Let’s face it, no one likes funerals. We don’t want to attend one and we certainly don’t want to be in one. Funerals are times of deep grieving and forced confrontations with death. Yet the writer of Ecclesiastes encourages the living not to run from the “house of mourning.” In fact, he thinks that:
“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.”
Those who do “take it to heart” tend to fall into three groups. The first group is reflected by Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
For Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the “house of mourning” just shows that life is for no reason, for nothing, and not for long. Our lives are little more than made-up stories we “idiots” tell ourselves and each other to give some sort of meaning and purpose to our lives.
For someone who thinks like Macbeth, the house of mourning is just troubling. They are reminded that life is a meaningless struggle against undefeatable death. All they can hope for is that people who know them will say nice things about their “tale” when they are gone. And, to add to the trouble, Macbeths can’t be certain that death is truly the end of existence. What if death is a transition to a different kind of existence?
Our second group sees a different lesson in the house of mourning. They believe in some sort of God. In other words, they believe that they exist on purpose and that life has a purpose. They also believe that there is some sort of life after life. And for most, it is a better one. In words that many attribute to Ben Franklin, this group believes that “God helps those who help themselves.”
For this group, life is about doing enough good things so that God will help you get into heaven or paradise in the end. If you just do the right things, if you’re a good person, God will be fine with you in the end. You do your part; God will do his. The house of mourning then provides an occasion to evaluate how they are doing. “Am I a good person?”
However, if this person is honest, it is also a troubling day no matter how the evaluation comes off. How do you really know if you are good enough? How good is good enough?
Our final view from the “house of mourning” is that of Jesus. In John’s Gospel chapter 14 Jesus gives his answer to the kind of life that takes the “house of mourning” to heart. The lesson of the “house of mourning” is that something is wrong between us and God — and it is serious. Yet, he claims that anyone can face the “house of mourning” and be untroubled.
Jesus is facing his own death and he is untroubled. He wants his disciples to know that they can face his death, and their own eventual deaths, and be untroubled as well. More than that, he wants them to know how to live life to its fullest this side of the grave.
The key to having this trouble-free state is a restored relationship with God that goes through him. The way to face any trip to the “house of mourning” with a deep peace is to know that you are right with God so that when you are ushered into his presence you will find favor with him. And the way to make that happen, and the only way, is to put your trust in the one that can make the way open to God — Jesus.
Jesus has the keys to God’s house. Jesus sets the guest list since he prepares their rooms. Jesus also is responsible for making sure the guests arrive. He has to come and get them.
This is why he says that “I am the way (to God, to a restoration of the relationship that is the key to finding life), the truth (about who we are and who God is), and the life (the one who offers everything that we were created to enjoy).”
But, someone might ask, how do we know that he has the ability to do this for us? Jesus wants us to look at what he did. We can trust him to take us through life and past death because he gave his life to remove what separated us from God, our sin, and went through death and defeated it by rising from the grave.
To take the trouble out of the “house of mourning” is to trust in Jesus to do something that we can’t do for ourselves. We trust that he removed the barriers between us and God in his death. We believe that he secured real life for us when he was resurrected from the dead. For Jesus, the trouble-free life is a life where we abandon despair and we abandon self-help and ask him to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
What do you think?
Though Macbeth is a make-believe character, his words represent how many today think of life. And if Macbeth is right, a death is truly a sad, despairing moment. Our loved one is forever gone and one day we will follow in his or her footsteps.
To make matters worse, if Macbeth is right, what are we truly to honor when we commemorate the departed? Even if we believe they lived an honorable, or even heroic life, why do we even say that? If all we are is a bunch of people who really have no answers to the “why” of our existence, our lives are little more than made-up stories we “idiots” tell ourselves and each other to give some sort of meaning and purpose to our lives.
Often at the most well-attended funerals I will hear that the departed was the kind of person willing to sacrifice their own needs to meet the needs of others. But why is that so honorable? Maybe it’s sad. Maybe he should have sought his own happiness, no matter how he defined it. After all, you only go around once and the ride is a short one.
Pastor Greg Couser of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Xenia may be contacted at www.ebcxenia.org.