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21st sunday in ordinary time

Matthew 16:13-20

The Gift of Living Comes Only Through Dying

The Death Test

Time is ticking away. With the passing of each second we move that much closer to the day of our death. Several “death tests” have been created to help us determine the day of our demise. They are questionnaires that ask for our date of birth, family genetic history, diet, smoking, drinking, risky behavior, and the age at death of the person's mother. While some of the questions and predictions may have some correlation with life expectancy statistics the tests themselves are not scientific instruments. They may assign a date of your doom but they should not be taken seriously. We can not actually plot the end point of life here on earth even if Jesus did not have any reservations about doing so with his life.

Our story this morning takes place late in the ministry of Jesus. The religious leaders have proven that they are not about to accept Jesus or his teachings. They have constantly taken issue with every form of his teaching. When he displayed miraculous powers, the Jewish leaders accused him of being in league with the devil. He is to them, their Axis of Evil. Yet, on two separate occasions, they still insist that he perform for them as if he were a magician on stage. Jesus has also seen what happens when a man offends the powers that be. John the Baptist, his cousin, had been beheaded by Herod because John condemned Herod's marriage to his brother's wife while his brother was still alive. Jesus knows that he has taken a perilous and dangerous road. He senses that his end is near and so he wants to prepare his disciples.

As expected, the disciples are not prepared to talk about Jesus dying. They prefer the status quo where Jesus does everything for them. They are still timid frightened fishermen, tax collectors and businessman. They are not equipped to debate the subtle requirements of the Law with the scribes. They cannot turn water into wine or produce enough bread to feed five people let alone 5,000. They still have a basic mistrust of one another. Judas still cannot believe that Jesus is willing to associate with the likes of such scum as a tax collector. Matthew knows the apprehension of the others but he himself struggles to understand why Jesus would choose men who had such limited education. How would this group of suspicious, trepid men convince others of that the kingdom of God was coming with power? The disciples just did not want to talk about death.

The family asked for prayers for their grandfather who was in the hospital and very sick. Tom was not a church goer. His wife was a member of another church but he was the father-in-law of Attendance Secretary for the Sunday school. Since I was responsible for the Christian Education program, I sensed a responsibility to provide pastoral care.

When I visited Tom could not talk. He had to write his answers on a slate board. I introduced myself and told him that he had a wonderful daughter-in-law. He agreed and wrote “Son, lucky.” We both smiled. After a few more exchanges I decide to ask the critical question. “Tom, are you prepared to die.” With a few quick strokes of the chalk he wrote in capital letters, “NO” I began to ask him what was holding him back. Before he could answer the family walked into the room and he stopped writing. We all chatted then his wife asked, “what were you talking with the pastor about?” Tom wrote, “Dying”

Tom's wife was stunned. She raised her voice and assured him that he was not going to die. She made it known that such conversation was unwarranted and not welcomed. I was too inexperienced to know what to say. Mary Lou asked me to step outside the room. Once passed the open door she gave me a huge hug and thanked me for broaching the subject that no one else would talk about. Tom died less than a week later.

Even when death is imminent we are reluctant to talk about it. Our ability to talk about death is one of the major factors in accepting our own death or the death of our spouse or a friend. It also encumbers us from living as free women and men. If the subject of death terrorizes us we will be reluctant to take risks. We will be hesitant to step into new situations. Clinging to life as we know it, we will resist change. Most importantly, we will give only a weak hearted attempt to take up the Cross of Christ.

Before I explore this theme further allow me to remind ourselves what the Cross of Christ is not. The Cross of Christ is not suffering we must endure ...

...from a long term illness;

...the financial hardship related to our unemployment due to a weak economy;

...our emotional distress related to the discovery of our sin (Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is not bearing the Cross of Christ);

...the physical injury a woman receives at the hands of an abusive husband;

However, picking up our Cross and following Jesus may...

...cause us to lose our job because we do not listen to our supervisor who wants us to break the law;

...cause us emotional distress because we choose to love others who are mean, and vindictive;

...cause us to go without some of the luxuries of the world because we choose to give a tithe of our income to the ministry of Christ;

...cause us to turn down a promotion because the new job would require us to work an excessive amount of hours;

...cause a mother and father great anguish as they show love to a child who continues to make bad choices.

The Cross of Christ relates to the suffering we must endure because of our obedience to the gospel. It does not include the typical aches and pains of living, however, severe they may be. The Cross of Christ does more then create a few minor inconveniences. It places demands, sacrifices on us which we must endure. However, we cannot really pick up any one or more of these crosses until we come to accept the inevitable. This world is only our temporary home. It is not our permanent residence. We are just passing through. Those words are easier to say from the pulpit than in the living room as you tell your children that you have cancer. They are also easy to say at church than at the bedside of your terminally ill spouse. But they are words that we must learn not only to believe but also to say with ease and joy, especially when we are walking through the valley of death.

If there be so certain and glorious a rest for the saints, why is there no more earnest seeking after it?

Whereas we confess a belief in the hereafter, we are finding great enjoyment in the now. We would not mind entering our eternal rest if we just did not have to leave this world to do so. The thought of leaving friends and family is just too difficult to bear. But this is all the more reason why we should not only think about our death but also be prepared, as was Jesus to talk about it.

To overcome this great barrier, a 17th Century Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter wrote several tracts for his congregation. Two were specifically to guide the believer in preparing for their own death; the other on the death of a friend or a relative. The Puritan understood the fear that death brings. He never trivializes it but he does admonish his congregation to look beyond it to the author of life. Baxter believed that ultimately we need to dwell on the One who lived, died, rose triumphantly and ascended to put aside our fears. Baxter believed in filling the mind with the promises and assurance of Scripture through meditation and prayer. He encouraged people to choose one verse of Scripture during any period of sickness and to meditate on it for several hours. He also encouraged his people to grow weary of “dungeon of mortality.” He expanded on this theme in another book on heaven entitled, The Saint's Everlasting Rest guides believers on which heavenly mysteries to contemplate and how they are to do this.

Baxter gives over eighteen directives that he consider essential for preparing for one's own death. However, I believe that they can be condensed into four.

First, remember that all humanity is mortal. From dust we came and to dust we will go. These mortal bodies are wasting away. They are not permanent. We have been given a limited number of years.

Second, and most importantly we must learn to trust in the gracious, loving care of God. Our chronic illness or terminal condition grieves his heart but he is working out his sovereign will for our lives and the lives of everyone we know. God is not out to punish us simply because we have contracted a fatal illness. Asking why me may be the typical response but I do not know of many people who have ever been able to discover the answer. We will not be able to face death until we are willing to accept that whatever happens God will bring some good out of our death.

Third, Baxter encouraged his people to remind themselves of the promises of God through diligent meditation. I believe that this is critical. So much of our feelings are shaped by our thoughts. If we allow negative thinking to consume our attention we will feel depressed and hopeless. As a hospital chaplain, I saw a strong correlation between a person's mental outlook and the level of pain about which they complained. We should commit our favorite Scripture to memory so when pain strikes us, we can automatically recite it. Throughout my bone marrow transplant I would repeat Psalm 63 over and over again. My favorite verse states

3because your love is better than life
my lips will glorify you.

To consider that God's love was better than anything that I have ever experienced in this life sustained me through many dark and scary hours.

You may have a different verse or a different need during your hour of sickness. The actual verse is not important, having one is. Baxter suggests several. You might find one of them particularly helpful

"God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,"

John 3:16

"For I will be merciful unto their unrighteousness, and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more,"

Heb. 8:12

"He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young,"

Isa. 40:11. "

"For I am in a strait between two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better,"

Phil. 1:23.

"O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?"

1 Cor. 15:55.

Fourth, remind yourself of the blessing you experienced from God throughout your life. Think back upon the time when you came to faith in Christ. Think about the friends you've enjoyed over the years and the good times you've had. Plant in your mind the ways that God has taken care of you.

Finally, find a friend or fellow companion with which you can discuss these realities. It is absolutely critical to discuss them with another person. Even for those of us who are introverts, the verbal response implants the words upon our heart. We will and should cry during these times of sharing. That is expected. We are having to let go of people and things with which we hold dear. Out tears are the testimony of our love. As we talk the Holy Spirit uses our words and the words of our friend to heal our pain and grief. Our words become the scalpel of the Spirit.

It is easy to identify people who have truly come to grips with the reality of their own morality. They do not worry about inconveniences. They do not complain about difficult circumstances. They are willing to give and expect nothing in return. They are willing to carry their cross and follow their Lord.

Find a Friend.

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1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390

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