Overcoming the fear of death
Last week I celebrated a significant birthday. It has made me think.
Last week I celebrated a significant birthday. It has made me think.
I probably have fewer years ahead than I have already lived. And it is true that life seems to go faster the older that you get. It is not quite yet ‘the end is nigh’ but ...
I was talking with someone who thinks that I am still a mere child. He is a Christian, but hewas saying what I think many people think, but few say: ‘the aging process gets to me. I don’t want to grow old, and I don’t want to die’.
Another person was telling me, again last week, about how she had been gripped with the fearof death.
And I remember the emotion when, as a 15 year old, I suddenly realised for the first time that I would have to die. I really did have that sensation which comes when you hear very bad news, that sinking feeling in your stomach.
The Christian message however, is a message of astonishing hope to all who are held captive by the fear of death
Our reading from Hebrews – just four verses but with so much in them – tells how Jesus became exactly like us in our humanity and in our mortality. He was ‘flesh and blood’
· His death has defeated the devil, and so he can set us free from the fear of death, and the slavery which it brings (v15)
· His death has given us forgiveness; his death paid the penalty for our sin (the writer to the Hebrews goes on a great deal about how Jesus did that later) (v17)
· His suffering and death was the final temptation; he knows what it is like to be tested to the utmost limit, without giving in – and so he can help us when we are tempted (v18 cf Hebrews 4:15)
So let’s look at this in a bit more detail
1. WE ARE GRIPPED BY THE FEAR OF DEATH
The devil holds the power of death.
Death, the bible tells us, is the consequence of sin.
Because Adam and Eve reject God, because they disobey God, death comes into the world.
And where there is sin, there is death.
It is the final consequence of our sin (if we cut ourselves off from the source of life, we will die), and it is the divine punishment for our sin
But when the devil gets hold of the idea of death, he uses it to utterly paralyse us.
The fear of death – whether conscious or unconscious - holds us in its grip
Much of what we do is motivated by our fear of death: the mid-life crises, the sex drive, peopletrading in their partners for younger models, fitness regimes, ageing creams,the denial of age, the marginalisation of people as they grow older
The fear of death makes us cling on to what we possess, or our certificates and titles and achievements – because it is all that we think we have got to show that we matter, and that make us who we are. It is the reason we live such safe conforming lives.
We make this life everything – 100 things you must do, or places you must visit before you die
And I suspect that, although this does not really loom large in the psyche of C21st man or woman, there is the fear of judgement after death. It is still there; and if that fear is not there, it should be there.
What if Jesusis right? What if the first Christians are right? What if countless men andwomen of God through the centuries are right? What if, when I die, I stand before God who will judge me not just on what I did or said, but on what I didn’t do or didn’t say, and even on what I thought or dreamt. What if there is a God who can look into our inner-most being and judges us on exactly who we are? And what if there is a hell?
And because ofour fear of death, we mock when people speak of judgement. We make up fairy stories about life after death – we are all going to be alright: We’ll be with granny; or we will be a star; or we will come back in another form.
But I am not sure we really believe them.
That is why I have got much more time for atheists or humanists who are prepared to face up to the reality of death
Bertrand Russell says: ‘Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless ofdestruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates ofdarkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow fall, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; .. to worship at the shrine his own hands have built’
The danger isthat that sort of talk lead to the philosophy: ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die’. And if you crush other people in your eating and drinking, it doesn’t really matter. In fact evolution favours the strong who eat the weak.
Most of us, of course, are not prepared to go that far – we live with our fairy tales, in denial land. And when those who are close to us die, we wrap death up in rituals, and we avoid the talk of death. We don’t have chapels of the dead, but chapels of rest.
The fear of death is an incredibly powerful motivating force.
2. JESUS HAS DESTROYED ‘THE FEAR OF DEATH’
He did it by becoming exactly like us.
a. He destroys the fear of death by showing us that we need never fear what comes after death
These verses speak of the astonishing mercy of God.
Jesus, who was ‘the exact representation of [God’s] being’, but who was also made ‘like us in every way’, with flesh and blood, lived a perfect life.
He made a once-and-for-all-time ‘atonement for the sins of the people’.
It is sacrifice language. In Old Testament times a lamb would be brought into thetemple. Hands would be laid on it. People identified themselves with the lamb. And then the lamb was killed – in place of the people who laid their hands on it.
They recognised that their sin, their rebellion against God, their disobedience, their pride deserved death. But the lamb was to die in their place.
And now God provides the perfect lamb, the final sacrifice – and Jesus died for us: so that if we put our hands on Jesus, if we identify themselves with Jesus (and the way we do that symbolically is in baptism), if we turn to Jesus – then we recognise that our sin, our rebellion against God, our disobedience, lack of love, self-centredness and pride deserve death. But as we identify with him, he identifies with us. His death on the cross is our death. His death covers us.
And so although we deserve condemnation, we do not need to fear the judgement. Because the condemnation has already fallen on him
b. He destroys the fear of death by rising from the dead.
These four verses do not actually speak of the resurrection from the dead.
But the book of Hebrews does.
And the resurrection is no fairy tale. It is based on a historical event. Jesus rose from the dead. He appeared to his followers. He talked with them, ate with them (on several occasions), and gave them instructions. And he said that one day he will return, and the dead will be raised, and he will gather his people to be one, and there will be a new heaven and earth.
And so the author of this letter writes of the people of faith in the Old Testament (Hebrews 11:13-16), ‘All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them’.
Andwe are called to hold on to his promise that there is life after death. John 3:16,“For God so loved the world .. that whoever believes in [Jesus Christ the Son of God] should not perish but have everlasting life”.
And it is those promises which have released men and women of God to live radical, world-shaking lives.
I read some of the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers. They lived lives ofstark renunciation. But they were gripped by two things: a sense of their own sinfulness and a desire for God and heaven.
Or I think of the men and women who went as missionaries 200 years ago, to East Africa or India. They would set sail with their possessions packed in their coffins. Many of them died before they even arrived there.
We might think that this is stuff for fanatics. But Martin Luther wrote on these verses, “He who fears death or is unwilling to die is not a Christian to a sufficient degree; for those who fear death still lack faith in the resurrection, since they love this life more than they love the life to come ... He who does not die willingly should not be called a Christian”.
3. JESUS IS THERE WHEN WE ARE TEMPTED TO GIVE IN TO THE FEAR OF DEATH
We are gripped far more by the fear of death than we think that we are.
Our lives would be completely transformed if we really believed that because of Jesus, God’s new heaven and earth is our final destiny.
And while as Christians we may fear the process of dying – Jesus would have far preferred not to go through with the cross - one of the gifts that God offers to give to believers is freedom from the fear of death.
One of the people I mentioned earlier told me how, when she was gripped with fear of death, God helped her overcome that fear
Another person I was speaking to last week, a young father who is facing a serious life-threatening illness – had looked death straight in the face and was able to say, in all honesty, that – although he prayed that God would heal him – in the end it was up to God and he did not fear death, because he could see through it, to what comes next. He told me how on three occasions he really thought that he had come to the limit of what he could bear, and had cried out to Jesus, and on each occasion, Jesus had met him.
But we are human. The word of God tells us that death is not the end, but our experience tells us that it is the end. And we trust our experience more than the word of God.
And maybe for some of us here it’s a bit more than an under-the-surface fear. There is an all-consuming fear of death. And it does paralyse us.
The offer of these verses is that we can turn to Jesus, who was just like us.
He overcame that fear, and he can help us to overcome the fear.
Jesus lived with the presence of death all his life.
As a baby Herod tried to have him killed. As soon as he begins his ministry, his opponents plot how they can get rid of him. And Jesus knew that he had come to die. There are three clear occasions when he tells his followers that he is going to die (and not only die, but to die by crucifixion) in order to bring them life.
And on one of those occasions, Peter says to him, ‘Lord, God forbid that should happen toyou’. And Jesus rebukes Peter for that comment. He says to him, ‘Get behind me Satan’. Why? Because the devil is using Peter to try to get Jesus to surrender to the fear of death.
And as Jesus hung on the cross, and as he dies and cries out, ‘It is finished’, I suspect that at least as part of that cry he was saying, ‘I did it. I did not give way to the fear of death – not even when I was facing torture and crucifixion. I was obedient to you, my Father, to the very end’.
Turn to him. Ask him to help you – and keep your eyes on him.
Jesus, the writer to the Hebrews is ‘the pioneer and perfecter of faith’.
Think of it like a young boy playing in a park. There is a door into a walled garden. The child has been told that through that door there is a world full of shadows, ghosts and demons. The child will not even go near the door. He avoids anything to do with the door. He even pretends that it does not exist.
But one day, his older brother learns of his younger brother’s fear. He takes him with him tothat door. And then he walks through the door. He disappears from sight. The younger brother thinks, ‘Everything that I have been told is true. My brother has gone’.
But his brother hasn’t gone. He returns and he tells of an amazing garden – where there are no ghosts, shadows or demons. And he takes his younger brother by the hand, and leads him through the door.
Do not give into the temptation to pretend the door does not exist. Do not allow your fear of death to control your life.
Jesus is our older brother
He is the one who has gone ahead of us.
And if we cry out to him, as we die he will be beside us
And if we cry out to him, when we face judgement, he will be one with us
And as we walk into paradise, he will be the one who is waiting for us.