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Stay the Course: God's Course Through Death
Birth is not the beginning; and, PRAISE GOD, DEATH IS NOT THE END of our life's journey. Throughout this past Lenten season, we've been considering the image of journey. Each of us is on a trip, and to get from here to there with some measure of success, with a sense of accomplishment and achievement, requires us to stay the course by repenting of temptations like self-righteousness which would take us off the course, and getting rid of excess baggage, like materialism, so our backpacks are as light as possible.
Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, we presented a drama about Herod who stayed his course only to find it led him to oblivion and disgrace. Ultimate success, accomplishment, and victory are achieved when we stay God's course. One test of whether you are on God's course or your course, one test of the vitality of your relationship with God, is: how will you die?
On headstones, we engrave birth dates and death dates as if that time period defines our lives. But, we are learning that personality development begins before birth. The life style of the mother, her stress level, and what she puts into her body have a decisive, long term effect on the child she is carrying in her womb.
My granddaughter, who is now seven months old, was blessed with a mother who did not smoke, use alcohol or drugs. Before she was born, her parents read to her, talked to her, and sang to her. And now,she loves books, people and music. She is alert, curious, happy, contented, and charming. Her grandpa thinks she is just perfect!
Birth is not the beginning; and, PRAISE GOD, DEATH IS NOT THE END. On this Easter morning, in the midst of flowers and joyful, triumphant music, let's look at death. Let's look to our model, Jesus. Jesus not only modeled how to live; he also modeled how to die. We moderns have tended to obscure and distort the dying process. Let's look to Jesus, and celebrate four affirmations about death.
1) Jesus died. Death is real. The first heresy spread about Jesus throughout the early church was that he did not really die. The heretics could not believe that the Son of God could die. They said it just seemed as if he died like a mere human. They said Jesus was really God and above that sort of thing. The Apostles' Creed combated the heresy with the affirmation: "He was crucified, died, and was buried."
We are still denying that people really die. Death denial is a fact of our culture. Highly effective advertising, TV and movies teach us to wear youthful clothing, youthful hair styles, put stuff all over our faces to hide wrinkles, dye the gray out of our hair, and have affairs with younger people to prove our virility. As a culture, we try desperately to convince ourselves that aging will never happen to us, and death only happens to other people.
We put off making a will, signing the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, and discussing burial and funeral plans; somehow believing that if we don't talk about it, or think about it, we won't die. Jesus died. Death is inevitable. Death is real; but, PRAISE GOD, DEATH IS NOT THE END.
2) Jesus grieved. He anguished. He acknowledged his pain. He cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When his friend Lazarus died, the shortest verse in the Bible records his response, "Jesus wept." Somehow, many of us have been taught to hide our feelings, to be brave and show a strong faith. A strong faith seems to be equated with stoicism. Men and boys especially have been taught that only babies cry, that strong, brave men don't cry.
Thank God our biblical heritage is filled with examples of showing emotion, and expressing emotion. In the garden that first Easter morning, Mary wept. The poets who wrote the psalms were not afraid to express sorrow, fear, even anger to God. Then, they were able to praise, after they had acknowledged and shared their hurt, pain, anger, and sorrow. When a loved one dies, when you face the inevitability of your own death, express grief. Weep. Jesus grieved; but, PRAISE GOD, DEATH IS NOT THE END.
3) Jesus died with dignity. With full access to his mental capacities, he resolutely came to terms with his death, resigned himself, and accepted his death in dignity. He took care of his affairs. He made his will by telling John to take care of his mother, and telling his mother to consider John her son. He got his relationships in order by praying audibly, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." He accepted his death by putting himself completely in God's hands with his final prayer, "Into your hands, I commit my spirit." Jesus died with dignity.
Modern technology is making it increasingly difficult for us to die. You are urged to sign a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care which would allow a loved one to speak on your behalf, and stop heroic measures when they merely prolong life with no hope of quality. For the first time in California, the November ballot will include an initiative to allow Death With Dignity. The right to die a dignified, peaceful, celebrative death with medical assistance is a right each person enduring a terminal illness prolonged by futile heroics, deserves to have. Jesus died with dignity.
4) But, PRAISE GOD, DEATH IS NOT THE END because of the fourth affirmation: Jesus was raised from the dead. The good news this morning is that you can handle the inevitability of your death with confidence and assurance, because Jesus was raised from the dead. Death, as well as the powers of evil, was conquered that first Easter morning. Death no longer is to be feared. Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your sting?
The promise is clear. John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life." Whoever believes in Jesus Christ will not perish. Whoever believes in Jesus Christ will go through death. PRAISE GOD, DEATH IS NOT THE END.
Whoever believes in Jesus has eternal life. Do you believe, do you trust in Jesus this morning to see you through death? What is your relationship with Jesus Christ?
Picture yourself in a garden with Jesus. Image what you think Jesus looked like. In the Scripture lesson this morning from John, Mary was in the garden, weeping because the tomb was empty and she supposed someone had taken away Jesus' body. She saw someone standing there in the garden, but through her watery eyes, she supposed it was the gardener until he spoke to her. Can you imagine what kind of look the resurrected Christ had on his face? Compassion, love, tenderness as he spoke her name, "Mary."
Picture yourself in a garden filled with beautiful flowers like we have this morning. Jesus is in the garden with you, just the two of you. Jesus turns and sees you. Can you see the look on his face? Can you describe it?
Does Jesus have a puzzled look, a confused look, a don't-I-know-you-from-somewhere look? Does he ask you, "Now, what is your name? Do I know you? Don't I know your mother and your grandmother, but who are you?" Are you really satisfied living your life, and facing your ultimate death, with that kind of relationship with Jesus?
Or, does Jesus look at you with a sad look, sorrowful, and says, "I used to know you. Didn't you go to Sunday School? Or camp? Weren't you baptized? It's been so long since we've had any contact, we have not developed any kind of significant relationship." And Jesus is sad about that. Are you?
Or, when Jesus turns and sees you, does a smile extend from ear to ear? Do his eyes brighten as he calls you by name, and says, "Hi, Doug. How is my good friend today? Hi, friend, sister, brother. We've been through a lot together. We've stayed the course, you and I. You have a deep prayer life in which you and I talk together a lot. You have a regular, rich worship life where I am praised and thanked; and I appreciate that. You study the Bible and are growing in a deeper understanding of me. You know me and I know you." Is that how Jesus looks at you?
And, today especially, can you hear Jesus say to you, "Don't be afraid of death. I'll be with you. I'll go with you. I'll meet you in fullness and splendor on the other side where our friendship will deepen even further."
What a time you can have with Jesus in the garden where he walks with you and he talks with you, and he tells you you are his own. What a glorious journey we are on, and, PRAISE GOD, DEATH IS NOT THE END.
© 1992 Douglas I. Norris