Thoughts on Death and Hope
I. Death is hideous and unnatural.
A British editor named Diana Athill wrote an article called, “It’s Silly to Be Frightened of Being Dead.” She explains how she came to accept death as natural. Its just part of life, she says. “Everything begins…then fades away…Mountains wear down from jagged peaks to flatness. Even planets decay. That natural process is death.” As sentimental as this sounds, it is fundamentally wrong.
There was once a seven-year-old boy whose cousin had died at the age of three. He asked his mother, “Where is my cousin now?” She didn’t believe in God or an afterlife. So she responded, “Your cousin has gone back to the earth from which we all come...When you see the earth put forth new flowers next spring, you can know that it is your cousin’s life that is fertilizing those flowers.” Far from comforted, the boy screamed, “I don’t want him to be fertilizer!”
When we grow up, we get good at rationalizing. We can try to make death look pretty. We can try explaining why it is all just part of the great Circle of Life. It’s easy to say it. It’s easy to intellectualize. But deep in our gut, we all know death for what it is, ugliness and violation.
Jesus Christ did not hang on the cross to teach us that death is natural.
Jesus Christ died and resurrected to defeat death once and for all eternity.
II. Our gospel reading today tells us of the enemies of God.
The Jews and Pharisees had gathered together. Jesus Christ asked them a question: “What do you think of the Messiah?” They murmured for a little while. Then Christ quoted a prophecy from the Book of Psalms.
“The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’” (Matt. 22:44).
He’s quoting from Psalm 101:
“The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’ The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion…You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek” (101:1-2,4).
III. According to legend, there was a great battle between the Persian and Roman armies.
When Shapur, King of the Persians, conquered the Romans, he took their emperor Aurelian captive and would step on his back to mount his steed. The captive become the victor’s footstool. Jesus Christ not only conquers his enemies. He uses his very enemies as a footstool. His enemies become a means for even greater glory.
IV. So who, then, are God’s enemies?
Death is the enemy of God. Death and everything that is part of death: sin, evil, decay, and everything ugly, hateful, and unjust. When Jesus Christ came to the tomb of Lazarus, he wept and groaned (in Greek, enebrimisato). The Greek word more literally suggests he snorted, as an angry horse might snort.
Christ knew his powers. He knew the death was temporary. Yet it angered him still, for what he saw at that tomb was the enemy itself: death.
Ascending the cross, Christ confronted this enemy and he conquered him. “God raised [Christ] from the dead…because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” Death, in its unquenchable lust, was not content to destroy our lives and loves here on earth. It even dared to swallow the Son of God. It took the bait. It swallowed the time bomb, which destroyed him from within. The darkness thought it could consume light itself, but instead, the light proved so bright that every trace of darkness vanished. So St. Paul boasts, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting…Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory.” What does this mean for us? We wait for Christ to finish the work that he has begun. Christ has conquered death.
V. But look around.
We still see death everywhere. We still find death in ourselves, in our times of sadness and loss.
But in Jesus Christ death no longer has the same hue. It was once utterly dark. For the world still, no matter how we may try to paint it or mask it, death is darkness, cold, permanent and unforgiving. But for us in Christ, death is much more like the light outdoors just before dawn. If you look close enough, you can already begin to see the first rays of light. In Christ, there’s even a little sweetness in death, perhaps even peace and joy.
We no longer need to fear death. What was meant to be our annihilation has now been turned into our transformation.
VI. The welsh poet, George Herbert, once wrote: “And in his blessing thou art blest: For where thou [death] onely wert before an executioner at best; Thou art a gard’ner now, and more, an usher to convey our souls beyond the utmost starres and poles.”
Perhaps nothing says this as well as the Luna moth.
It begins as a very ugly larva. It’s fat, covered in sharp hairs, and slugs across the trees. At the right time, the larva boroughs into a cocoon. Nothing could look more like death. A week goes by, and then another or two. The rain pours, the wind blows, and any onlooker would think it was finished. But then out from that cocoon comes the Luna moth, one of the most beautiful wonders in nature. Its wings spread out from three to five inches and it shines a translucent green and purple tint. The Luna has enchanted Americans for generations, just maybe, because it strikes at a truth at the heart of life.
VII. Death is ugly.
Sin, hate, violence and depression…all of these are ugly. You can’t avoid them. You can’t get through life without rubbing shoulders with them or falling head on. Neither can we just put a smile on our faces. We must not pretend that everything is okay or all just part of the cycle of life. It is ugly. It is wrong. This is all the more urgent in a time when so little is stable. The wars, disease, and natural disasters that plague us, the crises in the State, in our city, and in our own homes…these are real. But in Jesus Christ we have a hope, which nothing can take away. It is a hope, not in wishful thinking but grounded deep in the core of who we are.
We rest in His hope. There, nestled in the love of God, we will find peace.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.