Sermon delivered by Howard Baston, pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, T.X., on July 26 2009.
Luke 23: 39-43
Death is something we all try to deny, something we try to put out of our mind – and yet it occupies it all the time. In Scottsdale, Arizona, 800 or so folks attend the People Forever International Conference. They intend to change the fact that one out of one dies. They think they’ve discovered the secret to immortality. These immortals-to-be checked in to a resort hotel for the beginning of their ten day gathering. The cost per person was $945. “Immortality is like the switch that turns on and off,” said Paul Massey, the group’s coordinator in England. “The minute you decide that you want to live forever, everything else falls into place.”
The trick is convincing the body to rejuvenate itself, said Charles Brown, who founded the group after he experienced what he calls “cellular awakening.” “We are a species that has the ability to perpetually renew itself,” Brown said. He really wouldn’t guarantee immortality, though, because he said the cell rejuvenation is an individual process. He said three members have died so far. Members of this group can be found in 16 nations. (Waco Tribune Herald, Sunday, July 24, 1994)
The truth of the matter is that modern culture has not succeeded in overcoming death so much as it has succeeded in practicing what Earnest Becker calls the denial of death. We’ve pushed death to the margins, pretending, for the most part, that it simply doesn’t exist. But congregation, that’s not the same as overcoming it. The writer of the Book of Hebrews says, in Hebrews 9:27, “It is appointed to a person once to die, and after this comes judgment.”
Death is a complete reality – none of us knowing when our time is. It’s really eerie, but there’s a web site on the World Wide Web that has a death clock. You type in basic information, including your date of birth, and then there appears on the screen a clock with the seconds that are remaining in your life ticking away. You actually sit there and watch your life – your seconds that remain – tick away.
The first time I saw my death clock, it made me want to get busy. I realized just how brief life really is. The psalmist said life is simply like breath, like vapor – here one moment and gone the next. The biblical writers equate our life with the grass that withers away. Long before the death clock, the ancient writers of the sacred texts told us life is ever so brief. Yes, as the author of Hebrews has written, there is a time appointed for us to die.
I’m reminded of this by the old illustration used by Peter Marshall. There is a legend about a rich merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the market. While he was at the marketplace, he was jostled by someone in the crowd. When he turned around he saw a woman in a long black cloak and knew it was Death. The servant ran home to his master and in a trembling voice told him about the encounter and how Death had looked at him and made a threatening gesture.
The servant begged his master to loan him a horse so he could ride to Samaria and hide so Death would not find him. The master agreed and the servant galloped away.
Later the merchant went down to the marketplace and saw Death standing near by. The merchant asked, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant and frighten him?”
“That was not a threatening gesture,” Death replied. “It was just that I was startled to see in Baghdad because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samaria!” (Stories for the Heart, p. 264)
Death is inevitable. You cannot hide. Each of us has an appointed time.
It was written over 100 years ago, and set in Imperial Russia – Leo Tolstoy’s short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych. Tolstoy worked for two full years on this powerful and deeply moving masterpiece which convincingly portrays a psychological, moral and spiritual transformation that the pressure of dying imposes upon an ordinary, conventional, self-satisfied person – a person much like ourselves. The story moves from the outside in, opening with an announcement to his colleagues of Ivan Ilych’s death. The reader then views how the announcement affects Ivan Ilych’s colleagues. In all, they behave as most healthy people do – as if death were something regrettable and rather distasteful that happens only to other people.
In Leo Tolstoy’s story, Ivan Ilych is us. He’s bright, alert, charming, competent, and his career and his life move in the expected channels. He travels in the right circles, marries an attractive, “thoroughly correct” young woman. He received a promotion and moved his family into a larger, fancier home. At first, of course, he wants to ignore his symptoms, pretend they’re only slight indispositions. But his body won’t let him off the hook. The pain, the weakness, the loss of appetite all force him to pay attention. There was no more deceiving himself. Something terrible, new and more important than ever before in his life, was taking place within him of which he, alone, was aware.
Going from specialist to specialist, he struggles to maintain his stance of denial. But there is something inside him, eating away at him, that won’t allow his old illusions – something that relentlessly pushes him toward the facing truth. Ivan begins to feel isolated. He senses that people are detaching themselves from him. At work he notices in his colleagues a strange attitude. They all watch him “inquisitively, as a man whose place might soon be vacant.”
Ivan Ilych struggles desperately against the awareness that is pressing in on him. He goes back and forth – one moment realizing that he is dying; the next moment denying it; the next moment trying to understand what his own death can mean. “When I am not here,” he says, “what will there be? There will be nothing. Then where shall I be when I am no more? Can this be dying? No, I don’t want to.”
Ivan Ilych asks the question we all ponder. What will there be when we are not here? What will be there? We all join Ivan Ilich when he shouts, “Can this be dying? No, I don’t want to.”
But death is coming. The death clock is ticking away – for you and for me. We all think like William Saroyan, who said, “Of course everybody has to die, but I thought an exception would be made in my case.” But we all eventually realize that life is fragile and we never know when the bell is going to toll for us. Or worse yet, toll for someone we love so dearly.
Anna has it in her house now – a plain, wooden coffee table her father made before she was born. Like so many things in their family, the table is not what it once was. It used to have hinged extensions on all four sides that you could use to lift the top off the legs as a tray. But a couple of the hinges broke, so they removed all the flaps. Now there are marks where the hinges used to be, but no hinges. And of course, there’s the bullet hole. Anna was just a toddler when the bullet hole happened.
The kids and the babysitter were in an odd state of excitement when mom – Barbara Crafton, Anna’s mom – walked in. “Look,” her older daughter commanded, pulling her by the hand into the living room and pointing at the coffee table.
“I saw nothing unusual at first. Everything looked as it should have.”
“No, look at the corner,” she said, while the babysitter stood in the door and Anna lifted her arms and whimpered. “I scooped her up and saw the bullet hole at the same time.”
“Anna was standing there where you are, and the bullet came down right beside her,” said the babysitter. Another inch and it would have gone right through her head. In the ceiling over the table was a jagged hole. “I reached underneath the table to feel the exit hole. Splinters of wood came away in my hand. My mouth went dry.”
“It was the boy upstairs. He was playing with his father’s gun,” the babysitter said. “Do you want to talk to him?”
I didn’t want to talk to him – not that redhot minute. I wanted to look at my baby’s eyelashes again, the curve of her cheek. I buried my nose in her golden curls and thought of them matted with blood, thought of her little body in its corduroy overalls slumped motionless over the table, the shards of her skull on the carpet below. She wiggled impatiently, and I sat her down. Circling the table and holding on with one hand, Anna was deciding whether to start walking on her own. She was always standing by the table. Just another inch – a narrow escape. Anna’s life was spared. We were spared her loss by an inch.
Barbara writes, “I did not sing and dance our deliverance that day. I sat quietly and I realized that we are fragile beings, that life is very brief – the tiny child stillborn minutes ago and the 120 year old lady in France who remembers Van Gogh – lives not so substantially different in their brevity, an inch more or less. (Barbara Crafton, “Death Shall Have No Dominion,” The Living Pulpit 7/3 (July-September 1998): 16-17)
I want us to answer Ivan Ilych’s question in Tolstoy’s short story. When we are not here, what will there be?
One of the most promising statements concerning death and the promise of heaven is made by Jesus in our text today when He, Himself, is dying on the cross. He’s hanging there between those two thieves. The text says that one of them began hurling abuse at Jesus saying, “Are you the Christ? Save yourself and us.” But the other one, seeing death so near, realized the error of his way and turned in repentance to say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him – and to us – those words of hope and promise when he said, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise.”
When Jesus uses that word “truly” or verily, it is as good as done. It’s our word “amen,” and when Jesus used it He meant this is the way it is and this is the way it’s going to be. It is as good as done. It was a statement of fact meant to bring hope and confidence to the one who asked to be remembered.
This morning as we look at the reality of death, I also want us to see the hope of heaven.
I. The first thing I want us to notice is that eternal life being victorious over death is not possible by trying to skirt death or avoid death, as the Society of the Immortals attempted. Rather, Jesus shows us that the way to eternal life does not skirt death – but it goes right through it.
Karl Rahner has said Jesus surrendered Himself in His death, unconditionally, to the absolute mystery that He has called His Father, into whose hands He committed His existence when, in the night of His death and God-forsakenness, He was deprived of everything that is otherwise regarded as the content of human existence. In the concreteness of His death it becomes only too clear that everything fell away from Him. And in this trackless dark, there prevailed silently only the mystery that in itself and in its freedom has no name and to which He nevertheless calmly surrendered Himself as to eternal love and not to the hell of futility. He who came out of God’s glory did not merely descend into our human life, but also fell into the abyss of our death. And His dying began when he began to live and came to an end on the cross when He bowed His head and died. (Karl Rahner, “Following the Crucified,” Theological Investigations 18: God and Revelation [New York: Crossroad, 1983]: 165-66, as cited in The Living Pulpit 7/3 [July-September 1998]: 4)
You see, it’s not that at Calvary death became easy. Rather, on Calvary Jesus gave death new meaning. From His death life was born. For reasons mystery-laden, God decided that the oneness between humans and God which had been ruptured in Paradise would be restored on Calvary, that Divine love would recapture human hearts through crucifixion – not our crucifixion, not our death, but the dying and rising of God in flesh. That’s why Jesus said on the night before He died, “Because I have life, you will also have life” (John 14:19).
Yes, the first thing we see is that eternal life actually does come through death – our death, because firstly it came through the death of Christ Jesus.
Dr. Donald Gray Barnhouse told of the occasion when his first wife died. He along with his children were coming from the funeral service. As they were driving home, the young children were naturally overcome with grief. Dr. Barnhouse said he was trying to think of some words to comfort when all of a sudden a huge moving van passed by the car. As it passed by, the shadow of the truck swept over the car. Barnhouse said an inspiration came to him. He said, “Children, would you rather be run over by a truck or by its shadow?” The children said, “Well of course, daddy, we’d rather be run over by the shadow. It can’t hurt us at all.” And Dr. Barnhouse said, “Do you know that 2000 years ago the truck of death ran over Jesus Christ so that today only the shadow of death can run over us?”
II. The second thing I want us to notice – not only does life really go straight through death – I want us to see the immediacy of paradise.
Notice Jesus’ words to the thief. “Today you will be with me in paradise.” There is no suffering in purgatory, no limbo state, no waiting for judgment. What God has in store for us in death is immediate, it’s today.
When you look at the statement of the thief, he seemed to have in mind some far distant time when Jesus would come into His kingdom. He thought there was some uncertain void. He would be content if Jesus would just remember him when He returned to earth in power and glory. But can you imagine the joy he must have felt when Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Friends, that’s a promise for you and for me. In these words of Jesus we find out more about what happens to us the second after death than any other words in scripture. The Apostle Paul echoed that same thought of immediacy when he said, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” There is no in between. The last breath on earth is the first breath in eternity – in heaven. The sad goodbye to loved ones on earth is a glad hello for loved ones in heaven. It’s the end of temporal life and the beginning of eternal life.
The Bible opens with paradise – with the garden. The word paradise means a walled garden. Here in this gospel account, somehow the story is ending with the garden. In between there is the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus sought and found the will of God. It’s because of the garden of suffering of Christ on the cross that we can immediately be in the garden of paradise.
The language of today is the language of the immediate abode of the righteous, the immediate abode of those who, like the thief, have asked for repentance. Certainly I think it’s true that we’re not in our completed state of the great day of the Lord, the full consummation of the kingdom of God, things complete. But even Paul who awaits that great day of judgment says don’t worry about those who have fallen asleep in Christ Jesus because they are one up on us. Paul says the dead in Christ have priority. They’re not behind. They’re not in limbo. They’re not lingering. Rather, they are at the head of the race.
Yes, I want us to notice the immediacy of heaven.
III. The third thing I want us to know is the intimacy of heaven.
Today you’ll be with me in paradise – the walled garden. Notice the word “with.” It’s a word of association. It’s a word of intimate relationship, companionship, and fellowship with the Lord. Wherever He was going, the thief on the cross was going with Him.
If there is any emphasis on paradise, it is the fact that we are with God, that we are with Him, that we have fellowship with Christ. We see this over and over again in scripture. When Stephen is being stoned in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7, what does he say? “And they went on stoning Stephen (Acts 7:59). And he called upon the Lord and said, Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” To be dead for Stephen was to be in the presence of the Lord.
Again Paul said to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord.
In Philippians 1:23, Paul said when he’s thinking about living or dying – he’s debating. He says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Remember what he says in verse 23. “But I am hardpressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ. For that is very much better.” Paul says that to depart is to be in the presence of Christ.
Isn’t that what Paul says again in Romans 8:38 when he says, “Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ.” He said neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. Everything else is negotiable. We can argue about the height, the breadth, the depth of heaven. We can argue about the location. We can talk about the paving, the gates, the mapping and the furniture. We can talk about whether or not the streets are really gold. But there is one thing that is absolutely non-negotiable. The presence of the love and fellowship of God after death is non-negotiable.
That’s what we really fear in death, isn’t it? Not to be with Him anymore – to be out of God’s love, away from His care, to say that death is just mere annihilation, just mere dust, it’s all over. Not so, says the gospel.
Not only is heaven immediate, but also, and primarily, it means to be with Christ. It also means to be with those that we love. To know them and to be known by them. Paul says in I Thessalonians 4 that we shall be with one another. Notice what he says in I Thessalonians 4:17. “We who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.” What a beautiful passage. It emphasizes the with – the with of paradise. Being with the resurrected Lord and being with those that we have loved here in this life.
Relationships are permanent. That’s why it’s so important how we treat each other. Our love for each other is enduring, not only in this life but in the life to come.
Remember in Luke’s gospel the story of the rich man and Lazarus. You remember when the rich man, finding himself in Hades in torment, begs God to send Lazarus – the poor man who had gone to the bosom of Abraham – how he begs Him to send Lazarus to his five brothers so he can warn them, lest they also come to the place of Hades, the place of torment. Even on the other side, the relationship and concern was lasting.
Yes, I want you to notice that eternal life comes through death – death of Jesus on the cross, and finally our death that leads us to be with Him. The next thing I want you to know is that there is no waiting period. It’s immediately that we’re in the presence of God, in His care. There’s no purgatory; there’s no limbo. The righteous are immediately in paradise. But most importantly, I want you to see that heaven means fellowship with Christ, being in the love of God and being with those that we love.
We’re not all going to be there. Yes, when we come to that moment of dying, that moment of eternal life – there is that division like we find in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. There are those who find themselves in torment and those who find themselves in paradise and heavenly bliss. Yes, just as surely as the writer of Hebrews said there is a time appointed for each of us to die, he also lets us know immediately that then there is the judgment.
There might be some of you here today who need to come and profess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. One out of one dies, and one out of one faces judgment. God has provided a way through the death of His Son, Christ Jesus, on the cross if you will come – that His death can now mean life for you. For you see, you’ll be home soon, too. You may not notice it, but we’re closer to home than we’ve ever been before – every one of us. Each moment is a step taken. Each breath is a page turn. Each day is a mile marked, a mountain climbed. You’re closer to home than you’ve ever been. Before you know it, your appointed arrival time will come. You’ll descend the ramp and enter the city. You’ll see faces that are waiting for you. You’ll hear your name spoken by those who love you. And then you’ll see the one who has died for you – pierced hands and pierced feet – the one who said, “Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also…. I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me.”