Most people, whatever their culture or religion, have a suspicion about ETERNITY. That there’s something MORE than this life. (MORE than what we can see and hear and touch.)
That we’ve been made for something MORE. Something ETERNAL. Something INFINITE.
Most people aren’t CERTAIN about it. But at the same time, there’s a LONGING for it. The writer of Ecclesiastes, in ch 3:11, puts it like this: “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.”
It’s there. Put there by GOD himself. That longing. That hunger. That suspicion.
And every culture and civilisation tries to SATISFY that hunger. To reach out to the eternal or the infinite in some way. That’s basically what RELIGION is. (Spirituality). Reaching out to a god, or gods, of various sorts in various ways. Trying to connect to whatever is OUTSIDE, or BEYOND our experience. To catch a glimpse of the ETERNAL.
It was this UNIVERSAL LONGING that slowly led the writer C S Lewis from Atheism to deism, and eventually to Christianity. In fact, as he wrote about it later in a book called Surprised By Joy, he said it was the HUNGER ITSELF that was a strong argument that there had to be something ETERNAL beyond this world.
Listen to what he said. It’s worth concentrating on.
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. IF I FIND IN MYSELF A DESIRE THAT NO EXPERIENCE IN THIS WORLD CAN SATISFY, THE MOST PROBABLE EXPLANATION IS THAT I WAS MADE FOR ANOTHER WORLD. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that THE UNIVERSE is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never MEANT to satisfy it, but only to AROUSE it, to suggest THE REAL THING. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something ELSE of which they are only a kind of a copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself THE DESIRE FOR MY TRUE COUNTRY, which I shall not find till after death;
I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to THAT OTHER COUNTRY, and to help others to do the same.” CS Lewis, Surprised by joy
And that’s the position of Christianity. That this world is full of lots of good things. And we can find SOME joy and fulfilment here. But this world isn’t ALL THERE IS. And that we’ve been made for A TRUE COUNTRY. An eternal home with GOD.
We can’t see it. But we’ve got a feeling that it’s there. We HOPE for it. LONG for it. Long to be with GOD HIMSELF.
And that longing’s been placed there by God himself. Because that’s our TRUE home. HE’S our true home.
But we’re not there yet. So God’s given us THE ROAD MAP to get us there. To bring us home to GOD. It’s his word, the Bible. He shows us what to expect as we travel. As we pass through death and heaven. And judgment and the new creation. And all that comes in between.
All given to us by the one who INHABITS eternity. God himself. The one who made US for eternity. And the one who sent his Son FROM eternity / into time and space. To die a criminal’s death, then to defeat death. And to win eternity for all those who trust him.
And that’s the point of this series on “Eternity”. So that we can know what to expect. And, ultimately, enjoy the eternity we were designed for.
Today, we’re looking at the FIRST STEP along that road. The doorway EVERYONE has to pass through. Death.
When someone we love dies, it leaves a dull ache. There’s EMPTINESS and LOSS.
Death’s A DARK CLOUD. Blocking out light and joy and purpose. It’s A CRUEL THIEF who, unexpectedly and cruelly, robs you of hope and joy. The HEARTLESS BULLY who pins you down, helpless and despairing.
Wynsten Hugh Auden captures death’s impact beautifully in his poem, Funeral Blues. It describes the despair of losing someone he loves.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
That’s the devastating power death has over us.
(pause) But at the same time, being touched by death can FOCUS you. Clarify your priorities. Help you weigh up what matters, and what doesn’t.
I’ve seen it in the eyes of people attending a funeral. As I stand up the front, next to the coffin of their loved one. And I try to speak what God wants them to hear. You can see them listening carefully to every word. Desperate for some comfort. Some reassurance. Some certainty about where THEY stand when it comes to death. Some certainty about ETERNITY, and how they fit in.
So what DOES God want you to hear, today, about DEATH? What does the Bible say?
Not the way it was designed
The first thing to say is that DEATH ISN’T THE WAY GOD DESIGNED things. Right back in Genesis 2. When God set up Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, he gave them A TREE OF LIFE to eat from. And as long as they ate its fruit, they’d LIVE, and not DIE.
In a perfect relationship with each other, and with God, all in a perfect environment. Forever. That was God’s PLAN.
But God’s plan ALSO included the right for Adam and Eve to MAKE A CHOICE. Gen 2:16.
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.
And most of us know how THAT turned out. The snake tempted them, and they chose to EAT the fruit. And they DID receive the knowledge of good and evil. They knew sin by EXPERIENCE. Knew what it was to choose THEIR way over GOD’S way.
But the SECOND consequence, just like God WARNED, was that they DIED. Not straight away. But the process BEGAN. They were kicked out of the garden, so they couldn’t eat from the tree of life anymore. And so death began its relentless attack. Slowing up, wearing out, running down. Until it wins. Claims its prize. And people STOP. And return to the ground where they came from.
And it’s been the same for every one of Adam’s offspring since. Sometimes we go quickly, sometimes slowly. Sometimes confidently, sometimes kicking and screaming. Sometimes comfortably, sometimes painfully.
But everyone DIES.
Steve Turner, in his poem Death Lib talks about how Death is non-discriminatory.
The liberating thing about death
Is in its fairness to women
its acceptance of blacks,
its special consideration for the sick.
And I like the way
that children aren’t excluded,
homosexuals are welcomed,
and militants aren’t banned.
Con men can’t con it
Thieves can’t nick it
Bullies can’t scare it
Magicians can’t trick it.
Boxers can’t punch it
Nor critics dismiss it…
The thing about dead
Is we’re all gonna be it.
So, you may not particularly LIKE my choice of topic this morning. But you can’t say it’s not RELEVANT. Because there’s no topic MORE relevant to MORE people. I’ve got complete confidence that this topic is relevant for 100% of people listening.
Jesus Defeats Death
And things were no different in Jesus’ time. People still died. And John chapter 11 tells the story of ONE of them. Lazarus, who we’re told was actually one of Jesus’ close friends.
Jesus finds out he’s sick, and even though everyone knows he COULD heal him, he deliberately stays away until Lazarus dies. Because he’s got a lesson to teach people. v11. They’re on their way to Lazarus.
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his DEATH, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
Jesus is raising the level of difficulty. Because he’s come to do more than just fix up illness or disability. He’s come to defeat the greatest enemy of all – DEATH. And what’s about to happen to Lazarus will be the ENTRÉE to something greater that’s coming.
Which is the SECOND thing I want to say about death. That “Jesus defeats death”.
But let’s look at the story. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus’ sister, Martha, says to him, v21, “Lord, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Still, I know God will give you whatever you ask”. She’s still holding out hope.
And Jesus doesn’t disappoint. “Your brother will rise again,” he promises.
Sure, she says. In the resurrection on THE LAST DAY. When EVERYONE is raised to life for judgment and eternity.
But Jesus has something MORE IMMEDIATE in mind. Look at his wonderful words in v25.
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
It’s a wonderful promise. It’s not a promise to somehow escape physical death. It’s a promise that even though someone might DIE, death isn’t the END. He can live into ETERNITY if he trusts the one who conquers death.
That’s his CLAIM. And to PROVE it/ he’s got something incredible in mind for Lazarus. The test-case. The down-payment. The preview.
Lazarus’ OTHER sister, Mary, comes out to meet him with the whole parade of mourners. And the entire mob are sobbing and weeping at the loss and the pain.
And Jesus’ response in v33 is one of my favourite paragraphs in the Bible.
“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was DEEPLY MOVED IN SPIRIT AND TROUBLE. “Where have you laid him? He asked. Come and see Lord,” they replied. JESUS WEPT.
Such a short sentence. But so comforting. He feels our pain. He HATES what death does. How it’s impacted the world. It was never meant to BE like this. And ONE day, it won’t be AGAIN.
And so he’s going to do something about it. For Lazarus. For Mary and Martha. But also FOR OUR SAKE. For those of us eavesdropping in on the conversation centuries later.
Because what Jesus does for LAZARUS/ is a demonstration of what he promises for ALL who trust him. Remember what he promised?
He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and WHOEVER lives and believes in me will never die.”
And Lazarus is the PROOF. The proof of Jesus’ POWER. Just as his TEARS are the PROOF of his compassion.
They go to the tomb. “Take away the stone,” says Jesus. And when they do, Jesus prays, then calls out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
We’re not sure why it’s a loud voice, but I guess wherever Lazarus was/ it needed to be loud to get his attention. Then look in v44 at what happened.
“The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped in strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy.
“Take off the grave clothes, says Jesus, and LET HIM GO.
LET HIM GO. Set him FREE from the hold of death. Jesus can SAY it because he’s got the authority. He’s the DELIVERER. And he says it for anyone who trusts in him.
Let him GO. This one trusts in me.
Let him GO. Death has no hold on this one.
Let him GO. The fear and the pain and the loss are finished.
Let him GO.
When to Die is Gain
And it’s this perspective ALL Christians can have. It’s what sets a Christian funeral apart. Of course there’s sadness and pain and loss. But there’s HOPE and JOY and FAITH.
And that’s the 3rd thing I want to say. When you’ve got THIS sort of perspective about death, it’s possible to say, with the Apostle Paul, that TO DIE IS GAIN.
We’re looking at his letter to the Philippians. Ch 1 v20. He’s writing from prison. And there’s every chance he’s going to be KILLED. And as he thinks about the future, he has THIS to say. V20.
20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have SUFFICIENT COURAGE so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, WHETHER BY LIFE OR BY DEATH.
He’s not FOOLHARDY. He’s SCARED about the prospect of dying. So he prays for COURAGE whatever the future holds. Whether it’s life or death. Whatever happens, he wants Jesus to be honoured in his responses.
How often do YOU pray that sort of thing? That Christ will be exalted in WHATEVER life brings. Even your death.
But here’s what’s DISTINCTIVE for the Christian. V21.
21 For to me, to live is Christ and TO DIE IS GAIN.
His whole life is summed up in exalting Christ. To live IS Christ. But that’s not all. To die is GAIN. Life is GOOD. But to DIE is BETTER.
It’s an extraordinary thing to say! He weighs up the two options.
22 If I am to go on LIVING in the body, this will mean FRUITFUL LABOR for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two:(he can’t decide) I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is BETTER BY FAR (for ME); 24 but it is more necessary for YOU that I remain in the body.
From his point of view, it’s only positives when he thinks about the chance of dying. Being with Christ. The end of pain. The start of eternity. Paradise.
But in the end he realises he can make more difference on earth for heaven’s sake. So, he’s content to remain on earth until God’s time is up.
Imagine that! Seriously weighing up the options of dying or living. It’s only Paul’s servant-heart that makes him content to stay.
Christians need not FEAR death.
But Paul’s not being blasé and flippant about death either. Some people think it’s almost sinful for a Christian to be SAD when another Christian dies. Like a Christian funeral should be a PARTY.
But that’s not Paul’s position. Death is CRUEL. It’s PAINFUL. It’s AWFUL. There’s loneliness and separation. Down at the end of ch 2. He’s talking about his friend Epaphroditus. Who was so sick he nearly DIED. And look at Paul’s response. V27. He wasn’t throwing a PARTY at the prospect.
27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare ME SORROW UPON SORROW.
The loss of death is PAINFUL. It’s TRAGIC. Even for the Christian.
But at the same time, for the Christian who dies, it’s GAIN.
Not the way it WILL be.
That’s the third point. And the fourth and final thing I want to say is this. Death is not the way it WILL be. God’s plan is that ONE DAY death will finally be defeated. Not just by Jesus. Not just the hope and promise and expectation of defeat. Not just SPIRITUAL death – PHYSICAL death TOO. The complete and utter and eternal defeat of death. The final enemy.
I want to finish with a quick glance at a passage we’ll come back to more than once before the series is over. Revelation 21. Describing eternity. When the dividing wall between heaven and earth is gone. When God and his new humanity live together. In a new heaven and a new earth. And in v4 it says.
4 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.”
At the MOMENT, we’re living in the OLD order. Where there IS crying and mourning and pain. And DEATH. Even for Christians.
But Christians long for that day. Trusting in Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. And so they hope for LIFE, even though they DIE.
As YOU think about death. Perhaps as you go to your next funeral. How will you approach it? Will you use it to reflect on your own mortality? On your own trust in Jesus, or lack of trust?
Or will you suffer from death attention deficit disorder (death A.D.D.)? Will you be like those people at the funerals I take. Death catches their attention for a moment, but then something else quickly distracts them.
And the moment is GONE.
Or will you consider death? And cling to JESUS? The one in whom there IS life and hope and joy. So that you can say that to DIE is GAIN. It’s BETTER by far to die and be with Christ.