In our post-Christian era, it is reassuring that our major holidays are still Christian. Christmas and Easter focus on Christ. Mostly. You may need to look past Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (regardless of how generous they are with presents or chocolate eggs). Thankfully, Easter is still recognisable as having something to do with the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I would like to talk about the Easter theme of transforming death. We start with a focus on our ‘little deaths’. They are part of life.
- Little deaths
We all experience what might be called little deaths. The one certainty of ageing is that they will become more familiar. These include disappointments in romance, having to move somewhere unfamiliar, an empty nest. seeing less of family, failure to get a promotion, and noticing that that our pet has more energy than we do. I will illustrate with a couple of examples:
- A female friend was proud of being tall and striking in appearance. When she reached about 50 years old she noticed that she no longer turned heads, mostly males, when she walked in a room. This is not an experience that I could relate to because I was never that attractive! Well, hopefully to Ann.
- A silly example from my life. I worked long and hard in academia to gain the title Professor which I enjoyed for about 25 years. About six months ago I lost my adjunct status at CSU, and my title disappeared. This was not surprising since my focus had shifted to pastoral ministry.
Now both of these examples relate to vanity, not spiritually commendable, but vanity has a way of suffering small deaths. Perhaps you can relate?
Such little deaths are spiritually important. They wake-us-up. Shock us into seeing the hard edge of reality and give us an opportunity to practice the important principle of acceptance. If we don’t accept unwelcome changes, we deny death and pull back from what is real in our lives. Or we distract ourselves and live in a fantasy world. There is no emotional or spiritual growth in such avoidance.
There is also the possibility of resignation, but this often carries a price-tag of bitterness and resentment. This pathway is a kind of spiritual death.
- Big Deaths
Perhaps most of us were fortunate enough to get through childhood and even young adulthood without ‘big deaths’. Maybe you were not fortunate and lost a parent or a sibling or faced a terrible disease such as polio or cancer.
There are some certainties in life, commonly noted as death and taxes. Sadly, there are additional inevitabilities. Eventually we all have to face the big deaths which a longer life will bring to us.
Such deaths are not trivial, certainly not matters of vanity, but include the end of a marital relationship through divorce, the death of a spouse, loss of employment and perhaps financial security, a serious health diagnosis with a poor prognosis. The list is potentially endless, but the experience is usually shattering. In almost all of us will eventually face the challenge of needing to go into aged care or accepting our own terminal illness.
In Greek mythology people once knew in advance the exact day of their death. Everyone unearthed lived with a deep sense of melancholy because mortality hung like a sword over them. All that changed when Prometheus brought the gift of fire. Now humans could reach beyond themselves to control their destinies, they could strive to be like the god’s. Caught up in the excitement over these new possibilities people soon lost the knowledge of the day of their death. As modern people, perhaps we share something of this affliction. Have we lost in fact the sense that we will face big deaths?
Now I don’t intend this message to be grim, but we often think of any spiritual theme as “airy fairy”. There is no Easter message without the grim reality of Good Friday. No resurrection without death.
An old legend tells of a merchant in Bagdad who one day sent his servant to the market. Before very long the servant came back. White and trembling, and in great agitation said to his master:
“Down in the market place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned around I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Master, please lend me your horse, for I must hasten away to avoid her. I will ride to Samaria and there I will hide, and Death will not find me.
The merchant lent him his horse and the servant galloped away in great haste. Later the merchant went down to the market place and saw Death standing in the crowd. He went over to her and asked, “Why did you frighten my servant this morning? Why did you make a threatening gesture?
“That was not a threatening gesture,” Death said. “It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
There are things we can avoid; but equally what we cannot.
- What the example of Christ teaches us
Jesus ‘turned his face towards Jerusalem’ and endured the horror of the criminal’s execution. By any definition it was a big death. But Easter is a message of hope. Death is never the last word in the good news of Christ.
In C.S. Lewis’ famous story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Susan and Lucy mourn the death of the great lion king Aslan, who sacrificed his life for the kingdom of Narnia. The narrator describes the sombre tone as the two weep over their lost leader:
“I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been—if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you—you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. . . . But at last Lucy noticed two other things. One was that the sky on the East side of the hill was a little less dark than it had been an hour ago. The other was some movement going on in the grass at her feet.” Of course, Aslan comes again to life and romps and plays with the two children.
I believe that the example of Jesus and the spiritual principle of turning death into resurrection, applies to each of us in profound and life changing ways. The temptation is always to deny, distract or become embittered when we face the challenges of small or big deaths.
There is a mercy in small deaths. These provide us with an opportunity to practice an important spiritual principle. The challenge is to accept all deaths, big or small, with faith that God will bring a resurrection. And this will result in a transformation of the whole experience, as Paul said, “O death where is your sting? Oh grave where is your victory” (I Cor 15:55)
John D. Rockefeller, Sr., was strong and husky when he was a youth. He was determined to earn money and drove himself to the limit. At age 33, he earned his first million dollars. At age 43, he controlled the biggest company in the world. At age 53, he was the richest man on earth and the world’s only billionaire.
Then he developed a sickness called “alopecia,” where the hair of his head dropped off, his eyelashes and eyebrows disappeared, and he was shrunken like a mummy. His weekly income was one million dollars, but he digested only milk and crackers. He was so hated in his hometown that he had to have bodyguards day and night. He could not sleep, stopped smiling, and enjoyed nothing in life.
The doctors predicted he would not live past another year. The newspaper editor had gleefully written his obituary in advance. Those sleepless nights set him thinking. He realized with a new light that he “could not take one dime into the next world.” Money was not everything. Then and there he surrendered His life to Christ, repented and asked God to change his heart.
The next morning he awoke a new man. He began to help the poor and needy. He established the Rockefeller Foundation whose funding of medical research led to medical breakthroughs. This foundation gives nearly $200M a year to various causes. John lived to be 98 years old.
Most of you listening to me would consider yourself an adult. I suspect that you have lived enough to be familiar with small deaths and of course many of you have faced or are facing big deaths. While sometimes we are shocked, there is really nothing surprising about this aspect of life. I would encourage you to look ‘death in the eye’ as it were, accept it as part of your life, and to pray ? really pray ? that God will give you the grace to see resurrection on the other side. We see it in Christ, today of all days, and with faith you can see it in your lives. There is nothing more spiritually certain for the believer.
The Rev’d Dr Bruce Stevens is the supply minister at GUC 2022-2023.