Meditations for the Lenten Season— Part Seven


(Phil. 1.12-26; 1 Cor. 15.54-58; II Tim. 4.6-8)

When all is said and done, there are only a few ways we humans can react to death. We can recognize it as a fact, and so let it dominate our thinking that it casts a shadow on all life, leaving nothing without the taint of its limiting nature. A person in this frame of mind will likely think that since death is a fact, then there is no real purpose or reason for doing anything. And further, there is no reason for refraining from doing all sorts of things. In such a worldview, the universe is seen as cruel and dangerous. Or perhaps life is seen as a beautiful but meaningless thing that cannot be counted on. In such a world where there is no eternal significance. In such a world, nothing lasts for long, let alone forever.

A person who believes in this manner is called a nihilist or an existentialist. A person who truly believes that this is the way the world really works, can do one of three things. First, he or she can commit suicide. Second, he or she can fight death all the way, as with Dylan Thomas who said, “Do not go gentle into this good night; rage against the dying of the light!” Thirdly, he or she can accept death as a fact, and the meaningless of existence as a result of that fact, and spend life trying to ignore death’s reality by trying every new thing, and indulging in every new pleasure, and creating one’s own happiness and meaning in life. The American beer commercial is the motto of this kind of person: “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can get.” This is commonly called hedonism. A hedonist says to us, ‘Since we all have to die, we might as well enjoy life as long as we can.’
Fourthly, there will be a few people as well who will talk idealistically of human togetherness and living for the common good. Some will run for office; others will work for social organizations; and most will try to make a name in this life since they do not believe in the next. All will have a strong urge to feel that their life has mattered. For instance, the Earl of Southhampton begged Shakespeare to “Make me immortal in your verse” referring to Shakespeare’sonnets.
Finally, there are those who believe in reincarnation. For some of them, this life is useless, plagued by bad karma, and they can hardly wait to go on to the next.
The one thing shared in common by all five of these approaches to death — suicide, anger, hedonism, self-idolatry, reincarnation — is that these people all think that death is the end of all, the terminus, the brick wall that cannot be avoided but rather will necessarily be encountered by a head-on collision.
Probably most of you know someone that fits one of these descriptions. They honestly believe death is the end of everything, and that all one can hope for in life is a little happiness. Thus, happiness and pleasure have become the reason for living. Such people live, as St. Paul puts it, as ‘people without hope’. How very different is any of this from a Christian approach to death and thus to life.

About five years ago I was at a funeral of the mother of a close friend of mine. I must say that her funeral service was one of the most joyful worship services I have every attended. We sang great hymns like ‘Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,’ and ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.’ And we were rejoicing in earnest. Why were we rejoicing when a wonderful Christian woman, who was greatly loved by her family and friends, had just died a painful death from cancer? I can assure you it was not because we were happy to see her go! It was because we knew that this woman, who had lived her life in accordance with her Master, Jesus Christ, had gone to be with her Lord. There could be no greater blessing or more wonderful thing for her.
We knew that though we had temporarily lost sight of her, she had gained the end she had sought all her life – perfect fellowship with her Lord. We did not grieve, as Paul says, as the heathens do who have no hope. We rejoiced. We realized that if we grieved too much it would be because of our own loss, not hers. Surely she was much better off with the Lord than in a hospital bed with the pains of cancer.

For a real Christian, grieving should not be over done, lest it merely turn into feeling sorry for ourselves. But we should shed real tears for those who die without accepting Jesus Christ. For in that case, our loss and theirs is permanent.
I have suggested in telling this story a bit of how we as Christians should approach death. But there is more to be said. Christians should realize and recognize death for what it is. Death is horrible and often painful. Do not let anyone tell you that it is a perfectly natural process like eating and breathing. If any of you have ever been close to death, you will remember the extreme fear or dread you felt. The truth is that our whole being tells us that death is anything but natural. It is not like going to sleep. Apart from those who are in Christ, death is the end of life, not the refresher or restorer of life as sleep can be. It is cold; it is hard; it is ugly. Not only our natural reaction but Scripture itself tells us that death is anything but natural. Human death is a result of human sin – the consequence of our rebellion against the Lord of Life.
Contemplate again Christ hanging on a cross bearing the sins of the world. Death is the price we have long been paying for our sins. It is the ultimate manifestation of all that is evil and ugly. It is the end of that great good gift of God – life. Were it not for Jesus Christ, death would be final, and rightly so. It is through his death that a Christian is restored to life.
A Christian can rejoice because he or she knows that there is something and someone more powerful than death in this world. What is it? The power of God and his love which acts in Jesus Christ. Because Jesus has died for our sins, and because Jesus went through death and triumphed in his bodily resurrection, we know that “greater is he who is in us, than he who is in the world.’ We know that ‘neither death nor life, nor angels nor princes, nor things that are, nor things to come, nor height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and this powerful love of God which raised Jesus from death.’

As Christians, then, we know how horrid death is. But we also know that it will not have the last word. The word of God’s gift of eternal life and resurrection of the body in and through Jesus Christ – that is the last word. We know that this life is only the first installment of life for Christians. Further, we know that since death does not have the last word, then what we do in this life matters. As Paul puts it, “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?”.
Let us thank God for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Never give in and never admit defeat. Keep on working at the Lord’s work always. Know that in the Lord you cannot be laboring in vain. All is not vanity for the Christian. This is why John Donne could say:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou thinkest, thou doest overthrow.
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me:
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do so.
Best of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fat chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell.
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke: Why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally.
And death shall be no more; death thou shalt die.

To me, the most astounding thing about the Last Supper is that Jesus, in token and in pledge, doles out the benefits of his death, the bread and wine, in advance of his dying. That is to say, so sure is he that his coming death will benefit his followers, he gives them a preview of coming attractions in the bread and wine served at the Last Supper. What faith and courage this took, especially in light of the scene which followed in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus asked that the cup of God’s judgment pass, so that he would not have to drink it. This is of course full of irony because he had already asked the Zebedees who had requested the box seats in the Kingdom, “can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” and of course they respond “Yes Lord, we’re able’. If there ever was an ironic hymn, it is that one, for these disciples are not ready for prime time, they will desert, deny, betray Jesus and are nowhere to be found at Golgotha when he dies.

One has a choice to make in this life. Will death have the last word, or will Jesus Christ, the Word? Will Christ lead us through death to life again and forever? Death may come to us at any time. We do not know what will happen to us tomorrow. But Jesus Christ can come to us now to give us the faith that swallows up death. I urge you to choose life and its Lord.
Paul, at the close of his life was able to say: “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed: the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Henceforth, there is laid up for the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day. And not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” May this be our approach as well as we prepare to go into God’s presence shouting “God’s yes to life, is louder than death’s no.”

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