"On Being a Christian: Dying"
Luke 2:29-3229 "Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation 31 Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, 32 A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel."
In this sermon series I have briefly touched upon all the basic parts of the Christian life: conversion, spiritual growth, serving God, and enduring suffering. Now I have come to the second to the last sermon in this series: Dying. This isnít a topic that most people want to think about. But the Christian faith is not afraid to take up this subject. In many ways in is at the very heart of the Christian faith.
On May 17, 2008 Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman experienced one of the greatest losses of his life. His five-year-old adopted daughter Maria was killed in an accident. Chapman wondered if he would ever be able to sing again. But then he remembered a song written by a friend that included these words from Job: "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away" (1.21). This was the beginning of healing.
Iíve been summoned to the beside of those who are dying many times in my ministry. In those situations I am amazed at the power of Godís word to answer to the problem of death. There are many other great words that I suppose could be shared such as a paragraph from Shakespeare or a poem by Emily Dickinson. But nothing compares to the power of Godís word. This is what Simeon meant when he said that he was ready to "depart in peace, according to Your word." He had seen the promises of salvation fulfilled in the infant Jesus. Godís word gave him comfort as nothing else could in this life.
1. The Problem of Avoiding Death
The first thing Iíd like to talk about is the way in which the world avoids death. In the Bible death is related to sin. By avoiding thoughts of death, we are avoiding the reality of sin. Godís word says, "Therefore, just as through one man (Adam) sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5.12). But the world can avoid this connection for only so long. Luther once wrote a sermon on the words of Simeon. In this sermon he wrote the worldís version of Simeonís Song:
O God, I have not been Thy servant and now depart in unrest. My heart is troubled and sorrowful and does not know which way to turn. What I leave here on earth I well know. What I shall get there I cannot know and, besides, I worry about Godís wrath, punishment, and eternal damnation. (What Luther Says, p. 367)
Avoiding the thought of death leaves us unprepared for it. Civil War General William Nelson was in charge of the Union Army in Kentucky. He had faced many battles, and you think he would be prepared for death. But unfortunately he was not. A brawl broke out among his troops, and while he was relaxing a stray bullet struck him in the chest mortally wounding him. When his men ran to his side, he begged them: "Send for a clergyman; I wish to be baptized." He never had time for that when he was a youth, as a young soldier, or even now as a general. And suddenly the moment of death was upon him.
Many who die never even get the chance that General Nelson had. Illnesses can strike fast. Accidents can end life in a moment. Tragically when many people are confronted with death like this they simply respond according to habit. Having taken Godís name in vain so often in life, they find themselves acting according to that nature in death: Using their dying breath to curse in the name of God rather than to call upon Him for salvation.
In addition to making us less repentant, avoiding the thought of death makes us less thankful. We begin to live our lives constantly thinking about what we donít have and complaining. Avoiding the reality of death makes us unnecessarily critical of others. There is a place for criticism that is designed to help and to heal. Ezekiel calls us to rebuke sin for the sake of repentance (Ezekiel 33). But unnecessary criticism only flows from a bitter heart. How serious is it when a waitress forgets to fill our coffee cup compared to the gift of life and the reality of death?
2. Wrong Ideas About Dying
When the world does think about death, it usually understands it in the wrong way. The most popular idea is that death is "natural." This idea is sometimes taught to children, for example in the movie "Land Before Time." It is a very sad story in which a young dinosaurís mother is killed, but the youth is supposedly comforted by the fact that this is just part of the circle of life. The same understanding of life and death is really brought out in the childrenís movie "The Lion King." How can this understanding of death comfort us? All that it teaches me is to get as much out of life as I can, because this is all that there is.
When death is viewed as natural, people sometimes think they can control it. This leads to the practice of Euthanasia. When Dr. Kevorkian was actively helping people end their own lives, you may remember his Volkswagen "death mobile." In the van he had a bed. Near the bed were three intravenous tubes. Why three? A person who wants to die only needs one thing Ė the poison chosen to stop their beating heart. But death is not such an easy thing. Dr. Kevorkian knew that. Two other medicines were needed. The second medicine was a painkiller to assure that there would be no uncomfortable sensations when the poison interrupted the systems of life. The first medicine was probably the most important. It was designed to put the mind at ease. The Law is written on the heart: "Thou shall not murder." Anyone presuming to take their own life in this way is going to have a battle with the conscience. This medicine was given to counteract those last doubts that a person might have about ending their own life. Everything in this scenario is wrong. It is not just the interruption of life, it is the interruption of the relationship between God and man. Remember what Job said, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1.21).
Death is not natural. St. Paul said, "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life" (Romans 3.23). Only when we recognize death for what it is can we realize the the salvation that God offers to all.
3. Godís Assurances to the Dying
This is where we turn an important corner. We donít have to avoid death or misunderstand it. Once we see what it really is we are ready to see what God has promised to do about it. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, even though he may die, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die" (John 11). Those are very profound words, and they might mean nothing to us except when we begin to know the life of Jesus. It has been said jokingly, "Jesus ruined every funeral He ever attended." This is true. One day Jesus was approaching the city of Nain. A funeral procession was leaving the city. The son of a widow had died, and his body was being carried out on a stretcher. Jesus interrupted the procession and raised the young man to life. No more funeral. Jesus was summoned to the house of Jairus whose daughter had died. The mourners were in full swing. He went into the house and said, "Little girl, I say to you arise" (Mark 5.41). No funeral. When Lazarus died Jesus didnít even make it for the funeral. Lazarus was dead and buried. But Jesus called him out of the tomb. If there was anything that Jesus came to do, it was to destroy death. Above all Jesus ruined His own funeral. Jesus went to the cross for the sins of the whole world. When He rose from the dead on the third day, He showed the world Godís power over death. This is why the Bible says in Psalm 116.15 "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." St. John heard these words from heaven, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on" (Revelation 14.13). God assures all of us who are dying that in Christ we shall live.
4. Live Like You Were Dying
In 1980 Tug McGraw pitched the final strike to give the Philadelphia Phillies itís one an only World Series championship. Twenty three years later Tug McGraw was diagnosed with cancer. He battled that disease for almost a year before he died. This battle, however, left a big impression on his son, coutnry singer Tim McGraw. It was the impetus for the song "Live Like You Were Dying." In the song a man in his forties discovers that he has a terminal illness. Immediately his life changes. He begins to do things that he had been putting off like sky diving and bull riding. He gave forgiveness to people that he had hurt in the past. Above all he began to read the Bible. That song hit home with a lot of people and helped to the album sell nearly four million copies.
Tim McGraw is not the first person to recognize the wisdom of "living like you were dying." Solomon wrote in the Book of Ecclesiasties: "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart" (7.2). As we heard in Vicar Rodgerís sermon last Sunday, Jesus said that a disciple should "take up his cross daily" and follow Him (Luke 9.23). Thomas aKempis wrote: "Happy is he that always hath the hour of his death before his eyes, and daily prepareth himself to die.... When it is morning, think thou mayest die before night; and when evening comes, dare not to promise thyself the next morning. Be thou therefore always in a readiness, and so lead thy life that death may never take thee unprepared."
It is important for all Christians to live like we are dying because we are dying. To deny that is to live in an evil delusion. But we do not have to despair. When the thought of death frightens, whether it be our own death or of one we love, we can and should turn to Jesus. He is the Son of God who became man to defeat sin and death and to give hope: "Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Hebrew 2.14-15). Also there is this promise, "If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die, we are the Lordís" (Romans 14.8). Amen.
Recommended Reading: "Wise Christians Clip Obituaries" by Gary Thomas, Knowing and Doing, C.S. Lewis Institute.
Pastor Michael P. Walther
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 7, 2008
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 1300 Belt Line Road, Collinsville, Illinois, 62234
618-344-3151 / fax 618-344-3378
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod
Michael P. Walther, Copyright, 2008
|HOME||BACK TO SERMON INDEX PAGE|