The Gift of Living
The Death Test
Time is ticking away. With the passing of
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
Our story this morning takes place late
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
The family asked for prayers for their
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
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
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
remind ourselves what the Cross of Christ is not. The Cross of Christ
is not suffering we must endure ...
a long term illness;
financial hardship related to our unemployment due to a weak economy;
emotional distress related to the discovery of our sin (Mayor Kwame
Kilpatrick is not bearing the Cross of Christ);
physical injury a woman receives at the hands of an abusive husband;
However, picking up our Cross and
us to lose our job because we do not listen to our supervisor who wants
us to break the law;
us emotional distress because we choose to love others who are mean,
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;
us to turn down a promotion because the new job would require us to
work an excessive amount of hours;
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
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
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
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
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
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
my lips will glorify you.
To consider that God's love was better
that I have ever experienced in this life sustained me through many
dark and scary hours.
You may have a different verse or a
during your hour of sickness. The actual verse is not important,
having one is. Baxter suggests several. You might find one of them
"God so loved the world, that he gave his only
begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but
have everlasting life,"
"For I will be merciful unto their
unrighteousness, and their sins and iniquities will I remember no
"He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and
carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with
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,"
"O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is
1 Cor. 15:55.
Fourth, remind yourself of the blessing
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.