The evening before last, a precious saint of our church went home to be with the Lord. She was what I like to call (from the song of Deborah) “a Mother in Israel” – one of those women who lead in every congregation by their wisdom and tireless example. It doesn’t matter if your denomination ordains women or not, every congregation that’s worth anything has its Mothers in Israel. They are the beating heart of the church family. Agnes was just such a one. A promoter of missions, an esteemed Sunday School teacher, and a bundle of life and energy even into her 92nd year.
I have watched with increasing sorrow, the departure of one after another of the older members of our church. I have been reminded with each and every obituary of the words of John Donne, “Every man’s death diminishes me.” When members of our community pass away, they take their experiences, memories and skills with them. It is right that strangers should pause for funeral processions. The whole community loses something with every departure. Every grave of someone I know (including that of my own father) has become to me so much buried treasure hidden away from the world. It would not be true at all to say that we no longer feel the benefits of those lives. Their impact is all around us. Rather, we feel the absence of what they could be doing among us now.
A certain fatalism tells us that, since it happens in nature, death must be natural. Everyone dies, an inevitability so undeniable that Shakespeare makes it an imperative: “Man must endure his going hence.” But there is nothing that nature abhors more than death. Nature is continuously regenerating, continuously bringing forth life, continuously struggling against the predator that stalks us. You can say all you want to about the survival of the fittest, but even the weakest straggler in the herd runs from a lion. There is something in all of us that longs for continued existence. Solomon would say that it was “eternity in our hearts.”
If we feel hostility toward death, that agent of separation, and call it our enemy, we can know that we are in good company. The Apostle Paul said, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” When he tells us in I Thessalonians that we do not sorrow as those without hope, this is what he means. When we see a life end in death, we are tempted to think that death is the last thing. In reality, it is only the last thing to be destroyed. Death shall die (to borrow more words from Donne), and then there will be no more death for anyone. Revelation 21 tells us that God will cast both death and hell into the Lake of Fire. He will throw them away, and seal the door of their prison forever.
My heart literally leaps up with joy as I write these words. Christ did not just lie down on a cross and die. He was raised up on it, and He caught Death in such a grip as a champion wrestler might use to hold his opponent. He commended His soul to the Father and dragged Death down into hell with him. And when He emerged from the grave again, He held authority both over the prison-house of the dead and over that old Jailer, Death, who had once had such power over the children of men.
He speaks to us today in the same words He used long ago to comfort a lonely, old man exiled on Patmos: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
And we answer our Champion in words that Paul taught us to say, “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.”