PREPARING WELL FOR DEATH
Many years ago, Michael Roemer produced a television documentary on three cancer patients, dealing with how they faced or didn’t face the coming of their deaths. Roemer stated, “You can’t learn to die as though it were a skill. People die in the way they have lived. Death becomes the expression of everything you are, and you can bring to it only what you have brought to your life.”
If, indeed, people die the way they have lived, then we need to consider: How are we living that will prepare us well for death?
It seems to me that the best way to live that prepares well for death is by living in close connection to the One who bridges this life and the life to come.
In Revelation 1:17-18, Jesus says to John, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
Jesus describes Himself as the Living One who is alive forever and who holds the keys of death. He is the One who would live with us here in such a way as to prepare us well for our life in heaven and for our passing from this world to the next.
The best way to visit a foreign country is with one who is from that country. They know the language. They know the customs. They know what is best about that country. They know how to navigate from here to there.
Howard Hendricks, who was a professor at Dallas Seminary, remarked to some close friends shortly before he died, “I’m going from the land of the dying to the land of the living.”
Jesus is the Living One; He is the One who comes from the “land of the living” to our land to teach us the customs of the land of the living, to reveal to us what is best about that other land, and to help us to navigate well from here to there.
On March 7, 1991, Billy Graham spoke in Seattle, Washington on a day that President Bush had proclaimed to be a day of celebration for the liberation of Kuwait and the end of hostilities in the Persian Gulf. He invited a woman named Shirley Lansing to share with the crowd. Here is a part of what she shared.
“I come with a story about my son, John Kendall Morgan, Warrant Officer One, United States Army, serving in Operation Desert Storm. Jack committed his life to Jesus when he was young…. At the time it didn’t seem terribly important, but it was. A few weeks ago, two officers came to our door and told us they regretted to inform us that our son had been killed in action, when his helicopter was shot down by hostile Iraqi fire….
“Three weeks before he was killed, Jack wrote two letters, to be opened ‘just in case.’ After we got the news, we opened our letter and it said, ‘In case you have to open this, please don’t worry. I am all right…. Now I know something you don’t know—what heaven’s like!”
Committing one’s life to Jesus and living in ongoing close connection with the “Living One” is what prepares us well for death—for the move from the land of the dying to the land of the living.
HOPE AMIDST THE FEARS OF THIS WORLD
Many months ago I planned out my preaching series to include a look at the titles of Jesus in the book of Revelation beginning this Sunday. I find it timely that in the midst of the fear and anxiety provoked by the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, we will look at the description of Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5) and as “the Alpha and the Omega…who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8).
When terrorists attack, killing so many innocent people, our sense of justice and security and safety is violated. Fear sets in. Anxiety overwhelms us. Anger consumes us. These are natural human responses to the injustice and horror of terrorism.
Surely the Christians in Asia Minor experienced the same emotions at the very time John recorded the vision God gave to him while he was a prisoner on the island of Patmos (the book of Revelation). Christians in the Roman Empire were facing increased persecution against them. Some were arrested for their faith. Some were tortured for their faith. Some were martyred for their faith. Nearly all of them faced some form of oppression against them for their faith. Into the midst of this, God reminds John—who reminds them and us—that despite appearances, the Roman emperor was not the true ruler of this world. The One who conquered death after dying for us is the One who is “the Ruler of the kings of the earth.”
This truth applies to us today as well. No nation or dictator or terrorist organization has usurped God as the Ruler of this earth. God retains sovereignty over this entire planet.
I pray for the world’s leaders as they confront issues like terrorism and the refugee crisis. I pray that God will grant them wisdom, and integrity, and the courage to do what is right, and guidance from Him.
I pray for them, but my hope is not based on any leader or government, nor do I despair on the basis of any leader or organization. My hope is in the One who is “the Ruler of the kings of the earth.”
Verse 5 goes on to say about “the Ruler of the kings of the earth” that He “loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood.” Because of His sovereignty and love and what He has already done in dying for us, I can affirm Paul’s declaration in Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Revelation 1:8 stresses that Jesus is the “Alpha and the Omega…who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet; Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. Affirming that Jesus is the “Alpha,” reminds us that Jesus is the One who precedes all creation; therefore He has sovereignty over all of His creation, including all that takes place on planet earth. Affirming that He is the “Omega,” means that the end of all things belongs to Him. No one else and nothing else can determine how things will end. God is the One with that authority, and what He tells us in the book of Revelation is that it will end with His restoration of His beloved creation.
To say that Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega” also signifies that everything between the beginning and the end is in His care, and is subject to His sovereignty. It is He “who is, and who was, and who is to come. It is He who is “the Almighty.”
Therefore, even amidst the things in this world that disgust us and/or frighten us, we can (and need to) entrust ourselves to His competent and eternal care.
Over the course of working with people for several decades, I have seen the deep pain that comes from being neglected in relationships, being abandoned by those who should have been there for them, or being forsaken by loved ones.
Mother Teresa once remarked, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, the feeling of being unloved.”
Norman Cousins adds, “The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness.”
Some years ago, the 1986 National Teacher of the Year, Guy Doud, shared, “What shocked me most, as I read their papers, was that so many of the students wrote about being lonely. I thought peer pressure and drugs were the most significant problems, but the student who wrote, ‘I feel so alone, like there is no one I can talk to’ voiced the sentiments of a majority of students in my class.” Though his words were written 30 years ago, the depth of loneliness has not changed for students or for those who have grown up.
Augusten Burroughs, in his book, Dry, expresses the pain quite personally: “Why am I so anxious? And then it hits me. I’m not anxious; I’m lonely. And I’m lonely in some horribly deep way. And for a flash of an instant, I can see just how lonely, and how deep this feeling runs. And it scares the *#+@ out of me to be so lonely because it seems catastrophic—seeing the car just as it hits you.”
I think all of us have felt the pain of loneliness. All of us know how deeply it hurts to be neglected, abandoned or forsaken.
Perhaps this is why the last thing Jesus said to His disciples before ascending to heaven was a promise never to leave them. In Matthew 28:20, He says, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
This is the promise of God’s constant, abiding presence with us, through all the ins and outs, and ups and downs of life!
The apostle Paul reiterates this promise in the face of various struggles we may face. He says (in Romans 8:38-39), “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!”
Nothing conceivable or inconceivable can separate us from God and His love; He will never leave us or forsake us. He will be with us always—even to the very end of the age!
Consider the heart of God that lies behind this promise: Shortly before making this promise, Jesus had given His very life so that we could be adopted into God’s family. That’s how much He loves us!
After going to the extreme of death to bring us into relationship with God, He will never leave us. Jesus will never leave one He gave His life to redeem! We can count on that.
Who was Jesus? And what was His purpose on earth?
In Mark 10:45, Jesus offers this answer: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
What does that mean to us today?
As a Christian I am called to grow in the likeness of Jesus. Since He says that He came not to be served but to serve, then if I am to be like Him I will need to serve others as He did. If I am to grow in His likeness then a servant-like heart needs to grow in me.
Mark Labberton, the president of Fuller Seminary captures the essence of this well in his book, Called. He stresses,
“The heart of God’s call is this: that we receive and live the love of God for us and for the world. This is the meaning of the two greatest commandments, that we are made to love the Lord our God with all we are and our neighbors as ourselves. The Bible as a whole, and Jesus in particular, reveals what such a life looks like. Our call is loving communion with God and God’s world. It encompasses our identity, our community and our activity.
“Who are we? We are God’s chosen people, members of a community set apart for God’s purposes….
“Why are we here? We are here to love God and to love our neighbor….
“We are here to live in the world as agents of God’s love in Jesus Christ.” (p. 14-16)
That’s the heart of Christ-like servanthood: Loving God with all we are and loving those whom Christ gave His life for—loving them as we love ourselves!
The first part of Mark 10:45 identifies Jesus as a servant; the second part of the verse identifies Him as giving “His life as a ransom for many.”
What does this mean for us today?
I tend to think of a ransom in the context of a kidnapping: A ransom is what a parent pays to get her child back.
In 2004 I read in USA Today the story of Delimar Vera who was stolen from her home when she was just 10 days old. More than six years later she was found and returned to her mother.
David Fassler, a child psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont pointed out, “An unusual and tragic situation like this shakes the very core of a child’s sense of stability and predictability of the world around them. They’ve grown up in a family they think is their own. They have a home and school and friends, and suddenly everything they believe about their life is suddenly turned upside down.”
Sara Jaffee, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania added, “There are just so many changes this little girl has to face. I would be really surprised if this doesn’t take some toll on her.”
We easily recognize that when a baby is stolen from a crib and raised by a false mother then returned to her true mother six years later, one must anticipate and prepare for difficult readjustments.
I think something similar applies to the matter of Jesus ransoming us. We were created for intimate relationship with God, but because of sin we were stolen away from that relationship. We have been raised by a false “parent” who has raised us to approach life selfishly (even as Satan himself approaches life). We get used to living in the custom of the one who raised us, but it is the wrong way to live. When God reaches out to rescue us, we are restored to our rightful Parent. This is a joyous occasion, with even the angels in heaven rejoicing. But we must not assume that the transition is easy. We must anticipate and prepare for the difficulties a Christian will face in adjusting to his or her new life and new identity. One of those difficult adjustments is learning to live out the new family “likeness” of being a servant.
Servanthood doesn’t yet come naturally to me, but it is what I am called to since I have been ransomed by the One who came to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.