Facing Life’s Greatest Fear
Scripture - 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
The word of God is a delight & a gift beyond price. Come to be delighted, as we listen for God’s word today.
The apostle Paul was overwhelmed with the significance of the resurrection. He took the position that if it is only for this life we have hope in Jesus Christ, we are – of all people – most to be pitied. The Christian faith is not self-delusional nonsense. It is the rugged, tough stuff of being equipped to live in this life, to die & to step into the presence of Jesus Christ, into a life that goes far beyond anything we know in this life. Our Christianity is not just a temporal, ethical system that helps us survive in this world. The fact is Jesus Christ is risen. And it makes all the difference in this world!
We are only equipped to live, however, when we are prepared to die. Have you ever thought that through? I know because of first-hand experience with the death of my 89-year-old father, Bob, in 2018 that a terminal disease is a terrifying reality. The death of anyone we love is difficult enough. At the same time, we have come to accept the death of elderly parents or a spouse in their 70s, 80s, or nineties.
What can really trouble us is what we see as the premature death of a child, brother, sister or other relative either by disease, random attack, or like the death of a 20-year-old pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, a traffic accident by a drunken driver.
What we forget is that all of us, right now, are suffering from a terminal disease. Picture in your mind the person you love the most. That person may be sitting next to you or far away. Still, the two of you hold one thing in common: You are both in the process of dying. It does not matter how old you are. Granted, statistically speaking it will catch up with some of us sooner than others.
Psychiatrists tell us that we are not really mature until we confront the inevitability of our own death. Our modern existence can put a smooth veneer over this reality. There are many ways in which we blind ourselves to this inevitable fact.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead releases us from having to deny the reality of death. In fact, it equips us to die, because God’s Word tells us some things about the future. It does not tell us everything. Let’s not make the Bible say what it does not say, but it does share three specific promises which will equip us to die.
First, God promises there is life beyond this life. Jesus said this just before his death (John 14:1-4): Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go & prepare a place for you, I will come again & will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.
In our reading, the apostle Paul refers to Jesus as being the first fruits of those who have died. His resurrection stands as evidence that life does not end with death. Christ is Victorious. The tomb is empty!
Second, God promises hope. The apostle Paul wrote these words to the church in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 4:13-14): But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers & sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died & rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.
The Christian need not be bogged down with sorrow as those who have no hope. We must be careful to say clearly that Paul is not saying that we need not sorrow. He is describing two kinds of sorrow. One is the hopelessness surrounding the death of a nonbeliever. The grieving can become almost a denial of the reality that the loved one has departed. An idol is made of the remains with an expensive casket & elaborate banks of flowers & fortunes spent on a lovely final resting place.
Tears stream at the funeral of a believer & a nonbeliever. Yet, they are two distinct kinds of tears. One accompanies the moans of those who have no hope. Their confidence is not in Christ. The other tears come from those of us who remain. We sob out of hearts throbbing with pain that we will not see our loved ones for a while. Death is the finality to this life. We cry for ourselves, for no longer will we have the earthly presence of our loved one who is now in the presence of Jesus Christ.
Let us not try to protect our children from the realities of death. They confront it regularly in school, on the street, in the media & in the normal flow of family life.
Although I had heard about death, it was not familiar to me until as an 8-year-old living in CA, word came that my uncle, my father’s sister’s husband, had died. He was special to me. My family had spent many good times at cookouts in his backyard. I loved my Uncle Joe very much.
I do not remember many details of his funeral. I do remember the overwhelming grief I felt as I walked into that funeral parlor & saw the casket surrounded by my grieving relatives & their friends. I walked toward it, & when I thought no one was looking, I reached out & brushed my fingers against his folded hands. His body, once so alive, pulsating with the energy of a diligent worker & a loving family man, was dead. His hands felt like cardboard. I suddenly realized something had changed, & this life would never be the same again. My uncle was gone. He had died in his early forties.
What I began to realize was that for a person of faith, death is simply a transition into the presence of Jesus Christ for eternity. Our family grieved. There were tears of sorrow. At the same time, there was an underlying sense of hope that someday we would be united with him in heaven. There was also laughter as the family joked about how punctual he had always been when it came to leaving for church on Sunday morning.
He would call out to my Aunt Shirley who was always finishing her makeup before getting the family of six off to church. She outlived my uncle by over 25 years. At her memorial service, the joke was that when she arrived in heaven, the first words she heard were my uncle saying, “Late again, Shirley!”
Jesus promised we will be with him, united with our loved ones in heaven. We are promised new bodies (my message next week). They will be recognizable. We do not know much about our future state of existence. We do know we will be with Jesus, reunited with our brothers & sisters in the faith. It will be a different existence than here on earth. It will be free from the pain & sorrow we know here. Our hope is of a reunion with our Savior. We will see him face to face & experience joy & a quality of life that goes beyond anything we can imagine.
Three, God promises we need not face the horrors of hell. Jesus died to set us free from that ominous alienation from God Almighty. We can try to blind ourselves to the facts & deny the reality of hell but built into the human psyche is a fear of death – that moment of accountability for all we have done wrong. There are people who can dull themselves with the narcotic of disbelief & cynicism, but the same Bible that promises heaven to those who put their trust in Jesus Christ says there is a hell, an eternal alienation & separation from God.
Those who refuse God’s love, those who are unwilling to repent of sin, turning down the free gift of salvation, run the risk of standing separated forever from the God who loves them & went to the cross for them. To deny the fact of hell does not make hell any less of a fact. The resurrection of Jesus assures us a place in heaven with our Savior. The sting of death is removed.
The notion of punishment, of condemnation, which is universal to the human existence, is cancelled by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. This eternity of his presence will have purpose, as we will be kingdom-builders with him in a new heaven & a new earth! Hallelujah!
Friends, deep in our souls, God has planted roots of faith, hope, & love. Invite God to plant those roots so deeply within you that you may be like trees planted by water, with streams of blessing flowing in & through you to nourish others along the way.