Psalm 23; Deuteronomy 34:1-8; Acts 7:51-8:2
Lent 4 Year C February 3, 2013
The New England Primer was first published in 1690. It was the first textbook to be printed in the in the early days of American History. The 90-page pamphlet contained many religious maxims, alphabetical assistants, and moral lessons. Listed as “A Child’s Bedtime Prayer” in the 1784 edition of included the familiar little children’s prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Death is not something we like to talk about these days. But back in the seventeenth and eighteenth century with its high infant and child mortality rate death came early to many and many families lost several children in their early years. The Puritan Cotton Mather saw eight of his fifteen children die before age two. In some places three in ten children died before age 5. [http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/childbirth.cfm]
Death back then was not something spoken of in hushed tones. Children were taught to say their bedtime prayers and that included an acknowledgment that death could very well come and one should always be prepared by committing their safekeeping to God’s care. Death surrounded them. They spoke openly of death. They didn’t speak much about sex however. They were modest, chaste and reluctant to speak about that most personal aspect of their lives: sexuality. Two hundred years later in the Western World we speak quite openly about sex. Most boundaries about it are down and people watch sex portrayed on television and discussed openly. But death is another matter. We suppress talk about death much like open discussion of sex was suppressed in generations gone by.
I was in the hospital once making a pastoral call on an elderly woman very near death. She had been a faithful church member in the Groveville UMC, and was now drawing near her time of death. She didn’t have long and that was obvious. Her vital signs were diminishing. Her Body was shutting down. But the nurse made it a point to advise me, “Please don’t talk about death to her. It might upset her.” I thought that odd. She was going to die and her pastor had come to help her with that transition, but someone from the medical profession thinks it their place to advice against frank talk about her readiness to depart and be with Christ! I think the nurse revealed her own difficulty with facing death. Well, I didn’t take her advice. But people just don’t like to talk about death. We cover it up in hushed tones and whispers.
Notice how we say, “she passed away” rather than “she died”. We speak of “the remains” rather than “the corpse” or “the body.” Death takes place in an antiseptic hospital room and not at home surrounded by family. I held a session on death with some young adults in one church in which I served as pastor. I had the group watch and discuss the 1983 movie “Terms of Endearment”. Part of the movie dealt with death. In our discussion at the end of the movie one young man in the group, “Victor”, stated that he didn’t feel that Church was proper place for us to discuss things like death. We should stick to happy themes. Somehow for him topics like death shouldn’t be discussed, especially in church. It is interesting that the church, unfortunately, inherited a reticence about speaking frankly about sex or death. And yet those two realities are boundaries we all experience. We are all sexual creatures and we will all face death.
I keep my ear to the ground and my eyes alert to what is going on in popular culture. Recently, I discovered the television serial “Six Feet Under.” The show won both Emmy and Golden Globe awards. Its fifth and final season just ended here in Taiwan cable TV. It is the ongoing fictitious saga about the Fisher family who owned and operated a funeral home in Los Angeles. Every episode begins with a death of the “client” for whom the funeral home’s services are needed in that episode. The producers stated that this show was about death in a culture that found death a difficult subject about which to speak. Six Feet Under was speaking frankly and in an almost matter of fact fashion about something that we all will face: Death. One of the producers stated that the show wanted to give the message that “everything comes to an end”.
The Bible writers were not shy to speak of either sex or death. We read two accounts from the Bible of death this morning; one from the Old Testament and one from the New. One death was of an old person, Moses. He died a natural death well advanced in years. Stephen, a young man in the New Testament was brutally murdered in a lynching. Both were godly men. Both accounts mention that something was done about the corpse. In both cases there was grief and sorrow expressed by those close to the deceased.
Death comes to all
Now, how shall we think of death? Shall we fear it? Shall we face it with dread and loathing? Shall we ignore it? Let us be clear about this sobering reality: Death comes to all. It is the great leveler. The good and bad, the rich and poor, the wise and foolish, the ugly and the beautiful will meet with death. There is no escape. We will each one face death some day. For all can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others. Their tombs will remain their houses forever, their dwellings for endless generations, though they had named lands after themselves. But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish. Psalm 49:10-12 For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die! Ecclesiastes 2:16 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build…Ecclesiastes 3:1-3,
Death is appropriate for fallen creatures: I am glad for death. Can you imagine an eternal Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot or Sadaam Hussein? In the Genesis story death was imposed as a result of sin: “In the day you eat thereof you shall surely die”. Death means that life is fragile and temporary. What we do matters, but it will not be forever. Suppose we were perfect creatures and not prone to inflict evil and pain on one another. Then we could call death a great tragedy. But the truth is we do some horrendous things to one another. Even the most oppressive and vile will only continue for a while and even that is under the threat of death, as many tyrants have found true. Death is appropriate for a fallen creature bent on evil.
The question that we have however is what happens after we die? There are several views of that.
What happens after we die? Four Views
Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun. Ecclesiastes 9:4-6
In such a view our only meaning is what we do in this life. Death is an ending, a final period.
In the early days really important persons had been accompanied by other persons. Once the king died servants and wives were also killed in order to travel with him to the new life on the other side. After a while this custom stopped and they made models of people instead of killing real people. They believed these models would spring to life once in the next life. [http://www.geocities.com/dameboudicca/Egypt]
While in Taiwan I learned that the popular Daoist notion holds that upon death the deceased need money and automobiles in the unseen spiritual world. Loved ones provide heir needs by burning paper money or even cardboard Mercedes. This burning spiritualizes the objects and sends them on to the departed for their enjoyment. Without the living attending upon the needs of the deceased, their quality of life is decreased. So they need the living to continue to provide some essentials for the world of spirits.
When we die we are really dead, like the writers of the Old Testament assert. Only God is immortal. The creator made us temporary beings. God breathed into us and gave us life. God created us as living, thinking, feeling and willing creatures. When God takes our life we perish and return to the dust. We are not immortal, unless, (and here is the good news of the Gospel) unless, God chooses to grant us immortality by another act of creation. It is an act of New Creation. God takes the human spirit and causes it to live. God even transforms our body-ness, our shape and grants that continuing existence in another realm, in a dimension that we cannot know or describe. It is an act of God, not a natural process. What we are now we continue to be, but in a fulfilled and more solid and powerful way. We have continuity with what we are now, but also discontinuity. It is us, but a transformed us. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Philippians 3:20-21
Of course we want to know how? How does God do this? What kind of body will we have? Does the body we lay in the earth, six feet under, the one that dissolves into liquid corruption, some how pull together? Not exactly. Paul answers that when the curious Corinthians posed very question. Listen to his reply:
But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 1 Corinthians 15:35-38. The Apostle continues. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. 1 Corinthians 15: 42-44
The Apostles sees in this the great good news when he erupts in exuberant praise: When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:35-53
Well, the great Apostle doesn’t quite answer in a way that satisfies our curiosity. Whatever body we will have is fashioned by God in a way appropriate to the New Reality, the New Creation that God is bringing about by his mighty power. Just like we share the likeness and weakness of Father Adam, the representative man of dust, so we shall share the power and strength of the Heavenly Man; we shall bear the likeness of the Man from Heaven. Whatever we can say about our old enemy death, it has will be overcome and transformed into a friend.
Death has been overcome by Christ and transformed into a friend
We have had a number of death here at BSUMC lately just in this last year and half since Stephanie and I took up residence in Burlington. Let us remember those faithful souls to whom we have said goodbye. We laid to rest Dick Morningstar, Bernie Smith, Joel Reed, Pat Stout, Dick Friedrich, and Walter Stout. We grieve together. But we do not do so hopelessly and in despair. We sorrow, just as all Israel grieved for Moses and the first Christians mourned for Stephen. But we do so in hope because we know that to be “…away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8) Christ has transformed death from and enemy into a friend. For us it is no longer a period (.) at the end of the sentence, full stop. Death is a dash (-), and there is even more life to come.
Where are our loved ones who died in faith? They’re home. Their needs are all met. There is nothing we can do for them as there is nothing they need. God has filled them to satisfaction and clothed them in light inexpressible. I think of that beautiful passage brimming with hope at the end of Psalm 16: You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore. Psalms 16:11 NKJV Amen