Christian Tears at the Grave of a Beloved Friend
A sermon occasioned by the much lamented death of Mrs. Elizabeth Swallow
Joshua Harrison, 1830
The Author, in presenting the following short discourse to the public, is not actuated by the vanity of supposing he has to offer that which has anything in it that claims peculiar interest, except it be the very lovely character of her, whose decease, in common with many others, he deeply laments. But he has been influenced by the urgent request of those whom he esteems, and towards whom he is under many obligations; and from an earnest hope that it may prove profitable to them, and to such as may condescend to peruse it. He therefore commits it to the blessing of Him who can give effect to the feeblest attempt to promote his glory, and the welfare of man. Should such important ends be answered, to God be all the praise. Amen.
"I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope." 1 Thessalonians 4:13
"Jesus wept!" John 11:35
Although this is the shortest verse we read in the Holy Bible, it is not the least expressive. It is, indeed, in a peculiar degree, affecting, and superlatively interesting, whether we consider it as indicating the emotions of an intimate and dear friend, or as presenting us with the sensibility of one who can never be mentioned but with the highest admiration and delight, by those who so know him as to appreciate his worth.
Jesus wept! O what rapturous astonishment and pleasing wonder would be felt by the angelic hosts, on beholding such a sight! Well might the Jews, who were present, though blind, and obdurate, and prejudiced as they were, exclaim "Behold, how he loved him!"
Since the inspired penman is silent, as to what in this solemn moving scene most affected the Redeemer's holy soul, it is not for us to declare. Conjecture might lead to various conclusions, and yet none of them might be right. We might suppose it to be . . .
his sincere attachment to Lazarus,
his love to the bereaved sisters,
his pain at their immoderate grief, or
his reflections on the evils and consequences of sin.
But this we know, it was not sinful grief—there was nothing in it that in the least reflected on the wisdom, the purity, or the goodness of God. It was one striking testimony of the Savior's humanity, that (sin excepted) he was a man of like passions with ourselves: it bespoke the tender sensibility of his heart, and his compassionate sympathy with the distressed.
And when the Christian follows him, in his imagination, to his glory, at his Father's right hand, he beholds a High Priest, touched with the feeling of his infirmities. So that while he most cordially commits his soul into his hands for salvation and eternal life, he can also unbosom all his sorrows; and, in return, receive the richest consolations, by which he is enabled to "rejoice in tribulation."
It shows us that the religion of the adorable Redeemer is not one of stoical insensibility; but guards only against inordinate and sinful sorrow.
In our meditation on these words, we shall not attempt to describe what the tears of Jesus implied, but would infer from them the lawfulness of Christian weeping.
Our subject, then, shall be—
Christian Tears at the Grave of a Beloved Friend. Under the term "friend," we would include all the endeared connections in life. The sweet name of sister; the endeared appellation of wife; and the soft and tender word mother.
Let us then ask, what may be the tears of Christian friendship?
I. Tears of sincere AFFECTION.Love is a most powerful passion; and, as connected with circumstances either painful or pleasing, is productive of the deepest grief, or the highest joy. Every relation we sustain, calls forth some portion of our affections; and there may be a something so surpassingly sweet and amiable in the object of our fond regard, as to render it peculiarly endeared to us.
And oh! when, with all that is naturally lovely, there are the richer, and nobler, and finer attractions of the Christian graces combined—such an individual is, indeed, a brother or a sister beloved. It is an addition to our pleasure ever to be thinking, or speaking, or hearing of him. What would we not do to promote his happiness? What would not we be willing to suffer, to alleviate his distress?
Fraternal love is one of the genuine and invaluable effects of the gospel of the blessed and glorious God; and there is nothing more urgently inculcated by our blessed Lord and Savior on the minds of his dear disciples. And when we behold, in any, the beneficial fruits of faith in Jesus Christ, and these fruits of the very best kind, we naturally feel our souls attracted by the influence of so much excellency.
Indeed, where there is an ardent love to "the fairest among ten thousand," a love the offspring of faith, and, from a sense of our numerous obligations to him; next in our esteem will be those, who, from the constraining influence of religion, most resemble our bright example. Such love as this, rises to admiration, and gives us a delight which language cannot express.
We are thereby led to behold charms in religion, which increase in our estimation its value, far beyond our calculation; and Jesus, whose grace bestows such worth, is not forgotten, nor lost in the beauty of his saints, but, through the medium of them, is seen to every advantage, and is esteemed "the altogether lovely One!"
Now, then, we would ask, is it any cause of wonder, if we weep when called to bid adieu to any one of such characters as these? And such a sensation is desirable, if we consider that the death of our much-valued friends is sent to us as a chastisement, and a call to all that is honorable to God, and ornamental to our Christian profession. By the influence of this kind of grief, we are constrained to enter into our closets, and to pour out our hearts before a compassionate, and tender Father, which may be attended with the happiest results to our progress in the divine life; and as a preparation, shortly, to meet our much lamented friends in our Father's house. Do we not sometimes drop a tear when called to part, but for a few fleeting months, with any endeared to us? Have we never seen the tear of maternal fondness, bedew the cheek of a lovely child when about to depart for school? Well, surely, when the final separation comes, as to this world, the tear of tender affection seems becoming.
II. Tears of GRIEF.Ah! these may copiously flow, and yet there may be no mixture of murmuring. It is possible for a believer in Jesus to say, even when his bosom throbs with anguish, and his eyes are darkened with overflowing sorrow, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." Yes, he may feel perfectly satisfied with the will of his heavenly Father, and be so entirely resigned, as to feel, that if the turning of a straw would bring back again the dearest object he has lost, he would not move it; while yet, he sincerely mourns. He may weep as a tender husband, who has lost the principle means of his domestic comfort; his solace under his heaviest afflictions; his wise and and prudent adviser in seasons of difficulty and perplexity; the promoter of his love to Christ, and of all those pious sensibilities which were the happiness of his life. And while the big tear rolls down his manly cheek, he may say, "Lover and friend have you put far from me, and my acquaintance into darkness;" and, notwithstanding all, may "be still, and know that he is God."
Sisters, who were long united as a three-fold cord, and who were endeared to each other by every tie of the most cordial and unselfish affection, may mourn over a relative, in whom they saw so much to admire, and to whom they owed so many things they justly esteemed, and whom they can never, no never forget. Yet, under the agonizing emotions caused by their irreparable loss, say, "It is well."
Ah! and a bereaved child, who has lost the guide of her youth, that watched over her with maternal fondness; whose life was bound up with the life of her dearly beloved; who assiduously guarded her against every evil, and taught her whatever was conducive to her dignity and her bliss; who ever directed her opening mind to Jesus, as the choicest friend, and to religion, as the "one thing needful;" and whose constant and fervent aspirations ascended to God, on her behalf, with strong cries and tears—cannot but weep at the recollection of what was so valuable, and so highly valued.
Yet, if impressed with the winning instructions so often imparted, so that Christ has become her choice, and the gospel the source of her pleasure and her hope, she will gratefully bless God for the past, and submissively say, "It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him."
Oh! my friends, who can help dropping a tear while musing on death? There are, doubtless, many things connected with it that are truly affecting. O sin! you greatest of evils and worst of enemies—what have you done! O what a long train of evils follow you! Diseases and pains and tribulations, numerous and of various kinds; and, not least of all, death, the last enemy.
How the fair form becomes changed, so that we must bury it out of our sight! How is society deprived of its best friends, the church of its ornaments, and relatives of what are most dear!
Were it not for religion, sweet religion, which assures us of a blissful immortality, and a glorious resurrection, we should have no balm for our wounds, no consolation for our sorrows.
But from Scripture revelation we know that when "absent from the body, they are present with the Lord!"
"For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" 1 Corinthians 15:53-55
"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord!"
"Therefore, comfort one another with these words."
III. Tears of HUMBLE CONTRITION.
Ah! my friends, it is then we mourn as we ought to do, and to good purpose:
when our hearts are broken and contrite;
when we weep, because we behold a holy and an infinitely gracious God offended by our folly;
when we feel how sin has debased us; and not only brings us to death, and the dreary grave; but has exposed us to indescribable and eternal misery.
"Remember, the Lord does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men." He is pleased, by painful providences, to chastise us, for our profit; and though now "no chastening for the present seems to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless, afterward, it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness, unto those who are exercised thereby."
"You have," says Ephraim, "chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke. Turn me, and I shall be turned; for you are the Lord my God."
Here, then, we learn the compassionate design of all; and it is well when we view all in this light, so that we abhor ourselves, and with humble penitent hearts, confess, and bewail our sins, and earnestly pray, "Create in us a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within us!"
Ah and it is well, when we look to the cross, and, through faith in the mediation of Jesus Christ, draw near to the throne of grace, saying, with earnest longings of the mind, "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; according unto the multitude of your tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from myiniquity, and cleanse me from my sin."
Then shall we be justified freely through the redemption that is in Christ, and have peace flow into our bosom, as the effect of reconciliation with God; and wish to be purified and weaned, and to have our minds and hearts set on things above. Then shall we . . .
use the world as not abusing it,
and sit loose to our dearest earthly enjoyments,
and resign our comforts with submission,
and improve our time,
and esteem religion as our grand concern,
and be diligent to make our calling and election sure,
and use our talents to God's glory and the promotion of good; as faithful stewards, who must give an account of our stewardship. While at the same time we shall be "looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ."
Then shall we be supported by the delightful anticipation, that though our friends deceased, will not come to us, we shall go to them. And O, what a meeting that will be! There separation is unknown. There all tears are wiped away. "Therefore my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for you know that your labor shall not be in vain in the Lord."
IV. Tears of GRATITUDE.
When the eyes are suffused with tears, they are not always the overflowings of sorrow, but sometimes of grateful joy. Perhaps on such a mournful occasion as this, they may be of a mixed nature—of grief and gratitude. Whatever cause we have to lament, yet there is much to excite the most pleasurable feelings, and to inspire us with cheerful thanksgivings.
When the bride is clad in her costly robe, the robe of Christ's righteousness, and decked with the most precious jewels, the graces of the Holy Spirit; and is all in love with the bridegroom, and has had much here to distress her; who would not be thankful that she is gone to meet him "whom her soul loves".
Selfishness is a powerful disposition; and we would willingly keep those we esteem, even . . .
from the pure and rapturous joys of celestial paradise;
from the bosom of God;
from all that is transporting;
though here on earth, they have to endure the most painful affliction. But God, who is infinitely wiser and better than we are, decides the point; he asks us no questions, but takes to himself those he has fitted for the inheritance of the saints in light.
Do you think that the dear departed one wishes to return? Oh, no! After such pure and noble enjoyments as she has begun to taste, she could not feel the least relish for anything that this poor world can present. If permitted to address us, would it not be, Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves. Make that beneficent Savior, who was so precious to me, your friend. Oh, let religion be your great concern; then you will, before long, unite with me in these celestial scenes of hallowed bliss.
While then you weep, are you not grateful? grateful she was for more than thirty years a subject of grace; so honorable a Christian; so kind and benevolent and useful; so greatly and deservedly beloved; so long spared to you, notwithstanding her debilitated state of health, that she was restored to you again eight years ago? And when one who absorbed much of her thoughts, and engaged much of her attention, was then too young to have been sensible of her loss.
May she now be able to estimate how valuable a mother she has lost, and never forget the lessons she has heard, the example she had before her, and the fervent prayers so frequently offered on her behalf.
If gratitude is indeed mixed with your grief, it will be your chief desire, that the painful event may be sanctified; that you may be drawn nearer to God in every act of devotion, both public and private, so as to be ever living in the anticipation of your departure; so that at last you may meet her, to join in the celebration of all the goodness and mercy you experienced together in your pilgrimage on earth.
O what thanks are due to God that you have not to "sorrow even as others who have no hope."
My esteemed friends, you do not weep alone. She was highly prized by many. This large congregation is witness." Friends, weep; servants, weep; the church weeps; her pastor weeps. Ah! this place is, at this time, the house of mourning.
Elizabeth became a decided follower of Christ, and united with the Christian church at Wooburn, April the 4th 1800; and she continued a member upwards of thirty years.
O that many such might be "added to the Lord!" She was either naturally of a most amiable temper, or else the influence of religion did much for her; for we are certain that all who had the happiness of knowing her, will say they rarely, if ever, saw her equal. She was not like an ordinary flower in the garden, which scarcely attracts notice so as to be distinguished from the rest; but she had such peculiar beauty and fragrance, as to gain the admiration of all who beheld her. She was not only a lover of peace, but a peace-maker, and therefore blessed. There was something in her very looks and words so engaging, that she made us esteem her; and her name was the theme of all her intimate acquaintances, as everything lovely and attractive.
There was not a person in her dear mother's manufactory, nor in her house, nor one who ever dwelt with her, but who felt for her a more than ordinary share of genuine respect. Her soft words and sweet manners, often calmed the rising storm of passion in others; and she had ever affections of pity for the distressed. Of her substance she cheerfully consecrated a portion to promote Zion's prosperity at home and abroad.
She was, indeed, no common kind of Christian. Though low in humility, and of sweet modesty, and ever fixing her whole trust on her beloved Redeemer—her life, her comfort, and the root of all her holy fruits—she panted after the richest experience and highest conformity to Jesus. It was her general remark, "I long to feel more, and to love God more, and to be more holy." Her conversation on religious topics was so spiritual, and yet unaffected, and had in it such a richness, that her minister said, "My cold heart has often been warmed, and my soul so melted, that I could truly say, "it is good to be here."
She was tender with respect to the characters of others, and did not indulge herself, nor encourage others, in evil speaking. Yet, with all her tenderness of feelings towards others, in duty she was firm. She was very conscientious in all her personal and relative duties.
As a mother, her whole soul was engaged in devising how to promote the spiritual and eternal welfare of her child. She never put a book into her daughter's hands until she had perused it herself, so fearful was she that she should read anything improper and injurious. Her very countenance and expressions evinced how she watched every opening of her child's mind, and how anxious she was to catch at anything encouraging.
But how did she die? Ah when we are able thus to tell you how she lived, we have no need to tell you how she died. We will just give you a specimen of the nature of her conversation in a severe illness, and in the prospect of death, from a memorandum made by her pastor immediately after visiting her:
"Wednesday, April the 24th, 1822, (eight years ago,) visited Mrs. Swallow. She is very composed, and in a sweet frame of mind. 'The Lord,' said she, "only knows what he has to do with me. If he has anything for me to do—if I may be useful, I hope he will restore me. But if not, I trust he will prepare me for my latter end, and give me strength for the day. I want to feel Christ more precious. I am fearful I have not loved him enough. I wish to be more sensible of his love. I hope, after a long profession, I have not been deceiving myself—I feel so much deficiency. Perhaps I have not loved his house and people as I ought to have done. I am fearful I have sometimes made excuses for not attending (alluding to her frequent ill health). I think I have had many very precious opportunities. The last time I heard you, I hope was truly profitable, from "I was silent, I opened not my mouth, because you are the one who has done this.' I find now the need to be silent, and to acquiesce with the Divine will. This verse I have found precious to me:
"Let me but hear my Savior say,
Strength shall be equal to your day;
Then I rejoice in deep distress,
Leaning on all-sufficient grace."
And also that passage—"Is anything too hard for the Lord?"
In her last illness, and but a week before her happy spirit took its flight to a mansion in her Father's house, her beloved husband inquired of her, how she felt her mind? "Peaceful," she replied, "but I trust Jesus has been sought as a refuge for my soul. What do you think of my state?" He very justly remarked, "You have been a living witness; and no one doubts your state who knows you." From something said, she intimated that she supposed her medical physician thought her in danger.
When on her beloved daughter's entering the room, she said, "Well, my dear Lady, be a good child and love God. Nothing will make up for the want of love to Jesus." After this, in the night, her servant inquired how she felt? She held up her hand for her to be still, as was her usual manner in her sickness, when engaged in secret fellowship with God.
To a relative coming into the room, she said, "My dear girl, it has pleased the Lord to lay his afflicting hand on me again—He has a design"
She was asked, when dying, "Is Jesus precious !" She replied, "I want to feel him precious."
It was said, "You have Christ." "Yes, by faith; I saw him this morning," (no doubt meaning by faith.)
Soon after, she was heard to say, "It is the Lord." Her husband then remarked to her, "He is about to take you to himself, my dear."
"We must not forget God." "No," said her husband; "he is alpha and omega." She with peculiar earnestness exclaimed, "Amen! Amen!"
"Christ is precious," her sister heard her say. She frequently repeated, pointing with her finger, "Glorious view! glorious view!" In fact, in tolerable health, or in sickness, she never appeared in an unfit state to die. Surely, then, we may say of her, in conclusion, what a living and eloquent preacher said of a pious minister—"Some say of the dead, we hope; but here is no hope—it is far above hope; it is certain!"
Now then, my hearers, behold the worth of religion, as exemplified, in so pleasing a degree, in her whose loss we so feelingly mourn. In her we beheld something more than a name. To her, we could point as a living epistle and witness of the excellency and worth of genuine piety.
O my friends! be earnestly anxious to possess a saving interest in Jesus Christ, who says, "Him who comes to me, I will never cast out." Delay not; for delay is dangerous. Death may be standing at your door! The decree may have gone forth, and in a few short hours you may be in an eternal world!
"Be ready, for in such an hour as you think not the Son of man comes." If prepared, you will exchange this valley of tears for a fullness of joy, and for pleasures at God's right hand for evermore! Ah! nothing will avail you, if you are destitute of genuine and heart-felt religion.
Amidst all the painful circumstances of life, and the gloomy prospects of death and the grave, you will have nothing . . .
to bear up your sinking spirits;
to give sweet serenity to your minds;
to fill you with joyful anticipations; and
to give you victory over the last enemy.
May the Lord, in his gracious compassion, overrule this mournful event, to stir us all up. To stir up sinners earnestly to seek the Savior, too long neglected, if not despised. To stir up saints to be more diligent in the exercise of faith, and in the cultivation of every Christian grace, so as to be ready when the Bridegroom is heard. To stir up relatives, weeping relatives, to imitate so pious an example—for surely the best token of your affection is walking in her footsteps, as far as she trod in the footsteps of Jesus her beloved Lord.
"A voice says, "Cry out."
And I said, "What shall I cry?"
"All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever." Isaiah 40:6-8
"May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word!" 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17