Monday, September 24, 2012

She's Just Sleeping

She's Just Sleeping: Mourning those who are asleep in Jesus.  MaidservantsofchristWhat a strange idea, sleep.  I wonder what God was thinking when He arranged for almost all of His creatures to require regular periods of unconsciousness.  He could have made us to never sleep, never dream, never wake.

What a strange idea, death. I have heard people say that it is a natural part of life, but to me it never fails to seem wrong.  The fact that a living being, a thinking, speaking creature, only a little lower than the angels can be reduced to clay strikes me even stranger than sleep (Psalms 8:5). Occasionally I think, "It's almost as if the world shouldn't have been made that way," then I remember it wasn't (Genesis 2-3). Death feels like an anomaly because it is!

We aren't the first people to struggle with the idea of death.  People who worship their ancestors imagine them passing from life into a pale version of this world again.  Those long dead are dependent on the offerings of the living for the things they need in the next life.  For the ancient Egyptians, the dead were buried with their supplies for the afterlife. Servants, food, even money were represented in the funerary equipment.  From the perspective of the Old Testament writers, Sheol awaited. This place of death was much less appealing than the life we have now (Job 10:21-22, Psalms 6:5, Isaiah 38:18 etc).

We hide our confusion in euphemisms.  We say, "gone" or "passed away."  We say we "lost someone" or that they were "taken from us."  When Jesus wanted to talk about death though, he said somebody was "asleep" (Matthew 9:24, Mark 5:39, Luke 8:52, John 11:11). I don't imagine him peering down at the dead like mourners staring down at the corpse and commenting that he or she looks like they're asleep.  Rather, He seems to be redefining death. 

Each of the gospels offers a picture of this new definition.  For the three synoptic gospels, it's the story of Jairus' daughter.   The terrified father was a leader in the local synagogue whose only child, twelve, lay dying.  He sought out the Rabbi believing that if Jesus would lay hands on his girl she would live.  While Jesus was delayed briefly, a messenger came to let the father know that the child had already died.  The messenger didn't seem to think that there was anything for Jesus to do and asked Jairus to quit bothering the teacher (Matthew 9, Mark 5, Luke 8).

Undeterred, Jesus followed Jairus home.   Shooing away the noisy flute players and crowd of onlookers, he told them that the child is not dead; she was only sleeping.  They laughed at him.  "What kind of fool can't see that she's quit breathing?" they seemed to wonder.  (See Matthew's account) But as far as Jesus was concerned, death was just like sleeping.  Jesus walked right over to her, took her hand and "He said to her, "Talitha kum!" (which translated means, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!")"  (Mark 5:39). That's what I say to wake my sleeping girl, "Hey, honey, it's time.  Get up!" To the astonishment of Peter, James, John and the girl's parents, she did!  

I've been thinking more about death more personally in recent months because my Papaw died quite unexpectedly this spring.  He had been in relatively good health when a stroke caused him to have a car accident and die a few hours later at the hospital.  I couldn't be home for the memorial, but there are things I would have loved to have said.  For example, "He's not dead!  Don't you know he's just gone to sleep?"

I know it's true because Jesus Christ was the first fruits of all who fall asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20). The first fruit is the promise of a harvest to come.  He is the firstborn from the dead, the first of many brothers (Colossians 1:18). 1 Thessalonians 4:14 says that because we believe Jesus has been resurrected we need not mourn hopelessly.  We instead have the promise that when Jesus returns, God will send with him those who "sleep in Jesus."  Jesus was raised, Paul says, so we need not fear; when we sleep, we too shall wake!

So as these days of mourning pass, I am comforted by Jesus' words.   We didn't bury him with stone servants and we won't be burning money.  We don't mourn like the pagans.  We just said, "Good night, we'll see you in the morning."


PS.  Need more? Questions Over Coffee has a great video talking about "How Christian's Mourn!"


  1. Hi! I found you through Tailwind---thank you for this reminder. A friend of mine just unexpectedly lost her dad a few weeks ago, and grieving with her has been hard. It's so odd---so human, probably---to feel utterly bereft and joyful all at once. What a shocking grace the resurrection is!

    1. Hi Anna,
      Thanks so much for the comment. Bereft and yet joyful in our Lord-that's it exactly. As Easter approaches may we all feel the shock, the grace, and the promise of our Lord's resurrection and ours!