September 11th, 2001. A date that everyone here knows. A date that we as Americans will always know, even the generations after us will know, because of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It’s the same reason everyone knows “the date that will live in infamy”—December 7, 1941 because…? Right, the attack on Pearl Harbor.
These events are a big deal to us as a nation because we do not get attacked on our own soil very often. By and large, at least from outside threats, we live in a pretty safe country. Other countries in our world are pretty much at war with each other on a regular basis, and sadly, events like this are more commonplace in those countries. According to the Christian Science Monitor, only 1 in 3.5 million people in America have died from a terrorist attack. 1 in 3.5 MILLION. That’s incredibly rare. So here in America, when something like this happens, it’s SO rare that we are shocked into remembering these dates that will live in infamy.
These tragic events also remind us that death happens, sometimes senselessly. When you turn on the news, what kind of stories do you usually see…? Murders. Terrorist attacks. People dying in natural disasters. People dying in wars. Death is almost always the headliner. In my “News Media in America” class in college, I learned the phrase that most news journalists learn very quickly in the biz: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
And even though we hear about it in the media constantly, we avoid death like the plague. Even in the best circumstances, we don’t like to deal with death. We don’t like to talk about it, or even think about it. We usually go out of our way to avoid it. We use phrases like “he passed away”, “she passed on” “so-and-so is gone” or “so-and-so is no longer with us”, just so we don’t have to use the word “died.”
Because, although death happens to everyone eventually, we don’t like to acknowledge the fact that those we love and even ourselves at some point will die.
As Woody Allen once said: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Why do we avoid dealing with death? I think it’s mostly because this is all we know. We have only lived in this world, so far. We don’t really know what happens when we die. If asked, we would say that when someone dies, if they are a believer they go to be with Jesus, but what does that actually look like? What does it actually feel like to die? We don’t know. And no one who’s died can tell us because, well, they’re dead. And when we are unsure of something, how do we usually react…?
Fear. Most of us, whether we admit it or not, are scared of death. We are scared of things relating to death, and we are scared to die.
Some fear of death is healthy—it helps us to make good decisions. If we weren’t afraid of death, we would be doing things like sky diving without checking the parachute pack, or running in front of cars with our friends just to see who stays alive. In short, if we weren’t afraid of death, we would be doing stupid stuff on a regular basis that would eventually kill us.
But fear of death can also be unhealthy. It can stop us from taking some healthy risks that would actually be good for us. It can stop us from doing things and having conversations that should happen. Just a few examples of things we don’t do because we are scared of thinking and talking about death, but should do: writing a will, having life insurance, making plans for the care of loved ones when we die. Our fear of death can actually keep us from doing things that are important and need to be done.
Another way we sometimes deal with our discomfort about death is humor. Laughing. Sounds really inappropriate, but many times the things we are uncomfortable with end up as topics of jokes.
Marvin was in the hospital on his death bed. The family called Marvin’s pastor to be with him in his final moments. As the pastor stood by the bed, Marvin’s condition seemed to deteriorate, and Marvin motioned for someone to quickly pass him a pen and paper. The pastor quickly got a pen and paper and lovingly handed it to Marvin. But before she had a chance to read the note, Marvin died. The pastor, feeling that now wasn’t the right time to read it, put the note in her pants pocket.
It was at the funeral while speaking that the pastor suddenly remembered the note. Reaching deep into her pocket (apparently she hadn’t washed her pants in the days in between), the pastor said “and you know what, I suddenly remembered that right before Marvin died he handed me a note, and knowing Marvin I’m sure it was something inspiring that we can all gain from.” With that introduction she pulled out the note and opened it.
The note said “HEY, YOU ARE STANDING ON MY OXYGEN TUBE!”
See? Death can be amusing. We usually call it “dark humor.”
The thing is, though, no matter how much we remind ourselves that death is a part of life, and no matter how many jokes we tell about death, there is still that uneasiness about death. We are still afraid of death.
This isn’t new. People throughout all of history have been afraid of death. People in Jesus’ time were afraid of death. Jesus knew this. Jesus also knew that people needed to hear the Good News that death isn’t the end of the story.
Jesus tells us this many times in Scripture, and our Gospel reading from John is one of those times. Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them from my hand.”
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”
Now, clearly, Jesus doesn’t mean that we will live forever in our earthly lives. That we know. We know that someday, we will stop breathing, our heart will stop beating, and we will no longer be alive.
But Jesus is talking about a different type of life. Jesus is telling us that, although we will die here on earth, those who have faith in him will continue to be alive, in eternal life. Because he died for us on the cross, and was raised from the dead, we are able to share in Jesus’ resurrection when we die-- and we will have eternal life with Jesus. Forever.
The author of the Book of Hebrews in the Bible also says something that’s really amazing. I’m going to read The Message version. This is Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 14 and 15: “Since [God’s] children are flesh and blood, it’s logical that the Savior took on flesh and blood to rescue them by his death. By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil’s hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death.”
So although death is inevitable, it does not have the last word. Jesus has destroyed Satan’s hold on death, and has freed us from being afraid of death.
We no longer have to be scared of death—we know that, no matter what happens, we will be with Jesus. Jesus has conquered death by being raised from the dead, and we, too, will be raised to be with him. Jesus is the one who offers us this eternal life, this resurrection, this life after death in which we will be held in his love always and forever.
A few days before his death, Dr. F. B. Meyer wrote a very close friend these words: "I have just heard, to my great surprise, that I have but a few days to live. It may be that before this reaches you, I shall have entered the palace. Don't trouble to write. We shall meet in the morning."
We, too, will meet our loved ones “in the morning”, when we die. We will see those who have died before us. When we are raised to eternal life with Jesus, we will see all those beloved family members and friends who we miss. I know that someday, when I die, I will see my son Gideon again. He is with Jesus now, and when I go home to be with Jesus, I will be with Gideon too.
And when we do eventually go home to be with Jesus, we will be able to be with God fully and completely. We will have no pain, no discomfort. All will be perfect.
I’m going to end with the last three verses of the passage from Revelation that we read today. The words describe what we have to look forward to when we die and are brought to eternal life, when God brings the new heaven and new earth to us. And when reading it, I’m actually going to change the pronouns “they”, “their,” and “them”, to the pronouns that describe us: “we” “our” and “us”-- because John is talking about us and our future with God in Christ Jesus. Listen to the amazing promise God has for us when we die:
For this reason we are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter us.
16 We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike us,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb [that’s Jesus] at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”