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Mystery and Wonder of Death
March 26, 2023

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto

JOHN 11:20-27

"I'm not afraid to die," quipped Woody Allen. "I just don't want to be there when it happens." This morning we are concluding the sermon series on Mystery and Wonder. It is fitting to end with death in preparation for the celebration of the overcoming of death by the resurrection.

What happens when we die? Centuries before Christ, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, wrote, "Now death is the most terrible of things; for it is the end." But, the mystery and wonder of the Christian faith dares to proclaim: death is not the most terrible of things. Death is not the end.

Death is not the worst option, not the worst alternative such as being comatose and kept alive by machines; or agonizing in pain caused by cancer, alleviated only by morphine. In the times of persecution, Christian martyrs firmly believed that death was preferred to denying Christ.

Contrary to Aristotle, death is not the most terrible of things, nor is death the end. Revelation 21:4, Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. In the lesson read this morning, Jesus affirmed, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." Death is not the end! 

Linda Hanick wrote about her daughter, Erica, who came into this world without sight. Later, grave medical problems developed. Erica was almost four years-old when it became clear she was dying. Jack and Linda, Erica's parents, kept vigil at her hospital bedside praying, their prayers for her healing gradually becoming prayers for wisdom and acceptance.

Then Jack said, "Linda, we should do more than pray to God about Erica. We need to talk to Erica about God." Erica was afraid, afraid of dying. She seemed to be holding on to her parents because they were the surest love she knew.

Holding her tiny hands, they told her that God's love was so much greater than theirs, and that she had to let go-- let go of the hospital room, her bed, even them. "Where you are going is a safe place, more beautiful and full of love than anything you've ever known," they told her.

In Linda's mind she saw Erica running, skipping over emerald grass through fields of rainbow-colored flowers. Her golden hair blazed in the sunlight. She was laughing, her eyes were like the sky, cloudless and blue, and she could see,

Linda was about to share her vision with Jack when Jack said, "I just had the strongest image. I saw Erica, so vividly, skipping and running across a field of beautiful flowers. She was laughing and her eyes were clear and blue as the sky." Together, simultaneously they shared the vision that death is not the end.

Death is not the worst option. Death is not the end. But, death is inevitable, and preparations need to be made. When death seems imminent, it needs to be discussed in honesty and compassion. The person dying deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, and deserves the right to discuss his/her death with loved ones. It will be a painful discussion, but it will also be a glorious discussion. You will find it a blessing, a rich, beautiful time in which to say goodbye; and an opportunity to make sure the arrangements you make are what your loved one wants. 

Death is inevitable, even your own. Have you signed a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care so that a loved one can make medical decisions for you if you are unable? Have you made plans? Will your body be buried or cremated? Have you made a will or a trust, or will a judge decide who gets what? Have you remembered our church in your trust or will? Consider the Endowment Fund where interest from your bequest will continue doing God's work in perpetuity. And, the most important question of all, are you ready to meet God?

Sisters and brothers, it is my privilege this morning, it is my joy to tell you, to proclaim to you that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and those who believe in him will never die. The event we call death, when the body ceases to function, is a doorway from the natural world into the spiritual world. This doesn't mean we have no contact with the spiritual world while we are yet in the natural world. In fact, we enter the kingdom of God, the spiritual world when we believe in Christ, and trust in Christ for our salvation. 

Our relationship with God is  a taste, a glimpse of heaven. Spiritual world, kingdom of God, eternal life, and heaven are all synonymous and used interchangeably. When we go through the doorway called death, it is not new territory because we already have a foot in the door. We already have a relationship with God which begins in this life and continues into the next .

“Continue” is not an accurate word because we believe in the resurrection of the body, not a continuation of this life. What continues is the relationship with God. Our body will be transformed into a spiritual body which is fully alive in the spiritual world. Erica, born without sight, could now see. Cancer will be gone. Arthritis will be gone. Dementia will be gone. We believe in resurrection. God transforms. God makes new.

Eternal life is a gift from God, not something we earn or deserve. Eternal life is a gift given by God to those who respond to his call, who accept the salvation offered by Christ; a gift bought and paid for with Jesus' life. The mystery and wonder is that death is not the end. As we sang, “When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!”

© 2023 Douglas I. Norris