Dealing with Death
Everyone living has to deal with death. Everyone whether by misbelieving death is a part of life, whether by the false doctrine of reincarnation, whether by denial everyone deals with death. C. S. Lewis said that the way some people deal with it made "the dead far more dead" (Grief Observed, 65). Poet Rilke describes a dead body laying there and yet still it "gave commands" to the living. Once a year the church remembers All Saints and deals with death.
Death is a thorny problem. It is unstoppable. How many shows have you seen where the multibillionaire aged or ill tries to buy just a little more life? The something wicked that this way comes in horror movies whether it be Jason, Freddy, Dracula, or Zombies is really Death in our psyche. Relentlessly it comes for us: step by step, inch by inch. But it doesn't only come for us. It comes for loved ones. It comes for young/old, rich/poor, happy/sad; in Christ/out of Christ, Death comes.
Death brings tremendous loss. What God has joined together man to woman in marriage, leg to body in creation body to soul in life- can't be separated without pain and a sense of loss. The phantom feelings that can drive amputees half-mad are there with the dead too. There's a hole there; and it's going to hurt me for a long, long time.
I think Death is a thornier problem today because we live in a world that pretends the realm of the spirit is unreal. The dead are just a computer that doesn't boot anymore. They are a device without power interacting with nothing and nobody. We live in a world that doesn't believe the dead go anywhere or are anywhere.Except last night. For a few hours the reality of spirits, devils, and the dead burst into everyone's consciousness.
Still Death is a thorny problem, and Jesus takes us to a thorn bush to address it. Jesus doesn't refer to "the account of the bush" but to "the account of the thorn-bush." This was the burning bush that didn't burn up where the God who is a consuming fire first confronted Moses. There we are confronted with the fact that we have a problem dealing with death making all sorts of errors in our thought process because "we do not know the Scriptures."
I'm willing to bet you know more about the science of death than you do the theology. I'm willing to bet what you know scientifically or think you know trumps what you know or think you know - theologically. It trumps it in this way: Science is fact and theology is faith, and faith is some shade of make believe.
We think we can know all about death the way CSI can know all about a crime scene. We use our power of observation, gather evidence, and then put together the physical clues. Dealing with death is not a matter of dealing with physical remains or personal effects. Jesus doesn't say the Sadducees erred about death because they lacked information or recognition of death. He says they lacked revelation. He uses the word for know which means to know by revelation, knowledge which you can't have unless someone tells you. The Greek form indicates that the ignorance they're now in will remain unless revelation comes from the outside. So Jesus points them and us to what Scripture "showed" at the thorn-bush. This is a word that means specifically "to make known what was secret" (Vine).
Jesus takes us back to where Moses recorded the secret: the thorn-bush. And the secret is the dead aren't lost, aren't gone, aren't missing, aren't like some electronic device that has powered off. The dead rise. Isaiah some 700 years later said the same in the Old Testament reading: "But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead."
But don't think the dead rising was something new with Moses. Death was the original problem. In perfect Eden, Adam and Eve were promised that the day they ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil they would die. That's chapter 3; in chapter 4 Cain rises up and kills his brother, and then chapter 5 is the litany of death. So and so lived so many years "and he died." "And he died" tolls over chapter 5 like a bell. There you see the reality Paul describes thousands of years later. "Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men."
God sent His only begotten Son into the world not because of unhappiness, not because of war, not because people weren't as good as they should be, not because they weren't taking care of the planet, but because of Death. Death was the first enemy as we see in Genesis and it's the last Enemy as we hear in I Corinthians. Death is an enemy of men. But Death has no hold or claim over God who is life.
But boy does it have a vice-grip on us. God sent His only Son into the world to break that grip. God who is Life sent His Son who is Life of Life into this world of death. God sent Him into the womb of a virgin whose very body testified of death monthly, but God the Son took up residence there and as He was Light of Light, Very God of Very God, so He became flesh of flesh and Very Man of Very Mankind. He came forth from the womb like a knight errant on the quest to defeat the great dragon Death.
And He did, but not the way we think. He who was Life itself in flesh and blood never did anything to deserve death. One, He was Seed of woman so He wasn't guilty of the sin of Adam which infected all seed of man. Two, He never sinned against life in anyway. He never despaired of life; He never hurt or harmed another life not even in thought; He never feared that God who is life was no match for Death.
Free from the stench, the taint, the evidence of Death, Jesus nevertheless was given over to Death by His own Father. And Death rushed on Him like an armed man. Death came at Him with fangs barred, so much so that even God the Son begged His Father to find another way to defeat it rather than have Him drink it. But no, it was either you and I were dying the death of a damned sinner or Jesus was. He did; you don't have to. But in biting the holy, perfect Son of God to Death something happened to Death. Death did die. Death couldn't swallow the God who is life. He had to spit Him out, along with all those who share His flesh and blood.
This is the knowledge of Scripture which helps you deal with Death, but there is more. Jesus said the Sadducees problem was not just they didn't know the Scriptures. They also didn't know the power of God. Death is too big for us, but is nothing to God. To us Death is the Mississippi in New Orleans a mile wide and un-crossable. To God Death is the Mississippi in Minnesota. A trickle of water a Man can step across. We think there are 2 distinct realms, 2 separate churches, one of the living and another of the Dead. Not to God. During the celebration of Holy Communion He doesn't see empty seats where the dead in Christ use to sit in this church. No, He sees all the seats filled with all those who ever lauded, magnified, and praised His glorious name here.
Think that's a little much? Well what does Jesus mean when He says, "He is not the God of the dead but the living for to Him all are alive?" What? That day when the horrible news came that your loved one was dead, didn't happen? The much dreaded middle of the night phone call never rang? The long procession of caskets I've stood over were empty? In some sense yes. There mortal remains were there, but who they were was not. They went on that horrible day when the news came; they continued on the day the phone rang. They were carried in the arms of an angel to be in Paradise with Jesus and the Thief, to be with Christ with Paul. They were gathered to their people like Jacob.
Don't be afraid to make much of the present tense Jesus is uses. Jesus does. "He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for to Him all are alive." Matthew records it as, "I am the God of the living." A guy once asked me could I name one person that I knew personally that had been dead 50 years. I couldn't at the time. It made me think how quickly the dead recede. Not to God they don't. They don't get father away in His thoughts like they do in ours. "As nothing outlasts God, so nothing slips away from Him into a past" (C. S. Lewis, Psalms, 137).
When we try to deal with death without the Scripture or in our own power, we are quickly overwhelmed, undone. We are no match on our own for Death, and the Devil knows that and that's why the fear of Death is his most powerful tool by which he keeps us enslaved (Heb. 2:15). To be delivered from this fear recall that God incarnate, Jesus, raised the dead as easily as you wake a sleeping child. Recall that God is the one who first joins body to soul and it is small matter for Him to rejoin them. Recall that for the God who created out of nothing to begin with recreating out of something is even "easier."
But the cold, sharp, apparent finality of Death blows hard against Scripture and the power of God. Our hymns and liturgy blow back. Over 20 years ago Trisha Yearwood had a hit entitled "The Song Remembers When." The last lines are: "Still I guess some things we bury/ Are just bound to rise again/ For even if the whole world has forgotten/ The song remembers when."
Just listen to the hymns we sing today. They celebrate that the dead in Christ are very much alive. How about the Te Deum? When we sing "the holy Church throughout the world doth acknowledge Thee," we include the noble army of martyrs all those in Christ who have gone before us. And what about "This is the Feast?" That's taken right out of the mouths of the dead in Christ who are singing it right now in heaven. Their song isn't remembering when but right now, and though we can't hear the voices of those in Christ singing in heaven, the Lamb of God they're praising sure does. Deal with that Death. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Day (20151101); Luke 20:27; Matthew 22:29; Luke 20:37-39