Wednesday, March 28, 2018

'Who dieth thus is living still.'

One evening after dinner last month, my wife and I caught an episode of the late 80s tv series In the Heat of the Night (starring Carroll O’Conner as the police chief in the small town of Sparta, Mississippi), a powerful, albeit unintentional, devotional curiously appropriate for Lent from the secular world. The episode’s title is "A Trip Upstate" (from the 2nd season) and it deals with the sanctity of life, capital punishment, and, surprisingly, John 11:25. It got me to thinking…
Most Christians, especially those who have lost a loved one, are familiar with the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  The Apostle John relates a conversation between Martha, the sister of Lazarus, and Jesus, which begins with Martha in effect blaming Jesus for her brother’s death because he arrived too late to heal him.  Martha is just like the rest of us, really—we face-off with God when He “takes” someone from us (and without so much as an explanation). Jesus knows that Martha is understandably upset, but also knows that there’s a Gospel moment in all of this.  Before he deals with Lazarus, Jesus says to Martha: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26 ESV)
What could be a more comforting thought for the survivors of the deceased than knowing that Scripture assures us that upon death believers are in the hands of God and that they are with Christ. Better yet, what could be a more comforting thought for the living
On Thursday, November 6, 2008, I found my 70-year old father dead on the floor in his house where he lived alone. It was just before 6 p.m. and all the lights were off in the house.  I discovered his body on the floor in a back bedroom. It was a Stephen King moment—I say that, not because of the horror, but because King was fond of describing that phenomenon that takes place when your eyes see something that your brain is still trying to process. I was more surprised than anything else, actually.  So much so that I stood in the hallway for some time trying to decide what to do or whom to call.
Once my sanity returned, I called 911 and waited. And I was okay...sad for me, of course, because my father was gone…but okay. I knew that I had found my father’s remains and not him.  My faith reassured me that in death, my father, who had been plagued with heart and addiction problems, had been set free!  I am so thankful to God for the gift of faith He has given me in Him through Christ that sustained me that night and in the weeks that followed…  
There is a Lutheran hymn (LSB #759) called “This Body in the Grave We Lay” which is played often at funeral services.  The 2nd and 3rd stanzas are beautiful and reflect our Christian sentiments about physical death, seen as an end forever by the unchurched, but as a transition by the believer through faith:
The soul forever lives with God,
Who freely hath His grace bestowed
And through His Son redeemed it here
From every sin, from every fear.

All trials and all griefs are past,
A blessed end has come at last.
Christ's yoke was borne with ready will;
Who dieth thus is living still.
Funerals and memorial services are for the living. As was the case with Martha, the passing of a friend or a loved one still provides Jesus with a Gospel moment—if we can listen to His words "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” and then answer His question “Do you believe this?” with an unwavering “Yes!”, then we are not only witness of, but witnesses to the Gospel message of hope, the anticipation of bodily resurrection and a reunion with those we knew in this life, God’s promise of life everlasting in Christ.
It is with hope, not apprehension or fear, that we look upon the grave, secure in knowing that it is not the end.  An open grave for us as Christians is no longer really open; our faith has closed it forever.   For as the hymn says…
“Who dieth thus is living still.”  Amen.
Until next month, may the Lord bless you and keep you!