Sleep and Death
The damsel is not dead, but sleepeth — Mar_5:39
This thy brother was dead, and is alive again — Luk_15:32
Death as a Fact and What Christ Thought of It
I wish to speak for a little while on some of our Lord’s references to death. I wish to discover in what light He viewed that dark experience of our mortality. You will observe I am not asking your attention to the question of the life beyond the grave. That is another theme. But here we shall look at death just as a fact, as joy and sorrow and love and hate are facts, and ask what our Savior has spoken about that. For those of us who believe in Christ as Lord, it is supremely important to discover that. But I venture to think it is scarcely less important for those of you who take a lower view. For the words of Jesus Christ, whoever Christ was, have influenced the world and altered history in a way as profound as it is unapproached. When you think, whoever Jesus was, of the tremendous influence of His words, when you think that they will still be winged when yours and mine are dead, it becomes the duty of every thoughtful person, who makes any pretence to the balance of true culture, to give the words of Christ his first attention. It is important to know what Plato thought of death. It is important to know what Hegel thought of death. But for men and women living in a world that has felt the terrific impact of Christ’s words, to know what Christ has said on such a theme is the primary duty of intelligence.
Jesus Spoke Little of the Fact of Death
Now when we study Jesus with this end in view, there is one thing which immediately impresses us. It is that Jesus in His ministry spoke comparatively little about death. Familiar with it in the home at Galilee, for Joseph had died when Jesus was still there; lighting oftentimes in boyish wanderings on ghostly sepulchres among the hills, there is no sign that He brooded upon death, nor let it color His imagination, nor that He lived, as men have sometimes lived, with the shadow of death forever by His side. That He spoke much of the life beyond the grave is a fact, of course, which nobody disputes. There is indeed a powerful school today which interprets everything in terms of eschatology. But of the fact of death— that shrouded enemy which lays its icy hand on all humanity— of that He spoke comparatively little. Now that at once separates Jesus from those Stoical teachers who were already beginning to take the ear of Rome. For they, as Bacon has so wisely put it, made death more terrible by dwelling on it so. They thought to conquer death by gazing at it, till familiarity should beget contempt, and instead of contempt there came a haunting terror on the men and women of the Roman Empire. A similar thing has happened more than once in the long story of the Christian Church. Inspired by the passion of asceticism, men have feasted their eyes upon the grave. And the singular thing is that when we turn to Jesus, with whom the story of the Church began, you find wonderfully little of all that. Whatever Jesus feasted His eyes upon, He never feasted them upon the grave. You can never imagine Him a mediaeval saint, clasping a human skull within a charnel-house. But you can always imagine Him among the fields, feasting His heart upon the bending corn, and on the innocent merriment of little children, and on the first glimmerings of human love.
Jesus Speaks Little of Death in Spite of Its Universality
This comparative silence grows more notable when you bear in mind two considerations. The first is the old familiar commonplace that death is a universal thing. There have been teachers who have avoided universal themes and loved to handle exceptional experiences. Some of our finest plays, like Hamlet, deal with experiences of the rarest kind. But Jesus deliberately chose the universal, and dealt with what is common to humanity, and touched with the finger of a son of man the strings that God hath put on every harp. The sorrows He soothes are universal sorrows; the joys He shares in are universal joys. The questions He answers are universal questionings; the hopes He kindles are universal hopes. Yet here is death, the universal leveler, stealing with equal foot to every door, and Jesus speaks very little about that.
Jesus Speaks Little of Death in Spite of Its Significance to Himself
The other consideration which makes the silence notable is the significance to Christ of His own death. That His own death was profoundly important in His eyes no unbiased reader of the Gospels can deny. When He was deeply stirred He spoke of it. It was the one topic of the transfiguration. He watched with eagerness for every sign of readiness that He might unfold its meaning to the twelve. And yet though He saw the coming of the cross, and knew that His triumph was to include a grave, the theme of the grave was rarely on His lips. Even when death was standing on the threshold, it did not form the theme of His discourse. It is not death that moves with awful mien through the glorious discourse of the upper chamber. It is a message more gladdening than death—it is the music of celestial joy—it is tidings of peace that the world cannot give, and at its darkest cannot take away. On that night on which He was betrayed, the shadow of death was on the heart of Jesus. On that night, under the olive trees, He cried, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Yet on that night, with the finger of death upon Him, the talk of Jesus was no more of death than in the glad days when He had watched the lilies, and taken the little children in His arms.
His Silence Could Not Be Interpreted as Indifference
Now that is very suggestive and significant, and it clearly calls for some interpretation. Let me dismiss in passing one interpretation which might possibly occur to certain minds. It might occur to some that this reserve of Jesus was only the superior silence of indifference. It might seem that Jesus spoke little about death, because He scorned the very thought of death. But I venture to say that if you take the Gospels, and study the story of the Master there, you will dismiss that supposition as untenable. When you and I are silent on a matter, it does not necessarily mean we are indifferent. Sometimes the subject of which the heart is fullest is that on which the lips are strangely still. And as there are thoughts that lie too deep for tears, so are there thoughts that lie too deep for utterance, and men detect them not by any speech, but by a look, or a handclasp, or a tear. Now think of Jesus at the grave of Lazarus, when He was face to face with death. Look at Him—what is that upon His cheek?—it is the dewy glistening of tears. And then a bend of the road reveals the sepulchre, and there is death, in ravage and in victory, and Jesus groans in spirit and is troubled. Whatever else that means, there is one thing that it emphatically means. It means that Jesus, indifferent to so much, was not indifferent to the final tragedy. He wept; He groaned in spirit; He was troubled. He shared in the anguish of the orphaned heart. Whatever His silence, it was not the silence of a serene and philosophic scorn.
Jesus Spoke of Death as Sleep
Dismissing that, then, we may advance a little if we remember Jesus’ favorite name for death. I think there can be little question that the familiar name of Christ for death was sleep. I do not insist on the raisings from the dead, though they at once suggest a waking out of sleep. I do not insist on that, though all these raisings at once suggest the thought of sleep to me. But I keep close to Christ’s recorded sayings, on two occasions when He confronted death, and on both of them He spoke of death as sleep. Entering the darkened home of Jairus, He said, “The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth.” Learning the news that Lazarus was gone, He said at once, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth.” And these expressions, springing from the heart, and of an authenticity that none can question, tell me that Jesus spoke of death as sleep.
He Did Not Speak of Death us Sleep Poetically
But now it will occur to you at once that this is a thought common to all poetry. I know indeed no literature in the world where death is not spoken in terms of sleep. You will find it in the philosophy of Greece, and you will light on it in the poetry of Rome. The Jews were perfectly familiar with it, for they spoke of their dead as sleeping with their fathers. Dante accepts it as a commonplace; Chaucer speaks of the living and the sleeping; and Shakespeare tells us in words that are immortal how our little life is rounded with a sleep. Now the question I want to ask is this: was our Lord talking as a poet talks? Was He simply using a poetic figure when He said, “The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth”? I have been led to think, for reasons I shall give you, that Christ was not talking as a poet talks, but was using language of intense reality. I certainly hold that Jesus was a poet. I think He was a poet to His fingertips. If poetry be simple, sensuous, and passionate, there never was speech more poetical than His. And yet, granting all that without reserve, I am constrained to think that when Christ spoke of death as sleep, men felt that He spoke, not in poetic figure, but in sober earnestness and truth. Let me suggest to you this one consideration, based on the passage at hand.
If I Were the One to Call Death Sleep
Suppose I were called, as I am often called, to a home that was under the shadow of bereavement. Suppose that a daughter of twelve years old were dead, and that I went in gently to where the body lay. What words would rise more naturally to my lips, when I had drawn the napkin from the brow, than just the words “How peacefully she sleeps”! They have risen to my lips a score of times, and never once were they misunderstood. I have said them to fathers, to mothers, to brothers, and to sisters, and found I was only uttering what they felt. There is never a trace of misinterpretation there is always immediate and full response—when in the presence of the quiet dead we whisper that the little life is rounded with a sleep. But now suppose I turned to the sorrowing father, and said with a glowing eye, She is not dead! Suppose I turned to him, and with tremendous earnestness said, “I tell you she is not dead, but sleeping.” First he would look at me with incredulity; then it would flash on him I was beside myself, and then, in the frantic unsettlement of grief, the house would echo with derisive laughter.
Those Who Heard Him Knew He Meant What He Said about Death Being But Sleep
I want you to remember that that is exactly what happened to our Lord, and that such conduct is utterly incredible if Christ was speaking as a poet speaks. The Jews were far more poetical than we are, and they loved metaphor and all poetic imagery, and they were perfectly familiar from their literature with the figure of death as the last sleep. And yet when Jesus stood beside the dead, and said what all of us have said, “She sleepeth,” somehow they utterly misunderstood Him, and heaped on Him the insult of derision. Others had come to Jairus’ house that morning, and had said gently, “How peacefully she sleeps.” And the father and mother, looking on their loved one, had understood at once that kindly sympathy. And then came Christ, and said, She is not dead—I tell you she is not dead, but sleeping—and Him they laughed to scorn. That scorn to me is utterly inexplicable if Christ was speaking in poetic metaphor. There must have been something in His eye and tone that challenged the plainest evidence of sense. They felt instinctively that in the mind of Christ their little daughter was not dead, but living, although her eyes were closed, and all her fingers motionless, and there was not a quiver of breath upon her lips. In other words, this was not death to Christ, and every hearer felt He meant it so. Whatever death was in the thought of Jesus, it was not this ceasing of the heart to beat. And that is why these lovers of all imagery, who would have understood us had we said she sleeps, poured upon Him their frenzy of derision.
For Christ Spiritual Death Was More Real Than Physical Death. Hence the Latter He Called Sleep
And so am I gradually led to the conviction that this was not what Jesus meant by death at all. In the habitual thought of that supreme intelligence, death was something darker and more terrible. It was not death to Him when the silver chord was loosed, nor when the pitcher was broken at the fountain. It was not death to Him when the strong men bowed themselves, and when the daughters of music were brought low. All that was life, though it was life asleep, in the mighty arms of the eternal God, and death was something more terrible than that. The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth; but— this my son was dead and is alive again. The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth; but— let the dead bury their dead. The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth; but— he who believeth upon Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. Christ did not find the dead in Jairus’ house, nor in any sepulchre among the Galilean hills. He saw the dead where men and women were— in the synagogue and in the market and the home. And so Christ does not find the dead where the flowers are withering on the grave, but here where men are, and where women are, who have a name to live and yet are dead. If half the anguish of the open grave were felt for those who are living useless lives, if half the tears that fall upon the coffin fell upon hearts that are frivolous or obdurate, not only would we be nearer Christ in His deepest thought about humanity, but we should know more than we have ever known of the joy that cometh in the morning. For love and faith and prayer are powerless to bring again the dear one who is lost. No lifting heavenward of anguished hands will give us back again the one we loved. But “this my son was dead and is alive again”—and there is music and dancing in the home tonight, and there is joy in heaven, where the Father dwelleth, over one sinner that repenteth.