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.

You Are Set Free (a sermon)

This sermon was written in April 2017 for a Homiletics course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This sermon is the root of the later sermon “Set Free from the Contagion,” delivered at the begining of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was inspired to share this sermon after reading chapter 3 of my seminary homiletics professor L. Roger Owens’ new book, “Everyday Contemplative: The Way of Prayerful Living.” This text is one of the suggested texts for sacred reading. If you are looking for a spiritual refresh, I highly commend his book to you.

Luke 13:10–17

When we hear the words of Scripture, it is easy for us to assume that we are hearing a word from a long time ago in a world very different from 21st century North America. It’s true, our present context is far removed from the synagogue where Jesus healed this unnamed woman from her ailment. When we see someone who is disabled, we do not assume that their ailment was caused by an evil spirit. Yet, in the world of our text, it was assumed that anything negative was caused by Satan and everything good came from God. Or, consider Jesus’s response to the synagogue leader. None of us have donkeys or oxen. What could this ancient text possibly have to say to us today?

The most challenging question for me when I read a miracle account in the Gospels is, “why has God stopped performing grand miracles like these in our midst?” There are many today who are in bondage, physically or spiritually, who need Jesus’s healing power. Where is Jesus today? What is he doing?

The theological and practical questions of this text may cause our minds to wander as we hear from the Gospel this afternoon. We are, after all, seminary students who have been trained to ask difficult questions and exhaust a text of all its possible meanings. Yet, what if we set those questions aside for a moment and imagined ourselves as part of the story? What if we had gathered with the people of God on that Sabbath all those years ago?

Which character in the story would we be?

We might imagine ourselves as the leader of the synagogue. All of us are, in one way or another, religious leaders who are keepers of the faith and representatives of the church. We have many different roles as church leaders, and sometimes our role is to interject when something is happening out of order and say, “wait a minute, I think our church policies require that we do things differently.” Serving as a United Methodist pastor, I turn to the denomination’s Book of Discipline to make sure the local church follows the policies that they have covenanted to follow. Sometimes those rules are unpopular. Individuals would rather do things their own way. Like the synagogue leader, it is sometimes my role to correct well-meaning people who are unaware of the rules. Other times, it is the role of a colleague or supervisor to correct me regarding rules or guidelines I have neglected.

Most of the time, the rules we have are good! They help protect us against a whole host of problems. Even more importantly, the rules the synagogue leader was referencing had come directly from God. He was not quoting mere human rules and regulations, but the very law of God. In Deuteronomy 5, Moses gathered the people and told them what God requires of them, saying “observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” Perhaps we can understand the synagogue leader’s point. “Any other day would be suitable for healing, but our Scriptures and denominational regulations prohibit healing on the Sabbath,” we might say. “Come back tomorrow.”

Yet, perhaps we don’t think of ourselves as the synagogue leader because we know better. We know that the point of the Sabbath was not to restrict the power of God to heal, nor was it merely given as a prohibition of work. Sabbath is a wonderful gift from God! In Egypt, the people of God were slaves who had to endure continual work without rest, but in the Sabbath God had given them rest. God had delivered them from the shackles of evil into a new day of abundant life, joy, and peace. How fitting would it be for Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, to liberate this woman who had been in bondage for eighteen years on the Sabbath? How wonderful it was for him to provide this woman with a reason to praise her God on the day of rest and liberation!

See, we know better than to ignore the person who is suffering right in front of us. Surely, we would not tell anyone, let alone Jesus, to cease doing good works on the Sabbath. After all, we live under grace, not under the law. Yet, we might label other people as the Sabbath leader—those who we think focus too much on regulations and not enough on the grace of God. Perhaps we look at those in holiness churches who are strict Sabbatarians with contempt. “They are like the synagogue leader,” we might say. “They don’t understand the point of the Sabbath. But we are more like Jesus in this story: proclaiming a message of liberation in both word and deed.”

We have good reason to follow Jesus’s example as we serve as ministers of the Gospel and ambassadors for Christ. In the sending of the seventy in Luke 10, Jesus sent out his followers to proclaim peace and heal the sick. In the great commission of Matthew 28, Jesus gave authority to his disciples that they might live out his teaching. And in John 14, Jesus told his disciples that “whoever believes in me will do the works that I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.” We see these texts as commandments, not just to Jesus’s first followers, but to us. We long to embody the oft-repeated saying that we are “the hands and feet of Christ” in the world.

We easily identify with Jesus in this story. We don’t just denounce the legalists who get in the way of the Gospel, but we want to liberate others from whatever holds them in bondage. Granted, we might not have the supernatural power Jesus had to heal the sick or lift up and straighten the woman who was bent over for eighteen years, but there are things we can do.

We might not perform supernatural miracles, but we can engage in works of justice and righteousness so that both invisible and visible chains of bondage are broken and walls are torn down. We might be increasingly frustrated with the church’s complacency and restfulness in the face of injustice and oppression. We long for people to rise up and act, rather than just sitting in the pews, singing the same old songs and hearing the same old word. We want to be like Jesus and we want others to follow us.

Oh, how much good work there is to be done! We busily scurry around trying to help as many people as we can. There aren’t just people to heal, but sermons to preach, and committee meetings to attend. How good it feels to us when we are finally able to see the bonds of evil broken and the joy on someone’s face as they worship God. There’s so much work to be done—the mission field is endless—that there’s not enough time for us to rest, to take a Sabbath, and to hear the word for ourselves.

We might, on our best days, do a good job of following Jesus. We might even, on occasion, be able to put aside our inner-synagogue leader who prioritizes policies over people. But when Jesus sees us, he sees the woman who is in bondage, hunched over for eighteen years. When Jesus sees us, he sees a child who needs to be set free from the pursuit of accomplishment and self-righteousness. When Jesus sees us in the crowd of the faithful gathered in worship, he invites us forward, he lays his hands on us, and immediately we are set free to stand up and praise our God.

When we rush to go out and follow Jesus in healing the sick and freeing people from bondage, we might just forget that we need saving too. We might set off on our mission of liberation only to realize that there’s something holding us back in bondage.

Friends, more than anyone else in this story, we are like the woman who needed to be set free from her ailment. We are beloved sons and daughters of Abraham. We are children of the living God. And in this moment of gathering to hear the word, we have done what she did. We have faithfully come to hear the word of Jesus. We have taken our place in the crowd, expecting the same old thing, but hoping that this Jesus might have something new to teach us. We simply showed up for this moment of Sabbath, as we always do. And as we have taken our place in the crowd to hear the word, Jesus has called us over to himself, laid his hands on us, and set us free.

Miracles of healing and deliverance do still happen today. And they happen when we faithfully show up in the worshipping community to hear a word. They happen because Jesus has come in our midst to set us free.

Thanks be to God. Amen.