************ Sermon on Genesis 23 ************

By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman

This sermon was preached on February 24, 2013

Genesis 23
"Dying Well"

I Sarah's Funeral Biography
A Sarah was born in the year 1958 from Creation in the city of Ur in Babylonia. We know nothing of her parents or siblings.

Sarah married a local boy, Abram of Ur, who was a prosperous farmer, sheepherder, and businessman.

At the age of 65 Sarah and Abram and their family immigrated to Haran. From here the family moved to Canaan.

Sarah's biggest disappointment in life was an inability to bear children to Abram. She felt so bad about this that she arranged for a child through her maidservant. However, when she was 90 God blessed her with the birth of Isaac, her one and only child; it was around then that Abram's name was changed to Abraham.

Sarah was preceded in death by Haran, her father-in-law; her niece, Lot's wife. She is survived by her loving husband, Abraham; and her son, Isaac.

Sarah was a stunning beauty. Until she was ninety she was known as Sarai, meaning "my princess." Even kings and rulers took note of her great beauty.

Sarah died old and full of years, at the age of 127. We are thankful she did not die a tragic death in the prime of life. We are thankful she did not suffer a long illness. We are thankful she died in the land promised to her and Abraham and their descendants after them.

Yet, we still mourn her passing. We are sad for those she leaves behind. We are sad that another of God's creatures meant to live forever has instead experienced physical death.

B In the past couple of weeks other families have heard similar biographies. I am thinking of the family of Robert Whitlock, Margaret Lynd, and Luella Reitsma. I think back on all the biographies I have read during the last 30 plus years. I think ahead to the biographies of my parents and parents-in-law. And, when I am really solemn, I think about my own biography.
Right now I am 60. I try to cycle at least 120 miles per week. But there are signs I don't particularly care for. I need to watch what I eat. It takes me longer to recover from long rides. I used to love nights out but now I love nights home.
All of my friends have changed and look middle-aged. My boys, now 31, 29, and 27, are all grown up. My oldest grandchild is already walking. My next grandchild is expected in May.
Unless Jesus comes first, this will be the experience of everyone of us – from the youngest to the oldest. Does it make you angry? Does it make you sad? How do you respond to your own decline and impending death? How do you respond to the death of loved ones? Is "dying well" part of your experience?

II A Marriage that Perseveres
A At the time of her death, Sarah and Abraham had been together for many years. We know the marriage of Abraham and Sarah had its share of sorrows and struggles. Two times the marriage was almost destroyed when Abraham allowed Sarah to be taken into the palace of a king to preserve a lie. And, they both wanted a child but Sarah was barren. So, at the age of 75, desperation led Sarah to do the unthinkable – she suggested to Abraham that he take her maidservant as a mistress, as a second wife, to bear him children. This ill-conceived notion signaled a lack of faith and was doomed to disaster from the beginning. What followed was mean-spirited as Sarah mistreated both Hagar and Ishmael with Abraham caught in the middle.

I don't know the state of every marriage in Trinity. But Abraham and Sarah show us that troubled marriages can persevere. And, they show us that genuine affection can grow and flourish in spite of tension and strife. They were together for over 50 years, maybe as many as 100-110 years. That is a long time – a very long time – of faithfulness and love!
We acknowledge wedding anniversaries in my Rotary club. The person with the anniversary is sometimes asked to announce the number of years of marriage. Too many times the question is asked, "Do you mean to this wife or the last one too?"
Abraham didn't have to ask this question.

There is no doubt that Abraham loved Sarah and truly mourned her death.

B Do you know what we see in Abraham and Sarah? Scripture gives us our first demonstration of Genesis 2:24.
(Gen 2:24) For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Think about Abraham and Sarah. Together, they left home and family behind in a united pursuit of God's calling. Together, they followed God's leading for their lives. Together, they went through the ups and downs of life. In Abraham and Sarah, Scripture gives us our first glimpse of a godly couple and a godly marriage. Of course, the fact that they had a godly marriage doesn't mean that they never had any disputes or arguments. They were by no means perfect, but they were one flesh.

Did you notice the repetition of the phrase "in the land of Canaan" in verse 2 and verse 19? We are told Sarah died in the land of Canaan and Sarah was buried in the land of Canaan. To us this may seem like a redundant fact. We, together with Moses' audience, know Hebron is in the land of Canaan so why include this fact? It emphasizes Sarah's complete unity with Abraham as she went with him from Ur to Haran to Canaan. And, she even died in Canaan and was buried in Canaan. Truly, Abraham and Sarah were one flesh. So, Abraham mourned and wept when Sarah was taken from him.

Abraham and Sarah show us that those who fear God keep their marital commitments and love their spouses, staying with them in hard times such as old age and sickness. They trust the Lord and they work to preserve their relationship even when they may not feel like it. When they stumble, they repent and endeavor to rejoice in the wife or husband of their youth (Prov 5:18-19).

III Mourning
A When his wife died, "Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her" (Gen 23:2). He was 137 years old, and the sight of him mourning and weeping at her side is deeply moving. The combination of the Hebrew words for "mourn" and "weep" mean that Abraham's grief is real. Following the customs of the day, he probably tore his clothes, shaved his head, cut his beard, threw dust into the air, and fasted (cf Job 1:20). Funerals, back then, were emotional and expressive affairs. Abraham would consider our relatively calm and somber funerals as strange and emotionless.

When his wife died, "Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her" (Gen 23:2). This is the only place where we see Abraham weeping. We don't see Abraham weeping when his father died or when he left Haran. We do not see Abraham weeping when he parted ways with Lot, nor when he heard of Lot being taken captive in war, nor when he sees the destruction of Sodom. We do not see tears when Abraham sent his wife Hagar and his firstborn son Ishmael into the wilderness. Nor are any tears recorded as Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac. But with the death of Sarah, we are told that Abraham weeps and cries and mourns. Why are these tears recorded in Scripture? Obviously, Scripture wants us to know that Abraham loved his wife and was deeply grieved at her passing.

Abraham teaches us that mourning is appropriate when someone we know dies. Feelings of sadness, even at the death of a Christian, is more than permissible.

Why do I say this? Because sometimes people give the impression that Christians should always be in an uninterrupted state of happiness. They say, "Your mother died? Be glad she is now with the Lord." "You lost your job? Well, praise the Lord anyway." "Your child is disabled? Find reasons to give God thanks." The unwritten slogan is "Real Christians Don't Cry!" According to some people, Christians are never supposed to feel any sadness or anger or grief or sorrow.

B The Bible, however, has an entirely different perspective. Abraham, the great hero of faith, mourned and wept when Sarah died. Of course he wept. The wife of his youth was dead!

We can also look at Jesus. When Jesus saw the sorrow of Martha and Mary, He was deeply moved (Jn 11:33). And, when Jesus stood by the tomb of Lazarus, He wept (Jn 11:35), even though He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Likewise, we also grieve when a loved one dies, even though we have the hope of the resurrection.

IV Aliens and Strangers
A In our Bible reading, Moses says nothing about Sarah's dying. He gives no biography of her life. He spends only one sentence on Abraham's grief. Instead, most of the chapter is about the funeral arrangements. Most of the chapter is about a rather crude negotiation over a burial plot. In this negotiation Abraham is gouged by Ephron who takes advantage of grief and sorrow – so much so that Abraham appears to pay three or four or even eight times the going price (cf 2 Sam 24:24b; Jer 32:9).

What is really going on here? What is the message Moses was giving to the children of Israel? What is the message the Spirit of the Lord has for us?

Did you see the key phrase repeated 7 times in our Scripture reading? Seven times we see and hear the phrase "bury my/your dead" (Gen 22:4, 6 (2X), 8, 11, 13, 15). Whatever the passage means, its focus is on the burying of the dead. To get at the meaning we need to answer some questions.

B Where does the burial take place? As I already said, it takes place in the land of Canaan (Gen 23:2, 19). The ancient peoples cherished their ancestral burial grounds. In the Ancient World, one got buried in the grave of one's ancestors – conveying honor and continuity with one's family. With this in mind, where should Sarah have been buried? Sarah should have been buried either in Ur of Babylon or in Haran. Instead, she was buried in Hebron of Canaan.

Do you hear the message? Abraham was saying there is no turning back to the past. Abraham was saying there is no going back to Haran or Ur. Abraham is saying his future and the future of his family lies in the Promised Land. So, when he died, Abraham was buried in the same place as Sarah, but so was Isaac and Rebekah and Leah and Jacob (cf Gen 49:30-32; 50:13). And, while in Egypt, Joseph insisted that his remains also be buried in Canaan (Gen 50:25).

What do you think the Israelites heard here? They were traveling from Egypt to Canaan. They were in the bleak and forsaken desert. They missed Egypt with its variety of food and water. Moses was telling them they were going to the land where their ancestors lay. They were going back to the land of their fathers. It was a homecoming.

C Next question: why did Abraham insist on paying for the burial site even though the Canaanites were willing to give it to him as a gift? Earlier, Abraham refused the reward offered by the king of Sodom. According to Abraham he did not want it said that the king of Sodom made him wealthy (Gen 14:23). In the same way, Abraham now absolutely refused to accept the parcel of burial land as a gift. Abraham knew that the land was a gift of God and not of man. In other words, we see the doctrine of grace here.

D When all was said and done, what did Abraham own? Abraham owned a piece, albeit a small piece, of the Promised Land. Earlier, Abraham took possession of a well in Beersheba – but this well was just on the edge of the Promised Land. But now Abraham owns his first little piece of the Promised Land. Sarah's grave in Canaan is a deposit, a foretaste, a down payment, a promise of more to come. Someday all of the land will belong to Abraham and his descendants but right now Abraham has taken possession of just one field and its cave.

The field and its cave represent the future. The field and its cave represent the time when the children of Israel will come to possess all of the land – even as God has promised.

The book of Hebrews takes this a step further. It tells us that Abraham was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Heb 11:10). Now we know why Abraham, like christ, was willing to pay such a high price. For Abraham and Sarah, no borrowed tomb would suffice. The cave of Machpelah near Mamre represented eternal rest and eternal security in Christ Jesus.

E Did you notice how Abraham describes himself? "I am an alien and a stranger among you" (Gen 23:4). In the Hebrew the force of what Abraham said is more pronounced. What he literally said was, "An alien and a stranger am I." Someone who doesn't belong. Someone simply passing through. Someone without roots.

"An alien and a stranger am I." Death is a time for thinking seriously about eternal things. Death is a time for realizing how transitory our life and time on earth really is. This is what Abraham was saying about Sarah and about himself. This is what we too must say as we look at ourselves, this life, and this earth. Like Abraham, we are aliens and strangers on this earth. Like Abraham, we are simply passing through.

"An alien and a stranger am I." This is emphasized by the purchase of the cave. The first piece of the promised land owned by Abraham was a graveyard! If anything speaks of our pilgrim status, this is it. If anything speaks of how temporary and transitory life really is, this is it. The sum total of Abraham's real estate is a grave. We are simply passing through this earth, aren't we?

When his wife died, "Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her" (Gen 23:2). What is your attitude toward death? Do you hide from it? Do you deny it? Or, is "dying well" part of your experience?

"Dying well." I've used this phrase twice now. What does it really mean? First, it means we acknowledge death for what it is. Unless Jesus comes first, it will be the experience of each and every one of us. Death. Cold death. Unforgiving death. Unescapable death.

Second, we don't need to deny our feelings or pretend to be happy. It is appropriate to mourn for our loved ones, just as Abraham mourned for Sarah, his wife of many years.

Third, like Abraham we do not mourn as those who mourn without hope. Because Jesus has died for us and was laid in another cave, we have hope. Unlike Abraham and Sarah, Jesus' tomb was borrowed, not purchased, because He didn't need it for long. On the third day, He rose again as the firstfruits of all those who trust in Him.

If we know Christ, death is not without hope. If we know Christ, we – like Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah and countless others – are able to face death with hope.

So let me ask: Are you ready to die well?
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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