The end of the old year can speak to us powerfully of the end of life; the start of a new year can remind us winsomely of the beginning of new life. Today’s meditation is a bit atypical, compared with the other blogs on this site. Those who want to read about the key Adventist teaching called “The State of the Dead” may want to go to the two books on the history of conditionalist faith by LeRoy Edwin Foom or a more scholarly and recent volume on mortalism by Dr Bryan Ball. But those who want to personalise the message of Scripture, stay with me.
Here at Cooranbong with its retirement villages, we are often drawn to the cemetery chapel by two powerful realities: death and love. Our scientific age has learned how to postpone death, but even our studied sophistication cannot prevent it. Yet we are energised and inspired in the presence of death by a constant that is as old as eternity: the beauty and strength of love.
So often our perceptions are enlarged by the insights of believers in other times and places. John Donne, born in 1572, became one of the truly great communicators of Anglican London. In his Divine Meditations he looks death steadily in the eye and warns: “Death, be not proud, though some hath called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”
Human pleasure, Donne contends, comes from rest and sleep. Rest and sleep are pictures of death; therefore its reality is not to be feared. Thus the poet confronts death with stalwart assurance: “… why swell’st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.”
According to the Scriptures, God has in Jesus Christ put Death on notice. Our Lord interrupted every funeral that He attended, aptly symbolising He is the Creator of Life. The fact that Death could not hold Him in Joseph’s tomb intensifies the message that in His loving, powerful hands are the keys of Death and the grave (Revelation 1:18), that He is both resurrection and life (John 11:25). No wonder the Apostle Paul in the most cogent explication of the resurrection theme declares, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:26, N.I.V.).
The Scriptures offer many fitting passages for our meditation. Since there are so many treasured nuggets, how can one be more precious than the rest? But, for me, Paul’s words in I Corinthians 13 fit our need as human beings wonderfully. Notice these fragments of the larger whole:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud…. it keeps no record of wrongs. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
The New Testament has much to say of faith. It affirms “the faith of Jesus” and challenges us with the life stories of men and women of faith. It also speaks of “the faith,” as when Paul exclaims, “I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). So often we celebrate the faith of a man or a woman whose life was centred on the faith of Jesus, inspired by the biblical faithful, and who themselves “kept the faith.” Thank God that faith remains!
But hope is faith’s enduring partner. Forever in the now, the Christian is aware of the not yet. Over against failing powers of sight and hearing, ebbing strength and diminishing vitality, we long for the time when the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the death will be unstopped, when the lame will leap like a deer, and the mute tongue will shout in the joy of eternal youth and vigour (see Isaiah 35: 5). After farewelling a loved one we anticipate the moment of resurrection, when “the dead in Christ shall rise.” Thank God that, with faith, hope also remains to light the Christian walk!
But remember the Apostle’s exclamation that these three remain, and he names them: faith hope and love. The Bible declares that “God is love.” Its message is that there is nothing that we can do that will make Him love us more, and nothing that we can do that will make Him love us less. To speak of His love is to speak of His grace that abounds, that is a gift beyond words: unconditional, unearned, enduring.
As we fix our human eyes upon the surpassing splendour of God’s love in Jesus Christ, we (in all our human incompleteness) start to reflect that love. We exult in the faith, the hope and the love that God reveals in His Word, models in His Son, indwells by His Spirit. We thank God for the inspiration of the lives around us that are shaped by faith, hope and love. Never are these enduring gifts of God more precious than when we confront the Last Enemy.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so. …why swell’st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
Arthur Patrick, posted 31 December 2011