We are here today to commemorate the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s the kind of thing you say at a funeral, isn’t it?
There’s a strange relationship between life and death. They are opposites, like hot and cold, left and right, dark and light. But even though they’re opposites, they’re always close by, right near each other. You can’t live very long without encountering death.
Sometimes our encounters with death are weird and even kind of funny. I’ll never forget the first time I accidentally ran over a squirrel with my car. It wasn’t my fault! He ran right out in front of me! I felt sick, literally nauseous, for the rest of the day. I think I even called my mom and cried.
Sometimes death has a unique way of making us thankful. I’ve experienced that when hunting, or even when shopping at the grocery store. It’s a strange truth that in order for us to live, something else must die.
One of the more common reactions to encountering death is feelings of guilt and regret. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought: Oh no, I should’ve stopped by to see them again! Why didn’t I call them one more time?… I don’t know why I seem to always feel that way. Guilt is such a strange reaction to encountering death, but it’s common.
I felt guilty when my grandmother died. What made it so bad was that I didn’t feel sad. She had Alzheimer’s and was on a downward slope for years. I felt more relief than anything, which in turn made me feel guilty for not feeling sad. I later realized that I didn’t need to feel guilty because I had already mourned her.
The longer we live, the more we see that life and death are always close to each other. They live right next door to each other and they wave daily as they go out to get the morning paper.
Like I said, encounters with death can sometimes make us thankful or even be kind of funny. But far more often they are confusing and disorienting. We instinctively know that death means something is wrong. We automatically recoil and flee. We often say things to each other like, “Thank God everyone was OK! I’m so glad it didn’t turn out worse.”
Death nearly always feels unjust, like something was unjustly stolen away from us. Because something was stolen away. Death is a thief that finds us all. Even Jesus.
The story of Jesus can be summarized like this: The God who made us, the one who gave us life, has entered into our space, our life, the whole human experience. He shrunk himself down, took on gills, and dove into our aquarium.
His primary goal in doing so was not to teach us how to be good fishes and do the right thing. Rather, he became one of us to face what we face, all the fears and challenges; to embrace our guilt and shame in the face of death; and to repair the rift between life and death, once and for all.
From the beginning, Jesus knew exactly where his life was headed. He predicted all of it: that he would be arrested and by whom; that he would be tried and convicted; that he would be executed on a cross and buried for three days. He told friends and followers about all those things beforehand, on several different occasions.
Given that he knew all of that, consider the readings from Matthew’s Gospel you’ve heard this evening (Matthew 26.36-27.56), and notice what Jesus did in the face of it all. Facing all that he faced, Jesus chose to go anyway. The eternal Son of God somehow made himself vulnerable to human whips, chains, and even death. He knowingly walked into the tornado. He did not fight it; he embraced it.
Sure, he went into it all with fear and trembling. With all that was about to happen to him, how could he not? He prayed that if there was any other way, he could do that instead. Meanwhile he was sweating and even bleeding with fear. Yet he never wavered or changed course. He walked right into the tornado.
That’s something so different and unexpected. I mean, if you knew you were going to be arrested, would you have entered Jerusalem? If you were on trial, would say nothing? If you were being unjustly executed, would you be more concerned with God’s silence than the crowd’s mockery and condemnation?
Not one of us would choose to endure what he went through. We would do anything we could to avoid it. But he did the exact opposite of what anyone would have expected. He willingly embraced it all. He walked right into the tornado.
If you are not a Christian, I hope you’ll hear Matthew’s account of Jesus’s last days and think: this is something unusual. Who would choose this and why? I hope you’ll continue to investigate the person of Jesus Christ. Come back on Easter and hear how he addresses the uncomfortably close proximity between life and death.
If you are a Christian, then you’ve heard these stories before. It’s always a challenge to hear old things in new ways. I hope that in these next couple days, in the darkness before the dawn, you will consider how to translate Jesus’s last days into your own.
Because we are walking toward our last days too. Unlike Jesus, we can’t see exactly what lies ahead. But we’ve all lived long enough to know that our last days are likely to be challenging.
Last December, the well known writer and radio broadcaster, R. C. Sproul, died. He once wrote this:
I recently heard a young Christian remark, “I have no fear of dying.” When I heard this comment I thought to myself, “I wish I could say that.”
I am not afraid of death. I believe that death for the Christian is a glorious transition to heaven. I am not afraid of going to heaven. It’s the process that frightens me. I don’t know by what means I will die. It may be via a process of suffering, and that frightens me.
I know that even this shouldn’t frighten me. There are lots of things that frighten me that I shouldn’t let frighten me. The Scripture declares that perfect love casts out fear. But love is still imperfect, and fear hangs around.
I would guess that most of us feel similarly. But despite all fear, Jesus calls us to press forward. We are to follow him through both life and death, to embrace them as he did, and to see how he has forever altered their relationship.
Paul the Apostle called death the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15.26) and asked, who will deliver me from it? (Romans 7.24) Another quote from R. C. Sproul puts it well:
When we close our eyes in death, we do not cease to be alive; rather, we experience a continuation of personal consciousness. No person is more conscious, more aware, and more alert than when he passes through the veil from this world into the next. Far from falling asleep, we are awakened to glory in all of its significance.
For the believer, death does not have the last word. Death has surrendered to the conquering power of [Christ].