Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Not the Usual Post: A SWNID Sermon

Normally on this blog, we post on current events or things that just strike our fancy. Lately we haven't had time to do much of that.

Today we risk an exception.

This is a sermon that we recently delivered at CCU's chapel. It's about as serious and personal as anything that we've done in public. Listen to the recorded audio by following the link above if you don't want to read the text below.


I chose my topic because I hate it. I loathe it. It comes into my life again and again. It wears me down. It makes me sick. It makes my heart ache. It strikes fear in my heart. I want to avoid it, ignore it, pretend that it doesn’t touch me. But it does again and again. And I know that the same is true for you. My topic is death.

I’m tired of going to funerals. I go to a lot of them. I’m of an age where my friends are losing their loved ones one by one. A friend loses his wife to cancer while their four children are still young. A friend loses his daughter, barely a young adult, to a bipolar condition that leads her in despair to take her own life. A friend loses his aged father to Alzheimer’s, a death by agonizingly slow degrees. A friend loses a brother, who is also a husband and father, in a skydiving accident that leaves his body unrecognizable. A friend loses a young son to a rare genetic disorder after months and months of anguish in the hospital. A friend loses a dear cousin, a casualty of the Iraq War. I am haunted by their tears. I imagine the grief in their hearts, and it hurts me so that I want to imagine it no more. I’m tired of being a middle aged man who goes to funerals. Death is horrible. I hate it.

I dread the way that death enters my own life. My father-in-law was a good, godly man, loved by all who knew him. Nineteen years ago he wasted away in just months, sick with a deadly tumor on his pancreas, unable to take nourishment, reduced from a robust, energetic, man who loved life to a frail, wafer-thin invalid, barely clinging to a shadow of life. My grandfather was a vigorous gentleman, advanced in years well beyond threescore and ten, full of warmth and wisdom and proudly independent. He went through the indignity of a debilitating stroke that left him without speech and an intestinal blockage that left him vomiting his own feces. And he died while I was thousands of miles away. My grandmother faced every challenge with a dignity and gentleness that shaped and nurtured me as I grew up. She suffered a final crisis that was mercifully short. But she is gone too, and again I was thousands of miles away when she died, and now I can’t see her and talk to her. I can’t tell her about how my own children have grown, or how I have grown, or listen to her stories about life on the farm with a wood stove in the kitchen and a draft horse to pull the plow. I miss them, and I hate the death that took them away.

I hate the way that death right now is creeping into the lives of the people I love. I look at my own mother, now almost as old as my grandmother was when she died. The woman whom I knew as youthful, strong, energetic and beautiful, who loved to serve others with her skills in the kitchen and the sewing machine is now weak and stooped, debilitated by a dozen different ailments that make her frail, nearly immobile, weak, tired and utterly frustrated. I look at her aged face and I see the shadow of death cast over it. I look at my father, remarkably healthy for a man his age, yes, but still a man in what must be his last days, weaker and slower with the passing of time, burdened beyond what I want to imagine by the dread he feels that my mother, his wife of nearly 67 years, will die before him, leaving him to grieve in whatever time he has left.

And I know that one day I may face the same awful trial myself, of watching my own best friend, my wife, as her life slips away, or of finding her cold in the bed beside me. Or perhaps she will face that trial with my death. I know that I’m nearer death than I have ever been. I know that at least half my days are gone. I am just a few years from the age that my father-in-law reached at his death. I’m years older than my uncle who died when I was a toddler. I know that my heart doesn’t beat as readily as it once did. I am dying, slowly.

I live with the fear that one day before I die a policeman and a police chaplain will knock at my door. They will ask if I am Jon Weatherly and if I have a son named Cale or a daughter named Allison. And my heart will be torn out of me because I know what they will say next.

I dread grief. I have tasted it, not as much as many, not nearly as much as some of you, but I hate it and so I dread tasting it again. I understand what Scottish preacher Arthur John Gossip said in the first sermon he preached after the sudden death of his wife:
I can tell … where death’s sting lies. Ah! it is the constant missing of what used to be always here; the bitter grudging every second of the dear body to the senseless earth, the terrible insecurity, for one is never safe—anything, nothing, and the old overwhelming pain comes rushing back.
I hate death. I can’t simply accept it. I can’t resign myself to it. I hate death because life is so sweet and so good. I love life. I love the people who share my life. I want it to go on forever. I want to walk in the sunshine or the cool rain or even the snow and ice. I want to savor a grapefruit or a slice of roast beef or some of those amazing French fries that they make at Penn Station. I want to play with my dog or cut the grass or even do the dishes. I want to listen to new music and read new stories and play new games. I want to talk and laugh and share homemade ice cream with my friends and family in the shade of the trees in my back yard. Life is so sweet. I don’t ever want it to end. That’s why I hate death. That’s why ancient people saw death as a monster or a demon. That’s why you hate death too.

Why does life end? Why does it get taken away suddenly, or slowly, from old, young or in-between? If it were my world, there would be no death. Why is it appointed to man once to die? Why does God make it so?

Sure, I’d love to live in a world with no death. But in my honest moments, I realize something about myself and the awful specter of death. I realize that in a world without death, I couldn’t trust myself.

Let’s imagine that death-free world that we want for ourselves. Stretching before us are endless years of life with no prospect of an end. What would you do? Would you finish college in four years, or take forty, or four hundred? Would you meet any deadlines? Hey, would you even have a concept of deadline? Would you ever get serious about anything, about your own life or anyone else’s? Would you care what happened to anyone else, since, after all, what could happen to anyone else?

Most important, would you seek God, or even listen to him if he tried to tell you something? That can always wait for tomorrow, can’t it? There’s an unlimited supply of tomorrows in that deathless world of our making.

God told our first parents, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.” The apostle Paul told the Roman Christians, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

Here’s the truth that we don’t want to admit to ourselves. First, the world is the way it is with death because of us, not because of God. Adam and Eve listened to the snake, not to God. And we can’t pin the blame on them, because you and I listen to the snake too. Death rules because of sin. I’m a sinner, and I know it. Sooner or later, I get what I deserve.

But God is rich in mercy. Even though I listen to the snake and ask for death, he urgently wants me back so that he can give me life. He didn’t kill Adam and Eve the moment they ate the fruit, and he didn’t kill you either. He is not willing that any should die, but that all should come to repentance, that all should turn back to him.

But will we listen? Not with that endless string of tomorrows stretching before us. But in a world where death lurks and creeps and attacks, where there is no guarantee of tomorrow, maybe I will listen.

There’s the awful truth. This death that I hate has everything to do with me and my stubborn, selfish rebellion. When I look inside, I realize that I wouldn’t give the time of day to God if he didn’t focus my attention with the reality that I only have a little time, a few days. If I didn’t live in a world where people around me get sick or old and die or get hurt in accidents or deliberately by other people and die, would I ever listen to God? I know the answer. I know that I need deadlines.

So, a grieving mother asks, are you saying that God took my child from me just to get my attention? Why didn’t he make me the sick one if that’s what he wanted? No, we can’t say that. We can’t be so glib. It may be tempting, but it’s just too simple and shallow to turn God into a heartless brute who takes our loved ones hostage to extract a ransom of repentance from us who remain. There’s a painful mystery here that we cannot entirely unravel. If we get too specific and precise with this, we’ll be wrong every time. We’re not God, and we can’t guess as if we were God.

But this we know. Sin’s wage is death. And would we care about sin and the God we sin against if it weren’t? Would I know that to live in sin is to live in spiritual death if the horror of physical death were not there? At least we can say this: God has so arranged death that hard as we try, we can’t help thinking about it. In our world made deadly by our deadly rebellion against God, by means of a deadline that God alone knows, God is bidding us to turn to him so that he can give us life.

The ancient saints knew this. God gave Abraham the appalling command to sacrifice his son Isaac. Yet Abraham could say to his servant, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship, and we will come back to you.”

Job had lost all to death, and as he sat and watched his own boil-covered body suffering pre-mortem decay, his wife told him to curse the God who allowed this terror so that he would die as well. But Job’s confession was “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

By the inspiration of God’s Spirit Isaiah warned that Israel would suffer the death of captivity. But beyond the curse, he announced God’s promise that he would bring life to his dead people:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
How could these ancient saints know such a thing, and under such duress? They knew that the God who gave life at the beginning could not be thwarted at the end. They knew that the God who made people to belong to him would not fail. They knew that by his amazing grace God is faithful to all of his people.

We can know it too. Our age loves to dismiss the notion of a gracious and faithful God. We fancy ourselves rationalists, empiricists, materialists who boldly take a stand against such superstition and calmly accept the reality of death as a part of life. But I don’t buy that.

Neither did the great fiction writer John Updike. He wrote a story entitled “Pigeon Feathers” about a boy of about thirteen named David. David is quiet and curious. His father rails sometimes that life is just chemicals in the right combination. Other times he complains that some everyday experience reminds him of death. David’s mother has become frustrated and bitter at her disappointments. His church has taught him that the stories of the Bible are the quaint expressions of a primitive worldview overturned by our advanced knowledge.

One day David’s mother tells him to go to the barn to shoot the pigeons that have roosted there. Nervous and hesitant, he manages to kill only six; the rest fly away. His mother tells him to bury the dead birds. This is how Updike tells the end of his story:

[David] dug the hole, in a spot where there were no strawberry plants, before he studied the pigeons. He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air able and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shads of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in
rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.
Updike’s character was learning what Jesus taught us: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

We can cling to that. The God who has been so extravagant in bringing life to our world will not let it be snuffed out for us. He loves us at least as much as birds. Every day of our lives,he’s given us better than we deserve. Even facing death, we can trust in God. We can affirm that he is our living redeemer and by his grace we will see him. He’s so good—better than life itself. He gives life. He’s faithful.

But we know more, don’t we? He loves us so much that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And God raised him from the dead, and Christ appeared to Peter and the twelve and more than five hundred at one time, and to James and to all the apostles and last of all to the apostle Paul. Because of Christ, God has given me the supreme reason to trust him. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Christ is the firstborn from the dead, the one who will come for all of his people so that they can be with him forever, so that we don’t grieve like those with no hope, so that we can comfort one another with the assurance that death is not the end, not of our own lives or of our lives together.

So Paul can taunt death: “Where’s your victory, death? Where’s your sting, death?” Christ has defeated our old enemy. It remains active as our enemy still, and we hate death still because of what it takes from us. But from the vantage of eternity what death takes is light and momentary.

Do you remember that great scene near the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair? Eustace and Jill have completed their adventure, but their dear friend Caspian, king of Narnia, has died. They are taken by the great lion Aslan, the Christ figure of the Narnia stories, to the end of the world, where the see Caspian’s dead body lying in the water of a stream. Aslan tells Eustace to pluck and thorn and thrust it into Aslan’s paw. Eustace obeys. And as the blood of the lion splashed over the dead body of Caspian, he becomes young and alive again, more alive than he’s ever been before. With laughter and joy the resurrected Caspian embraces Aslan. Then he approaches Eustace.

Eustace is at first frightened. Here’s how the scene goes:

“Look here! I say,” he stammered. “It’s all very well. But aren’t you?—I mean didn’t you—? … Hasn’t he—er—died?

“Yes,” said the Lion in a very quiet voice, almost … as if he were laughing. He has died. Most people have, you know. Even I have. There are very few people who haven’t.”

Christ has gone before us in death. For us he took its sting. To us he gives life, now and forever.
But remember that this means more than a future of bright hope. It means a different kind of present. Christ brings this great gift of life by giving his life for us. That means that the way to real life in the present is giving our lives. So if we want to save our lives, we lose our lives. But if we lose our lives for Christ’s sake, we find our lives.

Before we knew Christ, losing our lives sounded like death. When we know Christ, we know him as the one who died to give life. We know his way as the way of life. We discover that holding our lives is what makes us dead, but giving our lives is what makes us alive.

We can afford to give our lives away. What can take life from us? What can separate us from the love of Christ? Not grief, sickness, accidents, death, anything. We are more than conquerors through him who loves us.

I hate death. But as I draw closer to death, God is teaching me that I find my life when in Christ’s name I give my life for others as he gave his life for me. That’s the life that conquers death, the life that I’m learning to love.

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in


Keith Wood said...

Check in from time to time to get the latest SWNID opinion, and wanted to say I appreciated your message. Maybe you ought to post some more sermons from time to time. I appreciate all you do for the Kingdom.

Dean Heitkamp said...

Quality work as usual. Thought provoking, encouraging, and enlightening. All good stuff!

David H. Willis said...

I'm very late to this one, but I'll comment anyway! This was outstanding & compelling. Much thanks.

No Fear said...

I needed something to bite on and this satisfied by clinched jaws. Thank you Jon.

yoshi54 said...

Some of the best reading I have had in a very long time. Thank you Jon......8^)

Life in perspective..... I need to think deeper about following Christ.

Pam Schroeder said...

Thanks, Jon. I needed that.