Skip to comments.The Rev. Samuel Edwards: "Last Things First: Death"
Posted on 12/09/2006 8:35:11 AM PST by sionnsar
From what I understand it has been the tradition of the Church to preach on "The Four Last Things" during Advent: death, judgment, heaven and hell. And this is indeed what the messages to be preached by the Rev. Samuel Edwards of the Anglican Church of the Holy Comforter in Alabama will be based on. His first sermon in this series is "Last Things First: Death" which follows:
Sermon on the First Sunday in Advent (2006)If we were to remember that "no man knoweth the day or the hour" and shape our lives accordingly, how many of us would live better lives? May God help us to indeed be "diligent that we may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless."
Last Things First: Death
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
In our end is our beginning. The Christian year seems to begin at the end, to put last things first. That this seems so odd to most people, even most Christian people, is a testimony to how far the worldly view of history has influenced our world. Most people, at least by implication, think that all history is, is one damned thing after another a succession of events with no particular goal or purpose or destination or conclusion. This is not a biblical view. It is not a view that fits with any of the three primary monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Only some pagans and atheists can take such a view and be consistent with their religious principles.
The Christian faith, it is rightly said, is one that takes history seriously. The faith is so firmly grounded in the mighty acts of God that it cannot really exist if these are not taken into account. To ignore what God has done in history is to ignore God and to deprive ourselves of the ability to see what he is doing now. If we ignore the past, we cannot live effectively in the present. Most people would agree with that, but there is an additional truth, which is that we cannot live effectively in the present if we do not take the future into account. In our end is our beginning.
This is why the church begins her year by putting us in mind of the last things. That is her primary intention in the Advent season. To restrict Advents meaning to a memorial consideration of the Old Testament preparation for the coming of Jesus the Messiah is to miss at least half of the seasons significance. In fact it is to miss at least half the significance of the Old Testament itself. Yet in many places not only in liberal mainstream denominations, but in self-advertised conservative churches as well that is exactly what has happened. This is a species of denial, and it is spiritually dangerous for us, for if we do not keep our end in mind if we do not take into account Gods purpose for us then we are very unlikely, at best, to attain to it. Our avoidance of thinking about death, judgment, hell, and heaven is not going to deliver us from having to confront them, any more than not going to the doctor about chest pain or shortness of breath is going to prevent us from having heart disease. (There is a difference, of course, which is that until diagnosed our disease is only a possibility, while the last things are a certainty.) If we confront the certainty of our death, our judgment, and our eternal destination, we will be able to walk as children of light rather than sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. And so it is to this first of the last things that we now turn.
Death is an unavoidable reality, try as we might to avoid the thought of it. Scripture does not avoid it: A quick computer search of the King James text of the Bible reveals that words that translate into English as death occur 221 times in the Old Testament and 125 times in the New (for a total of 346), and that words rendered as die occur 432 times in the Old Testament and 78 in the New (for a total of 510).
What does the Bible say about death? Among other things, it tells us that:
Death is the consequence of sin: By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. [Romans 5:12]
Death is inevitable: It is appointed to men once to die . [Hebrews 9:27]
This mortality includes, not just people, plants, and animals, but everything in the physical universe: I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away [Revelation 21:1]
This is basic biblical doctrine, to which Christians profess adherence, yet many Christians are no different than most other people in that they avoid dealing with the thought that some day not only they, but everyone and every thing they know is going to be dissolved. This avoidance is surely understandable, but it is just as surely not excusable, because it has a definite effect on the way we live our lives, not just as individuals, but as persons in society with other persons.
We know in our inmost selves it is true: Even the death-avoider lives under deaths shadow. Indeed, he lives more under deaths shadow than anyone else, for he is furthest from the light of truth. He knows the truth of this matter, but instead of accepting it, he resents it. He further resents or avoids anyone who reminds him it is going to happen to him, whether that person be his physician, his spouse, his friend, his pastor. At bottom his is a resentment against God, who is going to let it happen to him, who is not going to make an exception for him.
The denial of death leads to an inability to grow in faith, in hope, and in charity, for it is a denial of the truth, without which none of these virtues can grow. The death-avoider makes himself susceptible to more lies about other aspects of reality. His will to do good becomes paralyzed. He becomes increasingly unable to pray, especially for the divine grace of perseverance (faithfulness unto death). He may begin to exempt himself from the moral law as well.
He begins to see every change as a species of death (which is partly true, but only partly) and uncritically to resist it. What is, or has been, he holds onto with such a tight and anxious grip that inevitably it will be strangled and he thus will have become the agent of the fulfillment of his greatest fear.
Or he may even try to make some sort of covenant with death the sort of deal with the devil that Winston Churchill once characterized as feeding the crocodile hoping that it will eat you last. He hopes that by becoming deaths ally, even its agent, he will be exempted from its touch. This is really the dark root of the easeful death school of romanticized paganism and it goes along with a life-denying, dualistic worldview that easily accommodates human sacrifice in its various forms. But death has no friends and seeks none and desires but to consume all in nothingness.
Again, the Bible is quite clear about all this:
Death is the enemy of man: The last enemy to be destroyed is death [1Corinthians 15:26]
But Holy Scripture is equally clear that death is not the last word for the faithful:
Death can be defeated, but not by us: [Christ comes to] give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death [Luke 1:79]
Death has power, but is overcome by Christs passage through it: O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1Corinthians 15:55-57]
Because of Christs victory, a hole has been punched through death, which if we let him carry us through, leads to our fulfillment in God: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. For this corruptible [body] must put on incorruption, and this mortal [body] must put on immortality. [1 Corinthians 15:50, 51, 53]
These are liberating words, for they blow up the lie that keeps people sitting in darkness under the shadow of death, which is that there is nothing for us but the sort of life we now have that what we have now is really all there is, that it is an end in itself, and that the best we can hope for is a continuation of it in some form or other. The truth that sets us free from this lie is that what we now are going through is a preparation, not for more of the same, but for something indescribably better and more suited to what we are meant to be. We shall be changed.
To be sure, death is really unavoidable, for each of us and for all that is ours. It will come, and we know not our time. As Saint Peter writes, The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and works that are therein shall be burned up. [2 Peter 3:10] But he then goes on to say that the acknowledgement of this has a positive consequence for us right now: Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness? Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless. [vv. 11, 14]
The person who looks to his end knows how he should begin, and how he should continue. He knows that everything he has, down to the smallest breath, is a gift and that the best use of that gift is giving praise to the Gift-giver, the Lord and Giver of Life, who transforms what we willingly offer for our good and that of all his faithful people, and who by his death has brought death low and has purchased to us life everlasting.
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