This is a short sermon I gave last night during a Grief Share meeting. It was a reflection on Christian Hope. I you enjoy it and find it encouraging.
There are probably few events that shape the lives of people, more powerfully, than the loss of a loved one. This past week I was reminded of the sting of death, when someone I know, posted a Happy Birthday to their loved one on Facebook who passed away some time ago. I know that they still feels that sting of that death and the empty place in their heart every year during those little moments that bring this person into the front of their memory. Being a pastor, I was invited to speak at that funeral, read some scriptures, and say a prayer. It was a difficult and reflective time for myself and I can still hardly imagine what they was going through. I knew that no amount of words or encouragement would be able to console them in that moment because of the loss that they felt in their hearts. My only hope is that my prayers for them and the words that I spoke might somehow help to reorient the pain and see the light that is on the other side.
The sting of death is a double edged sword. In some sense it can be a freeing and liberating moment where the pains of this world are left behind and the hopes of life after death are welcomed and embraced. I have known this to be the case with more than a few people in my life who have been battling with terminal illnesses and debilitating diseases. They become tired and weary from the battles that they are waging with their diseases, and death seems to be a release from that pain when the hope of healing has all but vanished from their hearts. Though the families and the one's who love them so dearly are left with a sense of brokenness and doubt, these people want to feel the warm embrace of their Father in Heaven and be welcomed into the arm's of the Lord. They like the Apostle Paul felt, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain...My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
Death for some can be the end of the battle, the victory that they had been waiting for, as they embrace their release from this world. Peter Jackson in the Lord of the Rings, eloquently places these thoughts in the words of Gandalf while he is talking with Pippin. Pippin says to Gandalf, “I didn't think it would end this way. To which Gandalf replies, “End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path... One that we all must take.” We can say in the end that death for the Christian is the embrace of God and the beginning of the journey into “eternal life.”
Though there is another side of the sword of death, it is a bitter ripping apart, a crippling experience. This path leaves us with heavy hearts, great sadness, and a deep dissatisfaction. In these moments, we are left with, long sighs and questions of “why does it have to be this way? Why do they have to leave us.” It is during these troubling times, I believe that we are invited to look at the twin pictures of the Easter story. Of the Christ of the Cross and the of the Resurrection of the Son of God.
“Where there is no cross, there is no Christianity,” one writer put it, reflecting on his experience after being in a Prison Encampment during WW2. The Cross of Christianity, stands at the center of the faith, the climatic moment, when God decisively dealt with the powers of sin and death. It was their that God, had said that he would become the lamb that would be slain for the sins of the world so that death would pass over us. Therefore, sin would lose its hold over humanity, and through our trusting in him, we would share in his victory and be brought into a relationship with God once again. One ancient writer put it, that he “trampled over death by death.” This death secured for the early Christians a hope, a hope that said, “Whatever, the world throws at us we can overcome!” The cross was a symbol of Roman power, and anyone who came against Rome would be executed in this fashion. And so Jesus turns the symbol of Roman power against them by turning it into the symbol of our liberation. Thus, our relationship with him is secured in the present. It is through the cross and the blood of Jesus that we can approach the Father, and so we have a great hope that when we die, we will be united with him in Heaven, and experience the continuation of our present relationship, in Life after Death.
The problem however, still remains. When we die, Death still wins. Thankfully, the Easter story does not simply end with the death of Jesus. Rather, it truly reaches its climax in the resurrection of the Son of God. It is there, in that moment, that the promises of God break forth, and cascade down from the future into the present, so that we can experience the promises of God to his people. While Israel was in exile, God had spoken words of promise and hope that he would redeem his people, rescue them from their oppressors, and bring them back home from their exile. So that they would be his people and he would be their God. This would be a time of great liberation where sin and sickness would loose its hold over humanity, God would dwell in their midst and death would be defeated. Jesus as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, brings us into the this new Exodus. It allows death to passover us and the Resurrection of Jesus is God saying, “Yes!” to those promises.
Writing to the church in Thessalonica, Paul says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep...For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” The church has always believed, and will always believe that the Resurrection of Jesus means our resurrection. This was the hope of the Christian faith, that God would reverse death and therefore, we would be able to live with him forever.
Paul writing to the church at Corinth expounds on these words and says, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain...and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death”
Death is an enemy! Therefore Christians have and always will believe in the hope that their IS Life after Life after Death! That at his coming we will be raised from the dead; just as he was and we will experience new life, as Paul continues, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed...When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" ...thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
On that day when “Death is swallowed up in victory” we will all sit down at a great feast with one another, a grand party, with the Lord and all his saints and we will celebrate the salvation of the Lord. The Prophet Isaiah proclaims, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine...And...He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces...It will be said on that day, "Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us...let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."
In the end their will be a great feast, a great party, and celebration for what the Lord has done. After seeing the New Heaven and the New Earth the Apostle John writes, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."
Ultimately the Christian Hope is this: that whether in life or in death we will be with God! Through the Cross of Christ he has tempered the sting of death, by trampling over death by death. Though we will all face this fate, we know that because he has overcome and we will overcome as well. That in Christ we will have just a sliver of victory in death because there will be Life after Death. However, through the Resurrection of the Son of God, we know that the ultimate victory is ours, that Death will be Defeated, the Grave will be no more, and we shall celebrate that day the salvation of the Lord. On that day we will experience the Life after Life after Death. With a great feast filled with the best food among friends, family, loved ones, and people who we don't even know we will celebrate the victory of our God. So until that day comes, we can all breathe a little deeper, and sigh with a bit more relief, knowing that our relationship now with the Lord, secures our relationship with him in the future and thus our reuniting with our loved one's in the end. So until that day comes: we wait with expectation, we hope with great assurance, and trust that the Lord will do what he always promised to do, “To dwell in our midst, so that he would be our God and we his people.”