Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Mark 8:31- 38
The week before last was a rare one in the life of this congregation. Within this community, we had a birth and a funeral in the same week. It's interesting whenever that kind of juxtaposition happens - having life and death so close together forces us to look closely at our own existence and at life in general. And when we do, we discover that our feelings around birth and death are drastically different. When an impending birth is announced, there are congratulations, baby showers, well-wishes, prayers of thanks. But when an impending death is announced - well, we don't have any of those things. No congratulations, no showers - there are prayers, but they are usually not ones of thanks but of supplication. Birth is seen as a wonderful, blessed event. Death is most often seen as the complete opposite.
It's something we avoid, something we prefer not to think about at all. Like the disciple Peter, we protest when anybody we love talks about dying. We are afraid to think that the people we care about might leave us, and so we avoid the conversation altogether, hoping that we're actually avoiding death by doing so. It might be because in our culture of success, we see death as a failure. When we die, we have failed to keep living. Some people even see death as punishment for a badly lived life. We all know the first part of the Bible verse, "the wages of sin is death." Death is almost never seen as a success, or as a reward.
And we certainly don't look at it as a gift from God, like we do with birth. When somebody dies, particularly if they are young, or if there is an accident involved, we tend to look at the whole thing as unnatural - as outside of the way God has created the world. Death is such an inconceivable concept for us that we have a hard time grasping that it's just as necessary to life as birth.
But that is what we find if we look at the Bible - that death is a necessary part of life. Last week in our Bible study, we looked up passages that dealt with life and death, and even I was surprised at what we found.
To start with, God's approach to life and death begins with Creation. The very first thing God did was to create light and dark - to cause Night and Day to begin their cycle. Now, we know that this means that the earth revolved on its axis as it made its way around the sun, but the ancients believe that light and dark were times of life and death. Daytime brought warmth, security, food, life. Nighttime brought cold, fear, wild animals, and death. For them, light equaled life and dark equaled death. And so they understood that from the beginning, God designed life and death in a cycle. One led inevitably to the other. Just as light led to dark and back to light, life led to death and back to life. From their point of view, death was not unnatural, but a part of the created world that God has made especially for us.
This idea that death is an intentional part of God's plan for us continues in the story of the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve at the forbidden fruit, they did it because the serpent told them that if they did, they would be like God and never die. So they ate, but it turns out that it was a sin to want to be like God, to want to never die, and God punished them by giving them what was already coming - their inevitable human death. Death, it seems, was an integral part of the package all along.
God has made death unavoidable for us, it turns out. The person who wrote Ecclesiastes tells us what we already know - that there is a time to be born, and a time to die, just like there is a time to plant and a time to uproot. We don't know when those times will be, or how much time will be in between the two events, but the Bible very clearly tells us that there is a time for both. We can't avoid either one. Just as God gives us the time to be born, God also gives us the time to die. Can we really say that one is better than the other - that there is a disparity in what God gives us?
In all of this, it turns out that death is part of God's intention for creation, that it is unavoidable, and that to try and avoid it is a sin. But it turns out that death is more than just that. I say that because of what Jesus says about death. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." For Jesus, death is not just inevitable, but necessary. He never once tried to avoid his own death, or to pretend that it wasn't coming. Instead, he saw it as something to move towards and something to be open about. That's why he told Peter and the disciples so clearly that he would be killed. He didn't do it to garner sympathy from them, but to be honest about the way life, and his life, is. And the truth is, all life ends in death.
But it doesn't stop there. Jesus didn't tell the disciples that he would be killed and then stop. He continued by telling them that he would rise again after three days. No doubt they thought he was completely crazy, but we know that that's what actually happened. We know that even though Jesus died, that wasn't the end of him. He was raised to new life, a life where death wasn't part of the package. But that couldn't have happened if Jesus hadn't died in the first place. There would have been no resurrection for him if there hadn't first been his death. Nor would there be for us. It ends up that Jesus' death was important not only for him, but for us, as well.
And that's because, as Paul says in his letter to the Romans, "if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." Jesus, the single grain of wheat, had to die so that the fruit he bore might give us new life. A new life, I might add, that we would never experience if we, in our turn, didn't also die.
So it turns out that the death we fear, that we try so hard to avoid, is the only way to get to the kind of life where there is no more death. We can't get around it, we can't ignore it, we can't protest it, we can only go through it, just as God planned, and just as Jesus did to that place where we receive eternal life.
So what does that mean in the here and now? Well, for one thing it means that we don't have to be so fearful when it comes to death, or be hesitant to talk about dying. One of the truly sad things that I have to deal with in my job comes when I'm speaking to someone whose family doesn't want to hear them talk about dying. Usually these people are elderly seniors, whose health isn't well. They want to talk about dying, they tell me that they think it's time to go, and that they would happily die - but when they try and have these conversations with their children and grandchildren, the people who mean the most to them, the children and grandchildren stop the conversation. They don't want to hear about it. Their own fear of death prevents them from hearing. But why should it? When we know that death is a natural, God-given part of life, when we know that it is part of the plan God has intended for us from Creation, when we know that it is the only entree to eternal life, why should we be afraid to talk about death? Or to listen to people we love talk about it? Knowing all these things, we can take heart and listen to what others are trying to tell us.
And when the people we love do die? Well, of course we mourn, and of course we're sad about all the things we will miss about them. We will most likely not rejoice. But we can be thankful that they have now attained eternal life with God through Christ. Death is not the end of the line for them, or for us, just as it wasn't for Jesus Christ. Death does indeed become a gift from God, given in God's own time, as precious as birth, because it is our rebirth.
And that is the point of Lent. To lead us through death - not around it - but through it, through the harsh reality of Good Friday, through the death of Jesus, until we arrive at Easter Sunday and its proclamation of new life. Going around death won't get us where we need to go, and neither will hanging back. Only those who lose their life, only those who die, will in the end save it and receive the true life that God has planned for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.