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The Burial of Sarah
It has been remarked as a singular circumstance that Sarah is the only woman whose age is mentioned in the Scriptures. At the time of her death her only son Isaac was thirty-seven years old, she herself being ninety at the time of his birth. We know little about Sarah, except that she was comely to look upon; somewhat severe towards Hagar her handmaid, and that she was the mother of Isaac! This seems quite little when mentioned in one sentence, but really it comes to a great deal in the full working out. Her good looks made travelling rather dangerous for Abraham; her conduct towards Hagar showed her temper and moral quality, and her motherhood of Isaac made her the mother of all believers ( 1Pe 3:6 ). How large an oak may come out of one acorn! As we are about to attend the burial of Sarah, we should reflect a little upon the lessons of her life before we leave the cave of the field of Machpelah, which is in Hebron in the land of Canaan.
Some of us have to live in a kind of reflected lustre and fame. We are next to nothing in ourselves, but our brother is famous, our uncle is influential; we have not seen the Queen ourselves, but we have seen a man who has seen her. Sarah was not much in herself, but she was the wife of Abraham. The window of your cottage is a very small one, but it looks out upon a park three thousand acres large. Some of us get our lustre at third or fourth hand, and of course it gets paler and paler as it comes along. John Stradwick kept a shop on Snow Hill; John Stradwick was the first deacon of one of the London Congregational churches; John Stradwick let a room or two above his shop, to lodgers; one of his lodgers was called John Bunyan; John Stradwick had a daughter and that daughter married Robert Bragge, and Robert Bragge was one of the pastors of this church! I like to think of one of my predecessors and his wife being with Bunyan in his last illness, and getting a grip of the tinker's hand now and then.
This is a long way to have fetched one's water, I admit; but when it is brought to me it is like water from the well of Bethlehem, and there is none like it! After all it is something to be in the tail of a kite if the kite be beautiful and a good flier. Even Boswell has become as one of the rings of Saturn. I should account it a fine thing if I could have an hour's talk with one of Shakespeare's servants, or spend a whole day with Luther's sexton. If I made right use of my time I should feel that I had been in high company and had touched the threshold of immortal fame. Now these are only the lower applications of a principle universal in its operation and influence, and which reaches its highest point in Christian fellowship. I can come to One in the touch of the hem of whose garment there is eternal virtue! Poor though we be and nameless, yet if we be in Christ Jesus, we come to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and Church of the firstborn, and to the spirits of just men made perfect. Nothing in ourselves: we are yet kings and priests unto God! Our torch is lighted at the sun.
Some people have to wait a long time for their blessings. Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac was born. This thing itself is merely accidental, but the principle which is under it is living and beneficent. If we have the true life in our hearts, not one of us has yet seen his best days. Physically we may be on the wane; but spiritually we may win our greatest victories actually on the day of death. You have not yet got the best your brain can give. There is a finer wine in your heart than has yet been crushed out. Do not close the shutters, rather break out another window, for the light of the sun is yet plentiful. You may bring forth fruit in old age, and be fat and flourishing until the last. You have not got God's best. He keeps the good wine for by-and-by. I hear your sigh and your groan, and for every one of them you shall yet have a hymn or a loud psalm. Your great prayer shall be answered: the prayer that drags your heart out in passionate entreaty for the runaway boy, for the lost girl, for the healing of a wound in the spirit never spoken to mortal ear! Live in this hope, and this hope will keep you young. Sarah laughed at ninety, and made all her friends laugh in her late-come joy.
And now that Sarah is dead, Abraham came to mourn and to weep for her. But was not Abraham a man of faith? Yes; but he was a man of feeling too, and his piety did not make his heart hard. But was not Isaac his son alive? Yes; but a love ninety years old, and tested in many a sharp flame, was not to be given up lightly. It is a hard thing to part with those we have known longest and best. When such parting comes, "'tis the survivor dies"; memory is quickened into strange vividness; the past life comes up and passes its days before the eyes in all their variety of colour and service. I hear Abraham talking to himself: "Oh, how sad is this loneliness; how awful is the stillness of this silence; I can talk to Isaac, but not as I did to his mother; there are some eighty years of life that he knows nothing about; Sarah and I wandered together, talked out our hearts to one another, planned and dreamed and suffered in one common experience, and there she lies a stranger amongst strangers, cold and silent for ever!" And Abraham wept! The man who slew the great kings, wept! The man whose name is to endure as long as the sun, wept! Jesus wept! Blessed will those of us be who have not to weep over neglect, harshness, bitterness; over speeches that made the heart ache, over selfishness that hastened the very death we mourn! If you would have few tears by-and-by, be kind now; if you would have a happy future, create a gracious present. Make your homes happy; banish from the sacred enclosure of the family all meanness, hardness, suspicion, and unkindness; that when the dark day comes, as come it will too soon, your deep and tender sorrow may not be mixed with the bitterness of self-reproach.
This is a sharp variety of experience for Abraham. In the last incident how brave he was, and what a kingliness dignified even the stoop of his sorrow as he went with Isaac to the altar! What is the difference between his case then and his case now? It is the difference between doing God's will and suffering it. A wonderful difference as we all know! So long as we have something to do, something to call us from pensive meditation and set us to hard strife, we bear up with hopeful courage; but when the strife ceases, and we are left alone with the wreck it has wrought, we often express our emotion in tears which never came during all the battle. Such an instance as this goes far towards proving that Abraham's faith was as human as his sorrow. If we can join him in grief, why not in faith? If we thought him nearly Divine on Moriah, we may see how human he is in Hebron. As for ourselves, we can fight resolutely; can we suffer patiently? We are heroes whilst the sound of the trumpet is maddening the air; what are we when laid up as wounded soldiers? The patient, uncomplaining sufferer, who for months or years has been waiting for her Lord, without ever suggesting that his steps were tardy, may have as strong a faith as Abraham had when he held the knife over his son. All the world's faith is not historic. To-day has its chronicles of trust and patience, and hope, quite as instructive and thrilling as those which are recorded in the Bible. It is too early to read them through, or to comprehend all their sad, yet glorious meaning; but every syllable is accepted and honoured of God. We often wish that we were as good as the holy men of old; it will be a poor thing, however, if we are not better than the best man in any earlier dispensation. Among all that were born of women there had not appeared a greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than he. So may we be greater than Abraham, by reason of Jesus Christ's promise that we should not only have life, but have it "more abundantly." That some of the older generations might have greater gifts is not denied; but none of them had opportunities of having greater graces. They had special inspiration: we have the general baptism of the Spirit; they saw the unrisen light, we see the sun in a cloudless zenith. My opinion is that God never had better children upon the earth than he has at this moment; never was there such force of life, never such loyalty to the kingdom of heaven. We do not, then, set forth Abraham as a Divine model; we call up his history to see its points common with our own, to study the unchangeableness of God, and to take an estimate of the development of human destiny.
Look at Abraham buying a grave! True, he buys a field, and a cave, and all the trees that were in the field, and in all the borders round about; but, expand the list as we may, it was all for the sake of a place to bury his dead. The good man is forced into such commerce as well as the bad; the best man of his age is here bargaining for burial ground. I need not remind a Christian congregation of the advantages which a good man enjoys under such circumstances. To him the place of Christian sepulchre is not a wilderness given over to the desolation of everlasting winter; it is a garden, full of roots, that shall come up in infinite beauty in the summer that is yet to be. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." The law of mortality will operate until the close of this dispensation; all lower life has been given over to death; but death itself has been devoted by an unchangeable covenant to be destroyed by life. "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." Meanwhile we require graves. Our houses are overshadowed by a temporary destroyer; we are smitten and impoverished by the angel of death. All this we know as a matter of fact; in talking thus I trouble you with the tritest truisms; but have we turned our knowledge to account? Have we read the meaning of the shadow that lies along the whole path of life? Have we so balanced our proportions as to give to each its honest due? Have we not, on the contrary, forgotten our own mortality even in the very act of talking of other men's deaths? What need there is then that we should see this transaction between Abraham and Ephron: listen to the words of the covenant, and ponder well that in return for four hundred shekels of silver Abraham gets a burying-place!
The matter in which the children of Heth answered Abraham should attract the most appreciative notice: "Hear us, my lord: thou art a mighty prince among us: in the choice of our sepulchres bury thy dead; none of us shall withhold from thee his sepulchre, but that thou mayest bury thy dead." How these incidental strokes of pathos attest the oneness of the human heart! Circumstances test the true quality of men. Irreverence in the presence of grief is an infallible sign of the deepest degeneracy: it marks the ultimate deterioration of the human heart. On the other hand, to be chastened by sorrow, to be moved into generous pity and helpfulness, is to show that there is still something in the man on which the kingdom of Jesus Christ may be built. Never despair of any man who is capable of generous impulses. Put no man down as incurably bad, who will share his one loaf with the hungry, or give shelter to a lost little one. Poor and crude may be his formal creed, very dim and pitifully inadequate his view of scholastic theology; but there is a root in him which may be developed into much beauty and fruitfulness. For this reason, I cannot overlook the genial humanity and simple gracefulness of this act of the Hittites.
Man's final requirement of man is a grave. We may go down to the grave in one or two very different ways. Our grave may be respected, or it may be passed by as a dishonoured spot We may live so as to be much missed, or we may live so as to leave the least possible vacancy. Whichever way it be, we should remember that there is no repentance in the grave, the dead man cannot obliterate the past.
Abraham mourned for Sarah. What then? Consecration to God's purposes does not eradicate our deep human love; say rather that it heightens, refines, sanctifies it! Every father is more a father in proportion as he loves and serves the great Father in heaven. We should be on our guard against any system of religion or philosophy that seeks to cool the fervour of natural and lawful love. It may be very majestic not to shed tears; but it is most inhuman, most ungodly. We have heard of Abraham mourning, of David crying bitterly, of the Saviour allowing his feet to be washed with a sinner's tears, and of Jesus Christ weeping; but who ever heard of the devil being broken down in pity or mournfulness? Christianity educates our humanity, not deadens it; and when we are in tears it helps us to see through them nearly into heaven.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 23". The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34