Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"He looks so natural..."

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep (1 Thessalonians 4:13-15).

Wakes are curious things, especially the way they are done in America. Rather than being a means to help grieving friends and relatives cope with the death of a loved one, wakes oftentimes become a celebration of the very thing that took their loved one away – death. They end up, rather than comforting people, reminding them of all the good things they have lost to death. Funerals and wakes, generally and without meaning to, put on display all that the deceased was in this life. It generally happens in the form of photographs, bulletin boards, flowers and personal mementos scattered throughout the funeral parlor. All these things, in effect, tell the living who have gathered to mourn, “look what you have lost and will never again experience”. The most heinous part of the entire wake experience is, quite possibly, the corpse itself.

The body of a deceased loved one painted and dressed; face plastered with makeup and frozen in an almost-but-not-quite serene expression, made to appear as if asleep. In the hands of the wrong funeral director, a corpse becomes morbid marionette that serves only to focus attention on the “star” of the hour – death. At a wake, what a victory death seems to have won. And, no more awkward a question has ever been asked than, “Boy, doesn’t he/she look good?”

No, they don’t look good. No one looks good lying in a casket.

Families act brave at the wakes of their loved ones, saying standard, rehearsed lines like, “Death is a part of life,” and “We will all have to face death sometime,” or “I’m just glad to see their suffering is over.” And all the while, friends and relatives help with the charade in order to spare feelings. No one really comforts, no one truly consoles. Standing in the shrine of death, mourners immediately begin to ignore that which they have gathered to view.

It is true that the death rate, as one preacher noted, is still 100%. Everyone will, at some point, die, and there is no escaping it. Death, however, is by no means simply a “part of life”. Death is not good. Death is not even o.k. Death is certainly not our friend nor should we stoically accept it. Death is the enemy of humankind. To put it bluntly, death sucks. We should not act as though it did not.

In order to cope with death, which happens all around us every day, we must understand what it is. We must understand why and how it came to be.

And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die" (Genesis 2:16-18).

Death is the result of sin. In the beginning, when God created man, death was not part of the equation. We were not meant to die. God wanted the beings he created to live forever with him. Of course, scripture tells us why this is no longer the case. Because of the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, sin and death were introduced into God’s perfect creation, and what God had created was changed utterly. We see the results of sin every day in the world around us, and even in our own selves, and it is not pretty. It is so disgusting, in fact, that many people either choose to ignore it, or blame the Creator for what we brought on ourselves.

Why would God allow this? If he wanted people to live forever with him, why did he not just ignore what Adam and Eve did? Why did he not just forgive them right there in the Garden instead of requiring atonement for sin that man was unable to make for himself, necessitating Messiah do it for him? Surely it would have been much less of a hassle to simply wipe the board clean and start over from scratch…

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life...For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (John 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18a).

This side of heaven we will never fully understand God’s motives for creating man in the first place. Some theologians believe that God did it because he wanted to have fellowship with beings who possessed the capacity to reject him, making the relationship, therefore, meaningful. Of course, he could have just needed a cool science fair project…we won’t know until we meet him face to face and ask him. However, anyone who has a child could probably understand, on some level, why God dealt with his disobedient creation as he did.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? (Hebrews 12:5-7).

Good parents who are effective in disciplining and instructing their children will tell you that abrogating the consequences for exceeding established guidelines is a sure way to create a selfish, disobedient child who is manipulative and tests their parents at every turn. Parents who set limits and enforce them in a loving way stand a better chance of raising respectful, obedient children who understand how to follow rules and get along well with those around them.

Scripture tells us that God is holy and just. In other words, he hates sin, or disobedience, and is fair and impartial. In the Garden of Eden, God set a boundary for Adam and Eve, just like a parent who limits the number of cookies their child may eat. Like a good parent, God set a consequence for violating that boundary (for being disobedient), “…or you will surely die.” Since God hates sin and is just, there is no possible way for him to simply forgo the consequences.

God cannot exist contrary to his nature, just as we cannot.

Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come."...But the LORD Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness (Revelation 4:8; Isaiah 5:16).

God is holy, just and righteous. To ignore what Adam and Eve did, God would have had to ignore sin – something which it is his very nature to abhor.

Another attribute of God, though, is mercy. God is gracious and merciful. Scripture describes a God who is full of pity, forgiving; who shows undeserved kindness.

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy...But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved (Micah 7:18; Ephesians 2:3-5).

God's mercy was good news for Adam and Eve, just as it is for us today. God, though he had to follow through with his punishment, provided a way for his wayward children to be redeemed. For Adam and Eve, and all those who lived during Old Testament times, the way of redemption was faith in God’s promised redeemer. It is the same for we who live under the New Testament. Those who came before us only had God’s promise to hold on to – though that is certainly enough. They did not know the redeemer’s name. We do – Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Messiah, Son of David. He is the Christ, God in human flesh.

He [Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:16-21).

Because of our disobedient first parents, we have to deal with sin and death. Sin, after the fall, became a part of the human nature. And, while it is true that everyone must die, death does not have the same meaning for those who trust in Christ.

I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:50-57).

For those who do not know Jesus Christ, who do not believe and trust in him as their redeemer, the prospect is grim. Death, for these people, remains the victor. Scripture says that they will experience eternal death. In the shadow of this prospect, the wake room becomes an extremely cold, dark and dismal place.

...He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death." ( Revelation 21:7-8).

The Christian, however, can look death in the eye unafraid. To the Christian, death is more than a consequence of original sin and a fallen creation; more than the cessation of life. It is the portal to life everlasting and a relationship with the Creator as such a relationship was intended to be. No suffering, no pain; only eternal joy with God and all the saints forever.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true" (Revelation 21:3-5).

For the unbeliever, the traditional wake is appropriate. An entire life summed up by a bulletin board full of old photographs and a coffee room filled with sad, frightened people discussing everything but that which is in the parlor. For the Christian, it is inappropriate, as they have, in their baptism, passed from death to life. By their physical death, the deceased Christian has passed from this life to life eternal. The Christian wake and funeral, though an outlet for grief and mourning is, and rightly should be, also a celebration of Christ’s victory over death and the grave by his resurrection - the anticipation that those who trust in him as the atonement for their sins will live forever as well.

Death is not good. God, however, has taken what is evil and turned it to our benefit, by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of the body and life everlasting are sure and certain to those who trust in him; to those who remain faithful unto death. Therefore, for the Christian, especially when confronting death, the words of St. Paul should provide us strength, consolation and comfort:

Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).