By Pastor Matthew Bowerman
In the past 3 weeks, I have attended both the funeral of my 87-year-old grandmother as well as the wedding of a dear friend of over 20 years. We might not always realize it, but weddings and funerals are deeply theological occasions. Vows, feasting, and dancing. Tears, remembering, and burying…all of these things should send the bible-neurons in our brains into rapid-fire. So here are a few gospel meditations that should come to mind whenever we attend a ceremony celebrating the beginning of new lives together or commemorating a life coming to an end.
First and foremost, marriage is centered around a foundational gospel truth. It’s so easy to get caught up in the dresses, flowers, and music that we get distracted and miss the ultimate purpose of our gathering. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 5 that the relationship between Christ and the Church is a marriage between a husband and wife. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” and “now the Church submits to Christ.”
This cannot be overstated: The primary purpose of all marriages and all weddings is to portray the loving relationship between Christ and the Church. So whether you are the one at the altar saying the vows, or the mother of the bride, or the officiant, or an invited guest, I challenge you to fight to keep the gospel the crystal clear focus of the whole occasion. Meditate on the sacrificial love that Christ showed his Bride. Consider how you, as part of the Bride, are purifying yourself and preparing yourself to be presented before your Groom. See weddings and marriages as the signposts that they are. Then keep looking to what the sign is pointing to; namely, the reality itself of Christ and the Church. Allow this to spur you on towards greater love and faithfulness.
Secondly, as an implication of keeping the gospel the central focus of the wedding, to the engaged couples who are planning their wedding: you do not have to break the bank to get married. Matthew 6:21 says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This means that the way you spend your money reveals what you value most. Materialism and excessive spending are rampant in our culture, especially when it comes to weddings. It’s easy for wedding planning to become a competition to “keep up with the Joneses”. But let me plead with you: in your wedding ceremony, make it abundantly clear that Jesus is what you treasure above everything else. There is a place for beauty—a place for special dresses, and flowers, and rings. But have the courage to be counter-cultural and show that Jesus, not pleasures that last for only a few hours, is what is most precious to you. Make the Word of the God, the covenant vows, the people involved, and the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ the focus of your wedding.
Lastly, we live in a sinfully broken world and weddings are a sweet reminder of the coming redemption of all things. Did you know that the Bible is bookended by weddings? In Genesis 2 Adam and Eve are joined together as man and wife in a world that was without sin and death. And at the consummation of God’s redemptive plan in Revelation 21:7-8, we read about the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb. “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure.”
The only times in the Bible where sin is not present in the world is at these two weddings. What I think we can learn from this is that weddings are meant to be aftertastes of what was lost in the Garden of Eden as well as foretastes of what awaits us in the new heaven and new earth. There will be a time when sin, pain, and death are no more. And weddings are meant to evoke in us a longing for that day. So the next time that you are attending a wedding, allow your mind to relax for a few hours. Enjoy the escape from the sin and brokenness that surround us. And let your hope and longing for the coming kingdom of God be aroused.
This might sound macabre, but as a proclaimer of the gospel, I actually prefer officiating funerals over weddings. Like I said above, we try to not get distracted by peripheral things at weddings, but oftentimes we fail. Funerals, however, have the opposite effect. Instead of distracting they focus. Death is a sobering reality. It forces us to face our own mortality. It forces us to question whether we are using the time that we have been given wisely. It makes us ask the big questions about why we are really here. As a pastor and someone who can offer hope and redemptive purpose during times of pain, funerals are like having a gospel opportunity slow-pitched right down the middle of the plate. There is perhaps no audience in more need of clear gospel proclamation than those gathered at a funeral. Regarding death, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:32, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” AKA If the resurrection is not real, then we are all wasting our time. We might as well go get as drunk as possible and sleep with anyone we can because that’s the best that this world has to offer. But because Christ did overcome the grave, and for those who confess faith in him, there is a hope that goes beyond this broken world. For those who are in Christ, death and the grave do not have the final word and we have a greater hope. I love funerals because it is where real gospel hope meets and heals real pain and loss.
A second thought on funerals. Please be cautious when using the term “Celebration of Life.” This might be snarky, and forgive me if I err— but in my opinion, calling a funeral a “Celebration of Life” is like putting a band-aid on a bullet hole. It glosses over the pain and ignores a real loss.
But graciously, God gives us license to grieve. Death hurts. There’s nothing natural about it. Death didn’t exist in the Garden of Eden and God never intended for us to experience it. And when we are confronted with the most gruesome result of sin (death) we shouldn’t brush it off lightly.
Many of us are familiar with John 11:35. It is the shortest verse in the English Bible and in it Jesus weeps at the tomb of his best friend Lazarus. On the one hand, this teaches us that grief is okay. Jesus knew that he was about to raise Lazarus but he still took the time to publicly express his sorrow. His example shows us that we don’t have to pretend that death doesn’t hurt. But Jesus goes even further and shows us something else in this passage about how we can and should encounter death. After weeping, in verse 38 Jesus came to the tomb of his friend and was “deeply moved again.” That word for deeply moved is ‘embrimaomai’. Literally, it means indignation or extreme displeasure. A picture of this word is often used to describe is that of an angry horse that is snorting. So when Jesus was confronted with the death of a loved one, he didn’t remember the good times, or share the funny stories, or celebrate Lazarus’s life (though there is definitely a time for that). He was repulsed. His heart was so grieved by the presence of sin and death in the world that he snorted in disgust. So is there a time for celebrating and laughter in light of death? Absolutely. We do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). But we do grieve. So feel the freedom to grieve and express the very real loss that you feel.
Lastly, don’t waste the reality check that funerals bring. We don’t usually like to think about death. It makes us uncomfortable. We don’t like to think about how small and brief our lives really are. After a funeral, we typically try and get back to doing normal things to take our minds off the sad atmosphere we were just in. But Scripture actually encourages us to let our minds linger at the graveside and give significant attention to death. James, in his book, says, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (4:14). Moses in Psalm 90 says, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). And what does Moses say in response to meditating on how short his life is? He says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). Did you catch that? Instead of avoiding thinking about death, we are told that numbering our days and considering our brevity will give us wisdom. If you know that you won’t live forever, that you aren’t immortal, that your days are numbered, and that your life is short….that will ignite an urgency in you that will spur you on with greater zeal and purpose.
When I was in school, sometimes I procrastinated. And whenever I had an assignment due I would often say, “I don’t need more time, I need a deadline.” There is something about time running out that sharpens our focus and makes us do more work better. And I guarantee you that you will have a greater gospel influence in the world if you often consider how little time you have.
So the next time you’re at a funeral, soberly consider the preciousness and brevity of life. Think about how you spend your time. Who are you investing in? Are you giving all of your life to the Lord for the advancement of the gospel? Don’t fall quickly back into thinking about things that won't last. Learn to number your days and gain a heart of wisdom.