How calm, how tranquil that departure! Never did sun sink so gently in its crimson couch -- never did child, nestling in its mother's bosom, close its eyes more sweetly!
"His summon'd breath went forth as peacefully
Befitting close to a calm and noiseless existence! It would seem as if the guardian angels who had been hovering round his death-pillow had well-nigh reached the gates of glory ere the sorrowing survivors discovered that the clay tabernacle was all that was left of a "brother beloved!"
From the abrupt manner in which, in the course of the narrative, our Lord makes the announcement to His disciples, we are almost led to surmise that He did so at the very moment of the spirit's dismissal -- the Redeemer speaks while the eyelids are just closing, and the emancipated soul is winging its arrowy flight up to the spirit-land!
Death a SLEEP! -- How beautiful the image! Beautifully true, and only true regarding the Christian. It is here where the true and the false -- Christianity and Paganism -- meet together in impressive and significant contrast. The one comes to the dark river with her pale, sickly lamp. It refuses to burn -- the damps of Lethe dim and quench it. Philosophy tries to discourse on death as a "stern necessity" -- of the duty of passing heroically into this mysterious, oblivion-world -- taking with bold heart "the leap in the dark," and confronting, as we best can, blended images of annihilation and terror.
The Gospel takes us to the tomb, and shews us Death vanquished, and the Grave spoiled. Death truly is in itself an unwelcome messenger at our door. It is the dark event in this our earth, -- the deepest of the many deep shadows of an otherwise fair creation -- a cold, cheerless avalanche lying at the heart of humanity, freezing up the gushing fountains of joyous life. But the Gospel shines, and the cold iceberg melts. The Sun of Righteousness effects what philosophy, with all its boasted power, never could. Jesus is the abolisher of Death. He has taken all that is terrible from it. It is said of some venomous insects that when they once inflict a sting, they are deprived of any future power to hurt. Death left his envenomed sting in the body of the great victim of Calvary. It was thenceforward disarmed of its fearfulness! So complete, indeed, is the Redeemer's victory over this last enemy, that He Himself speaks of it as no longer a reality, but a shadow -- a phantom-foe from which we have nothing to dread. "Whosoever believeth in Me shall never die." "If a man keep My sayings, he shall never see death." These are an echo of the sweet Psalmist's beautiful words, a transcript of his expressive figure when he pictures the Dark Valley to the believer as the Valley of a "shadow." The substance is removed! When the gaunt spirit meets him on the midnight waters, he may, like the disciples at first, be led to "cry out for fear." But a gentle voice of love and tenderness rebukes his dread, and calms his misgivings -- "It is I! be not afraid!" Yes, here is the wondrous secret of a calm departure -- the "sleep" of the believer in death. It is the name and presence of JESUS. There may be many accompaniments of weakness and prostration, pain and suffering, in that final conflict; the mind may be a wreck -- memory may have abdicated her seat -- the loving salutation of friends may be returned only with vacant looks, and the hand be unable to acknowledge the grasp of affection -- but there is strength in that presence, and music in that name to dispel every disquieting, anxious thought. Clung to as a sheet-anchor in life, He will never leave the soul in the hour of dissolution to the mercy of the storm. Amid sinking nature, He is faithful that promised -- "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." -- "Thou art with me," says Lady Powerscourt -- "this is the rainbow of light thrown across the valley, for there is no need of sun or moon where covenant-love illumes."
A Christian's death-bed! It is indeed "good to be there." The man who has not to seek a living Saviour at a dying hour, but who, long having known His preciousness, loved His Word, valued His ordinances, sought His presence by believing prayer, has now nothing to do but to die (to sleep), and wake up in glory everlasting! "Oh! that all my brethren," were among Rutherford's last words, "may know what a Master I have served, and what peace I have this day. This night shall close the door, and put my anchor within the veil." "This must be the chariot," said Helen Plumtre, making use of Elijah's translation as descriptive of the believer's death; "This must be the chariot; oh, how easy it is!" "Almost well," said Richard Baxter, when asked on his death-bed how he did.
Yes! there is speechless eloquence in such a scene. The figure of a quiet slumber is no hyperbole, but a sober verity. As the gentle smile of a foretasted heaven is seen playing on the marble lips -- the rays gilding the mountain tops after the golden sun has gone down -- what more befitting reflection than this, "So giveth He His beloved SLEEP!"
"Sweetly remembering that the parting sigh
Or shall we leave the death-chamber and visit the grave? Still it is a place of sleep; a bed of rest -- a couch of tranquil repose -- a quiet dormitory "until the day break," and the night shadows of earth "flee away." The dust slumbering there is precious because redeemed; the angels of God have it in custody; they encamp round about it, waiting the mandate to "gather the elect from the four winds of heaven -- from the one end of heaven to the other." Oh, wondrous day, when the long dishonoured casket shall be raised a "glorified, body" to receive once more the immortal jewel, polished and made meet for the Master's use! See how Paul clings, in speaking of this glorious resurrection period, to the expressive figure of his Lord before him -- "Them also which SLEEP in Jesus will God bring with Him!" Sleep in Jesus! His saints fall asleep on their death-couch in His arms of infinite love. There their spirits repose, until the body, "sown in corruption" shall be "raised in incorruption," and both reunited in the day of His appearing, become "a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of their God."
Weeping mourner! Jesus dries thy tears with the encouraging assurance, "Thy dead shall live; together with My body they shall arise." Let thy Lazarus "sleep on now and take his rest;" the time will come when My voice shall be heard proclaiming, "Awake, and sing, ye that dwell in dust." "The winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." "Weep not! he is not dead, but sleepeth. Soon shall the day-dawn of glory streak the horizon, and then I shall go that I may awake him out of sleep!"
Beautifully has it been said, "Dense as the gloom is which hangs over the mouth of the sepulchre, it is the spot, above all others, where the Gospel, if it enters, shines and triumphs. In the busy sphere of life and health, it encounters an active antagonist -- the world confronts it, aims to obscure its glories, to deny its claims, to drown its voice, to dispute its progress, to drive it from the ground it occupies. But from the mouth of the grave the world retires; it shrinks from the contest there; it leaves a clear and open space in which the Gospel can assert its claims and unveil its glories without opposition or fear. There the infidel and worldling look anxiously around -- but the world has left them helpless, and fled. There the Christian looks around, and lo! the angel of mercy is standing close by his side. The Gospel kindles a torch which not only irradiates the valley of the shadow of death, but throws a radiance into the world beyond, and reveals it peopled with the sainted spirits of those who have died in Jesus."
Reader! may this calm departure be yours and mine. "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord. ... They REST." All life's turmoil and tossing is over; they are anchored in the quiet haven. Rest -- but not the rest of annihilation --
"Grave! the guardian of our dust;
Let us seek to have the eye of faith fixed and centred on Jesus now. It is that which alone can form a peaceful pillow in a dying hour, and enable us to rise superior to all its attendant terrors. Look at that scene in the Jehoshaphat valley! The proto-martyr Stephen has a pillow of thorns for his dying couch, showers of stones are hurled by infuriated murderers on his guiltless head, yet, nevertheless, he "fell asleep." What was the secret of that calmest of sunsets amid a blood-stained and storm-wreathed sky? The eye of faith (if not of sight) pierced through those clouds of darkness. Far above the courts of the material temple at whose base he lay, he beheld, in the midst of the general assembly and Church of the First-born of Heaven, "JESUS standing at the right hand of God." The vision of his Lord was like a celestial lullaby stealing from the inner sanctuary. With Jesus, his last sight on earth and his next in glory, he could "lay him down in peace and sleep," saying, in the words of the sweet singer of Israel, "What time I awake I am still with Thee."
"It matters little at what hour o' the day
"Our friend Lazarus sleepeth." This tells us that Christ forgets not the dead. The dead often bury their dead, and remember them no more. The name of their silent homes has passed into a proverb, "The land of forgetfulness." But they are not forgotten by Jesus. That which sunders and dislocates all other ties -- wrenching brother from brother, sister from sister, friend from friend -- cannot sunder us from the living, loving heart on the throne of heaven. His is a friendship and love stronger than death, and surviving death. While the language of earth is
"Friend after friend departs --
the emancipated spirit, as it wings its magnificent flight among the ministering seraphim, can utter the challenge, "Who shall separate me from the love of Christ?" The righteous are had with Him "in everlasting remembrance." Their names "written among the living in Jerusalem;" yea, "engraven on the palms of His hands."
One other thought. -- Jesus had at first kindly and considerately disguised from His disciples the stern truth of Lazarus' departure. "Our friend sleepeth." "They thought that He had spoken of taking of rest in sleep." They understood it as the indication of the crisis-hour in sickness when the disease has spent itself, and is succeeded by a balmy slumber -- the presage of returning health; but now He says unto them plainly, "Lazarus is dead." How gently He thus breaks the sad intelligence! And it is His method of dealing still. He prepares His people for their hours of trial. He does not lay upon them more than they are able to bear. He considers their case -- He teaches by slow and gradual discipline, leading on step by step; staying His rough wind in the day of His east wind. As the Good Physician, He metes out drop by drop in the bitter cup -- as the Good Shepherd, His is not rough driving, but gentle guiding from pasture to pasture. "He leadeth them out;" "He goeth before them." He is Himself their sheltering rock in the "dark and cloudy day." The sheep who are inured to the hardships of the mountain, He leaves at times to wrestle with the storm; but "the lambs" (the young, the faint, the weak, the weary) "He gathers in His arms and carries in His bosom." He speaks in gentle whispers. He uses the pleasing symbol of quiet slumber before He speaks plainly out the mournful reality, "Lazarus is dead." Truly "He knoweth our frame -- He remembereth that we are dust." "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him!"
But let us resume our narrative, and follow the journey of the dead man's "Friend." It is a mighty task He has undertaken; to storm the strong enemy in his own citadel, and roll back the barred gates! In mingled majesty and tenderness He hastens to the bereft and desolate home on this mission of power and love. We left the sisters wondering at His mysterious delay. Again and again had they imagined that at last they heard His tardy step, or listened to His hand on the latch, or to the loving music of His longed-for voice. But they are mistaken; it was only the beating of the vine-tendrils on the lattice, or the footfall of the passer by. The Lord is still absent! Their earnest and importunate heart-breathings are expressed by the Psalmist -- "O Lord our God, early do we seek Thee: our soul thirsteth for Thee, our flesh longeth for Thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; to see Thy power and Thy glory, as we have seen Thee." Be still, afflicted ones! He is coming. He will, however, let the cup of anguish be first filled to the brim that He may manifest and magnify all the more the might of His omnipotence, and the marvels of His compassion. The thirsty land is about to become streams of water. The sky is at its darkest, when, lo! the rainbow of love is seen spanning the firmament, and a shower of blessings is about to fall on the "Home of Bethany!"