Saturday, January 15, 2005

"Death is not the End"

Revelation 1:12-18 (New International Version)

“12I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,”[
a]dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp doubleedged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
17When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

A few days ago I read about the death of Jack Arnold, a Presbyterian minister. It was eerily reminiscent of the death over twenty years ago now of Standlee Crane, who was one of the pastors of Evangelistic Center Church in Kansas City. Stan, as we all called him, died under almost under the same circumstances. He preached a message about being ready for heaven, then sat down when he was done and died of a massive coronary. Some said he had just “preached his heart out.”

The deaths of these two good men had to have been powerful sermon illustrations.

This all comes for me on the heels of events in Asia, the floods on the west coast, Iraq, other world events, and the death of a friend at our church in Emporia this past Thursday.

No matter how much we try to deny it, death is the central human reality. It’s the one thing we all have statistically in common. It doesn’t spare any race or gender. It is the central reality of both male and female, the powerful or downtrodden, the rich and poor.

Of all the realities I find death the most mysterious of all. There was a time when I feared it for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t afraid of what might happen in some after-life; I was just afraid that everything would end. There was a time I believed that it was just part of a natural process and that once I died I was going to rot and that would be the end of it. My guess is that there are some who read this blog who hold this view.

I’m sure that some who read this post will think that death is just not a proper subject for a quiet Saturday. I ask you to indulge me for a few minutes. I am going somewhere I believe is important.

Augustine called death the “great riddle.” I believe he was right.

The first thing that seems so mysterious about it to me is that we all too often spend our lives denying that it is going to happen to us. I’ve seen this happen over and over in my life. I’ll cite a couple of examples to explain myself.

When I was attending seminary I got a job working in a funeral home near the campus. There wasn’t much to the job, greeting guests, assisting the funeral directors, answering phones, and so forth. There were many occasions when a young person had died and his or her friends came to the visitation. The first words out of their mouths when they entered the chapel were almost always, “I can’t believe it.” There were a few who said things like “He was too young to die” or “Such a good person. He didn’t deserve to die.”

In my time at FedEx I spent a lot of my days in a classroom, either going to diversity classes or leadership forums. They were always interesting. In some we’d have to go through silly new age exercises – “Now just breathe in the good thoughts and exhale the bad ones” or “Imagine yourself being Napoleon.” In others we had to work as teams, ensuring that our team won the race or the exercise. In one I recall the preceptor asked everyone in the class to let the others know what he or she believed was the most important thing we all had to know. The responses ran the gamut. You could almost tell the department by the response. The engineers in the group said, “We need to focus on quality.” The human resources folks said, “We need to get back to our people philosophy here.” And the sales group said, “We need to evangelize our customer base.” When it got to me I just blurted the words out – “Do you realize that everyone in this room is going to die.” I was going to say something else, but I decided to let the silence envelop the room. Well I can tell you that it did! Then, without saying a word, I could see the reaction painted on the faces in that room. They all said, “Don’t talk to me about this.”

Now I think there’s something healthy about that. I don’t think we could function in life if we spent every waking moment thinking about death. But there’s also something very unhealthy about it too.

Jesus told the following story, in parable form, of a rich man in the gospel of Luke:

Luke 12:15-21 (New International Version)

“15Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
16And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18“Then he said, ‘This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I'll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’
20“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21“This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

I’ve often wondered what that rich man was thinking. Was he thinking that he was too good to die? Did he just have that appointed time tucked away somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind? But I think we can be like that rich man as well. Jesus told the story to instruct the living, folks like you and me. It’s a powerful reminder of the transient nature of this life, about the danger of being preoccupied with earthly matters and neglecting the things that are really important to consider.

Another thing I find curious about much contemporary thinking about death is the notion that death is the devil’s domain. I think much modern thought about death has been colored by our visual media. I think of it as the “exorcist syndrome.” By that I mean that modern culture seems to have this idea that Satan himself controls death. After all, he can make heads spin around. He can make little girls vomit on command. He seems almost all powerful.

While I want to allay the fear that someone might have that death is the devil’s domain, I cannot let you off the hook. Death, as I cited in my introductory verses, is God’s domain. It is Jesus Himself who holds the keys to this mysterious reality.

Once a person honestly accepts the idea that death is going to visit his or her doorstep there’s a question that should follow – “What’s next?” As I said earlier there was a time in my life I believed that when death came everything ceased. The body rotted and that was the end of the matter. I now see that I adopted this position to, in my own mind, escape the consequences for my earthly actions. It was a subtle form of denial. If there was nothing eternal on the other side of death, then I had nothing to fear. I was free to be as despicable as I wanted to be in life. “Why not?” I reasoned. There are no consequences to face in the end.

How wrong I was! I had to come to the realization that in the end I was going to have to face a just God and I was going to be held accountable for my actions. As Bob Dylan put it, “death is not the end:”

“When you're sad and when you're lonely and you haven't got a friend
Just remember that death is not the end
And all that you've held sacred, falls down and does not mend
Just remember that death is not the end
Not the end, not the end
Just remember that death is not the end
When you're standing at the crossroads that you cannot comprehend
Just remember that death is not the end
And all your dreams have vanished and you don't know what's up the bend
Just remember that death is not the end
Not the end, not the end
Just remember that death is not the end

When the storm clouds gather 'round you, and heavy rains descend
Just remember that death is not the end
And there's no one there to comfort you, with a helpin' hand to lend
Just remember that death is not the end
Not the end, not the end
Just remember that death is not the end
Oh, the tree of life is growingWhere the spirit never dies
And the bright light of salvation shines
In dark and empty skies
When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men
Just remember that death is not the end
And you search in vain to find just one law abiding citizen
Just remember that death is not the end
Not the end, not the end
Just remember that death is not the end”

- Bob Dylan – Death is Not the End (1998)

Dylan is right! While his words bring comfort to those who have embraced the Great Consoler they ought to give pause to those have not. The life after is every bit as inevitable as the death that opens to doorway to that after-life. Arguing that we cannot see it, hence it does not exist, is a philosophical fool’s errand. There is an after-life, there is a God, and not all things are permissible. The only escape comes by falling on the mercy of the Just Judge.

I spent almost thirty years of my life on this fool’s errand. My hope is that the little I’ve said has spurred thought in someone now reading who is on that path to oblivion.

1 comment:

Pastor Mike said...

Good food for thought. I know I have advoided many pitfalls in life by weighing temporal gratification against the rewards of eternity. Eternity wins; what's temporal fades away.