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Responses to death - David’s Lament - Dealing with endings

North Baddesley Baptist Church, Sunday September 24th 2006

 

Readings
John 11:32-44
2 Samuel 1:17-27
Hymns used (from Mission Praise)
204, Hail to the Lord's Anointed
400, Lead us heavenly Father lead us
8, All earth was dark until you spoke
493, O come O come Emmanuel
and to conclude, 428, Lord for the years

 

 

Tonight we're going to be looking at an important subject, but one that may well be difficult for any of us. Both our readings tonight have looked at someone's response to the death of a close friend. All of us have to cope with death many times over the course of life, and often we go through periods of time when we have to cope several times in close succession. For me, there was such a time when I was around 20, when I lost in quite a short time an aunt, a grandmother, and my sister. But I want to emphasise tonight that the death of a friend or loved one is only the most extreme, stark case of a whole spectrum of loss. We all can find, and often do find, that hopes, dreams and plans have died, and the accumulation of these little deaths can also be hard to bear. Sit in a room with any eight Christians who are willing to be open and honest about their lives, and you will find that each has recently experienced different kinds of personal loss. It is difficult, and painful, and it may be so tonight for any of us in this room. But I make no apology for choosing to tackle this subject, as I believe it is most important we be able to tackle loss - our own and that of people we talk to - as part of our faith.

Our Old Testament reading was the lament of David - not yet king, and still living in a kind of exile away from his home and family - on hearing the news of the defeat of Israel by the Philistines, and the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. We can guess that his feelings about Saul's death would be mixed - he had shown enormous self-restraint and loyalty when presented with chances to kill the king while he was defenceless and unaware of danger, but on the other hand Saul had become paranoid, an unpredictable, mad threat to the lives of David and his men. My guess is that along with feelings of grief about Saul, he also felt a considerable portion of relief. But as regards Jonathan, we have every reason to believe that his expression of grief and loss was completely sincere and genuine.

I find David a fascinating figure. I wonder what your main image of him is - young shepherd boy, or unexpected giant-killer, or prolific writer of psalms, or the king who successfully united the tribes of Israel for once in their history. It is surprisingly hard to get insight into David's private life, the inner world of his thoughts. Most of our feelings about David are our projections onto him, not his own self-revelation. Most of his words as recorded in the books of Samuel are intended for a public audience - they are careful, shrewd, clearly aware of who might be listening. While others around him are enthusiastically declaring their fondness for him, or allegiance to him, there is this sense of cool reserve about him - he accepts what they offer, but does not give away much of himself, the inner world of his thoughts and feelings. This is what makes some of the psalms attributed to him so extraordinary - in those, when speaking with God himself, he clearly felt able to express freely some of the feelings and thoughts he withheld from others.

But to continue. Where David does start to change, to be willing to be honest and vulnerable in relation to others, is when death impacts him. The two books of Samuel record four occasions when this happened, four key moments. They show us both a progression, a growing ability to acknowledge loss, and also a growing helplessness in the face of death. The lament we heard earlier is the first of them, and it is still quite formal, quite reserved, quite controlled. I have no doubt it reflects genuine grief, but it is, as it were, held under wraps, an artistically constructed as well as emotional expression. It's a great piece of Hebrew poetry, with careful parallel phrases, the steadily lengthening refrain, all the tools of trade of the Hebrew poet. But as successive death-losses struck him, his own responses become less measured and more personal. The second comes soon after, with the death of Abner. Abner was killed by David's general, Joab, and David clearly felt it was an unexpected, unjust and vicious act towards an honourable soldier. At Abner's death, David again breaks into a song of lament, but this time it is shorter and has a more spontaneous feel, more of a spur-of-the-moment response. Later still, after he was securely established as king, he lost the son who would have been born to Bathsheba, conceived while she was still married to Uriah. This time there are no laments, no elegies, and the simplicity of his response clearly shocks his servants. “Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me“. Death has become something very final, very personal for him now, not least because the prophet Nathan challenged him about the naked abuse of power used, and spoke out God's judgement across the remainder of his life. And finally we have the death of another son, Absalom. Here his last defences break down and he falls into a despairing kind of stammer - “my son, Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom”.

These four deaths mark turning points in David's life. The deaths of Saul and Jonathan opened up an opportunity for him, the chance to take up without using any improper means, the task for which he had been anointed by Samuel, the task to which God had called him. King Saul was dead, long live the new king David. But Abner's death seems to have come as a shock - here was a man who although currently serving Saul's family had the right kind of personality, the right kind of integrity, to be one of David's men… but was killed in personal vendetta by David's own army commander. The turning point here was that it drove a wedge between David and Joab, two men who had risked life and limb for each other many times, two men who had been close friends - but no longer. This division was to grow until David's death-bed commission to Solomon was to ensure that Joab did not survive the royal succession. David, as it were, completed the vendetta on Abner's behalf.

The conception and death of Bathsheba's son is the pivot around which all of David's life revolves. Before that his life was of largely uninterrupted ascent, after that one of largely uninterrupted decline. In an Iron Age society, death in childbirth was not a rare event - either for child or mother - but this death struck David bitterly. Psalm 51 shows us that David accepted that God was willing to accept the sacrifice of his broken and contrite heart, but the death of the infant was, perhaps, an unforgettable reminder that this reckless abuse of royal power was an offence. Finally, Absalom's death marked the beginning of the end of David's time of rule. His own son, and a good proportion of his people, rejected him, and the shadow of national unrest was to mar the rest of his reign until he stood back to allow Solomon to take power. After this, David's energy and enthusiasm dwindled.

Our New Testament passage looked at great David's greater Son, Jesus our Lord himself, who was also facing the death of a friend. We learn from other passages that he made a habit of staying in this household while near Jerusalem. Lazarus, Mary and Martha were not just followers, they were friends, hence the oddity of him staying away from the house after he heard of Lazarus' illness, and the reproach in his sisters' words as they greet him. I think that what we have here, in the actions of our Lord Jesus, is a fine blend of sincere grief at the fact of death, along with a refusal to be overcome with it. Who better than the Son of God to know that human death was by nature wasteful, an intrusion into this world and no part of the original design? How better to show us that perfect blend of manhood and deity than in this reaction. He wept with Mary and Martha at their loss and his, and then showed his divine authority by calling Lazarus back from death.

Of course there were a few miraculous resurrections recorded in the Old Testament - for example Elijah raised the widow's son at Zarephath, and Elisha the son of the Shunemmite woman who had provided him with food and lodging. This was not the only time Jesus himself raised someone from death. The early disciples of Jesus from time to time prayed for resurrection and witnessed it - like Peter with Dorcas in Joppa. And indeed all through the life of the Christian church until today there have been occasional accounts of people rising from death after prayer. So we are not dealing here with an event that is absolutely unique… although of course it is extremely rare. Our normal experience is that endings are final, whether they be the physical end of death, or any of the other smaller deaths of lost situations and hopes. So in that sense we should be used to death, to things coming to an end.

But of course we are not. Somewhere in the depths of our soul we cannot come to terms with it - perhaps some lasting recollection of the bliss of Eden, before death entered the world. Everyone's first reaction to death is disbelief, denial, a refusal to accept. There's a well-recognised pattern or process that we all go through, beginning with denial as our first reaction, and - hopefully - working through stages of anger, trying to negotiate one's way out, depression, and finally acceptance of the situation. These stages are a common pattern marking any kind of loss, whether experienced personally or witnessed happening to others. As I mentioned earlier, they are felt at their most acute in the face of physical death. While I was preparing this sermon, I read an official press release by the Australian government commissioning research into why Australian attitudes to death had changed. About a century ago, Australians were typically open and realistic about death, but this has completely changed. Two world wars have affected that nation as much as Europe and elsewhere. The decline of religious faith and a huge increase in the influence of the medical and scientific professions had moved death away from the home into a colder, more professional arena. Doctors had come to see the death of a patient as a kind of professional failure that they would prefer not to be very open about. That was Australia, but much the same is true over here. As a society loses connection with a living faith, death can become the enemy we do not speak of.

I think this is one way in which Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, shows us how he is different. The Biblical accounts of resurrections record the normal response - we are told that the women of both Zarephath and Shunem felt distress and guilt. The mourners at Lazarus' tomb, his own sisters, were stricken with grief. Mary and Martha were accompanied by a number of people who, as John records, were comforting them. The reactions of all of these people are perfectly understandable, perfectly normal, and we can probably see something of ourselves in them. It was the custom in Jesus' time, and still is in some places, for some people in the community to act as professional mourners. The purpose of these people was to act as a kind of catalyst for grief, to begin to help family and friends to put into words and actions a loss that in the first instance is very hard. We need to feel grief, to be able to express and acknowledge our losses without in any way minimising them.

What stands out amongst all this is the conduct of Jesus. Yes, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled, and yes, he wept to see the ruination of death. But he also remained secure in the knowledge of his own authority and that of his Father - in the face of the surrounding emotional pain and turmoil, in the face of the doubts and reservations of Mary and Martha, he kept to his intention, he kept his own position of faith in and dependence on God. His character stands out extremely clearly in the face of death, this great enemy. Being the Son of God, knowing what was in the hearts of men and women, he would have known that for him too this was a turning point in his ministry. After this event, the Sanhedrin council held a meeting at which Caiaphas, the high priest that year, spoke of the political need to have Jesus killed. After this event, John tells us that Jesus could no longer go about publicly but withdrew to the wilderness, until the time came for his last journey to Jerusalem. So for Jesus as much as David, and for us, the death of a companion is a turning point.

I came across a poem a while ago, in a book written by a Benedictine monk who had taken up writing at the age of 75. Among other poems he explored what it might be like for Lazarus after this momentous event. What is it like for someone to have come back from death? Especially for a man who had been dead long enough that the bystanders expected his body to have started to decay? This monk pictures Lazarus at social gatherings, attending a banquet with the other guests watching with sidelong glances as he broke bread or drank wine. Would it be possible for Lazarus to live any kind of normal life? Would he just go back to his former job without comment, as though nothing had happened? How could he have a normal conversation with anyone ever again? The Bible, with its characteristic refusal to satisfy our curiosity, does not tell us this. It does not tell us anything of Lazarus' own response as he came from the cave, swathed in strips of linen, cloth about his face. We know that people wanted to see him… but we don't know what he said to them.

Of course Lazarus was going to die again. At some stage after this extraordinary event, he would once again be placed in a tomb, and this time around there would be no remission. Unless our Lord comes back in the next few years, we shall all be joining him at one time or another, passing through that gate, crossing over that river for which there is no return. As David said, we will be joining him but he will not come back to us. But that is only the view from the earthly side of the gate, this world's side of the river. Following earthly death, for all those who are joined by faith to Christ, then there will be a kind of action replay of the scene outside Lazarus' tomb. We will indeed hear the Son of God calling in a loud voice to us, “Come out!”, but our exit will be into the heavenly realms rather than the earthly ones. Our grave clothes will indeed be removed and the cloth that covers our eyes removed, and we will see both our Lord and his domain as they truly are.

That is the promise of faith, and all who have been united with the Lord Jesus by faith can lay hold of that with certainty. But humanly speaking we have to cope with the process of dying. Woody Allen is supposed to have once said, “I'm not afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens”, and he speaks, I suspect, for many people. So many people in our society would rather, as it were, find themselves unexpectedly dead, and not have to deal with dying. We don't really know how to pass through those stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I believe that the Christian community is in a place to offer something of the words and example of Jesus. The Australian study I mentioned earlier highlighted a human need to be able to express grief openly, to be able to participate in ceremonies that dignify death rather than deny it. To a society that would prefer not to face up to this issue we can say, yes, death is an end - maybe a painful one - but it is not the end.

What about all those other endings? Those losses and separations that are like little deaths, but after which we still live on? Since these only represent the end of plans, hopes, dreams, and such like, and not the end of life itself, we are not promised resurrection for these. We are, however, promised that God's plans for us continue - for the believer there is always a resurrection of sorts, though it may not be of the original plan. Such things, unlike the end of earthly life for the believer, may really be final. What do we do when resurrection does not happen? My wife runs a course called Get Real in churches across the south of England, in which sometimes I help. It's about the same length as an Alpha course, but intended for people who have already come to faith and want to understand more of the process of living as a Christian in relationship with God and with other people. We're about to start such a course over in Testwood Baptist next week. Now, it's a course that has a fixed length, twelve sessions, and although at the start that seems to participants like forever, it soon passes, and all of a sudden people are having to cope with the fact of ending. This group of people, to whom they have become very close, with whom they have perhaps shared difficult and painful moments, will soon disband and may never again meet as a whole. Now as groups approach this place of ending, they respond in quite different ways. Some groups try to arrange a kind of party, to have some sort of celebration. Some do the opposite and become very serious. Most try to ensure survival of the group life by swapping email addresses, phone numbers and so on, with a hope of meeting up in the future that is hardly ever in fact fulfilled. My point here is that even in this very mild situation we are very loathe to face the reality of ending. We try all kinds of ways to soften the impact of the loss we are feeling. Deep down we find endings intolerable, and the remembered light of Eden still causes shadows to fall over the ragged cut-off edges of our lives.

So what can we do, practically do within the Christian community, to help each other to cope with times like this, when one of our brothers or sisters is facing an ending where resurrection is not guaranteed? I want to suggest four ways we can do this, can help to carry each other's burden in difficult times. The first is that we speak openly about it, to the level that each person is able to do. David in his lament did not avoid the subject - the Mighty were fallen, Saul and Jonathan were dead. Jesus was equally plain - Lazarus was dead. The second is that we are able to participate in the grief about this. David wanted his listeners to weep, he wanted them to learn the lament, both the daughters of Israel and the fighting men of Judah. Jesus was moved in his spirit and wept with family and friends. The third is that we celebrate the truth of what has been good in the relationship: David acknowledged the prowess both of his dear friend Jonathan and of the rather more unstable king Saul, Jesus referred to Lazarus as “our friend”. Finally, we affirm that the plans and purposes of God go on. David knew that the nation of Israel would continue, that this desperate military and political crisis would pass. Jesus promised Martha that the glory of God would be seen at the graveside.

We need all four aspects of this - humanly we cannot jump from the immediate, shocking experience of death to a place of rest in the purpose of God, without walking the paths of real loss and real grief. I think we each need support in tackling these things, and in any given situation we need help in one area more than another. Getting on towards two years ago I went through a very difficult time at the firm where I worked. There was a death of sorts there, and one of the outcomes was that I changed jobs, there was a resurrection of sorts. Speaking personally about that, the area I have been most stuck is being able to acknowledge what was good about that former relationship, it's all too easy to paint the picture very black, and rush straight on to the good things about the new situation. Other people, at other times, might have no problems with seeing the good, but may have great difficulty in seeing where God's plans have migrated. Whatever the place we are stuck, it is the duty and the privilege of our brothers and sisters to support us through it, to help us push on through all those intermediate stages to a place of Sabbath rest in God. As God's people we are able to affirm both death and resurrection, that even if the things we earnestly sought after really are dead, the wisdom and gracious goodness of God has something else that will live.

David's Lament opens the second book of Samuel: Hannah's Song opens his first book, and we read there that God raises the poor from the dust and the needy from the ash-heap. May it be so for all of us.

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