This is the first in a series of talks about ETERNITY.
We’re MOST comfortable talking about BEGINNINGS and ENDINGS. When the clock STARTS and when it STOPS. Where we can see how BIG something is. Where it stops, and something else starts. And eternity, or infinity, is something we have a hard time getting out head around.
But at the same, we have a sneaking suspicion about ETERNITY. There’s something about the word that makes us curious; that raises our interest. It’s both a vague uneasiness, and intriguing curiosity. For many people there’s a feeling that we’re not there yet, but at the same time, there’s a LONGING for it. That, somehow, we’re MADE for it.
Perhaps you catch a whisper as you look up at the night sky, or you stare into the eyes of your children. Perhaps you notice it gazing back at you from the eyepiece of a microscope, or as you stare up through the branches of a 1000 year old tree.
It’s only a sneaking suspicion, but for many of us it’s a feeling we can’t quite pin down, that there has to be something more to reality than simply what we SEE. That TIME and SPACE is not all there is. That we’ve been made for something MORE. Something ETERNAL. Something INFINITE.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, in ch 3:11 puts it like this: “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.”
It’s there. Put there by GOD himself. That longing. That hunger. That suspicion. And every culture and civilisation tries to SATISFY that sneaking suspicion. To reach out to the eternal or the infinite in some way. That’s basically what RELIGION is. Reaching out to a god, or gods, of various sorts in various ways. Attempting to tap into that desire, that yearning, to know what’s OUTSIDE, what’s BEYOND. To find out about the ETERNAL.
It was this LONGING that slowly led the writer C S Lewis from Atheism to deism, and eventually to Christianity. In fact, as he wrote about it later in a book called Surprised By Joy, he said it was the HUNGER ITSELF that was a strong argument that there had to be something ETERNAL beyond this world.
Listen to what he said. It’s worth concentrating on.
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel ual desire: well, there is such a thing as . IF I FIND IN MYSELF A DESIRE THAT NO EXPERIENCE IN THIS WORLD CAN SATISFY, THE MOST PROBABLE EXPLANATION IS THAT I WAS MADE FOR ANOTHER WORLD. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a kind of a copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after d.eath; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country, and to help others to do the same.” CS Lewis, Surprised by joy
And that’s the position of Christians. That this world is full of lots of good things. And we can get SOME joy here. But we’ve been made for A TRUE COUNTRY. An eternal, heavenly country. We can’t see it. But we’ve got an inkling it’s there. We HOPE for it. LONG for it. And that longing’s been placed there by God himself. Because that’s our TRUE home.
Not that we’re there yet. But we’ve got THE ROAD MAP to get us there. The Bible. That shows us what to expect as we travel. Where the valleys and hills are. The twists and turns. All laid out for us by the one who INHABITS eternity. God himself. The one who made US for eternity. And the one who sent his Son FROM eternity / into time and space. To die a criminal’s d.eath, then to defeat d.eath. And to win eternity for all those who trust him.
And that’s the point of this series on “From Here to Eternity”. To trace the outlines of that roadmap. To satisfy our sneaking suspicions about eternity. So that we can follow the directions. Know what to expect. And, ultimately, make it there. And enjoy the existence and the relationship we were designed for. The only existence that can truly satisfy.
Today, we’re looking at the FIRST STEP along that road to eternity. The doorway we all pass through. D.eath. But let’s pray before we begin.
I’m hoping this next short description will be unfamiliar for many of you. But I know there a more than a few who’ve experienced it.
It’s a dull ache. Nagging and constant. Impossible to shut out.
It’s a dark cloud. Blocking out light and joy and purpose. A cruel thief that robs you of energy and motivation. The heartless bully who pins you, motionless, to your bed. That narrows your world, puts on the blinkers of grief, so you notice nothing else. The rest of the world just keeps going, but you don’t even care.
The loneliness. The hopelessness. Nothing seems real.
Some days are good, others are bad. And then there are days, just when you think you’re getting over it, when you just break down again. Weeping with an incredible intensity of sadness that knocks you down. And you wonder, “Where did THAT come from?”
The ache, the cloud, the thief, the bully. It’s D.EATH. The d.eath of someone CLOSE. Someone you LOVE. Family or friend. Perhaps even a spouse.
And it ROCKS you. Destabilises you. Knocks the wind out of your sails.
But at the same time, when the grief begins to lift. It can FOCUS you. Clarify your priorities. Weigh up what matters, and what doesn’t.
I’ve seen it in the eyes of people attending a funeral. As I stand up the front, next to the coffin of their loved one. And I try to speak what God wants them to hear. You can see them DRINKING IT IN. Soaking up every word. Eager for some comfort. Some reassurance. Some certainty about where THEY stand when it comes to d.eath.
So what DOES God want you to hear about D.EATH? What does the Bible say?
Not the way it was designed
The first thing to say from the Bible is that d.eath isn’t the way God DESIGNED things. Right back in Genesis 2 (pg 2). When God set up Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, he gave them A TREE OF LIFE to eat from. And as long as they ate its fruit, they’d LIVE, and not DIE.
In a perfect relationship with each other, and with God, all in a perfect environment. Forever. That was God’s PLAN.
But God’s plan ALSO included the right for Adam and Eve to MAKE A CHOICE. Gen 2:16.
And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely DIE.
And most of us know how THAT turned out. The snake tempted them, and they chose to EAT the fruit. And they DID receive the knowledge of good and evil. They knew sin by EXPERIENCE. Knew what it was to choose THEIR way over GOD’S way.
But the SECOND consequence, just like God WARNED, was that they DIED. Not straight away. But the process BEGAN. They were kicked out of the garden, so they couldn’t eat from the tree of life anymore. And so d.eath began its relentless attack. Slowing up, wearing out, running down. Until it wins. Claims its prize. And people STOP.
And it’s been the same for every one of Adam’s offspring since. Sometimes we go quickly, sometimes slowly. Sometimes confidently, sometimes kicking and screaming. Sometimes comfortably, sometimes painfully.
But everyone DIES.
Steve Turner, in his poem D.eath Lib talks about how D.eath is non-discriminatory.
The liberating thing about d.eath
Is in its fairness to women
its acceptance of blacks,
its special consideration for the sick.
And I like the way
that children aren’t excluded,
s are welcomed,
and militants aren’t banned.
Con men can’t con it
Thieves can’t nick it
Bullies can’t scare it
Magicians can’t trick it.
Boxers can’t punch it
Nor critics dismiss it…
The thing about d.ead
Is we’re all gonna be it.
So, you may not particularly LIKE my choice of topic this morning. But you can’t say it’s not RELEVANT. Because there’s no topic MORE relevant to MORE people. I’ve got complete confidence that this topic is relevant for 100% of people listening.
Jesus Defeats D.eath
And things were no different in Jesus’ time. People still died. And Jn 11 tells the story of ONE of them. Lazarus, who we’re told, was actually one of Jesus’ close friends. (p760)
Jesus finds out he’s sick, and even though everyone knows he COULD heal him, he deliberately stays away until Lazarus dies. Because he’s got a lesson to teach people. Have a look there in v11. They’re on their way to Lazarus.
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his D.EATH, but his disciples thought he meant sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is d.ead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
Jesus is upping the ante from HEALING. Because he’s come to do more than just fix up illness or disability. He’s come to defeat the greatest enemy of all – D.EATH. And what’s about to happen to Lazarus will be the ENTRÉE to something greater that’s coming.
Which is the SECOND thing I want to say about d.eath. That “Jesus defeats d.eath”.
But let’s look at the story. When Jesus arrives in the town of Lazarus, the sister, Martha, says to him, v21, “Lord, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Still, I know God will give you whatever you ask”. She’s still holding out hope.
And Jesus doesn’t disappoint. Your brother will rise again.
Sure, she says, in the resurrection on THE LAST DAY. When EVERYONE is raised to life for judgment and eternity.
But Jesus has got something MORE IMMEDIATE in mind. Look at his wonderful words in v25.
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
It’s a wonderful promise. It’s not a promise to somehow escape physical d.eath. But that even though someone might DIE, he might live into ETERNITY if he trusts the one who conquers d.eath.
That’s his CLAIM. And to PROVE it/ he’s got something incredible in mind for Lazarus. The test-case. The down-payment. The preview.
But first, he has to deal with Lazarus’ OTHER sister, Mary. And she comes out to meet him with the whole parade of mourners. And the entire mob are sobbing and weeping at the loss and the pain.
And Jesus’ response in v33 is one of my favourite paragraphs in the Bible.
“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was DEEPLY MOVED IN SPIRIT AND TROUBLE. “Where have you laid him? He asked. Come and see Lord,” they replied. JESUS WEPT.
Such a short sentence. But so comforting. He feels our pain. He S what d.eath does. How it’s impacted the world. It was never meant to be like this. And one day it won’t be AGAIN.
And so he’s going to do something about it. For Lazarus. For Mary and Martha. But also FOR OUR SAKE. For those of us eavesdropping in on the conversation down across the centuries.
Because what Jesus does for Lazarus. Is a demonstration of what he promises for ALL who trust him.
He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
And Lazarus is the PROOF. The proof of Jesus’ POWER. Just as his TEARS are the PROOF of his compassion.
They go to the tomb. “Take away the stone,” says Jesus. And when they do, Jesus prays, then calls out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
We’re not sure why it’s a loud voice, but I guess wherever Lazarus was/ it needed to be loud to get his attention. Then look in v44 at what happened.
“The d.ead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped in strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. The original mummy man.
“Take off the grave clothes, says Jesus, and LET HIM GO.
LET HIM GO. Set him free from the hold of d.eath. Jesus can SAY it because he’s got the authority. And he can say it for anyone who trusts in him.
Let him GO. This one trusts in me.
Let him go. D.eath has no hold on this one.
Let him go. The fear and the pain and the loss are finished.
Let him GO.
When to Die is Gain
And it’s this perspective that ALL Christians can have. It’s what sets a Christian funeral apart from the rest. Of course there’s sadness and pain. But there’s HOPE and JOY and FAITH.
And that’s the 3rd thing I want to say. When you’ve got this sort of perspective about d.eath, it’s possible to say, with the Apostle Paul, that TO DIE IS GAIN.
We’re looking at his letter to the Philippians. Ch 1 v20. (p831) He’s writing from prison. And there’s every chance he’s going to be KILLED. And as he thinks about the future, he has THIS to say. V20.
20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, WHETHER BY LIFE OR BY D.EATH.
He’s not FOOLHARDY. He’s SCARED about the prospect of dying. So he prays for COURAGE whatever the future holds. Whether it’s life or d.eath. Whatever happens, he wants Jesus to be honoured in his responses.
How often do YOU pray that sort of thing? That Christ will be exalted in WHATEVER life brings. Even your d.eath.
But here’s what’s DISTINCTIVE for the Christian. V21.
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
His whole life is summed up in exalting Christ. To live IS Christ. But that’s not all. To die is GAIN. He weighs up the options.
22 If I am to go on LIVING in the body, this will mean FRUITFUL LABOR for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two:(he can’t decide) I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
From his point of view, it’s only positives when he thinks about the chance of dying. Being with Christ. The end of pain. The start of eternity. Paradise.
But in the end he sees he can make more difference on earth for heaven’s sake. So, he’s content to remain until God’s timing’s up.
Imagine that! Seriously weighing up the options of dying or living. It’s only Paul’s servant-heart that makes him content to stay. Christians need not FEAR d.eath.
But Paul’s not being blasé and flippant about d.eath either. Some people think it’s almost sinful for a Christian to be SAD when another Christian dies. Like a Christian funeral should be a PARTY.
But that’s not Paul’s position. D.eath is CRUEL. It’s PAINFUL. It’s AWFUL. There’s loneliness and separation. Down at the end of ch 2. He’s talking about his friend Epaphroditus. Who was so sick he nearly DIED. And look at Paul’s response. V27. He wasn’t throwing a PARTY at the prospect.
27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare ME SORROW UPON SORROW.
The loss of d.eath is PAINFUL. It’s TRAGIC. Even for the Christian.
But at the same time, for the Christian who dies, it’s GAIN.
Not the way it WILL be.
That’s the third point. And the fourth and final thing I want to say is this. It’s not the way it WILL be. God’s plan is that ONE DAY d.eath will finally be defeated. Not just by Jesus. Not just the hope and promise and expectation of defeat. Not just SPIRITUAL d.eath – PHYSICAL d.eath too. The complete and utter and eternal defeat of d.eath. The final enemy.
I want to finish with a quick glance at a passage we’ll come back to more than once before the series is over. Rev 21. Describing eternity. When the dividing wall between heaven and earth is gone. When God and his new humanity live together. In a new heaven and a new earth. And in v4 it says.
4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. THERE WILL BE NO MORE D.EATH or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
We’re living in the old order. Where there IS crying and mourning and pain. And D.EATH. Even for Christians.
But Christians long for that day. Trusting in Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. And so they hope for LIFE, even though they DIE.
As YOU think about d.eath. Perhaps as you go to your next funeral. How will you approach it? Will you use it to reflect on your own mortality. On your own trust in Jesus, or lack of trust?
Or will you suffer from d.eath attention deficit disorder (d.eath A.D.D.)? Will you be like those people at the funerals I take. D.eath catches their attention for a moment, but then something else quickly distracts them.
And the moment is GONE.
Or will you consider it. And cling to Jesus. The one in whom there IS life and hope and joy. So that you can say that to DIE is GAIN. It’s BETTER by far to die and be with Christ.