Jesus Saves Us the Final Enemy

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 15:26

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15:26 rsv

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

1 Corinthians 15:54-57 rsv

The Bible calls it the last enemy, the final foe we have to face. What is it? It’s the mystery, the strange reality of death. The title of this message is, “Jesus Saves Us From the Final Enemy.”

How do you feel today about death? I’m not talking about death in general or even the death of a loved one or friend, painful as that may be to consider. I’m asking about your death. How do you feel about that prospect? You say, “I haven’t thought about it much,” or maybe, “I don’t care to think about death.” But somehow hints of it keep coming back, don’t they? Someone has said that our knowledge that we must die is like the background music playing around us all through life. Sometimes the sound becomes faint and we scarcely hear it. At other times it swells in volume, beating upon us in ways we can scarcely ignore.

What turns up the volume for you? If you’re a young person, it may be the death of someone your age. That gets your attention. Old people die, yes, but this young friend, so full of life, how can that be? The thought steals into your mind, “What if it had happened to me?” Maybe you’ve been in the service. You’ve seen your buddies go down in battle and that made you wonder. For many of us, it’s the first time death invades our immediate family circle. Then it becomes for us an inescapable fact, something with which we have to deal. Maybe for you it was a narrow escape. You were looking death, as it were, squarely in the face. Maybe it has been a time of physical decline, of serious illness. We’re told that for those people past 50 years old, death is a primary, subconscious concern: “Some day, perhaps not very far off, I’m going to die.”

We all know at the intellectual level that we must die. We don’t really believe those reports that we’ll be able to go on indefinitely replacing bodily parts, or that some day the way will be found to thwart death completely by medical means. No, we know we’ll die and that we share that future with all living things. You would think, wouldn’t you, that that would bring some comfort, that it’s a reality for everyone and everything? But it doesn’t seem to.

Maybe it’s the mystery of it that makes death dreadful. Maybe it’s the prospect of its accompanying pain. Surely one dimension of its terror is the resultant termination of every relationship we’ve known. Maybe it’s a dread of the decomposition of our bodies. Or maybe, most of all, we feel a sense of uncertainly and foreboding about what may lie beyond death.

DENIAL

Everyone finds some way to come to terms with all that. It seems to me that people adopt one of three basic attitudes toward death. The first is denial. Many students of American culture have noted this tendency among us. Think of our reluctance to use the word. For many, people don’t “die.” They “pass away.” They “go to their eternal home.” They “succumb to illnesses.” They “expire.” Why is it so hard to say that they die, that they are dead?

In spite of all the violence seen in the media, most of our young do not see death happen. It occurs in hospitals or in scenes of mayhem on television. It’s not a fact of ordinary life to them. When one young boy heard about a grandfather’s death, his question was, “Who shot him?” In our funeral homes, the dead are beautified, made to appear that they’re only sleeping.

But the denial of death, the pretending that it hasn’t happened, doesn’t serve us well. For one thing, denial of death means that we fail to come to grips with life. We realize neither how fleeting it is nor how precious. We have trouble celebrating the miracle of what it is to be alive. Denial leads also to a heightened fear of death. We always fear most deeply what we don’t understand, what we never bring into the light of day. Denial sets us up for dread.

And if we haven’t taken death seriously, how can we possibly empathize with the terminally ill? How can we talk to them about the issues they struggle with? How can we deal with the survivors, with the grief-stricken ones who have said goodby to a loved one?

It may be that our denial of death encourages also a renewed interest in communication with the dead. We’ll persuade ourselves that they aren’t really gone after all, that crystal balls and seances can get us in touch with them again.

It’s possible, then, to push the reality of death from consciousness, to try to live as though it’s never going to happen to us. But that hardly seems like a good way.

DESPAIR

There are others who view the prospect of death with despair. I read an interview once which a newsman had conducted with a famous Italian actor. “Do you believe in life after death?” the star was asked. “Truthfully no,” he answered. “If I did, life would be more interesting because I would have an ultimate goal, a precise purpose to prepare myself for. But since I fear everything will end in death, I say, `What do I care?'”

He speaks for many, doesn’t he? When a person faces death realistically, refusing to deny it, but believing that it ends all, what alternative is there to despair?

A well-known Christian author, Joseph Bayly, has encountered death a number of times in his immediate family. His experiences of grief have brought him into touch with others who suffer in a similar way. Bayly tells of one woman saying to him about her son who was about to die, “I’ll just have to cover him up with earth and forget I ever had him.” “You’re a rational person,” she said to Bayly, “How can you possibly believe that the death of a man or a child is any different from the death of an animal?” That’s a chilling perspective, isn’t it, to “cover him up with earth and forget that I ever had him.” That’s how we feel if, after death, there’s nothing.

Some philosophers in this century have taught that the steady facing of this despair is the only way for us to live authentically. Listen to Bertrand Russell: “No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave . . . all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noon-day brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system . . . all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.” Now notice this: “Only within the scaffolding of these truths,” says Russell, “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” Yes, that’s the basis of facing death with many, “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.”

Albert Camus put it this way: “A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so, ceases to belong to the future.” He’s saying that only those can truly live in the present who have first abandoned hope.

Sometimes people in their late 30s or early 40s seem to “go to pieces” because they want to alter, even reverse, the aging process and thus the approach of death. They begin to realize that it’s highly unlikely they will accomplish everything they have planned for, or become all they had hoped to become. With that despair, people sometimes go out of their way to destroy something vitally important to their lives: their health, their career, even their marriage.

But despair doesn’t mean that people always go around with long faces. Quite on the contrary. When the beer advertisement says that “we only go around once in this life,” so we ought to “grab all the gusto” we can, many despairing ones agree. Their philosophy becomes, “Let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Still, underneath that surface merriment is the sense that death is the great victor, robbing life of meaning and destroying everything at the last.

DEFIANCE

But there’s another way, thank God. Not denial. Not despair. Jesus Christ so saves people from the last enemy that they can face it with defiance. They can look it full in the face, challenge it, grapple with it, and overcome.

Perhaps to some this doesn’t seem like the Christian way. Some believers speak of “sweet death,” as though it were something beautiful and gentle, as though it were a friend. But death is never beautiful and usually anything but sweet and gentle. It’s certainly not a friend. The Bible describes it as “the last enemy,” and that’s how Christians characteristically see it. What’s on the other side of death is glorious, but death itself remains the sobering sign of our sin and estrangement from God.

Death is a terrible foe, but we don’t need to deny that the enemy exists or surrender to him in despair. Something wonderful has happened! The enemy has been smashed, his power overthrown. Jesus Christ, by taking upon Himself our sins and dying our death, has stripped away its dread and power. Listen to the apostle as he celebrates that: (1 Cor. 15:54 ff.)

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Do you hear this man of faith challenging death, exulting over it as a defeated enemy, celebrating the victory he has in Christ? That’s the gospel way. Jesus saves us from the fear of death, from the power of death, and ushers us into abundant life. I love these familiar lines from the minister John Donne:

Death, be not proud,
though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful
for thou art not so.

For those whom thou thinkest
thou dost overthrow
die not, poor death,
nor yet canst thou kill me . . .

One short sleep past
we wake eternally,
and death shall be no more.
Death, thou shalt die.

Perhaps you’re asking, as we think about this together, “Can we be sure about this? Sure about life after death?” Not if it’s only wishful thinking. Not if it’s merely someone’s theory, mine or someone else’s. The basis for real assurance is the bedrock fact of Jesus’ resurrection on the third day. He conquered death. He’s alive forever. And He says to His people, “Because I live, you shall live also.”

Can we prove that there’s a life beyond death? No. We can’t. But neither could an unborn twin possibly prove the existence of the world outside to its fellow twin. For that big, wonderful world out there to be experienced, each little child needs to pass down that tunnel, that birth canal. Death for us, because of Christ, has become like that tunnel. It’s transformed. As D. T. Niles said, “It’s not an end but an exit, not a blank wall but an open door.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “the supreme festival on the road to freedom.”

In his latter years, Dwight L. Moody said this to his friends, “One of these days you’re going to read in the newspapers that Dwight L. Moody is dead. Don’t believe it,” he said, “I’ll be more alive then than I’ve ever been before.” It wasn’t that the great evangelist was trying to deny the reality of death. It surely wasn’t that he despaired at the prospect of it. He knew the One in whom he had believed. He knew that for a Christian to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord. To depart was to be with Christ, as Paul said, which was far better. So Moody, like all believers, could defy the vaunted power of sin, death and hell. Jesus had saved him from the last enemy and opened for him the gates of life.

So, friends, you don’t need to suppress the thought of death, to pretend and evade. You can look it squarely in the face. And as you do, you don’t need to despair, as though death could somehow rob life of meaning or destroy hope. You can say, too, “Death, where is your sting? Death, where is your victory?” And that won’t be just “whistling in the dark.” You have a reason for your hope. If you have trusted Jesus Christ with your destiny, you have a mighty Savior. “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”