HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
May 28, 2017
John 11: 17-26 (CEB)
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
23Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. 26Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
We have spent the last several weeks considering fear. We’ve talked about some of our most common fears like the fear of failure and fear of others, and we’ve explored Biblical teachings that can guide us in overcoming those fears. But we’ve also talked about the fact that there is a healthy degree of fear, including a “fear of the Lord,” which really means respect. As we come this morning to our fears around aging and death, I just want to spend a minute again on this matter of “fear of the Lord.”
Indeed, when we think about God, it might instill in us a sense of fear; to think of God’s power, God’s judgment. To consider only of the wrathful images of God depicted in the Bible can indeed be scary. There was a preacher and theologian in the 1700s named Jonathan Edwards, who is best known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” When anger and wrath and judgment are the traits we assign to God, then it is only natural that we would be afraid of God. But what we have to remember is that God’s greatest self-revelation was in the person of Jesus Christ who wasn’t angry or vengeful, but instead full of love and compassion. In fact, Jesus Christ is a clear testament to the fact that God’s defining characteristic is love. And because God is a God of love, there is no reason to be afraid of God. Instead, the “fear of the Lord” should lead to life! As we heard Jesus instructing Martha just a few moments ago, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Christ not only taught that, he also showed that! And if God is life, if God is greater than death (as Christ showed us), then why should we fear death? Yet we do fear death, don’t we? And often with that fear is coupled a fear of aging or growing old, which is also closely tied to a fear of sickness. So these are the matters we are going to deal with today; our fears of sickness, aging, and death.
You know, one of the defining marks of a Christian is the belief that Jesus was crucified, buried, and then resurrected. We DO believe that God in Christ Jesus has conquered even death, and yet most (if not all) of us still fear death. So as we think about our fears around aging and death, I think it’s important to understand WHY we have these fears. And, truly, the reasons are many. We may fear aging and death because we feel as if our lives have been irrelevant; that we will leave this earth having not made a difference in people’s lives and in the world—making it a better place. We may fear death because too often it takes people from us far too soon—like the fallen soldiers we remember this Memorial Day weekend, or the children who died in the attack in Manchester this week. We might fear death because we are concerned for those we leave behind. Those are just a few of many reasons we might legitimately fear death, and with it sickness and aging. So as we think about how we face these fears, we are going to take them one at a time.
Let’s start with our fear of sickness, which, we all know can strike long before we reach our later years. The truth is, we fear sickness for many of the same reasons that we fear death. But in the modern world, those fears are fed in a variety of ways, which makes us even more afraid of sickness. For one thing, we have become very health-conscious in modern-times. We have lots of research about eating healthy, we are encouraged if not downright forced to have annual physicals, we wear activity monitors, and so on. Whereas people used to have no choice but to succumb to their illness, we now have a plethora of ways to find out if we might be sick, and then to be treated for whatever illness we might have. In fact, the practice of medicine has become so accessible that we can get online, type in our symptoms and diagnose ourselves in a matter of moments. I ran across a funny meme this week. It was the Google logo, and the caption said, “Google: Creating hypochondriacs since 1998.”
Then there’s statistics…we have statistics for all things health-related these days; what will increase your risk of acquiring certain illness or diseases, what will decrease your chances of acquiring those same illnesses or diseases. For example, did you know that 15% of men will die from cancer? Those are the sort of statistics that grab our attention and cause us fear related to sickness. But what we don’t remember is that means that 85% of men WON’T die from cancer. And if you take out the non-smokers that statistic of those who won’t die from cancer goes even higher! With all the information fed to us about health and sickness, it is no wonder that we have fears surrounding illness, but how do we deal with those fears? Perhaps the best thing is to simply focus on the present and be mindful of God. To a great degree our fear of sickness emerges because we are drawn in by the statistics, or WebMD, or whatever, and we begin to imagine a future that never really happens. Rather than getting caught up in the fear of an imagined future, we must focus on God in the present. God who is our healer, our strength, our life. That means praying to God, and serving God, and centering our lives on God.
But what about our fear of aging, of growing old? Because that is really a different matter from sickness where our fear often grows from imagined scenarios. There’s no imagining about growing old; it is a fact of life. So our fear of aging is a little different. Aside from illness, we might fear loneliness, unhappiness, missing out on life, or becoming irrelevant. So what do we need to know about these fears, and how do we face the inevitably of aging with courage and hope? Well, to start with, this is one case where statistics offer some hope. A recent study of happiness showed that people in their 80s and above self-reported higher relative happiness than 18-21 year olds. We can speculate about why this is, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that in the empty-nest and retirement years, we are free to do what God created us to do all along. Despite our fears, this brings meaning and purpose to our lives, and we find that our lives can be fuller than we imagined. We can use our God-given gifts to serve God in ways that bring joy and happiness not only to us, but to the world. Just look at the Biblical witness of this truth. So many of the great heroes of the Bible are in their senior adult years; Abraham and Sarah stand out as the greatest example. So aging is not something to be feared, but an opportunity for us to bring meaning and purpose to our lives in ways we weren’t able to before, and thus to truly experience the abundance of life in God.
Which brings us to death, probably one of our greatest fears of all. I think we fear death because of the unknown. Despite our belief in Christ and eternal life with God, we still wonder, “What happens when I die?” I think we also fear death because of our attachment to people and to things here on earth. Just a few weeks ago, I was talking to Ken about this sermon series, and one of the things I said to him is that I fear death, but not because of the unknown. I fear death because I worry about the people I would leave behind; Ken, and Mary Ellen, and Owen most of all. It’s not that I’m some amazing person and I’m afraid of dying because I feel like they need me. But it is that bond we form with family and friends, and we know life is different if those bonds are broken, especially by something as permanent as death. I imagine many of you have similar fears or worries surrounding death.
But here’s the thing; as Christians we declare that death is not the end. In fact, this is central to who we are as disciples of Christ. We heard Jesus’ declaration to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And earlier in the service, we heard the question Paul raised in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” Even death, Paul says, is “swallowed up in victory.” Easter, Christ’s resurrection from the dead, was God’s way of showing us that we don’t have to be afraid of death. We follow a risen Lord, and that means that even death is not the end for us. In fact, God’s promise in Christ Jesus is that the life to come is even greater than our present life. Paul tells us that our mortal bodies will be clothed in immortality. In other words, all that is frail and flawed about us will be transformed by God in Christ Jesus to something majestic and perfect! There’s no more suffering, or sorrow, or pain; everything that is old passes away and the new comes! And Christ teaches us that he is going to prepare a place for us, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever! Our God is strong enough to transform us and welcome us home, the place for which we were made.
These are the promises of Christian life; a life that is eternal! These are the truths we must cling to and have faith in because what we believe about death changes the way we live life. Belief in the promises of God can quell our greatest fears and give us hope for this life and the life to come. Faith is not just believing this, but counting on it.
Friends, there is much in this life we don’t need to fear, irrational fears that rob us of abundant life in Christ. But when we have a fear of the Lord, we can understand our purpose and who we are. We can trust that God is. We can live in the present and watch for God every day. We can live without fear of growing old, knowing that in our old age God can use us more than ever before and the adventure continues. And we can know that when this life is over, it’s only just getting started. That’s why we can live fear-less, with courage and hope.