WHY I BELIEVE: THE SHADOW OF DEATH
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on October 19, 2014 (Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
– Psalm 23
I have been doing a series of sermons on “Why I Believe…,” in which I have shared some of the reasons I have come to believe in God and Jesus Christ, and to be a minister of the gospel. I hope these sermons will help you to reflect on what you believe and why, so that if anyone should ask you why you are a Christian, you might have a good answer!
Today, I want to talk about something we normally don’t like to talk about – death. So many people are terrified of it. I’m terrified of it! Stories of deadly illnesses and terrorist attacks and disasters grab our attention because they make us realize how tenuous life is, and how quickly it can end. People are terrified of death, and yet fascinated at the same time. These days, almost any book or film or video game that has something to do with zombies or vampires is guaranteed to be a hit.
We don’t like to think about death. But the reality is that we are mortal. Benjamin Franklin famously said “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
We know this… at a certain logical level. But I’m not sure we believe it. Or want to deal with it. Maybe it is our natural human tendency for avoidance – not wanting to face what is unpleasant, even when it is unavoidable. Whenever I have counseled a couple planning to get married, I have usually talked to them about the importance of planning for the time when one of them (or both) would die. They should have a will. But do I have a will? I’m too busy – and way too young for such a thing! Except I’m not.
Death is a reality – an inescapable part of being human. Life is a terminal condition. But theologically, we Christians have been divided over death. The apostle Paul, who wrote many of the letters that now make up the New Testament of the Bible, seems to have believed that humans were not originally created mortal. In his New Testament writings, Paul reflected on the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, and he believed that their sin of disobedience brought death to all humans (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Perhaps he believed that humans were first created – or were given the choice to be – immortal. But when Adam and Eve, tempted by the serpent, ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – immortality was lost – for them and all their descendants. Death was the punishment for disobedience.
Now that story may seem very long ago and far, far away – even mythical – and have nothing to do with us here and now. But I think many of us believe what Paul believed – deep down. With all of the recent medical discoveries about diseases and their cures, nutrition, and risky behaviors, the average human life expectancy in the United States has increased dramatically in the past century – from less than 60 years in 1930 to almost 79 years in 2010. As a result, I think there are a lot of people who think that if you take care of yourself, don’t engage in risky behaviors, eat well, exercise, and are a good person, you should be able to live forever. Illness and death are the punishment for disobedience – of God or of your doctor! Death must be a punishment for some misdeed. We are always astonished when a good, healthy person dies suddenly. If we receive a diagnosis of a serious illness, we may wonder whether God is punishing us for some sin we may not even know about!
But I think that Paul misread the creation story in Genesis 2-3. God never created humans to be immortal – Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden before they were able to eat from the Tree of Life (which was not forbidden to them).
And if the scientific theory of evolution is correct, humans evolved from other mortal, living things. We have always been mortal; we will always be mortal — until there is a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:4).
That is why I always have some skepticism about the statistics that are used to tout the benefits of wonder drugs or new medical procedures and therapies. I found a page on the internet that claims that over half a million lives were saved over the past 30 years in the UK because of cancer research done there. No. Perhaps half a million lives were extended because of research into new cancer treatments – and that may be a good thing! But ultimately, no deaths were prevented. Lives were extended, and perhaps folks later died not of cancer, but of heart disease or natural causes. There is no cure for mortality!
And that means, of course that all of us will experience death during our lives. We will know the pain of grief when someone we care about dies; we will die ourselves someday. But if the claim of the first creation story in Genesis is correct – that all that God created was good – then maybe, ultimately, that is a good thing.
But will that be the end of us? I don’t know. All I have is guesses, and hopes, and stories.
I have always found it hard to believe that after a lifetime of experiences, learning, and loving, that all we become during our human journey would suddenly just come to an end in nothingness. Instead, I believe in One who is the Creator and Source of Life – and of new life. That One – God – gives us the hope of new life.
I have wondered about the experience we all share of being born into this life. We don’t seem to have any conscious memories of that journey. Does a child about to be born know any terror of being forced to leave the dark, warm comfort of its mother’s womb and having to survive in a bright, cold, place where one must breathe and eat in order to survive? Maybe our infant brains can’t process that memory. None of us are able to return to that previous life. We soon adjust to life in this amazing world – as different as it is — and can’t imagine going back. I wonder if death might be something like that – the end of one stage of life and the beginning of another.
And then there are the stories – improbable as they might seem: stories of people who knew Jesus — and some who only knew of him – certain that he was alive and still with them after his crucifixion and entombment. He was different, for sure, but he was alive!
I want to believe in a God who not only offers new life, but has experienced it. In Jesus, God has learned the blessedness of mourning, and of being comforted. Jesus mourned the death of John the Baptist. He was betrayed by one of his closest friends. He suffered a cruel, unjust death. But he showed us that the power and love of God transcend even death. What, then, is there to fear?
Christian theologians and preachers have insisted for centuries (for the most part) that one must believe in Jesus and be baptized in order to receive the gift of eternal life – to get into heaven. Many people have wondered about all those folks who don’t believe – or have never heard of Jesus?
The problem is that our thinking has been backwards. It’s not that we must believe in Jesus in order to receive eternal life; it’s that if you desire eternal life, you must believe in Jesus. Here’s what I think: Eternal life is life with God. After all, God first created humans to be in relationship with God. In many ways, humans have decided they don’t really need God. We can do things our way, thank you very much! That is what sin is – the ways we separate ourselves from God. But that is not life as God intended it. And that leads to death – long-term death.
Real life – eternal life – is in relationship with God. As the psalmist puts it in Psalm 23:
I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long (or forever).
Jesus is one who did that – who loved and trusted God completely. If we truly desire eternal life in loving relationship with God, we will recognize and praise Christ’s faithfulness. Those who decide they still don’t need God will choose death instead. It is not a punishment for an unwillingness to believe; it is finally our choice.
I believe that life is a gift. It is not just an accident. Even in its struggles and sufferings, even in its ending, it is an amazing gift. I believe in the Giver of that gift – the one who gives us life and who offers us new life. And the thing is, we don’t have to wait to receive that gift. It is offered to us right now – the gift of new life in the waters of baptism, where we die to the half-life of living separated from God and enter into the abundant life in the Spirit that Christ offers us.
In the words of the 16th century Sarum Primer:
God be in my head and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes and in my looking;
God be in my mouth and in my speaking;
God be in my heart and in my thinking;
God be at my end and at my departing.
Robert J. von Trebra