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Tuesday
Mar082011

Better Than a Birthday

It seems that the celebration of birthdays in ancient times was mainly reserved for great and powerful people, sometimes marking the dates of their actual births and at other times, commemorating their ascensions to power. It is likely that many common people, not being born in hospitals, became unsure of exactly how old they were, or on what day they were born. Even the birth date of Christ is shrouded in mystery – neither the date nor the year are ever mentioned in Scripture. We know that he was presumed to be about thirty years old when his ministry began, but we do not know exactly in what year that was. Birthdays are terribly important to us today, but the Bible suggests that there is more to learn from someone’s death day than his birthday.

I. Better Than Precious Ointment (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4)

    A. A Good Name

        1. these four verses that begin the seventh chapter of Ecclesiastes seem to form a unit that contrasts the mirth of a celebration of birth and youth with the solemnity of death

        2. it is not really one’s own birth that is under consideration here, so relax if you’re planning a big party and expecting many presents

        3. this passage is about the times in which you would go to the hospital to visit a new mother and father, or be those very people yourself

            a. birth provides a very poignant reminder of the wonders of creation, of the joy of reproducing the next generation of your blood line, of welcoming a new life into a marvelous world

            b. it is a process that is part of the curse of sin, in that it includes such terrible pain for the mother, but God has muted that punishment sufficiently that people go through with it anyway; “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21).

        4. the Preacher then writes that, as a good reputation is more valuable than a very costly ointment, so there is more to be learned and gained by pondering the complicated, seemingly final process of death than the simple, incipient moment of birth

 

    B. The House of Mourning

        1. some people are terrified of visiting the house of mourning; they avoid funerals and shun the survivors, perhaps for fear that they will lose control of their own emotions or become confronted with their own mortality

        2. many shield their children from death, and it is arguable that this is appropriate for the very young who lose those close to them, especially fellow children, but it is not debatable that we must eventually confront the inevitability of death

        3. the Preacher instructs us to deal with death long before it has to be my own, as I lay dying and learn, “Riches is nothing in the face of the Lord, for He can see into the heart” (William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, 1930).

        4. everyone loves a party, but everyone needs to attend a funeral from time to time, to be reined in by reality, to learn to weep with those who weep in spite of the mutual pain, to confront the certainty of one’s own slow decay

 

II. Death Lessons

    A. Inevitability of Sorrow

        1. when we behold a newborn baby in his mother’s arms, we remark about his perfection, his flawlessness; we see a human being without the scars of life or the wrinkles of elapsing time

        2. we marvel at the solace and smallness, perhaps imagining what his future holds

        3. provided that he lives to become morally conscious and accountable before his God, the future will include at least something that is ugly, sin, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

        4. we don’t think about that when we behold a baby, especially since we reject the horrors of Original Sin and Total Hereditary Depravity as false doctrines

            a. individuals become guilty of sin, not from conception, but from personal rebellion, “so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

            b. sin is not genetic or divine, but personal and chosen, and the baby is as incapable of iniquity as he is of confession

        5. the fact is that each precious, innocent life begins with joy, but must descend into the depths of sorrow eventually; “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1).

 

    B. Burden Bearing

        1. we learn comparatively little in the house of feasting, but when we are compelled to enter the house of mourning, we are struck by the imminence of life’s lessons, for we know that someone has instantly stopped learning and experiencing them, for he is lying supine in a box nearby

        2. being courageous and willing enough to visit the house of mourning allows us to experience the emotions of pain, whether it be the personal loss of someone dear to us, or the mutual hurt of watching a friend bid farewell to their loved one; it is selfish always to stay clear of such suffering – selfish and ultimately self-defeating, for we miss out on the learning and the sharing

        3. it is rebellion against God and all wisdom to refuse to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15)

        4. the loss experienced in a loved one’s death is perhaps the greatest and most enduring burden that anyone will experience; we should be there with a strong shoulder and a supply of tissues exceeded only by our willingness to speak understandingly and consolingly

 

    C. All Must Die

        1. while in the house of mourning, we are confronted with a reality that is absent from the celebration of birth (Hebrews 9:27-28)

        2. human beings, even the ones expecting to be whisked away by angels to the bosom of Abraham, do not embrace death, but fight against it, scientifically, medically, financially and spiritually

            a. Hezekiah, upon being told that his condition was terminal, turned his head to the wall and prayed in tears for a little while longer (see Second Kings 20:1-11)

            b. the apostle Paul even confessed that he was not entirely ready to go (Philippians 1:19-24)

        3. is there something carnal in this, something to be criticized?

            a. sometimes there is a lack of preparedness, and at other times, there is a lack of interest in Heaven, but that is not the case here

            b. it is only natural that we embrace what we know, clinging to the future joys of raising our children and seeing our grandchildren, growing old and passing the time, “before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).

            c. as hard as life is, few choose to take the premature way out, and most plead upon their death beds for a few more moments, but eventually all the sand in the hourglass must settle upon the bottom

 

    D. Sorrow is Better Than Laughter

        1. it is only in recent decades that people began to smile when photographed, and in many cultures, they still do not

            a. our culture values happiness and elevated self-esteem regardless of reality, and so we are ill-equipped to lament and mourn and weep when we are in sin

            b. worship services often bear none of the marks of the more solemn psalms as churches embrace only celebration, regardless of whether the worshiper is prepared or qualified for joy

        2. when the Preacher says that sorrow is better than laughter, he sounds like a madman to people who always want to be happy, even if a steady supply of antidepressants and stimulants are required to obscure a painful reality, but he is absolutely correct and learning that sooner rather than later is essential to real contentment on Earth and victory on Judgment Day (Hebrews 12:4-6, 11-17)

        3. when you find yourself in the house of mourning and you see the empty tabernacle of someone you knew, take it to heart, that someday, perhaps sooner than you think, it will be you in that box

            a. your spirit will be subjected to the authority of Christ and bound either for paradise or torment, but it will be too late to exchange your reservation if you failed to book the mansion

            b. before the hurt and fear subside, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:8-10).

 

Conclusion

I understand the desire to turn modern funerals into celebrations, and I understand that funerals are for the living rather than the dead. I fear sometimes when I hear the popular songs of fools that we are unwittingly taking a powerful tool away from God and handing it to the devil, when we refuse to allow ourselves the opportunity to weep and mourn, to look backward and ahead. We must get beyond the soothing lie that everyone who dies goes straight to Jesus, even if he lived his life for the devil. Now, none of that sounds better than a birthday party, but when you kneel in eternity to learn your fate, it will.

 

Questions For Review

  1. What is Jesus’s birthday? Year?
  2. What is better than precious ointment?
  3. What is the house of mourning?
  4. What is Original Sin, or total hereditary depravity?
  5. Why is it unwise and selfish always to avoid the house of mourning?
  6. Why do people, even Christians, cling to life?
  7. Why is sorrow better than laughter?

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