The Inevitable End (a sermon)

O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.

Psalm 30 (NRSV)

Do you want to live forever?

The question may seem obvious in a Christian congregation. For many people, the prospect of “eternal life” is the centrally motivating doctrine of the faith. The essence of the faith is often thought to be John 3:16, “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.” Christian evangelists often ask, “what would happen if you died tonight” as a way to motivate acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Death is frightening. All of us would like to avoid it. And if there’s a club we can belong to that will give us a get-out-of-death-free card, sign us up!

The truth is, we’re all scared to death… of death. And if there’s anything that can free us from our eventual fate, most of us would take it, even if we haven’t thought through all the implications of what everlasting life would actually be like. At the very least, we want to be freed of the pain of losing the ones we love.

Over the past 100 years, as human society has exponentially gained scientific knowledge about life, the world, and our place in it, interest in less-spiritual methods of preserving life have become more common. Almost since his death in 1966, a rumor has persisted that Walt Disney had his body frozen—cryogenically persevered—in hopes that some day, human civilization will be able to put the breath of life back into dead bodies.

In Walt Disney’s case, the rumors are false. But the idea lives on that eventually, with the continuation of scientific advancement, we will someday have the power to bring back the dead. At the very least, the idea has emptied the change purses of some of the world’s richest people. An estimated 400 people have had their bodies preserved in the hopes that science—and their wealth—can save them.

Beyond simply preserving people’s bodies in freezers, proponents of Radical Life Extension argue that aging and death is like any disease. And like any disease, the scientific hope is to find and manufacture a cure. Imagine how many billions of dollars there are to be made by pharmaceutical companies if they were able to add 10, 20, 100 years to the human lifespan.

It may seem far fetched to think that science would be able to unlock the key of aging and give human beings a seemingly limitless natural lifespan. Proponents of radical life extension point to the dramatic increase in life expectancy during the scientific age. Just a hundred years ago, the world average life expectancy was only 32 years. Those who made it to age 15 could only expect to live to around age 50. Sure, there were people who made it into their 80s, but it was far from the norm. Today the world average life expectancy hovers around 73 years old. Who is to say, life extension advocates argue, that future scientific advances can’t continue the progression upward.

Of course, there are other things limiting the lifespan not only of individual human beings, but of our entire planet. Far in the distant future, in about 5 billion years, our sun will run out of hydrogen and die. That’s assuming our civilization makes it through the changes our own planet will endure during that time and adapt to changing temperatures.

That’s why many people with vaults full of money are placing their hope in escaping the constraints of our planet. Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2001 in the hopes of eventually placing a human space outpost on Mars, with the hopes that humanity will someday inhabit far-off planets among the stars of the sky.

Human beings and their lifespans are finite. Earth, it’s resources, and lifespan, is finite. Naturally, people with seemingly limitless wealth and resources will do everything it takes to transcend those limits.

Given enough resources, we human beings will do anything to stay alive.

Let’s be honest, the prospect of “life extension” is for the rich and famous. It’s for the people who have such a sense of self-importance that they think the world couldn’t live without them. It’s for the people who, if they were given one more day to live, would spend it at work on the thing only they were capable of doing.

Even still, many of us will do everything we can to avoid aging and death in little ways. Television ads promise products that will make you look 10 years younger with over-the-counter treatments and plastic surgeons suggest that ageless beauty is possible. And when the angel of death does knock on our door, we’re likely to drain bank accounts for the potential of a couple more days or weeks.

In our estimation, human mortality is an enemy to be avoided at all costs. And so, even though it’s never explicitly stated in the text, most Christians assume that the Garden of Eden was so perfect that nothing in it would have ever died. But where would the nutrients for dirt come from without the compost of dead plants. Was the circle of life originally intended to be a straight line? Where would we be without the generations that have come before us? If our ancestors had lived forever, what need would there be for us?

Isn’t life’s fragility, it’s precarity, it’s limits of time part of what makes it precious?

“So you say that death is inevitable,” life extension advocates say, “but when would you like to die?”

As long as one has something to look forward to, as long as there is still future life in view, the answer would probably always be “never.” Wouldn’t it be cool to live to see your great-great-grandchildren be born?

When faced with the prospect of the “end,” of our lives or our planets, we are understandably filled with fear.

But the Christian story is not one of death-avoidance at all. It isn’t about having the personal key to get out of death. The Christian story is about death and resurrection.

The smart and the wealthy of our world would love to follow someone who would never enter the grave. The person who discovers the scientific key to immortality would have worshipers around the world and consumers lining up around the block. They’d be the biggest thing since, well, Jesus.

The Gospel isn’t a message for the wise and powerful. “The message of the cross is foolishness,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians. Who would want to follow a savior who was brutally murdered. The savior we follow isn’t one who has the key to death-avoidance. In fact, the Gospels tell us that Jesus cried out in the garden of prayer for God to “take this cup [of death] from me.” With anguish, he cried out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus could have ascended to heaven prior to his death instead of dying. God could have spared him that suffering. Jesus could have gone straight to heaven without death like Enoch and Elijah who were spared the fate of all humanity. But what would this have done for we who will die?

Jesus died for a reason. Yes, Jesus died as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices for our sins. Jesus died because we humans preferred darkness to the light. But more than that, Jesus died because all of us will die too. And only a God who knows the depth of our experience can truly redeem and save all of it.

Yes, God send his Son that we would not perish in Sin, that death would not be the end for us. But God never promises to free us from the natural condition of death. It is so important for us to understand this in the shadow of the cross and in the light of the resurrection.

God’s promise is not to provide an escape plan from death, but to be with us through it all.

Psalm 23 assures us that in the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.

Psalm 90 petitions God to “teach us to number our days, that we may grow in wisdom.”

Ecclesiastes teaches us that “there is a time and a season for everything under the sun, a time for birth and a time for death.”

A couple years ago, a developer came out with a phone app called “WeCroak.” About three times a day, “WeCroak” will remind users that they will die with quotes from notable depressives throughout history. This morning, “WeCroak” gave me a dose of bittersweet encouragement with a quote from Emily Dickinson, “Dying is a wild night and a new road.”

Since being welcomed into the life of a 4-year-old though, I don’t need an app to remind me of my mortality. While people over 40 think of me as a young guy, Gracelyn sees it fit to confidently (and with a smile on her face) proclaim to her mother and I that “you’re going to die.”

She did this just yesterday, for the first time, with no idea that this would be the topic of my sermon today.

Yes, Gracelyn. I am going to die. So will all of us.

Thank God, the time has not yet come when my heart will stop and not even a deep freeze at -130 degrees Fahrenheit can save this body. But in a different, no less real sense, I have died already.

See, when I was two months old, a pastor and family friend baptized me in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He proclaimed with Paul in Romans 6 that “if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. Since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.” So it is with each of us.

Since we have been united with him in a death like his, we are also united with him in the life of the resurrection.

Like Lazarus, who John 11 tells us was dead long enough that he began to stink, some of us know what it is to face death in a very real way and then to be raised up again.

If you’ve been stuck in the mire of addiction, you know what it is to be dead in a situation you cannot control or gain any handle over. While it does take immense power of will, those who have been there will tell you that recovery starts with an utter admission of powerlessness.

“We are powerless over our addictions, we need a power greater than us to restore us to life.”

If you’ve been surrounded by the endless night of depression, the dread of anxiety, and the confusion of being untethered from reality, you know this too. There is nothing inside of us that can free us from the prison of being trapped in mental illness. We need someone to unbind us and to untangle our thoughts. We often need medication to get to a point where recovery is possible.

Something is broken in us that must be addressed from the outside. No matter how many “self-help” books are published, we need something from outside of us to resurrect us from death.

This is what the proponents of radical life extension do not understand. Human beings are incapable of saving themselves. Death is an inevitable force from which we cannot escape, even if we gain a few more years of life. After all, what good is living longer if we still live under the fear of death and the judgment of sin?

Our bodies are frail and built for frailty. What hope is there?

Revelation 5:9 tells us what we should know if we’ve been hanging out in church for any length of time. Christ alone has the key to abundant life. Christ alone has the power of resurrection. Christ alone has entered the place of the dead itself and freed those it kept captive.

This resurrection, unlike the striving and dedication of those who work day and night to prolong life by one iota, is pure gift.

The only hope we have is to die to ourselves before we ourselves die; to be raised to life before we are mere dust in the wind.

Walker Percy, in his mock self-help book “Lost in the Cosmos,” argues pointedly that taking death seriously is the key to a life of abundance. He describes what it is like to have believed oneself to have already died and then have life granted as a gift. One who is formerly dead, he says, “opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.”

What a freedom, what a gift—to live as one who has already died and been brought back from death. Why would we hold onto fear, resentment, pride, and guilt when we have been ushered through the brink of life and death by Jesus Christ our Lord.

A saying that has been falsely attributed to Martin Luther states, “if I knew the world was ending tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” Similarly, a Jewish proverb teaches that “if you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to greet him.”

No matter where the thought comes from, I think the notion of planting a tree right before one’s end, or the end of the world, speaks to what life in the resurrection of Jesus is like.

The inevitable matter of death holds no power anymore. The power of Jesus Christ and His resurrection is what matters here.

We are given the chance, not to avoid death at all costs, but to instead live in the resurrected life now. To live in the reality that sin and death’s power has been taken away. The sinner has been given a second chance and the dead have carried on their praises. The dry bones have once again been filled with the breath of life. The debtor now lives in the freedom of having their entire burden erased.

What would that kind of life look like? How would you live, knowing you had already died?

John tells us that after the resurrection, Jesus met his disciples and went fishing—catching a bountiful harvest of 153 fish cooked fresh over a charcoal fire. Sounds like heaven to me.

May you today taste and see a glimpse of the resurrection. May the life of Jesus fill your body. May the gift of new life lighten your step and ease your load.

Rejoice! Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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