Easter and My Fear of Death

 

thedeadchrist2I am afraid of death. I know that I am not supposed to be. Hebrews 2:15 tells me that one of the reasons Jesus shared my humanity was so that He could “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). I believe that this is true and I am still afraid. I know some Christians who are afraid of dying. But they fear the crossing, not the destination. It is death itself that I fear.

Perhaps that is why, as far as Christian holidays go, Easter has always seemed to me to have a more somber tone than Christmas. Christmas is about life. It celebrates the birth of the Savior. Easter is about life too. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. But in order to get to resurrection, you must first face death.

Jesus’ experience of death was different from ours. Most of us do not seek death. Death finds us and when it finds us it always comes as a surprise. To me this is one of the proofs that death is an intrusion. Romans 5:12 says that sin entered the human race through sin. Death was Adam’s gift to the human race, the fruit of his disobedience.

But in Romans 5:15 the apostle Paul also writes that the gift of God that comes to us through Christ is not like Adam’s trespass: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” Death did not come to Jesus. Jesus ran to meet it. Jesus pursued death and defeated it like a champion.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Jesus treated death lightly. There was certainty when Jesus spoke of His own death but no flippancy. Matthew 26:37-38 says that on the night of His betrayal Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane with His disciples and “began to be sorrowful and troubled.” He said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” The savior’s distress is a comfort to me.

It is a comfort because it means that Jesus understands my fear. The fact that Jesus did not take death lightly means that He will not dismiss my fear of death. Because He knows what it is like to be sorrowful and troubled at the prospect of death, Jesus will treat my fear with compassion by providing grace to help in the hour of my need.

But more than that it is a comfort because Jesus faced death and defeated it on my behalf. My fear of death is personal and individual. It is my death that I fear and when I die it will be my own fear that I feel. But Jesus’ death was different. There was a corporate dimension to Jesus’ death. Jesus faced death but not for Himself. Jesus experienced death but not for His own sake. Christ died for us. Christ died for us so that whether we live or whether we die, we may experience life with Him.

And this ultimately is what makes Easter different from Christmas. This is why the early Church celebrated Easter instead of Christmas. Christmas is about life. It is about the birth of Christ. But the life of Christ would have no real value, if it were not for Christ’s death. At the same time, the message of Easter is not merely that Christ died. It is that Christ died and rose again. Both facts are fundamental to understanding the significance of who Jesus was and what He did. Both facts are foundational to my hope.

Does this mean that the fear of death automatically dissolves when I place my faith in Jesus? While this may be true for some, it has not yet proven to be true for me. I still have moments when I am gripped by the fear of death. Does this mean that my faith has failed me? Not really. I believe that God’s grip on my soul is greater than the fear that often takes hold of me.

What is more, we should not be surprised if some of us feel ambivalent about death. The Bible itself is ambivalent when it speaks of the believer’s death. On the one hand, the apostle Paul describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). Yet when writing about the prospect of life and the possibility of his own death in Philippians 1:21-24, Paul also said that he was torn between the two explaining: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

I confess that while I do not always share Paul’s enthusiasm at the prospect of death, I do share his hope. I know that in the hour of my death this same Christ, who boldly strode out to meet and face death like a champion, will rise up to welcome me as a friend. In that moment all my fears will be forgotten forever.

Breaking Silence

quietSomewhere in my family history I learned to communicate by interrupting. It is rude, I know. I try to moderate but I am not always successful. To be honest, I should probably say that I am rarely successful. I try to wait for a lull in the conversation. But I cannot contain myself. The thoughts that have been collecting within me burst forth like shaken soda on a hot afternoon, usually with more force than the ideas actually warrant.

I have often wondered why it is so hard for me to hold my peace. Perhaps it arises from the conviction that I am right. But I can’t possibly be as right as often as I think I am. Even if I am right, the truth can wait. I will be just as right when there is space enough in the conversation for me to speak.

No, I think the real reason I feel compelled to speak out of turn is out of a fear of not being heard. This has little to do with being right. My interruptions are merely a symptom of a greater existential crisis. I want to be heard because I mistakenly think that being heard is equivalent to being known.

The foolishness of such an equation is evident to me as I write this in solitude. But I know that when I am in conversation and in the company of others, I will see it otherwise. I will break my silence, whether in the heat of the moment or in the tedium of dull discussion. And I will probably regret it later.

 

Now We Are Sixty

mapWinnie-the-Pooh was out walking in the forest one day, thinking about lunch. He would have gone on thinking about it, but it occurred to him that he had come to the path that led out of the forest. It was a very old path, overgrown and lined with hoary willows. Pooh had been there once before with Christopher Robin. But that was long ago and he did not like to think about it.

Just as the bear was about to turn away and think about something else, he realized that there was someone else on the path. Tall and gray-headed, the stranger looked a little like the willows. Something about him reminded Pooh of the sticks in Eeyore’s house, all withered and weathered and sagging just a little.

At first Pooh thought this might be Piglet’s grandfather–Trespassers William, also known as Tresspassers Will for short and sometimes even T.W. for shorter. Piglet often talked about his grandfather, who was known to be something of an Adventurer. Trespassers William had been away for a long time. He had been away for as long as Pooh and Piglet could remember, actually. But this stranger looked too tall to be Piglet’s grandfather and there was no family resemblance.

“Hallo” Pooh said, wondering if the stranger liked honey and wondering if he should ask whether he had any with him. “You don’t look like Piglet’s grandfather,” said the bear.

“I’m not” the stranger replied with an affectionate grin. “But then you always were an astute bear.”

“I was?” asked Pooh.

“Most assuredly,” the stranger said.

Pooh squinted and licked the tip of his nose in a thoughtful way. Then he smiled a smile of recognition. “It’s you” he said.

“And it’s you,” Christopher Robin replied.

“You’ve been gone” Pooh observed as the two of them walked deeper into the wood. They were going in the direction of Pooh’s house.

“Did you have adventures while you were away?”

They had come to a clearing where one of Pooh’s favorite sunbeams shone down on the forest floor. The two of them stopped to rest and sat with their backs against the same great oak tree. Pooh glanced into its branches to see if there were any bees buzzing nearby.

“You might say that I did” Christopher Robin replied.

“I might?” Pooh asked. “Would I like to?”

“Silly bear” Christopher Robin said.

So Christopher Robin began to tell Pooh about all of his adventures. Some of them seemed quite grand to Pooh. But being a bear of very little brain, he did not understand many of them. One was about a beautiful princess named Jane. There were battles and castles and sometimes things that made Christopher Robin go silent, as the dew gathered at the corner of his eyes.

“I’m sixty now, Pooh” Christopher Robin said.

“That seems like a very large number” said Pooh, who had never been very good at doing sums.

“It is not so very large while you are counting up to it,” said Christopher Robin. “It only seems large after you have finished and you are looking back.”

“I understand,” said Pooh, even though he did not.

“Will you be going away again to have more adventures?” Pooh asked.

“Oh, Bear,” Christopher Robin said affectionately, as the dew gathered once more at the corners of his eyes.

By now the sunbeam had moved on and the shadows had begun to gather in the spot where they sat. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but Pooh now thought that his old friend looked just like he had remembered. He wondered why he had not recognized him at first.

But the question made Pooh sleepy. And he thought the sunbeam might have gone on ahead to shine in the window of his house and warm the seat of his favorite chair.

“I think it’s supper time,” Pooh said. “Shall we go over to my house and have a little something?”

“Yes, I’d like that very much,” said Christopher Robin.

So they did.

Hard Work

CAW031I spent the morning listening to Dr. David Gill talk about the theology of the workplace. He is the Mockler-Phillips Professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace. He has a wonderfully redemptive angle of vision and a winsome spirit.

Then when I came home I read this excerpt from Helmut Thielicke’s book The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus: “To me it is always a comfort that nearly all the incidents in which people become involved with Christ happen on these sober, serious workdays when a man has to stick to the job. The disciples are caught while they are fishing, and therefore at pretty hard work, and the tax collectors are accosted in their offices. And if it is not work, it is some need or distress. When a man has leprous sores, when a man’s little daughter has died, as with Jairus, when a man is blind and crippled and is obliged to cadge a few pennies in any crowd that comes along he is not likely to be in a solemn, religious mood. He is more liable to be depressed or indifferent. And this is always the time when Jesus comes.”

This was a long and discouraging day for me at work (despite the wonderful lecture by Dr. Gill). I am grateful for the reminder that this is just the kind of context where Jesus shows up. As Eugene Peterson observes, “The sanctuary is essential, but it isn’t the primary location for the day-by-day cultivation and practice of spirituality, the Holy Spirit shaping the Christ-life in us.”

I do not always know what God is doing. Indeed, lately it seems as if I hardly ever know what He is doing. But He is there and He is at work. That’s what Jesus said: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17).

This Empire of Ruins

5033798748_08d987c2e0_oThe images coming out of Oklahoma City are so painful to see that it is hard to say anything about them without somehow trivializing the tragedy. It seems better to hear from someone who has lived through a comparable experience. I was reminded of a passage from Helmut Thielicke’s series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. Thielicke was a Lutheran pastor who preached these sermons to his congregation in Stuttgart, Germany during the collapse of the Third Reich and as allied bombs rained down on the city.

In the sermon based on the phrase “Thy Kingdom come,” Thielicke writes:

When we, inhabitants of a severely damaged city, walk through a flourishing undamaged section, almost involuntarily our eyes perform a little trick upon us and suddenly the intact facades are transformed into horribly mutilated walls and horror dwells behind the bleak and empty windows. We know what a house looks like beneath its sleek surface, and it is shockingly easy for our imagination to produce this little inversion in which the order system of beams are seen as a chaotic confusion of bizarre and splintered fragments of wood. Again and again the face of death peers out from behind the features of the living, and the shadow of ruins leers at us from the ordered peace of respectable homes…In this world of death, in this empire of ruins and shell torn fields we pray: “Thy kingdom come! We pray it more than ever.”

In his sermon, Thielicke goes on to say that God’s kingdom is to be sought at the point where two lines of the Bible intersect. One is the descending line of divine judgment. This rarely consists in God’s destroying offenders with a thunderbolt from heaven but rather in leaving them to their own wretchedness. “There is nothing more terrible than the man who is left to himself,” Thielicke observes.

The other line is the ascending line of God’s kingdom. This is not a matter of evolution, human development, or the gradual Christianization of the world. Rather, it is a mysterious exercise of God’s dominion which is simultaneous with and contiguous to the other. Thielicke explains, “The manifestations of God’s will are emerging ever more clearly and conclusively in the very midst of decline and decay, and God’s sovereignty rules in power above all rebels and usurpers, bringing his great and ultimate plans for the world to fulfillment.”

This is as true of those natural events which shake the foundations of our world as it is of human affairs. Jesus is the one of whom the disciples said, “the wind and the sea obey Him” (Mark 4:41). Perhaps it is not so surprising that instead of being comforted by such a thought, they were filled with fear. Jesus controls the winds. He is the living one who died and is alive forevermore. He alone holds the keys to death and the grave (Rev. 1:18).

This is the Way the Semester Ends

emptydeskI dreamed that I died last night. I dreamt that I was officiating a wedding and died in mid-sentence. I’ve heard it said that if you don’t wake up during such a dream you really will die. I am skeptical but I didn’t have an opportunity to test the theory. My wife Jane woke me before I felt the full effect.

I also dreamt that my house flooded. I opened the front door to see rivers of water washing down the street. I tried to shut the door against the flood but the water came pouring in and swept me away. No wonder I felt anxious when I finally got out of bed.

But then I always feel anxious on the last day of the semester. I hope that my classes will end on a crescendo. I imagine the students beaming with gratitude as they applaud at the end of my lecture. I envision them being reluctant to leave my presence and finally doing so with tears.

But the reality always falls somewhat short of this fantasy. My final lectures do not build to a crescendo. They stumble to a halt. There are a few handshakes and expressions of gratitude. For the most part, however, my students rush for the door. All that is left are a few straggling papers.

I watch them go and think of a line from T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Do We Have to Mention Jesus in Every Sermon?

PGR462AToday a student asked me whether I thought it was necessary to mention Jesus in every sermon. Why would a Bible college student even ask such a question? Actually, there are several good reasons. One has to do with the nature of the Bible itself. Students are rightly taught to respect the human author’s intent in hermeneutics. If Jesus is not explicit in the text, it can be dangerous to read Him into to it. When it comes to some passages, it seems hard to make connections to the gospel without engaging in interpretive gymnastics. What does the Proverbs 31 woman have to do with Jesus anyway?

Yet Jesus makes it clear that He is at the heart of the Bible. According to John 5:39, Jesus told the religious leaders of His day: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me….” Jesus is not the express focus of every text of Scripture. But all Scripture gives evidence to the truth that is ultimately expressed in the person and work of Christ.

Jesus is the end toward which all Scripture truth tends. When it comes to God’s revelation about Himself, Jesus is the “last word” (Heb. 1:2). This means that the conscious intent of the human author is not sufficient for understanding the true intent of the text. This side of the cross, we have an insight that the Bible’s human authors lacked. When we examine Scripture, we do not look to find Christ in the text. We look at the text through the lens of Christ. Is it necessary to mention Jesus in every sermon? Yes. If Jesus doesn’t show up in the sermon, then it isn’t preaching. Not really.