What bothers you most about the act of dying? Shakespeare, who was fixated on the matter (Will had fourteen acts of actual or suggested suicide in his works in a day when the subject was not much mentioned) had his Julius say, “I think it odd that men should fear so natural an end…” but fear it we do and do all we can to hold off the Reaper.
For those of you who are to preach soon (Sunday? It’s Thursday and you have a Lock-In between you and Sunday) probably should take a look at the sweeping panorama of our subject. You have to face death often in your calling. You have noticed how some people grieve in sadness, some in denial and there are two or three at every death event who grieve in smoldering resentment. I give you here the three great fears about death, which will explain the angers of the angry folk you face and, besides that, will flat out preach, if you take a little time with it.
What do we fear about the coming darkness?
We fear the inpartialiality of death. There are no recently recorded Enochs. The fiery chariot that snatched Elijah was impressive but apparently was also a one-trip wonder. Death, death, death; no one, it is said, gets out of this world alive, so far as we can tell.
Rock stars die. Kings die. Athletes die. Even our Lord, once entered here, does not get out of this world alive without recourse to death. Death is truly impartial.
By impartial, we may mean predictable. Once upon a time, years ago, my friend, the funeral director, told me to rest some during August and September. When I asked why he told me the actuarial tables predicted a steady spate of dying to come between early October of that year and mid-March of the next. Coffin companies were gearing up. I needed to be ready.
My friend was right. From October to April of the next year I ministered eulogy after eulogy. Death, it appeared, was predictable.
And death is still predictable, which is what Shakespeare meant, I think. So natural an end? No, so predictable an occurrence.
So, what bothers us about this common occurrence?
We are fretful about the impartiality of death. Death is no respecter of persons; young or old, rich or poor, kind lady or coarse man. Death extracts its toll.
More fearful than the event itself is its aftermath. It is appointed to humankind once to die (but) then is the judgment. Humans are fearfully uninformed about life in this world; hopelessly behind in accumulated knowledge and falling fast. Imagine a dispossessed soul in the life to come! The impartiality of life is subsumed in the much graver unbiased nature of the judgment. None of our cliches help. We desperately need an advocate, knowledgeable of the standards by which we will be judged and biased in our favor.
Our Lord routinely talks about the life that is to come. In one memorable passage Jesus shows a prosperous man in agony after death and a poor man in the bosom of Abraham (Dives and Lazarus). Some commentators look at Jesus’ after life teachings and allow as how He was just teaching in line with the common thinkers of His day. One wonders at the great numbers of times Jesus stood the common religious teaching of His day on its head, and then wonders why He does not announce here He is just telling them what they want to hear, but, no matter, the fact of life is that it ends here in impartial death and that which comes after needs a guide.
Death is impartial and so the judgment must be the same, if any part of the record is true at all. We fret over the impartiality of death and perhaps we should.
And, that brings us to this stress, that death seems so final. At Ann Rutledge’s grave, Mr. Lincoln is said to have thought about the finality of death, saying, “She is in the grave. She will do nothing tomorrow, nor the next day, nor ever again.”
Death seems to have finality as its essence, doesn’t it? At the very least it is a great interruption. How do we deal with death’s finality?
Well, we say that our faith, even our faith, overcomes the world and so beats back death’s finality. At all the heavenly places our faith (grace, grace, more grace) has something to say at the grave. Like Victor Hugo, we believe that the grave is only a through-fare; it closes on the darkness and opens on the dawn.
Here is what our faith teaches directly about death’s finality:
- We survive death. Death has a bite but no victory, not even a sting left to it.
- We survive death personally. You are not amorphous gas absorbed into empty space. Jesus is resurrected, to be the first born of many brethren.
- We survive death, personally and recognizably, In our faith, death is temporary, cemented in life and so not finally able to overcome.
So, our faith (grace, grace, more grace) has life over it all. Therefore, faith anticipates our final objection to death, even its futility. If death is all, if it overwhelms all persons, then life is just as futile. But, if death is wallowed up in life, then life matter and death does not win.
Consider it this way. Post-modern, Western atheism argues that nothing is sacred, nor is the idea of the holy necessary. Naturally, when asked where such a one finds a ground for morality, it cannot be in anything holy or sacred and so must be irreligious. The professed irreligious , Post-Modern, Western atheist, routinely tells us his morality is in the vulnerability of other beings. If anyone or anything can hurt, then its vulnerability is the cause of morality.
This is materialism, plain and simple. No, not realism, materialism. Morality grounded in materialism has all the usual frailties of any philosophy grounded in materialism, i.e., it must eschew one or more of the major grounds of knowledge and so show itself to be so subjective it cannot be even relative (yes, I said relative, which is not to be feared so much as meager subjectivity).
Our religious morality differs from Materialism, in that religious morality does not depend on the material, neither for its beginning nor its end. What happens, my materialistic moralist friend, when you are the cause of your subject’s suffering? To whom or to what or to where do you appeal then?
Here is what we say, those of us who stand in the light of God watching others crouch in the dark fear of death. This faith, ours because we are claimed by it and so made debtor to this faith, once and forever, we say this faith (grace, grace, more grace):
- Gives us a life of meaning for now and so
- Gives us a life of meaning for later and thus
- Ushers us into the heavenly society visible in the society of Eden, wherein life is the intentional object and, subsequently
- Life must be durable, lasting, God-given
- And, then, death must be temporary.
Yes, this opposes Materialism, which must be lacking, anyway, for it lacks a corrective. The Christ, who enters human history from outside us to show us truths of God we could never find left alone, this Christ, demonstrates the imminent collapse of the Material and so opens up that which is to come for those who are in the now.