(all pastors should learn from this)
This past Friday, June 25, I had the responsibility and privilege of taking the funeral service of 28 year old Alex Philips at our church. His sister Gina comes to us on Sunday mornings and has been accompanied by their mother over the last six months. Their mother Karen is a retired anaesthetist at the local hospital. It was a self-inflicted overdose of cocaine that caused his death. What grief. He was born and raised in our community, played soccer for local teams. He has a son Matthew aged 10 who lives with his mother in London, but Alex lived here with his Polish girl friend.
Gina had gone to university in Nottingham and through the Christian Union had come to a knowledge of and faith in Christ. She says she was pretty wild before that. She went on to be a Christian Union Relay worker in Lancaster and then applied to go to Guatamala with Latin Link where she was when she heard about her brother’s condition. She flew straight home, as did her mother from her holiday in Peru.
As one of our elders wrote of the funeral, “Almost every available seat upstairs and downstairs was taken. I have seen it almost as full for other funerals, but never with the majority being young men in their 20s and 30s, and not quite as many, but still a lot, of young women of similar age; all dressed for a funeral. They were team mates and school mates. None of them was used to church services. They only attend for the rare wedding and funeral. The only singers of the hymns were the few of us from the church and a few older people. The only hymn they knew was Abide with Me.”
When the family entered the church and the congregation stood, I had a lump in my throat to see ten year old Matthew walking behind his father’s coffin with his hand on it, pushing it down with a number of other young men from the family including Alex’s brother Ben. One wreath on top of the coffin was of a football.
I preached on 2 Samuel 18:33 The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: "O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you--O Absalom, my son, my son!" I spoke of the three sources of David’s grief:
1] One was the wonderful love that a parent has for its son. The parent has brought the son into the world, nurtured and cared for the child, dried its tears when the child was hurt, and what grief it knows at the loss of a child. That he should die before his parents . . . it is unthinkable. David’s loss of a son was a loss of part of himself; his emptiness was an aching void. Absalom his son was no longer there to fill it.
2] Another source of grief was the pain of dashed hopes. Absalom was a son with such promise. He was one of the best soldiers in Israel, a natural leader. His stature, strength and sheer physical presence was the envy of many. He had political wit; he had it all, and so much of Israel really liked him. He was the popular prince. David had dreams about the boy who was destined to follow him - a glorious son, a warrior in his footsteps, a king of glory and renown. David’s desire was to bless him in every way with all the riches at his disposal. But now none of that would happen. Absalom was dead and so were all of David’s hopes as he cried "Absalom, my son, my son."
3] David's pain was also the pain of regret. For those estranged from their children they have enough struggles with self doubt. All of us could always have done everything better. “If only I’d done this or that differently,” even though we know that young people are responsible and make their own decisions based on a whole variety of factors, most of which have little or nothing to do with us as parents. But for David it was a feeling that he’d been soft on Absalom. Had David himself as a parent helped to create this rebel? David recognised that his own behaviour had some part in what had happened, and that is part of his anguish; "Absalom, my son, my son.”
I said, “The God who made all things, and made us, the God in whom we live and move and have our being is not a silent God. He speaks through Moses and the prophets, but he has spoken most clearly by his Son Jesus Christ. If we want to know what God is like, his name is Jesus, and he is the embodiment and incarnation of God. Today the living resurrected Jesus is one who has total recall of terrible pain; not only when they drove nails through his hands and feet, but throughout his life; he lost his father as a young man and so he can sympathize with a little boy whose Daddy has died. He had friends who died and he wept with them. He died slowly on a cross. So the God of David, the God who was in David and helped him weep, the God who was David’s good Shepherd and the Shepherd of all his sheep, understands our pain today. He understands the grief of losing children to disease, of losing children to accidents, of losing children to indifference and unbelief; he understands the pain of losing children to death, even eternal death. With your groans he groans, with your tears he understands, your sleepless nights have equally been his who never slumbers nor sleeps.”
Then I said to them “David displayed God’s love in his own love for his son. God had taught him to love like that. But there was one request that he could not fulfil “Absalom! Would to God I had died for you.” But it was too late for Absalom. Death is an event not a process, and it was also impossible for David to do that. But men and women! There is a love that is greater than the love of parents. This is the love of God in Christ Jesus. And as we are still in the land of the living, and have the privilege of living in the day of grace let us not end at the grief of David. His grief was eventually absolved in the blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. David’s sins, also in relation to his son Absalom, were forgiven. David received the comforting news of this already in his lifetime. Nathan the prophet of God could tell him … “The Lord also has put away your sin.”
“David, in a good old age was taken to be with his Lord and Saviour and he was reunited with all those who had slept in the Lord. And there God will wipe away our tears of grief. He will put his thumb on our cheeks and wipe away our tears.
“David once cried, ‘Would to God I had died for thee!’ And in that cry David became a signpost or a pointer to Jesus Christ. ‘Would to God I had died for thee!’ No, it wasn’t possible. David couldn’t die a substitutionary death. He could not die as a sacrifice in the stead and place of another. He had to carry his own guilt. But great David’s greater Son, Jesus, the holy child of God could; and Father and Son would have it this way. We are told, “God, who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). The Son of God died willingly because he loved people like us.
“His death was in the place of rebels like Absalom; in the place of those who deserved to die. His death came in the place of those who have discovered, by Word and Holy Spirit, that they are naturally selfish and proud of heart. To sum it up . . . His death came in the place of people who mess up their lives, people who are anxious to know the answer to “Would this God have died because he loved me?” . . .
“Would He? Would He . . . go to the cross of Calvary to save me? It was there that the greater than David died as the Lamb of God He takes away the sin of the world, that is, in the place of men and women, boys and girls, who are by nature no better than Absalom.
“Listen to what God the Father Himself says about him … “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!” This is the message we need, as parents and children – young and old. God did not spare his Son from the cruel death of the cross in order that both parents and children, husbands and wives, sons and daughters who believe in him might be spared - ransomed, healed, restored forgiven, as long as we go, just as we are away, from our sinning and entrust ourselves to this great Saviour who says, “Come unto me and I will give you rest.”
“Jesus Christ! Hear Him! Believe on Him! Follow Him in this life. He is able to do what David could not do, and when, by the grace of God you learn the lesson of this message, and you do turn in faith to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, it will be well with you. It will be well in life; it will be well in death; it will be well in eternity. He lives who once said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me.” He lives and stands in our midst today who once said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” who on the third day rose from the dead. The one who said to his people, “Because I live, you shall live also.”
So the service ended with ‘Abide with Me’ and then onto the street outside the congregation gathered and sympathized with the family who stood by the hearse. The traffic all waited fifteen minutes for them to break up. On to the crematorium we went for the brief service of committal. I went with the family and friends, a hundred of them, to the Golf Club. There the atmosphere was very different. They played his favourite rock music on the public address system. I was welcomed to sit with his mother’s uncles and aunts and appreciated meeting them. One couple were earnest Christians. They thanked me for the love and compassion with which I had led the service. I am glad that that came through.
On Sunday Gina was in the service but left in the last hymn and she was accompanied by a friend who had come to the funeral service and so on that occasion had entered our church for the first time. What a challenge to reach that generation of young people, so secularized; so anti-Christian; so estranged from any kind of Christian attitude to marriage and self-control let alone to a redeeming God-man. We prayed that one of them would be touched by the event, and by the service and sermon. May our prayers be answered. May Karen, Gina and Ben find hope and comfort in the grace of God.
- Geoff Thomas