Monday, April 4, 2016

Are you afraid to die? Where will you spend eternity?

KEEPING COMPANY WITH THE TRIUMPHANT MESSIAH

As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain
ALTHOUGH most people are afraid to die, few of them are honest enough to admit it. You have to really know someone before he will tell you. For some there is no rational fear, no picture in the mind's eye of any tangible disadvantage to being dead. Such people have a vague aversion to it, no more. For the more reflective there is a rational reason; they don't want to miss out on life's goodies, to fail at their goals, and they shrink from the anguish of dying.  But these do not have priority.  The number one reason for fearing death is the dread of being judged, of having your life evaluated by Another. Youth may put on false bravado, middle age may claim to be self-sufficient, but as death approaches we would all flee from it.  Our society has tried to hide death, by keeping it from children, by banishing it to institutions, even by denying the inevitable fact of aging.  How different were the early Christians!  From the graffiti in the catacombs we have learned that many of the martyrs were looking forward to dying.  They were already removed from friends and family, received little sympathy, and often had to face a violent and painful conflict, but they faced death with hope.  They saw death as their servant, conducting them to keep company with the Triumphant Messiah.  So Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the Nations, approaches His mortal disciples with the familiar address, Don't be afraid.

On the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, the Lord appeared to His friends.  A week later He did it again, this time even Thomas was there.  The disciples appreciated keeping company with the risen Jesus.  He was establishing the pattern that Sunday would be His day.  After seven weeks, again on a Sunday, the Holy Spirit came.  So on the day when God began all time by saying, Let there be light… on the day when the True Light entered Jerusalem, on the day when the darkness did not overcome Him, on the day when the spirit gave birth to the Church, we come together to feed our souls on the Holy Word, to honor the Third Commandment.

After that first Pentecost, many years passed before Jesus spoke the words of our text.  He spoke them to John, the "beloved disciple."  He was a leader of the church in Ephesus, who had been sent into exile because of his faith.  He was on the island of Patmos, off the coast of Asia Minor.  He tells us that Jesus appeared to him on the Lord's Day -- by the time this was written Sunday had acquired that appellation.  Jesus appeared to John in a vision.  John does not say he was looking for a vision.  Even if he had been, he did not handle the vision, it handled him.  The Lord who loved him had a strange voice, like the sound of Niagara Falls.  Even though the form might have been frightening, the content was the same as the angels' message to the shepherds at Christmas -- Don't be afraid.  Now this was not the humble Jesus.  This was the exalted Jesus, the Lion rather than the Lamb.  He claimed: I am He who was dead, but am alive forevermore.  Whereas the humble Jesus three times foretold this victory, the exalted Jesus fulfilled it.  Yet this Lion and the Lamb are one and the same.

He clearly mentions the most important matter;  He was dead but now lives forever.  That changes absolutely everything.  He is on our side.  Far above this place of sorrow, far above the anguish of earthly existence, Jesus rules in love.  The Conqueror of sin, death, and Satan rules in love.  Every day we meet opposition, temptation, frustration.  We know what the Psalmist must have felt like when he feared "going down into the pit."  It seems we're always in the pit.  But the Triumphant Jesus is our Redeemer, our Advocate, our King.  Scripture speaks of Him as enthroned both in heaven and in our hearts, but these thrones will some day be brought together.  We live in the time when He has begun the good work, and look for the day on which He will fulfill it.

He continues:  I have the keys of death and hell.  Jesus can bind, so can He release.  Eternity has but one entrance.  Jesus stands before it.  Yes, the Jesus of the Bible, risen with the glorified, spiritual body that had been crucified.  All the great philosophers, prophets, and teachers of mankind remain in their graves.  Jesus alone came out of His.  He was not a disembodied spirit as in a séance.  He was not less than a material being;  He was more.  He was alive in a way no sinner could be.  He was not waiting to live out His karma, although that is not necessarily an incorrect way to account for His resurrection.  Remember He is Lord of all, subject to no one.  He voluntarily humbled Himself to save us.  He went through death and hell to capture their keys, even as He remained their Lord and Master.  All the great philosophers will be raised some day, and will have to stand before Jesus to give account.  But this is good news to us, because we know He captured those keys in love, and will grant us pardon and eternal fellowship.

What do you want said at your funeral?  I hope something more than vain speculation.  I have heard some people say things like "The body is here but the soul has fled."   Fled whither?  That soul is before Jesus for judgment.  Once a society matron attending her friend's funeral said, "Nothing that is pure … nothing that is good can die."  Jesus is an exception to that.  As for us, we are certainly sinners, and sinners die every day.  It isn't very comforting to think that the good cannot die, because none of us know anybody that good, and the One who really was did die.  At my funeral, I want the pastor to preach the Law and the Gospel, to be frank in telling people that I was a sinner, and that Jesus came into this world to save me along with every other sinner.  I want him to say that in Holy Baptism He washed away my sins, so that I could face eternity as one who was born again of water and the Spirit.  I want my funeral sermon to be about Jesus, who was dead but is alive and has the keys to death and hell.


If Job in the age of the patriarchs could say:  I know that my Redeemer lives… if Paul could boldly assert that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus … if Daniel Webster could on his deathbed give thanks for the Gospel that brought life and immortality to light, then you can also look forward to keeping company with the Triumphant Messiah.  You will know Him by His nail wounds, for that is how He captured those keys.  He will know you by name, and you will be part of a large company, reunited with many loved ones.  They may be resurrected much younger than you remember them, or they may be blessed with an adulthood of which they were robbed on earth, but for Him who holds the keys, nothing is impossible.   Human weakness may make us all nervous about dying, but like the ancient martyrs, we need not fear the Judgment.  Let whoever preaches our funerals speak of Him who is the Master of death, who died and lives forever, and who welcomes us to keep company with Him, the Triumphant Messiah.  AMEN.


~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

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