Our Lord would have us look forward to death
A sermon preached on Isaiah 65:17-25 by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Sioux Falls, SD on November 17, 2019.
- When we think death is the worst thing that can happen to us
It was a deep but scratchy voice. The scratchy voice whispered, “I suppose I could introduce myself, but there is no need. You already know who I am. Though I must admit I deeply resent the fact that you think I am the worst thing that could happen to you.”
The 25 year old man felt a chill run down his back. It was warm in the dimly lit bathroom, but still he shivered, as he looked for ibuprofen for the headache that had woke him up. He thought it was because of the champagne he had had, celebrating that he had finally paid off his student loans. It had been his top priority. He had skimped, drove an old beater, worked every weekend, including Sunday mornings, to get that thing paid off. It was his top priority. But the very night he had paid off his student loans, Death came. The worst thing that he thought could happen, happened. The headache rose and pounded and filled his brain with blood as he stroked out.
It was God, of course, who had sent Death to give this man his stroke. As Isaiah writes just before our OT Lesson begins, “I am your Lord and King. I will put you to death.” (65:15, NIV Readers Version) This 25 year old had acted like he was his own Lord and King. He had acted like he had the right to set his own priorities, priorities that contradicted God’s, who said, “Seek FIRST (present tense verb, on-going, even as you try to pay off student loans) FIRST my kingdom and righteousness (found in his Word and Sacraments)” (Matt. 6:33) God told the Death to drag him kicking and screaming into hell where he is suffering unimaginable loneliness and physical pain. Forever. But, at least his student loans are paid off.
- When we look forward to death because of Christ
It was a deep but scratchy voice. The scratchy voice whispered, “I suppose I could introduce myself, but there is no need. You already know who I am. Though I must admit I deeply resent the fact that you not only have been looking forward to me, you actually feel confident.”
The 25 year old quadriplegic felt a chill run down her back. In spite of the intense heat, she shivered. It was November 2018, and she lived in a trailer court in Cancow, a small mountain town east of Paradise, California. A forest fire, which would later be called the Camp Fire, was coming fast. She was trapped. She knew she was going to die in her trailer house. Which was OK. But what was not OK was thinking how horrible it would be to die by fire. She was OK with dying. In fact, she had been looking forward to it. She knew her Lord had promised to take her to heaven 5 years ago when she was baptized after her terrible skiing accident, her baptism that connected her to Christ’s death and resurrection, the price of her salvation, hers and ours as well. Since then she had read her Bible from beginning to end twice. She even had some passages memorized, like, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” And as she sat there, waiting for the forest fires to consume her, she was reading her Bible, what else was there to do?, reading from a part of Isaiah that made her long for heaven, “Behold, I will create a new heavens and a new earth…Be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create…I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people, the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.” But right now, there was the sound of weeping and crying. Her own weeping and crying. The fires got closer and heat more intense and the smoke burned her throat raw, she was sobbing, “Dear Jesus! Not death by fire! Not a horrible death by fire! Dear Jesus! have mercy on me, a sinner, have mercy on me, a sinner” she prayed over and over. And then suddenly Death was being shoved out of the way and angels were there. Powerful, soft, very happy angels. And one of them explained, “Our Lord sent us to get you a little bit early, before the fires reach your house.” Suddenly all her weeping and sobbing stopped, she felt a kind of ecstasy which would never stop, and her eyes saw an intensely beautiful place she had heard about in church so often but was seeing for the first time. And it felt like coming home. It was a day she had looked forward to for the past five years.
- Looking forward to my own death
That deep but scratchy voice will whisper in your ear, “I suppose I could introduce myself, but there is no need. You already know who I am.” And which one will you be like, Mr. I Mixed Up My Priorities And Paid Off My Student Loans Instead of Going to Church, the man who thought death was the worst thing that could happen, or will you be like Ms. I Believe And Am Baptized And Read My Bible, the woman who looked forward to death because Jesus won her salvation and promised it to her at your baptism?
You do realize, of course, that Death likes to stay close to you, likes to hang out in the shadows, like a bat. Likes to dart out at unexpected times and shove cars off of winter roads, mutate cells into cancer (like he did to Mike Hayunga whose funeral we will have a week from Saturday), block blood to your heart as you shovel snow, cross the tips of novice skiers as they try a slope that is too steep for their budding skills. And one day Death will dart out from the shadows and get you. And me, too.
Of course, you do realize it will actually be God who sends Death to you. As Isaiah writes, “I am your Lord and King. I will put you to death.” (65:15, NIV Readers Version) And he will rejoice in ordering Death to dump people like you and me into the fiery furnace of hell. Not just because we have sinned. It’s because you have sinned against him one too many times. I know, because I have done the same thing. One too many times. And God will have his vengeance. “Vengeance is mine! I will repay! Saith the Lord.” (Rom. 12:25) When death comes, you and I will permanently experience the terrible truth—dying is not the worst thing that can happen to you; hell is.
But oddly enough, our Lord makes clear here in Isaiah, and elsewhere, that he wants sinners who have sinned against him one too many times to actually look forward to the day of their death. How can that be? Because he took out his vengeance for our sin on his own Son, a bloody and terrible vengeance, so that he would not have to take it out on you and me who deserve it. Now our Lord would have sinners daily repent, daily remember the forgiveness his Son won for them on the cross, daily look forward to death.
Because Jesus, that skilled carpenter, has put hinges on death and made it into a doorway. The doorway to eternal life. Hinges forged in his righteous life, given to you in your baptism; hinges forged in his complete forgiveness proven at his resurrection and given to you in the Absolution, hinges forged in his sacrifice on the cross just for you, given just to you in his Supper.
Our Lord would have sinners who repent and trust in him to look forward to death, your own death. After all, why would we not want to live in a land where everything is fresh and new (after all, our world is getting kind of polluted and messed up, isn’t it), as our text says, “Behold I will create a new heavens (sky) and a new earth.” Why would we not want to live in a land where your bad memories can no longer sneak up and grab you by the throat? “The former things will not be remembered nor will they come to mind.” Why would we not want to live in a place where God is, and you can see him, and when you look in his eye, you will see that he not only likes you, not only loves you, there’s a sparkle because he delights in you who trust in his Son and his Word/Sacraments? “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” As C.S. Lewis once observed “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
Our Lord would have sinners repent and look forward to death, our own death. Not look forward to it too much, lest we be tempted to stop living life and just go through the motions. But also to not look forward to death too little, lest we get your priorities mixed up like Mr. I Paid Off My Student Loans By the Time I Was 25 But Ended Up In Hell.
The first time I saw the movie, “Star Trek: First Contact”, I heard something that has stuck with me to this very day. Worf is captain of the U.S.S. Defiant, and they are in a great battle with the Borg. It is going badly. After taking intense fire, sparks and flames and smoke are everywhere, he barks to the helmsman, “Report!” The helmsman says, “Main power is off line, we’ve lost shields, our weapons are gone!” And Worf says, “Perhaps today is a good day to die!” And that has stuck with me. Perhaps today is a good day to die. While there is no day an unbeliever can say that, it is true every day for the sinner who believes and is baptized. For, as our Savior says, they shall be saved.
And so if today is a good day to die because Christ has secured our salvation and promised it to us at our baptism, then it must be that today is also a good day to live because of that same Christ. So do that. Don’t waste this day, with arguing, self-pity. Live this day, really live it, be absurdly kind, uncommonly generous, large of spirit. Live a life that is truly life, because of Christ. And look forward to the day of your death for the same reason. Amen.