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…
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.—Ecclesiastes 7:2-4
For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.—1 Corinthians 11:26
I recently heard a wise pastor say something I had never thought of before, which sounded strange at first: He said that the church in America lost something important when we stopped building churches next to graveyards. It used to be that every Sunday when God’s people gathered, they made their way past a regular reminder of the reality of death. This experience changed their understanding of what they were there to do: Worship, fellowship, and discipleship were important because our time on this earth is limited, and they were preparation for the day that each of us will die and stand before our Judge.
Now, no one really likes to think about death. Most of us are probably relieved that we aren’t confronted with a graveyard every time we go to church. We want worship to be a joyful experience, and it should be. But if we understand the Good News clearly, then the truth that everyone dies shouldn’t steal our joy. If we can’t worship with our eyes open to the painful realities of this life, what good is our faith? If Christianity isn’t true in the face of the worst this world has to offer, is it true at all?
I don’t know anyone who would say that the above passage from Ecclesiastes is their favorite Bible quote. Solomon says that it’s better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting, that wise people don’t hide from grief ,while fools run to the pleasures of this world to distract themselves. There’s something about facing death that is healthy and important for God’s people. But again, who wants to do that? I know I don’t.
I was thinking about these things this past Sunday, when my brother and his wife and kids were driving down to southern California because of a tragic death on Jill’s side of the family, while I sat on a comfortable couch watching the Super Bowl on a huge screen with friends. We ate delicious snacks and played a little corn-hole at halftime. It was a lot of fun, but it was tainted by the knowledge that people we loved were hurting deeply.
Given the choice, of course, I would rather be at a Super Bowl Party than a funeral. But funerals are a part of life; in fact, they’re a much more important part of life than the Super Bowl is. That’s not to say we should never have parties; it’s just to say we shouldn’t stay away from funerals.
When we face death, we are remembering that this world, despite all its beauty, is not our home. We are remembering that sin is awful, and that because of it this world is not what it should be, and we are not what we should be, and everyone dies because God has determined that He will not have immortal sinners running around His creation. We are remembering that Jesus had to die. He hung on the cross and received in Himself the consequences of our sin, because otherwise we had no chance of living forever with God. As much as I enjoy a good football game and finger food, a party doesn’t remind me of any of those things, so every once in a while I need a walk through a graveyard to bring me back to what matters.
Next Wednesday, February 22nd, marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. For the 40 days leading up to Easter, Christians throughout the history of the Church have set aside time to focus their attention on the death of Jesus, so that when the time comes to celebrate His resurrection, they will be able to truly celebrate. Some people use this time to deny themselves of certain pleasures, remembering that Jesus did not live for pleasure, but sacrificed Himself for our benefit. Some people commit themselves to special acts of devotion, readings and prayers, so they can carve out a way to meditate on the cross in the midst of life’s busyness. This tradition began because believers recognized that without an appreciation of Christ’s death, we can’t properly appreciate His victory over death. It’s only when we feel the weight of the cross that we can really feel the joy of the empty tomb.
Of course, today, most of us skip over the unpleasant parts, and so we miss out on everything this season was designed to do in our hearts. Many people will arrive at Easter morning having spent the previous weeks doing everything they could to minimize suffering and maximize comfort in their lives, which is the goal of most of our culture most of the time. It’s understandable, but misguided. God doesn’t think the goal of life is to shield ourselves from the hard things. He wants us to face them, as Christ faced them, so that the depths of sin and death will give us the right perspective on the heights of forgiveness and eternal life.
This Lent, I’d encourage you to find a way to be intentional about preparing your heart for Resurrection Sunday. We’ll find this season to be a much richer spiritual experience if we resist the urge to turn away from the hard stuff.
At Community Church, we’re offering a couple of ways to give the cross the attention it deserves between now and Easter. First, we have a night of prayer and worship planned for Ash Wednesday, the evening of the 22nd. We’ll gather at 6:00pm and share a simple meal, followed by a time of worship, devotion, and prayer. And second, we’re providing a Lenten devotional by A.W. Tozer, a pastor from the early 1900’s, which has 40 days’ worth of daily readings focused on the death and resurrection of Christ and what it truly means to follow Him. You can pick one up at the Welcome Center this coming Sunday. Taking a few minutes a day to pray and read is a small sacrifice that will yield big rewards.
However you choose to observe it, I pray you’ll find a way to draw near to God in this Lenten season, with all of its pain and all of its joy. And if you’re grieving right now, may He meet with you in a special way as you face death in the strength of Jesus.