Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Death, Where Is Thy Victory?

This sermon is the fourth in a series of sermons based on Max Lucado's book, Fearless.  This week's topic is "Fear of Life's Final Moments, chapter 13 in the boook.

Scripture readings selected to go along with the topic:  1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 23; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 53-57 (the whole chapter is an excellent teaching on resurrection - both Jesus' and ours); John 11:17-26

When I was doing my clinical pastoral rotation, I was called to the ICU for a man who was being extubated.  This procedure is always a fear-filled time for the family, especially if the patient is unconscious or otherwise uncommunicative. 

Especially if the doctors have said there’s no hope and it’s only a matter of time until their loved one dies.

In this case, the patient was an older man, who was non-responsive.  The doctors had given the “it’s just a matter of time” prognosis.  The family was extremely fearful.  He could die as soon as the breathing tube was removed, or it could take hours.  The doctors didn’t know.  The family didn’t know.

I entered the room.  His wife was next to him holding his hand.  His children and their spouses and various-aged grandchildren were grouped around the bed.  I introduced myself and asked how things were going.

The nurse filled me in on the current medical situation as the family nodded. They’d heard it before and this re-telling served make it a bit more real.  I asked if they would like prayer and we prayed for God’s comfort, for ease of death, for God’s presence with the family and the patient. 

Then his wife said, “I’m really worried that I won’t see Joe[i] in heaven.  He’s been really angry with God and hasn’t been to church in ten years.  I don’t want him to go to hell.  Is there anything you can do to make sure he’s repented?”

It’s a common fear - that our loved ones will die without knowing Jesus.  Most of us fear that more than our own deaths.  We know our own hearts and trust that God has forgiven us through Jesus.  But we can’t really know what’s in the heart of someone else.  So we worry.  And we are afraid.

Or maybe we are afraid of death for ourselves, because we worry that we may end up in hell after all.  Maybe we fear because we just don’t know what will happen to us or happen to our loved ones after we are gone. 

Death is such a big fear, that we don’t even like talking about it.  We don’t even like to say the word.  A quick Google search yielded around 200 euphemisms for death.  It’s almost like we’re afraid if we say the word ‘death,’ we’re inviting death to come and hang around.

In fact, that’s exactly why we have so many euphemisms for death – people thought to say it was to invite it.  To tempt fate, so to speak.
To say there’s anxiety around death is an understatement.

We fear the unknown and death is the big unknown.

So let’s take a look at what we do know.

We know that God loves us.  That in our baptism, we are called child of God, sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ.  This is something that God does, not something that we do.  We talked last week about the fear of disappointing God and how God’s forgiveness is not based on your ability to live a perfect life, or confess every little sin.  It’s not about what you have done, it’s about what God does for you.  Jesus went ahead and prepared a place for us – and when we die, Jesus will be waiting for us with open arms.

1.   We can be confident that as baptized believers, Jesus will welcome us into heaven.

We know that Jesus came to earth, was born, lived with us, and died for us.  We know that because Jesus became one of us, he is able to save us through his death and resurrection.  The One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life” could not be contained by death.  Jesus defeated death once and for all when he rose from the dead. 

2.   We can be confident that because Jesus rose again, we too will one day rise again.

We know that after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his followers.  Most of what we know about what happens after death comes from those 40 days Jesus walked the earth after his resurrection.  He appeared to Mary in the garden, and he looked so much like a normal human being, she mistook him for the gardener.  He walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  He took their bread and blessed it and broke it and in that moment, disappeared.  True, Mary and the two from Emmaus didn’t recognize him right away – but when he was ready for them to know who he was, they did. He appeared to his disciples, and ate with them and invited them to touch him.  We can be confident that our resurrected bodies will be like Jesus,’ that we will recognize each other in heaven, even recognize people we have never met.

3.   The example of the resurrected Jesus allows us to confidently proclaim in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “We believe in the resurrection of the body, and life in the world to come.” 

We may not know all the particulars, but we do know the One who died and rose again, and who has prepared a place for us and who will come again so that we may live with him.

This is what it’s all about.  This is the crux of the matter.  It’s Lent and we’re talking about Jesus’ road to Jerusalem and the cross and the grave.  For 40 days we focus on Jesus’ steady progress to the cross and the grave.   Why?
Because the cross isn’t the end. 

And the grave doesn’t win.

It’s what happens after these 40 days that gives us hope.  Easter morning shines a light into an empty tomb.  Death doesn’t have the last word, God does and that last word is a resounding “YES!” to life.

As far as those loved ones we worry about, who maybe have walked completely away from faith, or at the very least seem to ignore faith, we can remember God has them in the palm of his hand.  We pray for them, trusting God, who knows their hearts, and who loves them and sent his Son to die for them, while they were still sinners, to bring these lost sheep safely into the fold.

You may still be wondering what I told Joe’s wife.  She was worried because even though Joe was a baptized believer and had been active in his congregation.  Then his brother died suddenly and he became so angry with God he wouldn’t have anything to do with faith.  He quit going to church, not even attending his grandchildren’s Christmas programs or baptisms.  She couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing him in heaven.

I reminded her that as a baptized child of God, Joe had been named and claimed by God, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  Yes, Joe was angry with God, and had turned away for a time from God, but God had never turned away from Joe.  Baptism is forever. 

Joe’s wife was still worried.  “But he hasn’t confessed his sins or asked for forgiveness once during the last ten years.”

I said, “I know.  But you have been praying for him all this time, haven’t you?”

She nodded.

“And we know that God desires that no one should perish, so your prayers for Joe were in keeping with God’s will.  Right?”

More nods.

“We know that Jesus died for all our sins and restored us to God.  And we know that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Right?

Well, then, we know that God loves Joe very much and the Holy Spirit is with Joe right now.  Just because we can’t talk to Joe, doesn’t mean God can’t.  And we simply don’t know what happens in the moments just before death.  All we can do right now is to give Joe to God, trusting that God will take care of him.”

It’s not a perfect answer, but then it’s not a perfect world.  We’re not in control of our own deaths and we certainly can’t control the lives or deaths of someone else.  But we do know the One who is in control, who had definitively defeated the power of death, and who desires that all may experience life abundantly in this world and in the next.

I want to end with a prayer that really is as much a confession of what we know to be true about God’s victory over sin and death as it is prayer.  It’s one of the prayers from the funeral liturgy.

God of all grace, we give you thanks because by his death our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed the power of death and by his resurrection he opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.  Make us certain that because he lives we shall live also, and that neither death, not life, nor things present, nor things to come, will be able to separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen. [ii]

[i] Not his real name.
[ii] From Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Occasional Services Book

No comments:

Post a Comment