Sermon: The Geography of Death

Sermon preached by Dr. Robert S. Rayburn, January 13,1990, at the funeral of his father, Dr. Robert G. Rayburn.

When the wicked Louis XIV died, the fearless and godly court minister, Jean Massilon, was appointed to preach his funeral sermon. He rose in the great pul­pit of the cathedral of Notre Dame, surveyed the vast assembly, including a large number of the crowned heads of Europe, and began: “Brethren, in the hour of death, only God is great!”

Hear the Word of Almighty God!

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance, I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If l am to go on living in the body, this will meaningful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. Philippians 1:18-26(NIV)

To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The stings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. This a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause… Who would (burdens) bear;
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than to fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all…

In Hamlet’s immortal soliloquy, Shakespeare has given a nearly perfect expression of the worldly mind in the face of death. Hamlet, torn by loneliness, sad­ness, and guilt, contemplates suicide. He wishes for release from the miseries of this life. But he cannot bring himself to take the fateful step because he does not know what death will bring. Will it be, as he would fondly wish, a sleep which ends the heartache and thousand natural shocks which flesh is heir to? If so, he would welcome it. But perhaps death is not extinction after all. Or, as he puts it: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come … must give us pause.”

Hamlet suffers from what Chesterton called the most universal experience of mankind: an uneasy conscience. And that guilty conscience makes a cow­ard of him; for, as he suspects, if his life does contin­ue after death, it will not go well with him. He has too much to answer for.

Now the Apostle Paul had no such qualms. He was ready to die. He was quite willing to die. No, that is still not strongly put enough. He says quite plainly that he wants to die! To die is better than to live, it is gain, it is better by far!

The Great Apostle here says not only that death has lost its sting, that Christ has rendered it toothless, that it is now able only to nip at the heels of the saints as they pass by and can do them no real harm—that would be wonderful enough! But Paul says that death has actually been transformed, in the victory of Jesus Christ, into the greatest, the most use­ful, the most effectual means of divine grace ever to wield its influence in a believer’s life. Death not only cannot harm us; it does us more good and takes us higher and further than the Bible, and prayer, and the sacraments, and worship, and the fellowship of the church have ever managed to do.

No matter, says Paul, how fruitful my life in this world, how fruitful my preaching, and my praying, and my sabbath-keeping, and my partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and all of my apos­tolic ministry and my living for Christ,—to die is still greater gain, and better by far! All that I have sought and hoped for and found, to some degree, in those other instru­ments of God’s grace death will give me at once and to a degree so far beyond what I have known in this world as to beggar my imagination. After death, I will be so truly and so completely with Christ that, in comparison, all of my fellowship with Him, all of my being with Him in this world, in Word, in prayer, in worship, in sacrament, in the daily presence of the Holy Spirit, must now be called something else!

Paul’s uninhibited anticipation of death as the means of achieving what he has so long and so ardently sought as a Christian takes us aback. But, there is nothing morbid here. Paul has nothing of Hamlet’s melancholy distaste for life, he does not carry about with him the heavy weight of sins which must still be answered for. And his life in Christ in this world is, he says here, so full of high purpose and rich experience and so supported by what he calls the “help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ” that if God should will that he live on, that will only be pleasure of another kind and only further whet his already great hunger for heaven and, thereby, increase the pleasure of his arrival in due time.

Nor should Paul’s striking and unqualified lan­guage cause us to forget how often the Bible charac­terizes death as a bittersweet. The pains and the sorrows of death are very sharp, this I can now con­fess from personal experience, whatever may be the wonderful issue. But it is, our Savior and His great Apostle have taught us, a bittersweet. As Bunyan put it in Pilgrim’s Progress, where he describes the pil­grims’ crossing of the last river: “when they tasted of the water of that river over which they were to go, they thought that it tasted a little bitterish to the palate, but it proved sweeter when it was down.”

Nor should we forget for a moment, that what Paul is speaking of here is not even the consumma­tion, not even the full enjoyment of all that Christ has for us at last. It is only one giant step closer to that still greater day. It is being with Christ and enjoying the fellowship of the saints made perfect, but it is not yet body and soul united in glory and in the fulness of the life and the joy to come.

Andrew Bonar likened the waiting of the dead in Christ for the resurrection and the consummation to this: “A rich friend invites you to dine with him. On the appointed day you go to his house and are shown into the draw­ing room, where the guests are received by the host. The time until all the invited guests have arrived is passed in meeting friends, and in the presence and society of the host. When all have assembled, a bell will sound, and the whole company will pass into the dining hall where the feast is spread. So it will be at the great Supper of the Lamb.” (Diary and Life, page 523)

Now, it requires no particular dar­ing on my part to say that few of us can honestly say that we share Paul’s cheerful and eager anticipation of death. Our lives are so full of what we can see, hear, and touch; our faith is so weak and our sight of the unseen world so dim, we have invested so much of our hope for happiness and reward in this life and this world, that it is hard for us to have the same rel­ish for death as did the so clear-sighted Apostle.

How does a Christian come to share Paul’s holy mind about death, and to have this cheerful faith in the prospect of death? How ought we to strengthen our faith so that the joyful prospect of Christ and the world to come will make us as carefree at death’s approach as he was? Surely this is a most important issue for a congregation of Christians to consider at such a solemn moment as this! And what better way to turn our sorrows into gladness than to enter fully into Paul’s happy convictions about a Christian’s death as the greatest of all his means of grace!

Wise Christians who have come to share Paul’s happy mind have always done the same things to strengthen their faith in prospect of dying. And we must do as they did.

The Geography of Death

First, we must take care to study and to master the geography of death.

If you were going to take a trip, say, to Europe, you would buy and read in advance some guide­books in order to make the most of your journey. You would learn, in advance, something of what you will see and how best to get where you are going and how to make the trip as pleasant and as satisfy­ing as it can be.

Well, this is far and away the most important trip a Christian ever takes, and if eternity holds for us a new world, with cities and with peoples all new to us, should we not “read up” before we take this trip above all trips? What guidebooks have you taken up to read and study?

What guidebooks are there to make you a master traveler before you have even begun this last journey? Well, the Bible has much to tell us both about the journey and the destination and, if you would have Paul’s mind about death, you must master what Holy Scripture has to teach us about both death and heav­en: two of its subjects which, I fear, get very short shrift in the typical Christian’s meditation in our very worldly day.

And then, there are many guidebooks of human authorship which, if mastered with heart and soul, will serve to fix the Scripture’s geography of death fast in the mind. I’m thinking of the wonderful “river scenes” in Pilgrim’s Progress, of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, of Richard Baxter’s The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, of The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, so full of the wisest counsel on dying well as a Christian and so full of the most captivating descriptions of the life we will live on the other side, in what Rutherford so aptly calls “the laughing side of the world.” And then there are the great hymns of death and heaven in our hymnbook, hymns which better than most books teach the heart to thrill at a Christian’s future prospects. It will be a different set of guidebooks, no doubt, for each one.

Alexander Whyte recollects that one of the very first pastoral calls he made when he had come, as Dr. Candlish’s assistant, to Free St. George’s in Edinburgh, the church he would pastor for nearly fifty years, was to one of Dr. Candlish’s old elders on his deathbed. The godly old man had a book open on his pillow. Can you guess what it was? You never would. It was the Westminster Confession of Faith. “I am dying on that gospel chapter,” he told the young minister; and Whyte had no sooner read it to him, than he fell asleep in Jesus.

Your choice of guidebooks, apart from the guide­book itself, is left to you. But if such guidebooks are never in your hands and on your bedside tables, if you never study the Christian geography of death, it should surprise no one if that territory always remains foreign and forbidding to you. Paul himself had stud­ied the maps so thoroughly that he now couldn’t wait to see the country for himself.

Imagine the Life to Come

Second, we must exercise our imagination for the sake of death and the life to come.

This is what Paul has done. He saw himself in heaven with Christ; he saw the crown of righteous­ness laid up for him; and the sight of those things in his soul had brought him actually to anticipate his death.

You will scarcely find a master of the Christian life who does not in one way or another urge us to do this. Rutherford said: “Fore-fancy your death”; Goodwin suggests that we should “die speculatively”; Nicolas Ridley called upon us to “let our death be premeditated.” Bunyan has Interpreter say to Christiana: “If a man would live well, let him fetch his last day to him, and make it always his company keeper.” Alexander Whyte himself once said: “I sometimes do it to myself. I go into the Dean Cemetery and think I see the gravestone of Alexander Whyte…when his days are over for preaching Christ.”

What an important tool, what a precious power, what an invaluable instrument of holiness and faith the Lord has given you in your imagination. Think of the untold benefit which has come to the church because of Bunyan’s imagination: he could see the Christian life as a journey; he could see the Slough of Despond and the Wicket Gate and the Narrow Way up the hill, and Vanity Fair and all the rest. He could see Christian and Pliable and Hopeful and Talkative and all the other characters who appear in his immor­tal book and in the church of Christ in every day and in every town. And he could see the River and the Celestial City beyond. And in this Bunyan was only follow­ing in the footsteps of his master. The Lord Christ was always giving reign to his imagination: he saw the Son of Man coming in His glory; he could look ahead and see the Judge separat­ing the sheep from the goats, and so on. What a help to see such still unseen things; what an immense ben­efit to have a vivid impression of them in your soul.

All of your natural instincts con­spire to make you blind to your death and the life beyond—but you must set your imagination loose until you actually see Paul with Christ and then, yourself with Christ. Look, stare, peer into the future until you see your own deathbed, and the angels who come to carry you to Abraham’s bosom, and the Lord Christ himself, with the nail prints still visible in his hands and feet, there to welcome you by name to Paradise. See what it is like to be with Christ. See what life is like when you are finally, at last rid of sin and are as pure in heart and life as you have struggled and bitterly wept to be in this world, but without success. See human life as it will be when all that is bad and wrong is removed and all that is good and pure and happy appears to a perfect degree. Go to heaven in your imagination, and stay there long enough and often enough, as Paul did, that the prospect of going there for real will make you feel, as he did, that to die is better by far!

Practice Dying

And then, we must actually practice dying until we have got to be very good at it. Paul knew all about this; he had made a business of dying every day: dying to sin, to himself, to the world. Dying over and over again to everything that would seek to make him at home in this world, to everything that he could not take with him on his trip home!

Spurgeon put it this way: “No man would find it difficult to die who died every day. He would have practised it so often, that he would only have to die but once more; like the singer who has been through her rehearsals, and is perfect in her part, and has but to pour forth the notes once for all, and have done. Happy are they who every morning go down to Jordan’s brink, and wade into the stream in fellow­ship with Christ, dying in the Lord’s death, being cru­cified on his cross, and raised in His resurrection. They, when they shall climb their Pisgah, shall behold nothing but what has been long familiar to them, as they have studied the map of death….”

Nothing will make leaving this world easier than the daily practice of dying to it and to its pleasures in order to live to Christ.

If then you would have Paul’s happy mind about death and then, later, Paul’s triumphant experience of death, do what we know from his letters he was always doing: study the guidebooks to master the Christian geography of death; premeditate your own death; and practice dying until you can do it with the expertise of a much exercised faith.

Now all of that, in sum, reduces to this: the Christian will have Paul’s happy mind about death, when he shares Paul’s mind about life, and Paul states his mind plainly on that subject: for him, “to live is Christ.” He lives to love Christ, to serve Him, to walk with Him and fellowship with Him in his heart. He lives to know Him better, to experience Christ’s friendship and lordship to a still greater degree. He lives to be true to Christ and to be worthy of Him. He lives to make Christ’s terrible conquest of sin and death for him the single great interest, and burden, and joy of his life. And he lives to go to be with Christ forever! Live as Paul lived, with Jesus Christ preeminent in all things, and you will die as Paul died. It is for those whose life is Christ, that death is better by far!

In 1984, en route to visit me and my family in Amsterdam, Dad and Mother spent a week with the Ian Taits in Devon. And, as is the privilege of all who visit the Taits, they were treated to a church historical tour of the surrounding country. In nearby Brixham they visited the church once pastored by Henry Lyte, the godly Anglican priest, whose hymns Dad so much admired. In the present church building, built after the days of Lyte’s ministry, they found a grave­stone, the epitaph on which may or may not be the work of Lyte himself. But it certainly is the epitaph of one who shared Paul’s Christian faith and holy mind about death.

It is perfectly Pauline, both in its happy confi­dence in the condition of those who die in Christ and in the reason for that confidence. Dad loved it. I can see the tears welling in his eyes and hear the catch in his voice as he first read it to me, there in our rooms in Holland. I offer it to you now both as the testimony he, no doubt, from the side of Christ would bear to you all if he could, as his final sermon.

What shall we write on this memorial stone?
Thy merits? Thou didst rest on Christ alone;
Our sorrow? Thou wouldst blame the selfish tear;
Our love? Alas it needs no record here.
Praise to thy God and ours? His truth and love
Are sung in nobler strains by thee above.
What wouldst thou have us write? A voice is beard,

“Write, for each reader write, a warning word;
Oh bid him look before him and within.
Talk to his heedless bean of death and sin,
And if at these be trembles, bid him flee
To Christ and find Him all in all, like me!”

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