in the Lord. I struggled with this as a child, having been imbued with a Dickensian vision of the funeral; all stuffy and trimmed with black crepe. Once I asked an acquaintance of my grandfather's, who always wore black vested suits, if he was an undertaker, much to the chagrin of my grandfather. I just knew someone who looked like that had to be in charge of death. How different was the Christian truth about death than that. The Christian gospel of life in Christ frees from this frowzy vision and reminds of the freedom granted to those who die in the Lord. Even Cyprian, surrounded by death as he was, said, "put away the black garments of mourning." A funeral celebrates Christ's life. I for one, am glad to be close to death.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

   Cyprian of Carthage
"How often it has been revealed to me, as the least and last, how frequently and manifestly has it been commanded by the condescension of God, that I should diligently bear witness and publicly declare that our brothers who are freed from this world by the Lord's summons are not to be lamented, since we know that they are not lost, but sent before. Departing from us, they precede us as travelers, as navigators are accustomed to do. They should be envied, but not bewailed; that the black garments of mourning should not be taken upon us here, when they have already taken upon them white raiment there. Occasion should not be given to the Gentiles for them deservedly and rightly to fault us, that we mourn for those, who, we say, are alive with God, as if they were extinct and lost. We do not approve with the testimony of the heart and breast the faith which we express with speech and word. We are prevaricators of our hope and faith. What we say appears to be simulated, feigned, counterfeit. There is no advantage in setting forth virtue by our words, and destroying the truth by our deeds."

Cyprian, On Mortality, 20
Psalm 90

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, "Return, O children of man!" For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as , a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! (ESV)
Eternal God, merciful Father, look graciously upon those who sorrow at the loss of loved ones. Comfort us with the assurance that You will raise those who die in Jesus in power and glory and that we shall see them again with You in heaven. Teach us all to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom and, when our last hour comes, be with us and grant us a blessed end; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
For parents grieved by adult children who have fallen in among unsavory friends, into drug abuse, and who decline to fulfill a right calling, that they would be strengthened in their trial and empowered in prayer
For Kirstyn Harvey, who is undergoing surgery this morning, that the Lord would guard and guide the hand of the surgeon, and grant healing to his child
For the family of David Porter, whose earthly remains will be laid to rest in Christian funeral services tomorrow, that they would mourn with hope in Christ's power over death
For families squabbling over money, that they would find fulfillment in Christ, who offered the rich price of His blood for us sinners
For confidence in God, that we would confess that through His means of grace He can bring healing into our broken and sin-sodden world
Art: Albrecht DURER, The Adoration of the Trinity (1511)
Memorial Lutheran Church
© Scott Murray 2017
Memorial Lutheran Church, 5800 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX 77057
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