George H. Morrison - Devotional Sermons
Sleep and Death -- Part I
The damsel is not dead, but sleepeth--Mar 5:39
This thy brother was dead, and is alive again--Luk 15:32
Death as a Fact and What Christ Thought of It
I wish to speak for a little while on some of our Lord's references to death. I wish to discover in what light He viewed that dark experience of our mortality. You will observe I am not asking your attention to the question of the life beyond the grave. That is another theme. But here we shall look at death just as a fact, as joy and sorrow and love and hate are facts, and ask what our Savior has spoken about that. For those of us who believe in Christ as Lord, it is supremely important to discover that. But I venture to think it is scarcely less important for those of you who take a lower view. For the words of Jesus Christ, whoever Christ was, have influenced the world and altered history in a way as profound as it is unapproached. When you think, whoever Jesus was, of the tremendous influence of His words, when you think that they will still be winged when yours and mine are dead, it becomes the duty of every thoughtful person, who makes any pretence to the balance of true culture, to give the words of Christ his first attention. It is important to know what Plato thought of death. It is important to know what Hegel thought of death. But for men and women living in a world that has felt the terrific impact of Christ's words, to know what Christ has said on such a theme is the primary duty of intelligence.
Jesus Spoke Little of the Fact of Death
Now when we study Jesus with this end in view, there is one thing which immediately impresses us. It is that Jesus in His ministry spoke comparatively little about death. Familiar with it in the home at Galilee, for Joseph had died when Jesus was still there; lighting oftentimes in boyish wanderings on ghostly sepulchres among the hills, there is no sign that He brooded upon death, nor let it color His imagination, nor that He lived, as men have sometimes lived, with the shadow of death forever by His side. That He spoke much of the life beyond the grave is a fact, of course, which nobody disputes. There is indeed a powerful school today which interprets everything in terms of eschatology. But of the fact of death--that shrouded enemy which lays its icy hand on all humanity--of that He spoke comparatively little. Now that at once separates Jesus from those Stoical teachers who were already beginning to take the ear of Rome. For they, as Bacon has so wisely put it, made death more terrible by dwelling on it so. They thought to conquer death by gazing at it, till familiarity should beget contempt, and instead of contempt there came a haunting terror on the men and women of the Roman Empire. A similar thing has happened more than once in the long story of the Christian Church. Inspired by the passion of asceticism, men have feasted their eyes upon the grave. And the singular thing is that when we turn to Jesus, with whom the story of the Church began, you find wonderfully little of all that. Whatever Jesus feasted His eyes upon, He never feasted them upon the grave. You can never imagine Him a mediaeval saint, clasping a human skull within a charnel-house. But you can always imagine Him among the fields, feasting His heart upon the bending corn, and on the innocent merriment of little children, and on the first glimmerings of human love.
Jesus Speaks Little of Death in Spite of Its Universality
This comparative silence grows more notable when you bear in mind two considerations. The first is the old familiar commonplace that death is a universal thing. There have been teachers who have avoided universal themes and loved to handle exceptional experiences. Some of our finest plays, like Hamlet, deal with experiences of the rarest kind. But Jesus deliberately chose the universal, and dealt with what is common to humanity, and touched with the finger of a son of man the strings that God hath put on every harp. The sorrows He soothes are universal sorrows; the joys He shares in are universal joys. The questions He answers are universal questionings; the hopes He kindles are universal hopes. Yet here is death, the universal leveler, stealing with equal foot to every door, and Jesus speaks very little about that.
Jesus Speaks Little of Death in Spite of Its Significance to Himself
The other consideration which makes the silence notable is the significance to Christ of His own death. That His own death was profoundly important in His eyes no unbiased reader of the Gospels can deny. When He was deeply stirred He spoke of it. It was the one topic of the transfiguration. He watched with eagerness for every sign of readiness that He might unfold its meaning to the twelve. And yet though He saw the coming of the cross, and knew that His triumph was to include a grave, the theme of the grave was rarely on His lips. Even when death was standing on the threshold, it did not form the theme of His discourse. It is not death that moves with awful mien through the glorious discourse of the upper chamber. It is a message more gladdening than death--it is the music of celestial joy--it is tidings of peace that the world cannot give, and at its darkest cannot take away. On that night on which He was betrayed, the shadow of death was on the heart of Jesus. On that night, under the olive trees, He cried, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me." Yet on that night, with the finger of death upon Him, the talk of Jesus was no more of death than in the glad days when He had watched the lilies, and taken the little children in His arms.
His Silence Could Not Be Interpreted as Indifference
Now that is very suggestive and significant, and it clearly calls for some interpretation. Let me dismiss in passing one interpretation which might possibly occur to certain minds. It might occur to some that this reserve of Jesus was only the superior silence of indifference. It might seem that Jesus spoke little about death, because He scorned the very thought of death. But I venture to say that if you take the Gospels, and study the story of the Master there, you will dismiss that supposition as untenable. When you and I are silent on a matter, it does not necessarily mean we are indifferent. Sometimes the subject of which the heart is fullest is that on which the lips are strangely still. And as there are thoughts that lie too deep for tears, so are there thoughts that lie too deep for utterance, and men detect them not by any speech, but by a look, or a handclasp, or a tear. Now think of Jesus at the grave of Lazarus, when He was face to face with death. Look at Him--what is that upon His cheek?--it is the dewy glistening of tears. And then a bend of the road reveals the sepulchre, and there is death, in ravage and in victory, and Jesus groans in spirit and is troubled. Whatever else that means, there is one thing that it emphatically means. It means that Jesus, indifferent to so much, was not indifferent to the final tragedy. He wept; He groaned in spirit; He was troubled. He shared in the anguish of the orphaned heart. Whatever His silence, it was not the silence of a serene and philosophic scorn.
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