Sunday, March 19, 2017

You’re Going to Die

For far too many people these days, religion is just another slice of life. There’s the job and stuff at home and whatnot. And then, there’s also your religion. Religion is just a part of the reality of a person’s life that needs to be dealt with. But that, of course, is not true. A person’s religion is not just a part of a person’s reality. His religion interprets reality for him. That’s true if you are a Muslim or a Buddhist or a person whose religion is atheism. It’s also true if you’re a Christian. Religion interprets reality.

Today, I’m going to, once again, use the Scriptures to interpret reality for you. And I do this, as always, so that you can live well. A person cannot live well unless he or she understands and embraces what is real. Failure to do this will have its consequences sooner or later. And it is the Christian Scriptures alone that interpret reality accurately.

The piece of reality that we’re going to be looking at today is death. This is certainly a part of reality that we need to be careful to interpret accurately. I’m going to use something from Hebrews to do this. Listen.

… it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment …  Hebrews 9.27

My original plan was to explain the whole sentence in one sermon. But there is too much here to do that. So, now the plan is to just to look at the first part of the sentence today, the part about death, and to return to this bit of wisdom next week to look at the second part of this sentence, the part about judgment.

Here’s the key idea for today’s sermon and it’s not complicated: You’re going to die. That’s true for all of you. And it’s been true from the day you were born. That means it’s true not just for us older folk. It’s true of you younger ones too. You’re going to die. It makes no sense to try to hide from that or ignore it or cover it over. One of these days it’s going to happen. You’re going to die. The best thing to do is to accept it as a fact. But you do that with this goal in view: to prepare for it. You can’t prepare for something that you work hard to ignore. But, in this, as with every other piece of reality, if you are prepared for what is going to happen you will be able to deal with it well. And the fact of the matter is that you can deal with your death well, actually very well. So, that’s what I hope to help you to do this morning, to accept the fact of your coming death and thus to prepare for it so that you can live well.

Now, why is death an issue? If I were to say to you that it’s going to snow tomorrow, it wouldn’t be anything big. Life’s like that, especially in Erie. Sometimes it snows. The same is true of dying. Life’s like that. So, why is it that dying is such a difficult issue for people to deal with? Well, the answer is pretty obvious. It’s because we are afraid of dying. Now, why is it that Christians, of all people, fear death? That should not be. Why is it?

The sad truth is that we are more affected by our culture than we want to admit. And our culture is filled with fear. And at the top of the list of things that are feared these days is death. This has not always been the case in western civilization. So, why are the people of this culture so afraid of death? Well, here’s one thing. This life is all that they have. Their hopes and dreams and joys are all here. And dying brings it all to an end. They have no hope beyond what they can see in the here and now. That’s one reason why they fear death.

Now, someone might mention something that we’re used to hearing at funerals. The dearly departed is going to a better place. Isn’t that a hope that goes beyond the here and now? Well, it’s one thing to utter that phrase and quite another to actually believe it. You can expose a bit of reality the next time someone says that to you at a funeral. Just ask them, if you’re bold enough, whether they are eager to go to that better place, say in five minutes. People have no confidence in that phrase. They really don’t believe it. It’s just something to say to try to cover over the fact of death, to try to hide from the fear of death. And what is so sad is that Christians sometimes fall into the same trap.

It’s at this point that someone might respond to all this by saying that even if heaven is real, dying still hurts. And who wants to hurt? Well, a painful death is a possibility. And that’s why, when you ask someone how they want to die, the common answer is, ‘In my sleep.’ Yes, dying can be painful. It can, in fact, be very painful. And it is understandable for someone who is not a Christian to fear it for that reason - but it’s not understandable for someone who is a Christian to do that.

Now, why do I say that? Well, for one thing, heaven really is a better place, a really better place. It would seem to me that experiencing some physical pain for a time in the hope of never experiencing any pain of any sort for an eternity is well worth the trade-off. Having a lively hope of later really does help to deal with the difficulties of now.

But let’s take a better look at this issue of a painful death. And let’s look at it in terms of the reality that our Scriptures reveal. Everything that happens to you is a part of the Father’s plan for your life. Everything - which hand you write with, what time you woke up this morning, how you put your shoes on and lots more. And that plan includes how you are going to die. Your Father has already decided that.

Now, let’s be real honest here. That just might mean that you are going to die a painful death. So, if you knew that ahead of time, that you are going to die in that way, what’s a good way to respond to it? Well, let’s consider one particular person’s painful death. Let’s consider Jesus. I think that we all would agree that His death was painful, very painful. And it’s important that I remind you that the worst of the pain was not physical - not by a long shot. But Jesus submitted to the Father’s plan for Him to suffer a painful death. Why? There are lots of answers to that. There was His habit of obedience to the Father. But it was not a blind obedience. It was an obedience that was rooted in Jesus’ trust in the Father, a trust in His love and in His wisdom. There was also Jesus’ love for His Church. Refusing to die that very painful death would greatly affect all the saints. Jesus knew that it was either hell for Him or hell for us. Then, there is the biblical notion of reward. Jesus knew that He would be rewarded for His obedience by being given the name that is above every name. Jesus earned the name of Lord over all things by His suffering that painful death.

Jesus provides us with an example here. The same things that motivated Him should motivate you. The matter of obedience. An obedience rooted in trust in the Father’s love and wisdom. Your own love for those who, in God’s providence, can be affected for good by how you die. And the promise of reward. Yes, you might die a painful death, but there are reasons to accept that possibility.

Still not comforted? Well, consider this familiar bit of Bible.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Psalm 23.4

Now, how is it that the Father’s presence with you makes a difference? You’re still going to die, right? It’s one thing if He’s there passively watching you suffer. But it’s quite another if He is actively involved. And He is actively involved. But how is He actively involved so that it actually helps? Well, here’s one thing.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1 Corinthians 10.13

Here’s another bit of reality. Facing death well is about temptation. It’s about the temptation not to trust your Father. But here’s a promise that tells you that whatever the temptation is, including when you are tempted at death’s door - whatever it is it won’t be more than what you can deal with. The Father will be right there making sure that what you face in your death is well within your ability. Or to say this differently, in effect, He will be there telling you, ‘You can do this’. The Father will make sure of that so that you will endure it well. He will make sure that trusting His love and wisdom in the face of death will be something well within your ability. And when you put that together with the idea of reward for faithful living - well, the image that comes to my mind is a tired runner telling himself that he can make it to the finish line. He can make it there so that he will finish the race and receive the prize. So, throughout the race he is telling himself, ‘I can do this. By the grace of God, I can do this.’ And so can you.

As you look at reality through the lens of the Scriptures, it is clear that there is absolutely nothing for you to fear - and that includes death.

All of this explains how to prepare for the day of your death. It’s all about believing what I’ve told you this morning. Here, let me remind you what I’ve said.

I told you that heaven really is a better place. Then there is the example of Jesus. There’s Psalm 23 and 1 Corinthians 10 about the Father’s active presence with you, making sure that you will be able to deal with the temptations.

What you need to do is believe these things when you face death. And I’ll tell you how you can do that. You work at believing what I’ve told you about facing death on your last day, by believing the same sorts of things as you face the issues of every other day. You prepare for dying as a Christian who believes the Gospel by working at living as a Christian who believes the Gospel. When confronted with the problems of those everyday issues simply ask yourself, ‘Is the Father present with me now? Is He making sure that this is something I can deal with? Will I trust His love and wisdom in this situation? Will He reward me for obedience? Will He use this for the good of others around me?’ It’s as you learn how to answer those questions with a firm ‘Yes’ that you will be freed from fear. The Spirit blesses faith. And answering ‘Yes’ in the everyday of now will prepare you for your last day later.

Now, have I done? I’ve reminded you of the Gospel. Jesus has come to free us from our fears, including the fear of our most certain death. It is as we believe the Gospel that it will be said of us, ‘These people die well’. It is as we face the prospect of our death fearlessly that our lives will have a powerful testimony before a world that is filled with fear. As we believe the Gospel in this way they will come to us.

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