“A FOND FAREWELL”
SEPTEMBER 7, 2008
We are going to a funeral this morning. It is the funeral of the father of three faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. All three faiths point to him as a revered ancestor. We have been looking at him, and some of the events of his life, over the past few weeks. With his two sons at his side, Isaac and Ishmael, we bid him a fond farewell. We pay our last respects this morning to a great man. If the sheer numbers of chapters devoted to his life are any indication, then he was the most important man in the Book of Genesis. More space is devoted to him than any other person in the book.
Now, from all indications Abraham’s funeral was small. Other than Isaac and Ishmael, we are not sure who else was in attendance. Sometimes that happens with great people. Sometimes we do not realize the importance of someone until years after they have passed. I still remember the movie Amadeus, how Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave with only a few people in attendance. We are also not sure if Isaac or Ishmael said anything at the funeral. The closest thing to a recorded eulogy comes from the author of Genesis. It is very short and is contained in the eighth verse. Listen to it,
Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.
If I had been asked to conduct the service for Abraham, I would have had a good twenty minutes of material on his life, and I would have highlighted three lessons Abraham taught us. One, I would have talked about how he taught us about the importance of holding things loosely, how he saw every thing and every one as a gift to be enjoyed rather than a possession to be clutched tightly. Remember his modeling that for us on Mount Moriah with his son, Isaac?
Second, I would have mentioned how he taught us that perfection is not a prerequisite for service because Abraham was far from perfect. He did some questionable things, not the least of which was attempting to pass his wife, Sarah, off as his sister, not once, but twice. I would have emphasized how God takes us where we are and patiently moves us to where God wants us to be, and common people like us, if we open ourselves to God, can have a great impact as did Abraham.
Then, third, I would have talked about Abraham’s sense of adventure, his willingness to take risks like leaving the comfortable for the unknown, and I probably would have asked those gathered to ponder where they were stepping out and risking for God?
I wasn’t around then, however, so all we hear about Abraham is “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” Of course, a lot is captured in those few words. Even though it isn’t much, just a line, these are good words, a little eulogy nonetheless. For you see the expressions “good old age” and “full of years” do not refer to the longevity of his life alone. They also refer to the quality of the life he enjoyed. They were full, good, vibrant years and the first few verses of this chapter attest to that. Did you notice Abraham remarried after Sarah died? By the best of calculations he was well over 100 years old when he did. Talk about someone squeezing all he could out of life!
Abraham’s behavior reminds me of the poem written by Jenny Joseph that inspired “The Red Hat Society.” Anyone here a member of that society dedicated to meeting middle age, with verve, humor, and flair?
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves,
And satin sandals, and say “We’ve no butter.”
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain,
and pick flowers in other people’s gardens,
and learn to spit!
Well, Abraham may not have been quite that rebellious, but he certainly was that exuberant well into his golden years. A rocking chair was not in the picture for him. He not only married when he was 100 years plus, but he also went on to father additional children! So the author of Genesis was right. Abraham’s life was full of years.
In addition to this, however, the author of Genesis says something else. He says something very positive about Abraham in his concluding remarks. You see, the presence of Ishmael at the funeral speaks volumes about the kind of person Abraham was. Despite how shabbily Ishmael had been treated by Sarah, he knew ow much his father loved him. Remember the story, how Ishmael’s mother was Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, and how Sarah became jealous of Hagar and Ishmael, and sent them packing, and there is no record that Abraham and Ishmael ever saw each other again before Abraham’s death.
But when the news of his father’s death came, Ishmael rushed back to bury his father. It’s a touching scene, this man Ishmael returning to bury the father he loved, and I would have liked to have been a little fly on the wall at the ceremony to see what it was like at the funeral. Especially what it was like between Isaac and Ishmael, who had not seen one another for years. It may have been tense give the fact that Isaac was the favored son, and got all the loot. We see that a lot at funerals, don’t we? Relatives who do not get along. Maybe it was like that between Isaac and Ishmael, tense, uncomfortable, between Isaac who would go on to father the Hebrew world and Ishmael who would go on and father the Muslim world. We certainly see those tensions today in the Middle East. But I like to think it was more like Madeleine L’Engle described it in her book “A Stone for a Pillow.”
They played together as children. They came together as men with their father’s death binding them, salving old hurts. The schism caused by Hagar’s arrogance and Sarah’s resentment was finally healed ... I hope that the two brothers, together at last, were able to hold each other’s hands as well as their father’s. No, in the bloody world of the Middle East, it is time for Isaac and Ishmael to clasp hands again. In the world of Islam, Ishmael is revered above Isaac but they laughed together as children, and God heard them both and loved them.
I hope it happened that way, after all, we all love a happy ending.
Well, that’s the funeral and it raises a question for us. “What, if any, thought have we given to our own death and funeral?” Reading this account and the chapters preceding we get the impression that Abraham gave considerable thought to his. In chapter 23 he purchased a burial plot. In chapter 24 he gets his house in order by finding a wife for Isaac. In this chapter he divides up his wealth prior to his death, so there would be no contesting his intentions after he was gone. Abraham gave great forethought to his death and funeral, and the question for us today is, “How about us?” What plans have we made for our death and our funeral?
I’m sure you have read the statistics about death. They are really quite impressive. The statistics reveal that one of one person dies. And yes, the inevitability of my death or your death may be years away, but we all know people who died suddenly, unexpectedly. Some even younger than we happen to be.
I’m not sure why this has been such a touchy, uncomfortable topic for so many, especially those in the church because death for the Christian is the ultimate release into abundant life. The Apostle Paul put it well, “To live is Christ and to die is gain,” and what awaits us on the other side of eternity is remarkable.
You know, I have never figured out where we got the picture of heaven being a place with harps, white robes, and floating on clouds. That is not how the New Testament describes it. The New Testament describes it as a city with dancing in the streets. It consists of buildings built with amethysts for cinder blocks and pearls as big as softballs adorning gates. And indoors it is a dinner party to end all dinner parties. You think our pot-luck Sundays are great here ... just wait for heaven. And we will get new, improved, energized bodies, resurrection bodies. I’m not sure exactly what they will be like, but they will be able to do remarkable things. Remember what Jesus did with his? He walked through walls!
One would think that more of us would be like the zealous man who called Woodrow Wilson when Wilson was governor of New Jersey, waking him from his sleep. “Governor Wilson,” the man announced, “your commissioner of highways just died, and I would like to take his place.”
Woodrow Wilson replied, “Well, if it’s alright with the undertaker, it’s alright with me.”
As wonderful as the promises in Scripture might be, however, so many of us want to put off thinking about death. Yet, this morning I want us to think about it. Specifically, I encourage all of us, if we haven’t done it already, to decide what we want for our funeral. How we want our body disposed. What we want sung at the service. What Scriptures we want read. I ask us all to do this for two reasons.
One, do it because it is a gift of love to our families. One of the most difficult things families face is trying to decide what their loved one wanted for his or her funeral. Having to make decisions about the disposition of the body and the nuts and bolts of the funeral service is an extra burden that a family does not need in their time of grief. Let’s make our wishes clear so that our family will know without a doubt what we wanted done with our body, cremation, burial, mausoleum, donation to science, and what we want included in the service in terms of hymns, scriptures, special songs, and the type of service, a memorial service, a graveside service, a traditional service. By the way, only 5% of the funerals I conduct, 5%, do I or the family know what the deceased wanted.
Two, do it because it makes the funeral service more personal and thus a greater witness to the power and love of Jesus Christ. When that person’s favorite Scriptures are read, when their favorite hymns are sung, that communicates so much more to those gathered. Furthermore, it says to everyone present, “Hey, I’ve faced my death. Yes, it was difficult, but I know my Redeemer lives. Because he lives, I shall live also, and here’s what was important to me while I was alive, and as Christ gave me the strength to do this, he can give you the same strength.”
So morbid, maybe. Remote, possibly. But important, most certainly. Let’s face our death head on as an gift of love to our family and as a powerful witness to a world who does not know the assurance we have in Jesus Christ.
 Madeleine L’Engle, A Stone for a Pillow, Harold Shaw Publishers (Wheaton, IL), 1986, p. 36-37.