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Last held on the 19th of June at Hattem

Sara's death

In the church, we talk about living, about life with all its sides. So also about dying. Death is simply part of our life, whatever our feelings about it: denial, repression, fear, sadness, despair, sometimes even: a longing for it in extreme physical or psychological distress. It's not good always to talk about death in church. It’s also not good never to talk about it.

We also talk about faith in the church: the Jewish and Christian belief in Israel’s God and Jesus’ Father. That faith began with Abraham. The father of the faithful, as he is called. How would Abraham have viewed life, and this time especially death? Would Abraham have already believed that death doesn’t have the last word and there’s eternal life after that?

The scholars differ. One says that in the Old Testament, you find almost no belief in an afterlife, that at most some of it breaks through in the very youngest writings, written well after the exile. Such a person emphasizes the progress in the knowledge of faith: it’s going from less to more. The other sees evidence throughout the whole Bible that there has always been a belief in eternal life. He emphasizes the constant in the knowledge of faith. God’s children have believed the same through all ages, haven’t they? I think the truth lies in the middle. The people always have believed but saw the same first dimly and later more clearly. It didn’t go from less to more, but from concealment to disclosure.

The glass in our home windows allows us to see reality outside. The glass does not change, and reality does not change, but what we see is strongly dependent on something else: is it dark and foggy, or does the sun shine at a clear sky? In this way, we in faith may view the other side of this life. We may even see it more clearly, because the Easter sun has started to shine, dispelling all darkness and mist. But Abraham and the Israelites of the old covenant already saw it, though still in vague outlines through darkness and mist. Let's look at Abraham. Death seems to be winning: his wife Sarah dies. What then will Abraham do, and what will it show? Does he only see death or something beyond death, too, even if it's vague? Does death have the last word or life according to him?

In any case, life has the first word. Because that’s what it clearly has in our chapter; it’s literally and figuratively verse one. "And Sarah lived a hundred and twenty-seven years. These were the years of Sara’s life." Abraham’s God and in Jesus Christ ours is the God of life. Also of our life here and now. The Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that he repent and live. (Ezek. 33:11) It’s as if our text means: do you want to talk about death? Then start talking about living. Because that always comes first with God. Keep life on the throne as a gift from Him. Yes, it's temporary, but still of enormous value. It’s God’s greatest gift to us. He also took it completely seriously. Every year of this is counted, although there are a hundred and twenty-seven. Every day is counted, every deed, every word, every thought. Do we only keep on breathing, or are we really living? With each other, with God, with Jesus? Are we being lived, or are we living ourselves? Make something beautiful out of it. How bad, when death comes, and you've to say: I can’t, because I still have so much to do what I’ve failed to do, so much to catch up on what I’ve postponed. It’s a shame when death comes, and you’ve forgotten to live. Then it always comes too early, even if you live one hundred and twenty-seven years. But what a privilege to be able to say: When death comes, I've been ahead of him in one thing. He will never take that away from me: that I have lived. I very consciously have experienced, done and endured that great gift from God with its heights and depths. And if you're in mourning because a loved one has died, and death has an enormous suction power, threatens to dominate life completely, then God’s Word awakens us here: do not think above all of the death of your beloved, but the life, in which God led you, in which He has worked. That life in which you received so much love, loyalty, and devotion. That life may have ended by death, but it was there. Death cannot erase that. It remains in our thoughts and God’s thoughts. "These were the years of Sara’s life."

"And Sarah died in Kirjath-Arba, that is, Hebron, in the land of Canaan." Her death is mentioned briefly and to the point. It doesn’t get more attention. Not a detailed, dramatic description of Sara’s illness. Did it happen suddenly? Was she physically deteriorating in a gruelling process? Has she had a tough fight? What were her last words? The Bible doesn’t like unhealthy curiosity. No, we don’t ignore the terrible suffering that can be and not at all the comfort it gives when one bears witness to the hope of eternal life. I’ve been through too much as a pastor not to be impressed. But dying is no more interesting than living. And life should also be more witness than dying. I'm amazed at the sober, austere restraint of the Bible on this point. And he died. And she died. It usually says that. That’s all.

But it does apply to everyone. It’s described about Sarah. It will also be mentioned of us someday: and he, she died. We've to prepare for that. No, not by always thinking about death, but by thinking about life and using it well, to the glory of God and the salvation of fellow human beings. To spend it like the slave waiting for his master, girding his loins and burning the lamps, thus active and watchful, arranging and keeping everything in order in the house of life awaiting the coming of the Lord (Luke 12 : 35). Because someday it will happen. "And Sara died."

”And Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and weep for her.” The daily life of the men and women then was sharply separated. Sara had her own tent for her and her slaves, and it was taboo for men to walk in there. But now Abraham is breaking that tradition. He goes inside. He has to see his wife and let his tears flow with her. After all, they've shared so much joy and sorrow with each other. They followed so long - even if it was by trial and error - the call of the Lord. Then you have to scream out your emotions, your sadness. That’s no shame. But normal, human. Abraham is not ashamed to weep in a women’s tent, the great patriarch of wealth and honour. Just as the Lord Jesus was not ashamed to weep over the death of his friend Lazarus. We don’t have to pretend to be stronger than we are. Not even men. Strong is the idea that men shouldn’t cry, certainly not in front of women. But Abraham does. It looks so human, pastoral, liberating. “And Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” Where there was love, there is the pain of lack. There's no other way. Someone else may know it. God knows it. He wants to know that. Don’t bottle it up. Don’t force it. Pour out your heart. Everything has an appointed time. That too.

But then it’s time for something else. There’s so much that one has to arrange in a house of death. Life immediately demands his attention again. “Then Abraham arose and departed from his dead beloved.” He must arrange the funeral. Even quickly, because the deceased usually was buried on the same day.

But Abraham is a stranger in the land of Canaan. He does not own a piece of land there. So he goes to the inhabitants of that region, the Hittites, and asks if he can buy a piece of land from them, where he can bury Sarah, which will be the property of his family forever, an inheritance, a hereditary burial place. Why does he do that? Is his grief not so deep, and is he already doing business again, as unfortunately more often after death, business and financial issues about how much everything should cost and the inheritance get the upper hand? No, Abraham’s actions are determined by his faith. That's his driving force, even now in grief. His faith in God, who said: “To thee and thy seed I will give this land for an everlasting possession.” Abraham, the father of the faithful, here keeps God’s glorious promises in view. Promises of blessing, peace and tranquillity, happiness. Promises of salvation in a land flowing with milk and honey. Despite the death of his wife, Abraham has not forgotten those promises. The great future, promised by the Lord, is not out of his sight now. He continues to hope for it. He clings to it the more in mourning and sorrow. He's sad, but not like those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4 : 13). And this hope guides him in his wife’s funeral arrangements. She is to be buried in a piece of land of his own, and so he confesses that he looks forward to the time when all this land shall be the possession of his posterity, and God’s promises gloriously shall be fulfilled. This piece of land must be its collateral. A small piece of realization of God’s promises, which looks forward with hope to the full fulfilment. The first step to the salvation that God has promised.

So death does not have the last word with Abraham, but God’s promises have. He confesses: I do not see how, but it’s sure to me that Sarah, even in her death, still falls within God’s promises and plans of salvation, yes, that she is closer to it than I am. What a good grasp of Abraham.

An example for us. We in sorrow also must not lose our trust in God. We also must not allow the death of loved ones to rob us of the hope of God’s redemption. We also must continue to look beyond death and not give it the last word. Yea, we all the more not, for through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead we have received a much clearer view of the eternal life, which the Lord in the future has laid up for his children in the Canaan which is above.

Abraham is an older man, left alone in a foreign land. The world says: there’s no future, no more hope. But Abraham shows that he still has. Do we also? When all goes well, don’t we think of death? And in mourning, do we only think of death? Or do we in prosperity and adversity live in the hope of eternal life? May we believe it and act on it: all things come to an end, even my life here, but not God’s way with me, and not the fulfilment of God’s promises to me. It goes on for eternity. Do we confess it with heart and soul: I believe in the resurrection of the flesh and eternal life? That doesn’t end the mourning, but it does provide rich comfort and support.

Incidentally, Abraham still has to conduct tough negotiations to fulfil his wish. It’s done with courteous words, as Easterners are used to, but don’t be mistaken. For what do the Hittites answer? “Listen to us, my lord; you are a prince of God in our midst.” They gave Abraham a high honorary title: Prince of God. And it wasn’t just out of courtesy. They apparently had respect for him because of how he behaved like a stranger with a strange God in their midst. Obviously, it was not only about the hereafter for him but also about life here and now and good dealings with fellow human beings. One noticed him for his difference, but above all for his correct, dignified and pious behaviour. They find that no less than a regal attitude. “You are a prince of God in our midst.” Can something like that be said of us? Does our way of living as Christian command respect in the world around us? Do people think that we as believers - and as such we are gradually becoming strangers in this time - behave royally, or do they not think highly of us? Isn’t our faith just a belief in a life after death, but is it also a force to renew our life here before the end? Even one that others notice? Enforces respect? Are we princes, kingly children of God, and can that be seen by those who are outside the faith? Perhaps said a bit strangly, but the ‘public relations’ of Church and Christianity is important and is our responsibility.

And that the Hittites’ appreciation for Abraham is genuine is also apparent from their great offer. “Bury your dead in the choice of our burial places. None of us will deny you his burial place to bury your dead.” And yet, behind this generous and honourable offer is a rejection. For in the meantime, they don't comply with Abraham’s request to buy a piece of land from them. That would also mean a huge social revolution: someone who is not of their people and doesn’t share their pagan faith should own a piece of land.

And in fact, it’s still so. Appreciation in the world does not mean full recognition and space of the world for your faith. The world is not so eager to give up ground. Do you ever notice that? People treat you courteously but don’t accept you one hundred per cent. For you don’t fit the pattern anyway. For your Christian views and way of life, people don’t want to sacrifice something or give up their own territory. With all due respect of the modern man to faith, Christianity should remain just a peripheral phenomenon that does not stand in his way. It happened in the Veluwe, a region in the Netherlands. The city council decided by a small majority to open swimming pools and football fields on Sunday. The voters in favour expressed their understanding and appreciation for the Christian principles – strictly reformed principles and ways of life - in soapbox speeches, but yes, one had to accept democratically with the majority. They considered that of the Christians worthy and sporty. A few years later, the political roles were reversed. A council majority voted to close on Sunday. The non-Christians were very upset now and managed to get it done that the interior minister quickly annulled the decision. I’m not saying the strictest Sunday observance is the best. My concern solely is with the world’s intolerance toward the church when it comes to real gain or loss of territory. And so the Hittites thought: respect for a dead person? Naturally, but give up a piece of life? That’s simply not possible.

However, Abraham does not give up. He humbles himself by prostrating before them as a suppliant and asks permission to buy from Ephron the cavern of Machpelah, even if it’s for the total price. Efron now smells profit. For the money there’s a lot to buy in the world. But for a lot of money. First of all, Abraham cannot buy the cavern alone. He must take the entire field in front of the cavern. Efron doesn’t want to fuss with the right of way. All those strange people are always on your land. And he asks an exorbitantly high price, although he says with merchant’s dexterity: what difference does it make between you and me? Complete provinces were bought for four hundred shekels of silver. Thus they knew good use, better said, abuse of Abraham’s desires, aroused by his faith. But Abraham considers it below his dignity to haggle as a good trader in these circumstances. And he also sees it contrary to the due respect for the deceased Sarah. If you, like Abraham, follow the path of faith, and the conviction that life wins over death, then it leads to struggles and sacrifices against the world, which does not just allow God’s salvation to gain a foothold on this earth. Faith often is rowing against the current, meeting resistance, and paying a high price. A servant is no more than his master. If Jesus had to endure so much struggle and adversity, so much suffering, as He walked in His Father’s way in faith and obedience, then certainly those who follow in His footsteps.

But that price is not bad because profit follows, even beyond death. And that struggle is not bad because it's followed by victory, even beyond death. We see it with Sarah. She and her husband have lived with God’s promise, albeit through trial and error. She also had to do with that promise and the hope of God’s future alone. She remained a stranger in the land the Lord had promised to her offspring. Hebrews says: in faith, they all died without receiving the promise. Only from afar they have seen and greeted it. But when Sarah’s living from that the promise has ended, she finds fulfilment in her death. In her grave, she is no longer a stranger in the land of promise but the possessor of it. Precisely in death, when all expectations seem cut off, her hopes become a full reality. She finds peace after her wandering as a stranger. A permanent resting place in the land of Canaan.

The same will be true of the other patriarchal family members, later interred in this tomb: Abraham himself, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, Jacob. And it’s all in black and white. The legality of purchasing that piece of land gets all the emphasis. The money is carefully weighed. The piece of land is accurately described, even with its trees. It happened in the presence of the Hittites, especially all who entered the city’s gate, where the judgment and official acts took place. It happened under the eyes of the competent authority. We would say: at the notary. There was no doubt about it. God’s people had an inalienable piece of land in the Promised Land for the first time. And after her death, Sara is the first to rest in it.

And in that same perspective, we too may bury our dead, yes, even face our own death. God calls his children through death to eternal peace and rest in the land flowing with milk and honey, Canaan above. What has been seen and greeted from afar then becomes a full reality. Sara’s funeral tells us this.

And in particular, the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ tell us this. He is, much more than Sarah, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep ( 1 Cor. 15 : 20) and passed through death to the land of God’s promises. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, that they may rest from their toils and wanderings ( Rev. 14 : 13) upon an eternally inalienable inheritance.

“And Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, opposite Mamre, which is Hebron.” A sad message? Yes, but no less happy news. Because it’s all happening in the land of Canaan. Image and reference to the eternal Canaan, our allotted inheritance.


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