Some have asked what we did for Lent. This year we learned the text of an ancient prayer, called the Anima Christi, and talked about what we pray in the petitions of this prayer. You are welcome to join us in these Lenten devotions.
One of the first pastoral calls I ever made, a friend and mentor took me along. The aged woman was confined to her bed. The Pastor asked her about death -- was she ready, was she afraid. I feared it was the ultimate insult to talk of death with a woman who looked so near it. But she wept that her Pastor came to talk with her of death. No one in her family would speak to her about it. It was the forbidden subject and yet she longed to empty her soul of this burden, to hear the sweet Gospel of Christ, and to be encouraged in what she and we all knew were her last days. It taught me a great deal.
There was a time when we were more conscious of death and more willing to talk about it. Now we try to put it out of our minds. We fear teaching our children, “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” We don’t want them preoccupying on death. We do not take them to funeral homes and, by and large, people do not turn out for visitation like they once did. Is it because we are busier or is it that death is not something we want to think about?
You probably know my own personal battle against the culture of death in which the funeral has become the celebration of the life of the deceased. We console ourselves with laughter and memories instead of real hope. We tell ourselves mom or dad or sis or brother or son or daughter or friend would not have wanted us to grieve. They would have wanted us to be happy. Death is no longer an enemy, it is what happens at the end of a long and well lived life, hopefully before age or disease have robbed us of our “quality of life.”
I am not sure that this perspective on life or death has much to do with what we see and hear in Scripture. In Scripture, death is something that shadows our lives from beginning to end. It is the thief who steals away our lives, whether bit by bit or all at once. It is the shadow that hangs over our every day and every joy. It is the lens through which we see and understand both our predicament as sinners and the redemption won for us in Christ.
For many of us, our attempt to heal the grief over the death of loved ones and the struggle to deal with our own mortality is real. It cannot be wished away or hidden. I look out over this congregation every Sunday and I look into the faces of people whose hearts are still broken over the death of a mother or a father, a husband or a wife, a son or a daughter, a friend or a neighbor. I want to tell them that their pain will go away but I know it will not. They may learn to cope with their hurt and loss but it will surely not go away. It is a hole in life and a wound in the heart that never heals.
In this prayer we take death seriously. It is not that we are morbid. We are NOT. But we live in a real world where death is still among us, the enemy who takes the life God has given to us and leaves us empty, sorrowful, and vulnerable.
In the hour of my death, call to me and bid me come to Thee. That I may praise Thee with Thy saints and with Thy angels, forever and ever. This is our prayer for ourselves and for those whom we love who have died. In the hour of our death, O Lord, call to us, bid us come to Thee, that we may rise to live with Thy saints and angels, forevermore.
Christ’s own death has sanctified our death. His time in the tomb has sanctified the graves of the saints. His resurrection is the hope of our own joyful resurrection and the blest reunion with those whom we love who have departed this life in faith. The only way we can take our hope seriously is to take death seriously. Jesus did not become incarnate to show us how to grab all the gusto we can out of life. He was born to die for us our death to sin and to rise to give us new and everlasting life. Any other benefit or blessing is secondary to this purpose, that He died our death to sin and rose to give us new and eternal life.
Talk of death is not some great burden on us. It is the reality of being sinful by nature. As sin has passed upon us so death has come upon us, too. We cannot shake it, we cannot hide from it, we cannot avoid it. But we are not alone. Christ is with us. He can shake the sting of death and has hidden in death the gateway to new life. In Christ we do not hide from it or avoid it. In Christ we face it square on with the power of His death and resurrection.
Death is not imaginary. It is real. The life in which death is not real is only an imaginary life. We need something real. We do not need a placebo and we do not need a dream. We need a God who is strong enough to face down our enemy death, a God who can bleed real blood and die a real death. We need a life that is strong enough to face this death with the power of Christ and His resurrection. We need a life in which the fear and sting of death have an answer. That is the Gospel. These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that by believing in Him you might have eternal life. This is how John ends His Gospel story of Jesus.
You cannot live until first you know how to die. Otherwise the life you live will consist of running away from something. Only in Christ can we run to that which is our hope. Only Christ can we run to life by passing through death. In Christ we learn to die.
That is baptism’s gift to us. It gives us the death that takes away the sting of death by uniting us to Christ and His cross. It bestows on us the power of His life and resurrection so that we know the destiny God has prepared for us. In the face of such destiny of life and resurrection, we have the tools, the answers, the power to face up to death here and now.
In the hour of my death, call to me and bid me come to Thee. That I may praise Thee with Thy saints and with Thy angels, forever and ever. This is the prayer of those who believe that Christ and His life are even more real than death. This is the prayer of those who believe that even in death, Christ reigns and rules. This is the prayer of a people who have been set free to live the holy and righteous life of faith because they no longer fear death for what it can steal – instead they have confidence in what God gives.
Our consolation in life is not that people will miss us when we are gone or that we have done something that will live on after us. We do not need to be remembered by anyone but the Lord who says “Today you shall be with Me in paradise.” Our comfort in grief is not that we still have a memory but that we have the promise of resurrection and reunion and life, world without end. Amen. Our peace in this mortal life is not that death is natural or that if we can squeeze enough life into our days we won’t lose much when death comes. Our peace is the even in the midst of death we live in Christ the life that death cannot overcome. Our lives do not have to long or happy or successful to be worthwhile. In suffering and in sorrow as well as in happiness and accomplishment, we are the Lord’s and He is ours. Today.... Tomorrow... and Forever... Amen.