"Death is tough.”
Talk about an understatement.
Working 100+ hours during harvest season? That’s tough. Studying to pass the boards? That’s tough. Playing in the state championship football game? Been there – and it’s tough.
Death is not “tough.”
Death is ugly. Unnatural. Disgusting. Horrifying. It leaves a gap in our lives, a gaping hole in our hearts; death stalks its prey and always finds its victim.
But our idealized, sanitized view of death, painted in broad strokes on the silver screen, normally entails a quiet final breath surrounded by loved ones; or, perhaps, a heroic blaze of glory as we lay down our lives, forever acclaimed as the hero who selflessly sacrificed to save the lives of others. Either way, we mentally envision a death in our own time, on our own terms, after experiencing a full life and unhindered vitality to the very end.
Sorry, folks; for the vast majority of people, that type of death will only be experienced in the movies.
But in the face of the inevitable end (and all its accompanying infringements upon my own personal wants, wishes, desires, preferences), what do people long to hear? What do our churches teach or preach? How do we comfort the survivors – or prepare them for their own inevitable expiration?
That question can only be answered properly when we stare death in the face and see what it is. Yes, I recognize the temptation to erase verse 56 from 1 Corinthians 15; that happened at a United Methodist funeral I recently observed. What single verse, out of a large section, was omitted? “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.”
The fact of death is a direct result of sin. That’s fact. That’s why death is ugly, difficult, unnatural, disgusting, horrifying: it is Judge’s gavel ringing out his verdict upon my life. The fact that someone dies demonstrates that s/he was sinful, someone who had transgressed God’s moral will for all people of all time.
And no matter how much I may try to ignore, downplay, forget the concept of sin; no matter how much fairy dust, happy thoughts, “God is love” talk I hear; no matter how I may try to redefine God’s law . . . one day someone will be paid an hourly wage to mow the grass over my grave. No civic position, good driving record, lifetime achievement or love shown toward God and neighbor can change the fact that I will die; and the fact that I will die proves that I am sinful.
Even when God’s law is ignored (or omitted from our churches), the law still passes its judgment; death is still, and always will be, the pay check for anything short of holiness. And every death is a stark reminder of this fact.
How unloving . . . judgmental . . . unaccepting . . . old-fashioned . . . close-minded . . . of God?
Perhaps now we’ve begun to understand how disgusting sin really is. Where shall we find our comfort? Not in nebulous, fuzzy talk about God's love, his loving presence or his arms enfolding us, or even the schmaltzy classic "He walks with me and talks with me..."
We find our comfort in the Jesus Christ who shares our human nature, yet he is without sin; this eternal Son of God, second person of the Trinity, took on our humanity in order to keep God’s law perfectly in our place. But even though he himself had done no wrong, he took our sin (yes, actual infractions) upon himself . . . and died! Payment completed, perfect life counted as yours. Through his resurrection, we live; through your baptism, you have been united to Jesus and raised to a new life. Free of charge.
That’s the message you find in the Bible. That’s the message we share on our church’s website. I pray that’s the message you hear at your church as well. (If it’s not, correct your pastor!)
And when a loved one dies, I pray that your pastor does not preach only to itching ears which seek what they want to hear; I pray that he preaches to sinful hearts, preaching what those hearts need to hear . . . and then, based on the clear words of Scripture, I pray that he points to Jesus Christ as our Savior from the horror of sin and death.