At one time or another, every one of us will have the terrible experience of losing someone we love. We will stand at a cemetery, hear encouraging words if we are able to pay attention, and then have to walk away . . . leaving the earthly shell of our friend or family member behind.
In Genesis 23 we read the account of the death of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. In this simple story I believe we find some help for when we face the times of grief.
My focus this morning will be to primarily talk about the grief that comes from death (for that is the focus of our text), but I recognize that people grieve for a number of reasons.
- friends who move away
- a child heading to school or getting married
- the loss of something cherished, like having to sell the family farm, or losing the family pet
- the anticipation that comes with a terminal disease
- a romance that seemed so promising that ends
- a family relationship that is not what you wish it was
Grief comes for many different reasons. I know that right now many of you are enduring a time of grief. As a congregation we have suffered some deep losses this year. If you have sense a little sluggishness in the church, I would contend it is our corporate sense of grief. But I also know that many of you are dealing with severe losses in your life. You have lost people very dear to you and the wound is still tender. So we look at these verses today not as students but as the wounded looking for healing.
Our text begins by telling us that Sarah lived to be one hundred and twenty seven years old and she died. From this simple observation please notice, that Sarah lived. O.K., I know that sounds like a ridiculous point to make. But I think it is a simple fact that is easy to forget when we are faced with loss.
This is especially true for a person who has been in a Nursing home, a hospital, or who has been sick for many years. For a period of time it seems that all we can remember is the process of dying. The memories of when that person was filled with life and vitality are hard to recall. We may remember the trials of the disease but find it hard to recall the blessings that came before those trials.
It is this way in any loss. We forget the good and wallow in the bad. It is easy to focus on death and miss the opportunity to celebrate the blessing we have enjoyed. That’s why I like to sit with a family and get them talking about the past. Those conversations are among the most precious conversations I have the opportunity to be involved in. We laugh at the joy that we knew and cry at the loss we endure.
In fact, many people make a terrible mistake when talking with someone who has suffered a loss. They avoid talking about the person who died or anything associated with the loss. We say we “don’t want to upset” the one who is grieving. But what a foolish approach this is. We are acting like the person never lived. And there is nothing that deepens the pain of one who is grieving like the feeling that the one who is gone has been so easily forgotten. Truthfully, the one thing most grieving people want to do is talk about the one who died. They want to talk about how rich life was when that person was around. They love hearing a special memory or being told that you were missing that person today. Sometimes it brings a tear . . . but it is usually a grateful tear.
I wonder if Abraham sat with his son Isaac and some of the servants and reminisced about the good ole days with Sarah. I wonder if Abraham recalled what a wonderful wife she was to support him when it seemed that God was asking such bizarre things from him. I wonder if told the story of the first time they met, or their wedding night, or the visit from the angels, or the day Isaac was born. I wonder if they laughed and cried and gave thanks to God for the blessing of her life.
Secondly, notice that there was much more to know about Sarah. We have admired her for her faithfulness but we really don’t know much about her. We don’t know who her parents were. We don’t know where she came from. We don’t know if she had brothers and sisters. We don’t know if she had any hobbies. We don’t know what she looked like. We don’t even know what kind of marriage she had with Abraham. A person’s life is so much more than what we read in their obituary.
Every time I visit a family that has just suffered a loss I return to my car after the visit wishing I had known that person better. There are always dimensions of that life that surprise me. Sometimes as we share family members learn things they didn’t know before.
There are unmined riches in everyone we meet. There are blessings to be gained, joys to share, depths to explore. We need to take time to get to know each other. Here are some suggestions,
- tell your stories to your family and if you are ambitious, right them down.
- make it a point to ask others about their lives, their dreams etc.
- take lots of pictures
- Set out to learn something new about the people you care about every day. People love to talk about themselves but we have to ask.
Not only did Sarah die . . .we see that Abraham “went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.” We are not clear on the details. When Jacob died (Genesis 50) Joseph and his brothers grieved for 40 days while Jacob was embalmed. Then they traveled to the burial place (the same tomb that Sarah was buried in) and they had a seven day period of mourning. It was only after this that they buried Jacob. So, it was around two months from death to burial.
Now since Abraham lived much before this and was not a part of Pharaoh’s court as Joseph was, it is possible that burial was much quicker. We just don’t know. We do know, however, that Abraham wept over her.
There is a foolish notion that people of faith do not cry at the death of someone they love. You’ve heard it said, “I need to be strong.” A simple question is this, “Why?” Grief is a natural part of life and death.
- Joseph wept over the death of Jacob (Genesis 50:1)
- The Israelites wept for 30 days at the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:8)
- David wept at the death of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:30)
- Jeremiah wept at the destruction of Jerusalem (Lamentations)
- Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus (John. 11)
- The Ephesians wept when Paul left them for the last time (Acts 20:37)
Max Lucado has a wonderful piece on tears,
Those tiny drops of humanity. Those round, wet balls of fluid that tumble from our eyes, creep down our cheeks, and splash on the floor of our hearts. They are always present at such times. They should be, that’s their job. They are miniature messengers; on call twenty-four hours a day to substitute for crippled words. The drip, drop, and pour from the corner of our souls, carrying with them the deepest emotions we possess. They tumble down our faces with announcements that range from the most blissful joy to the darkest despair.
The principle is simple; when words are most empty, tears are most apt.
A tear stain on a letter says much more than the sum of all its words. A tear falling on a casket says what a spoken farewell never could. What summons a mother’s compassion and concern more quickly than a tear on a child’s cheek? What gives more support than a sympathetic tear on the face of a friend?” When words are hard, tears speak clearly. (NO WONDER THEY CALL HIM THE SAVIOR, Lucado p. 106)
Please notice that grief is natural and normal. If you care about someone you will grieve for them because you have suffered a loss. People grieve in different ways and go through different stages. Some people get angry (at God, at the circumstances, at the relationship they wish they had had), some go numb and don’t feel anything for awhile. For some people grief brings on feelings of regret or guilt. Some go through prolonged periods of depression. Most people eventually get to the stage of acceptance and hope.
Notice also that Grief takes time. No one hurries Abraham. We don’t know whether he wept for hours or weeks. We make a mistake when we feel that people should be “moving on” after the funeral service has ended. Most people have barely begun the grieving process when the funeral is ended. If after several weeks a person is still sluggish from grief we often are uncomfortable. We try to give answers and be philosophical. We want to encourage people to “get over it”.
In fact one of the comments I most hear from people is this, “I’d go visit with this person, but I just don’t know what to say.” Let me allow the late Joe Bayly to tell you of his own experience of grief after the death of one of the three sons he buried,
I was sitting torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly, he said things I knew were true.
I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did.
Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left.
I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go. [The Last Thing We Talk About]
It is my observation that people do not “get over” grief, they just manage it. People are very tender for months and years after they lose someone they care about. And even many years later a tender memory can bring an unexpected tear of loneliness and sadness.
We haven’t gotten there yet, but the Bible tells us about Joseph. His brothers sell him into slavery and then tell dad that he has died. Dad becomes inconsolable. Even years later the death of his beloved son is impacts the decisions he makes. The boys don’t understand. They thought dad would “get over it”. They were wrong.
It is hard to be patient with someone who is grieving. Often times we are working through our own feelings and don’t want to deal with the feelings of others. Sometimes we have moved on and someone else hasn’t. Grief cannot be rushed.
ABRAHAM FOCUSES ON THE FUTURE
I think the most helpful thing that Abraham did in this passage is what he does after the death of Sarah. The long section from verses 3-20 is an interesting insight into the business practice of Abraham’s day. But if we focus on the discussion between Ephron and Abraham we may miss the significance of what Abraham was doing.
It is certainly worth noting that Abraham was considered to be a mighty prince. He was respected. He was respected so much that they offered him burial land for free. Abraham had lived his life above reproach. The result was that he was respected and honored. Abraham, I’m sure appreciated Ephron’s offer of a free burial but he doesn’t want to bury Sarah in a strangers tomb . . . he wants to own the land where the tomb is.
Abraham only asks for the tomb . . . Ephron offers to sell him the entire field. Was Ephron taking advantage of Abraham’s situation? Was he jacking up the price? Probably. Abraham maintains his integrity by dealing fairly even if others will not. The price was declared and Abraham paid it.
What an important place the field of Machpelah becomes! This became a very famous spot because it was here that Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah and Jacob were all buried. This was the burial spot for those called the Patriarchs or the Fathers of the faithful. But we need to see something else.
For all these years God had been telling Abraham about the land that he was going to give to him and his descendants. It was the land of Canaan. For all these years Abraham had been a wanderer. He remembered the promise but as he nears the end of his life he still has none of this land. . . . until now.
Abraham chooses to bury his wife at Macpelah because he believed that God was true to His word. Abraham did not buy this land for convenience. He purchased the land out of faith. He wants this spot because he believes that some day this will be the land of his family. Even in his grief, Abraham is looking ahead in faith.
What a powerful picture this is for you and me. Abraham focused on the promise even in the time of sadness and loss. He did not withdraw from God . . . he stood squarely on God’s promise. And if we want to get through the times of grief, we must do the same. We must focus on the promise of eternal life that is promised to all who trust in Christ. We must focus on the promised reunion for all who believe. We must place our trust in the resurrection of our Savior.
At the time of loss we must ask ourselves the same question Abraham asked himself, “do I really believe the promise?” It’s easy to profess belief at other times, but when you are facing death square in the face, faith becomes intensely practical and real. At a time of death the resurrection of Jesus is no longer an academic issue . . . it is intensely practical and relevant.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Abraham stopped feeling sad. I’m sure there were nights he rolled over and missed seeing Sarah next to him. I’m sure there were times when he thought to himself, “I need to tell this to Sarah” only to remember that she was gone. I’m sure there were times when he was caught off guard and a new wave of grief swept over him. But I suspect that Abraham comforted himself with simple words . . . “someday.”
There are several decisions I hope you will make today.
First, I hope you will decide to make sure your faith is sure. And then I pray that you will work to make sure the faith of your family is sure. The Bible does not promise Heaven to everyone. It is promised ONLY to those who turn to Jesus Christ for Salvation and for new life.
There is nothing more difficult than doing a funeral for someone who appeared to have no interest in the gospel. I know that we are not the judge . . . God is. I know that some people turn to Christ in the last moments of their life. But some don’t. In those times it is hard to speak with any sense of hope. For these people death IS a tragedy rather than a victory.
Don’t leave your family to wonder about you. And don’t let your family members proceed in this life without the confidence that is found only in a personal and life changing relationship with Jesus. We are not good enough to earn Heaven. We need the help of Christ if we have any hope of salvation. We must turn to Him or be lost forever! Wake up my friends, we really are talking about life and death. Why not sit down as a family and talk about eternity today?
Secondly, I hope you decide today to be a friend to those who are grieving. Be patient. Listen. Share stories of the good old days. Let the person know that they do not grieve alone.
Finally, I hope you will set out to make the most of life. Cherish the people God brings into your life. Open your eyes. Take it all in. Ask questions. Celebrate life. Live today so that you will have no regrets tomorrow. But I warn you, if you live this way grief may be more intense. The hurt of loss will be more severe. But, the only way to avoid grief is to keep everyone at a distance. In other words, to avoid loving. And to do that, is to waste life.