Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Humanly speaking, death is the last thing of all; and, humanly speaking, there is hope only so long as there is life. But Christianly understood death is by no means the last thing of all, hence it is only a little event within that which is all, and eternal life; and Christianly understood there is in death infinitely much more hope than merely humanly speaking there is when there not only is life but this life exhibits the fullest health and vigor. SKierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death p144
Christian Freedom – From Fear of Death
A bank in Binghamton, NY, opened a new branch. At the grand opening a competitor bank sent flowers, congratulating them. Unfortunately, the florist mixed up the cards that went with the flowers. The card that arrived at the bank said “With our deepest sympathy.” The card that was intended to go to the bank ended up going to a funeral. It said, “Congratulations on your new location.”
A pastor was giving a children’s message about believing in Jesus and going to heaven. He asked the children if they wanted to go to heaven. They all said “Yes!” Then he asked them how we get to heaven. The kids didn’t quite know how to answer that one. Finally, one boy raised his hand and said, “I think you have to be dead.”
Death is not a topic that most of us are comfortable with. We joke about it. We put it off, but we deny the reality that all of us are going to die. Hopefully not soon, but at some point in time it will happen. The question we must all think about is what do we believe happens after we die? The reason that question is important is what we think about death will determine how we live and die.
Four weeks ago we began a sermon series on freedom. I got the idea from reading John Calvin. In his theology he talked about three types of freedom we have as Christians. The first freedom Calvin talks about is freedom from the Law. We don’t have to obey the law for God to love us. The second freedom Calvin talks about is freedom to obey the law. Through Jesus the power of sin has been broken and we are able to obey. The third type of freedom is freedom in things indifferent. On the topics where we disagree and where Scripture is not clear we are free to follow our own conscience.
I put those three ideas down on the sermon schedule and began to think about freedom. About that time I read a verse in Hebrews that jumped out to me. “Through death he (Jesus) might destroy the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14b-15). This is the fourth freedom I want to talk about, freedom from the fear of death.
Let’s be honest, most of us don’t think about death very often, at least until we have to because someone dies. Children shouldn’t have to think about it and they can’t really understand it. When they become teenagers, all the way through their mid-30, they don’t deny the reality of death, but they don’t think about it much, other than it is something that happens to old people. Somewhere in the mid-30s to early-40s people start to experience little deaths that force them to begin to grapple with the reality that someday they will die. Your eyes get so that you need glasses. Your body starts breaking down and not recovering quite as fast as when you were 25. You realize that the dreams you had as a young adult are not going to become a reality. At some point, about age 50, you begin to wrestle with the idea that you actually will die. It’s still at some point in the future, but it starts to happen to your parents and maybe even some of your friends, and you begin to think about your own death.
Since I haven’t moved beyond that stage I don’t know what happens as you get older. However, I’ve been around enough people, family and otherwise, to know that some people never come to terms with the reality of death. They don’t deny it in theory, but they live as if they will never die. They put off making a will, or refuse to give up driving. They won’t move out of the family home into a place where they can get the care they need. Because they don’t face the reality of death they don’t live life to the fullest. As one author said, “You can’t make sense of your life until you make sense of your death.” They might not use the phrase “fear of death,” but that is the reality in their lives.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that he died, but death was not the final answer. God raised him from the dead and now Jesus lives in heaven with the Father. Some day he will welcome us into heaven to live with him forever. Through his death and resurrection we have the hope of eternal life. We have the promise of resurrection, of life after death. We no longer need to be afraid of death. Jesus sets us free from the fear of death.
Let me suggest three consequences that come out of this freedom. First, when we are free from the fear of death we can live life to the fullest. The fear of death can be overwhelming and crippling. When we are free from that fear there comes a sense of joy and peace.
The sons of John Rockefeller were going to inherit a fortune. Yet their dad didn’t want them to be spoiled. He wanted them to know what it meant to work. So he sent his sons out into the oil fields. He made them live and work with common laborers. They spent two years drilling rigs. They worked long hours and it was hard labor. At the end of the day they were exhausted, hot, covered with oil. At night they ate and slept with the common laborers. They did not have any special treatment.
One evening, toward the end of the two years, one of the workers asked one of the brothers, “Have you liked living and working among us common folk?” The son replied “It’s been great. I’ve loved it. It’s been one of the best times of my life.” With an edge of sarcasm in his voice the worker responded:
That’s because you know you’re not staying. You know there is something better out there waiting for you when this is all over. You would look at things differently if you thought that working in these oil fields was all there was for you.
Friends, when we are free from the fear of death, when we know that life here on earth is not the final answer, we can live life to the fullest, filled with joy and peace. When we believe that our ultimate destiny is not death but eternal life in the presence of God, we are able to live.
Second, when we are free from the fear of death we won’t be overwhelmed by our grief, even when we are grieving the death of loved ones. Please notice, I am not saying that we won’t grieve. Grief is a natural, healthy, and normal response to death, or any sort of loss. Some deaths are more tragic than others, losing a child or someone in a car accident would be horrible. Not grieving when someone dies is a sign that something is wrong. Probably it is denial, which is the first part of grief.
There is a verse in 1 Thessalonians that I sometimes use at funerals. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thes. 4:13). Paul doesn’t tell these people not to grieve. He doesn’t say that if your faith is strong enough you won’t feel any grief. He tells them that when someone dies they should grieve, but grieve with hope. Grieve, clinging to the hope that death is not the final answer. Grieve, with the hope of the resurrection and the hope of a heavenly reunion. When we are free from the fear of death grief will be real, but it will not overwhelm us.
Finally, when we are free from the fear of death we don’t need to worry about our own death. An elderly man was at a doctor appointment. Right before the doctor left the room the man blurted out “Doc, I am afraid to die. Tell me what lies on the other side.” The doctor stopped at the door, paused for a moment and said, “I don't know.”
The man reacted. “You don't know! You claim to be a Christian and you don’t know what is on the other side?” The doctor stood at the door and took a deep breath. From the other side of the door came the sound of scratching and whining. The doctor opened the door and a dog came into the room, jumped up and greeted the doctor.
The doctor turned to the patient and said, “Did you notice how my dog came into this room? He has never been in this room before. He had no idea what was in here. The only thing he knew was that his master was here, and when the door opened he came in without fear. I know very little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing. I know my Master is there, and that is enough.” When we trust in Jesus we are free from the fear of death.
I heard it said one time the Martin Luther used to end his sermons by saying “That is enough for today.” Of course, I think he usually preached for 45 minutes. Sometimes there is an easy and obvious way to end a sermon, and sometimes there isn’t. You might be able to guess which this is.
Of course, endings are often difficult, including the end of life. But the good news for us this day is that death is not the end. It is simply the next step to something beyond. We may not know what that is, but because of our hope in Jesus Christ, who died and was raised from the dead, we are free from the fear of death. It leads to the unknown, but it leads us to the one who loves us and gives us the amazing grace that sets us free.