Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Blessed are those who die in the Lord: Revelation 14:13

 Throughout Revelation we have seen how things do not always go so well for the church: the cry of the martyrs in 6:10, “How long O Lord”; the opposition in chapter 11 to the witness of the church, the fury of the dragon in chapter 12 and the assault of the two beasts in chapter 13.  The church was very small and had faced and would face periods of intense persecution and some would lose their lives. In many ways the church is very fragile, seemingly hanging by a thread and it would be easy, very easy to give into discouragement and despair.  It is in this context that we read these words in 14:13. Hear now God’s word.

 13 Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”

When it comes to holiday music, my absolute favorite singer is Bing Crosby. Louie Armstrong said, “His voice is like gold being poured out of a cup.” What a wonderful and accurate description. In my opinion when Bing sang a song that was the final word; it could not be done better. People have tried, no doubt, but honestly, can anyone approach his version of White Christmas or Do You Hear What I Hear, with the Andrew Sisters he made Jingle Bells fun and he even made Frosty the Snowman tolerable. As I listened to Bing sing the great songs of the season, I was struck by a rather harsh reality. Bing Crosby has been dead for 25 years. This past year saw the deaths of other giants of the entertainment world: Katherine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Johnny Cash, Mr. Rogers. Even the rich and famous die. As do the not so rich and famous: Evelyn Broadwater, Thomas Birdsall and Betty Bond names which appeared in Monday’s Post Dispatch. None of us are exempt. Death comes to us all.

It is in just such a context that we must hear these words: Blessed are the dead, or as it could be translated happy, happy are the dead. This is the same word that is used in the Beatitudes, “blessed or happy are the meek, happy are the poor, happy are those who mourn,” initially these sound strange, very strange to our ears, absurd even.  Happy are the dead? What are you talking about?  Is this yet another attempt to deny reality and pretend that things are really different than what they are? No, actually it is reminder that because of Jesus, the Christian alone can look at  the issues of life and death realistically and still have hope.

Thus our attitude towards death in particular must stand in sharp contrast to the rest of society. There are many who view death as the most horrible of occurrences.  One first century epitaph reads: “After death no reviving, after the grave no meeting again.”  Separation is forever.  Or consider this one: “I was not, I became, I am not, I care not.” That is a real pick me up. Death is the end, after that nothing.  At that point you will not care.

Thus for many death is to be avoided at all costs. Some of you may remember these words from a TV show from yesteryear: “We have the technology. We can rebuild him.  We can make him better, faster, stronger.”  The Six million dollar man.  We knew the concept was make believe - but it isn’t so make believe anymore. Scientists are talking about how technology can be used to overcome our fatal flaw, being mortal.  One engineer reflected this exalted view of technology when he wrote: “biology is not destiny. It was never more than a tendency.  It was just nature’s first quick and dirty way to compute with meat. Chips are destiny.” Another scientist speaks of transferring the contents of one’s mind into a computer so that the human brain is liberated from the weakness of mortal flesh and thus no longer constrained by its span of years; such a life could live forever.”  There are many in the biotech industry who see this as an opportunity to make lots and lots of money.  It can be very profitable to develop technologies that attempt to make us, well, immortal.  For death is the most horrific thing to be avoided at all costs and people will pay lots of money to that end. In our health care system we spend so much money trying to avoid death. Understand here I am not talking about preserving life, I am talking about delaying death.  There is a difference. Do you realize that xx% of the health care dollar is spent on end of life issues? Last year we spent xx on Botox injections. Countless products on the market proclaim that this will slow down or even reverse the aging process.  What are we doing?  We are living as if death is to be avoided at all costs for it is the worst, the most horrific thing to happen.

But for those who believe in Jesus it is not, for this verse says, happy are those who die in the Lord. Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life; if you believe in him you will live forever as a child of God. In paradise which you cannot even imagine for no eye has seen nor ear has heard what God has prepared for those who love him. Freedom from sickness, from sin and guilt, from all the struggles of dealing with the pressure and stresses that result from the weeds of life. For those in Christ, death is not something of which to be terrified.  Understand that this is not something that is merely theoretical.  I have seen it in reality.  Art Wagner had a very bad form of cancer. The doctors told him that we can give you this treatment, it might prolong your life by a month or two but it will make you very, very sick.  Art chose not to go through the treatment. He said to me, “I am not afraid of dying.”  This is not to say that Art gave up. Of course not. He wanted to live. Of course he did. So should we. Life after all is given by God and we should seek to live life to the fullest. We must not seek to die prematurely or for others to die prematurely, but rather to care for and preserve life. Yet still Art knew that ultimately he was in the hands of God. He knew there was a huge difference between preserving life and prolonging death.  Though the line between those two is not always clear. He felt in his case it was. Today he is the presence of God completely cancer free. Blessed, happy are those who die in the Lord.

We often talked about anger with God and questioning God. I wonder if Lazarus felt that way. Lazarus as you may remember died and Jesus raised him from the dead in John 11. Of course we rightly say what a wonderful, fantastic event demonstrating that Jesus has power even over death. Yet I can’t help but wonder if Lazarus was a bit conflicted by it all. Where was he those four days?  In heaven. In the paradise of God. Though he was glad to see his sisters again, did he long to go back. For he knew better than most that indeed happy are those who die in the Lord. 

Thus we affirm medicine that preserves life, but we also affirm that it is not wrong to allow a loved one, or even yourself to go, just because a doctor can an administer a drug, does not necessarily make it the right thing to do. Technology has been and will continue to be a great aid in preserving life and curing diseases but it can also be used in a way that is not right.  All of this requires wisdom, it requires us as Christians to seek God’s wisdom and to speak out on the issues of the day. But we do it all from a foundation that proclaims without apology, “Happy are those who die in the Lord.”

This does not mean that death is something to be “happy” about and to celebrate, as if we say at funerals, We are here to celebrate the death of Doug Madi. Yeah. For what is death?  It is God’s punishment for our sin. One of the reasons Adam and Eve took of the fruit and ate was because they wanted to be like God. In the day you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you will surely die. Death is reminder of our sin. It is reminder that we are not God. Thus what many in the biotech world are seeking to do is to override God. You say that we must die, well I will show you. How foolish and ultimately how futile. Death is a reminder of what should have been, could have been were it not for our rebellion against God. That is sad. Our sin separates us one from another and that too is sad. To be sure there are those who look at death as if it is a natural part of life: like spring, summer, fall and winter are natural parts of the calendar year. That is not true. Death is not a natural part of life - life is a natural part of life. Death is not.  It is God’s just sentence upon us for our sin. We may die suddenly as did David Bloom NBC News reporter at the age of 39 when we are young or we may grow old and die as did Bob Hope at the age of 100, but we will die because of our sin. That is nothing to celebrate.

Thus as God’s people when we face death, it is appropriate to grieve, but as the scriptures teach we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. Sometimes we may feel guilty that we cry or even continue to cry long afterward. Some may say, “It is time for you to get over it.” “Get over it? What are you talking about? This is not a cold I am dealing with here - this is the death of someone I love - I will never get over it.”  I will miss them the rest of my days. But, the grief is not the same as those who wrote: after the grave no meeting again. For those in Christ there will be a joyous meeting again, a true celebration.  Thus we must stand in sharp contrast to so much of our culture today and proclaim that because of Jesus we not only can live, but we can grieve well, we can die well. For happy are those who die in the Lord. Let us pray.

1 comment:

  1. "The loss of a friend is like that of a limb; time may heal the anguish of the wound, but the loss cannot be repaired." - Thomas De Witt Talmage

    Doug was an amazing preacher & wonderful witness to many. This is an incredible sermon, one that seems more powerful today than the day he wrote it. It just goes to show that The Message must go on even when The Messenger has left.