I once preached a sermon at a baby’s baptism and emphasised the link between baptism and Jesus’ death. That’s the link with Jesus – at his death – that’s the connecting point and the rest – life and blessings – flow from there. A few days later I received some feedback that the family and their relatives were quite unhappy with me as I had ‘ruined’ their baby’s baptism because “all I talked about was death”. They had heard me to be sure. But in another sense they hadn’t heard me.
We advise each other to have someone accompany us to receive a doctor’s diagnosis for if death, even in the smallest way, comes into the words said, we may not be able to listen clearly and the person with us can take notes and remind us of what was said.
So I have some ambivalence today wondering whether this sermon should be adults only or whether I should not mute the microphone but maybe lower the volume because today we are confronted by … death.
And I find myself annoyed – not with any of you! – but with others, often clergy – and I meet a wide denominational range, who blithely claim God’s Word as a promise for today. And so I’ve heard people claim Psalm 91:3 ‘For he [God] will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence’ and use that to justify all sorts of behaviour in this pandemic. On one occasion I replied and asked, ‘How do you know that is God’s Word for you right now? What if Jesus is actually saying to you, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’? (Luke 23:45). That’s also God’s Word.’ I got annoyance, bemusement, and a glare.
I find myself annoyed when our Prime Minister is described as a ‘fighter’. Good rah rah stuff. But it belies fear, in my opinion, and I wish such language is considered or modified or only said by the person in the battle if said at all. What is implied about all the hundreds each day and now many thousands in this land who have died from COVID-19 or from anything for that matter – that they were too weak, not strong enough, didn’t love life enough, didn’t love their loved ones enough to fight harder?
Why are we here – together – but separated by homes and screens? Why are we anxious for those who go to work – for the NHS – for our loved ones – for ourselves?
Of course we want to ‘flatten the curve’ – that’s good use of resources – physical and human. But the hidden core is that we don’t want death close – to those around us and to us. The truth is that we don’t want to die. And I think we are getting an emotional, social, psychological, spiritual taste of life before modern medicine, before penicillin – that wonder drug – when death was more commonplace – even from a scratch or an insect bite. And we don’t like it.
When we look to God’s Word we can read all of it, of course, and the question to ask is not, “Is it God’s Word?” – of course it is – all of Scripture can speak to us – all of it points us to Jesus – but the real question is “How is it God’s Word for me now?”. Is it a command, a comfort, a promise, a guide, something to remember when …, a prayer, a reminder when I …, a call, an invitation, an opportunity?
Today when we contemplate Planet Earth and what is happening with this pandemic we might turn to Psalm 49 – by all means read it all afterwards – but for now hear these verses …
10 For he [everyone] sees that even the wise die;
the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves are their homes forever,
their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names.
12 Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish. (Psalm 49:10-12 ESV)
That is true – we all will die – and would prefer to delay it as much as possible – and live well in the meantime. So if you want to live then do things that make that possible – eat well, live a healthy lifestyle, avoid disease and danger as much as possible. That keeps the biology going as best one can.
But what happens when death also has a theological meaning? What if it is a doorway to returning back to this world in search of enlightenment? What if it is a consequence for behaviour or a reward? What do we do when meaning is placed on death more than the body has stopped? What indeed?
Those opposed to religion make the claim that religions exist because we were so shocked and traumatised by death that we had to frame it in some way so that we could live and die well. But religions like all systems became oppressive and so now they need to end. It is an interesting argument – unprovable, of course, until one dies.
And so we return to living and dying and what do we do in the meantime?
And the followers of Jesus have returned to Jesus’ death because … he died. That’s what today is about. Jesus died. It wasn’t a pleasant death – but many people have died horribly. It was scandalous death – as all crucifixions were – a public spectacle used by the Romans to threaten and terrorise and enforce conformity in the Empire.
So why do the followers of Jesus’ return to his death?
Because, for them, the scandal is the cross but the greater scandal is that it is God on the cross – for us.
Because for Christians, Jesus is the Old Testament sacrifices, all the priests, the forgiveness of sins through blood, the restoration of the covenant, the new life that can be lived, and the love that casts out fear all rolled into one. He is the culmination of the rescue plan to bring sinners back into the presence of a holy God. He takes the sting of death away but not its occurrence. He gives life meaning and that includes meaning in dying and death.
The writer to the Hebrews describes it this way …
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”
then he adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:16-25 ESV)
All Jesus has done confirms for the people of God that there are promises, assurances, commitments FROM GOD here today – that our sins are forgiven – that we can live with God with confidence – a full assurance of faith not in our ups and downs of experience but because Jesus has died for us – and sprinkled now with water – yes, baptism is so important – we return to it each day and recall that God made promises to us that we are his children and so now we will struggle with our evil side and work to keep aligned to our confession that Jesus has died for me. And because this is tough to do and we can get ‘picked off’ when tired, in isolation, alone, afraid, we meet together, encourage and support each other until the day Jesus will reappear but also because one day it may be my turn to die and you will help me do that too.
Today is about death. Jesus’ death. It gives us a lens through which we can see living and dying on Planet Earth and when that lens reminds us that God has died so that we can live – then we will face each day with that truth because it is God’s Word and it is for us – we can say for me – for all time!
- Psalm 40:10 - 49:12
- Hebrews 10:16 - 25