Monday, May 16, 2016

The Agony of Facing Death

 This morning, I am going to be very real with all of you.  I am going to confront the one thing that each and every one of us will face one day.  I am going to confront the one thing that I have helped people to face year after year after year.  I am going to confront the reality of death.  For some, this is a very morbid topic.  Many would prefer to put it out of sight and out of mind.  It brings to the surface fear, dread, anxiety, especially since we neither know the day or the hour.  Death in our society and in our culture is seen as the great enemy–something we battle and rage against.

 Why do you think we argue so much about health care and how we pay for it?

 Why do you think we argue about guns and the violence that is associated with them?

 Why do you think we emphasize safety at airports?

 Why do you think we pass so many laws regarding traveling in cars?

 We strive to protect and preserve life even at great cost.

 And so, when people face the very real aspect of their own deaths or the death of a close family member: when terminal cancer strikes, when a major surgery is on the horizon, when a funeral must be planned for a child, I am called.  How does one deal with the immanent threat of something that one has worked so hard to avoid?

 The answer to that question varies by person.  Some rage against the coming night fighting with all their being to hold onto whatever bit of life they can manage.  Such deaths are horrible to witness.  They scar the brain.  Others peacefully accept what is happening, and most of the time, I hear people say, “Wow, this person was very peaceful about their death.  They handled it just amazingly.”  Most family members pray that their loved ones simply go to sleep and die in peace without struggle or pain or suffering.  For most of human history, the one who faces death with bravery, courage, and peace is greatly admired.

 The history of Christianity is full of stories of those who have died without fear; without worry; without anguish.  Many of these folks who have faced death in such a manner are called the martyrs–people who have been killed strictly for following their belief and trust in Jesus Christ.  Interestingly enough, most of these martyrs are remembered because they were very peaceful as death approached.  Even as they were burned at the stake, tortured, or fed to wild animals, these Christians are celebrated as having faced death while proclaiming the Gospel or singing hymns and praises to God.  Many think, “May I have such courage.  May I face death with such bravery.”

 I want you to contrast this thought with what you see happening in our Gospel lesson from the 14th Chapter of the Book of Mark.  This snippet is the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spends several agonizing hours in prayer.  Compared to the martyrs; compared to many who face death, Jesus is not at all peaceful.

 The scene begins with Jesus taking his disciples to Gethsemane which means olive press.  Apparently, this is a garden with an olive press where olive oil was produced.  Jesus asks His disciples to sit while He goes to pray.  I want you to take note of how Jesus begins distancing Himself from the disciples.  There is a real sense of a shrinking circle of support.  Remember, Jesus had just decreed that all of the disciples would abandon Him.  That process is starting.

 For after leaving the majority of the disciples behind, Jesus asks Peter, James and John to follow Him.  Then, Mark tells us that Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated.”  This is extremely vivid language here.  Nowhere else is Jesus described in these terms.  Walter Liefield writes, “The two verbs translated “deeply distressed and troubled” together “describe an extremely acute emotion, a compound of bewilderment, fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, nowhere else portrayed in such vivid terms as here.” 

 I want you to think about this description for just a moment.  Why would Jesus become so troubled in spirit?  All throughout the book of Mark, Jesus has been steadfast and resolute.  All throughout Mark, Jesus has embraced His mission.  On at least three occasions that Mark records, perhaps even more given that Jesus probably said things over and over and over, Jesus saying that He would be handed over to the chief priests and scribes and be killed.  Jesus has also said that He would be raised from the dead.  Jesus knows what is going to happen to Him at the hands of men.  He has known all along.  Why is He so deeply distressed?  Hold onto that question.

 And Jesus said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”  Again, we see something remarkable.  Jesus has never been this shaken throughout the Gospel.  He has never been this deeply grieved or disturbed.  Jesus even says that he essentially feels like he is going to die.  Why would Jesus feel like He were about to die?

 We get the answer in the next sentence.  35And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”  What is the cup that had Jesus so terrified?  What is the cup that had Jesus feeling like He would die?  We have already seen that it can’t be the knowledge of His impending death.  He knew that would happen.  We know that it is not His betrayal.  He knows that is going to happen.  He knows He will be raised from the dead.  What could possibly be so bad about this cup that it absolutely terrifies the Son of God?

 Imagine for a moment that you have a lifeline.  Imagine for a moment that this lifeline provides you with every bit of love, compassion, and support that you have ever needed.  Whenever you hold onto that lifeline, there is nothing anyone can say to you that hurts.  There is no sadness that grips your heart.  There is no worry or fear that can touch you.  This lifeline is like the very air that you breathe.  As long as it is there, nothing ever bothers you.  Nothing at all.  Then, imagine that this lifeline will be cut.  Would that not fill you with terror?  Would that not fill you with absolute horror.  Imagine now having to face every fear; every darkness; every insult without the thing which sustained you through them.  What would that do to your soul?

 In Jesus’ case, that lifeline was His relationship to the Heavenly Father.  For all of eternity, Jesus and the Father, and the Spirit for that matter, had been in a divine dance of love.  They poured themselves into each other.  They sustained one another.  They loved one another with reckless abandon.  Jesus never felt anything less than fulfilled.  He never felt anything less than loved.  He never felt anything less than complete and whole.

 And in just a few hours, all of that would be taken away.  All of that would be removed from Him.  The Father would turn His back on the Son, and Jesus would feel totally abandoned as He faced the Father’s wrath against all sin ever performed and ever to be performed.  Imagine all of the sin, grief, and shame this world has ever and will ever produce.  Imagine the destruction of World War I.  Imagine the Holocaust.  Imagine the pogroms of Russia.  Imagine the Killing Fields of Cambodia.  Imagine the billions upon billions of seemingly little sins committed each and every day. Imagine all of that heaped upon Jesus–the one who had never known sin, and imagine Him paying the penalty for that sin on the world’s behalf.  Would that not terrify you?  Would that not cause you to be troubled even unto death?  Would that not cause you to beg to have such a thing removed from you?  Would that not cause you to beg for another way?

 Mark Edwards puts it this way in his commentary on this text: It is one thing, fearful as it will be, to answer for our own sins before a holy and almighty God; who can imagine what it would be like to stand before God to answer for every sin and crime and act of malice and injury and cowardice and evil in the world?  In acquiescing to the Father’s will of bearing ‘the sin of many, interceding for transgressors”, Jesus necessarily experiences an abandonment and darkness of cosmic proportions.  The worst prospect of becoming the sin-bearer for humanity is that it spells complete alienation from God, an alienation that will shortly echo above the desolate landscape of Calvary, “MY God, My God why have you forsaken me?”

 And this is why Jesus begged and pleaded.  This is why Jesus wrestled with this for nearly an hour.  “But not my will, but yours be done.”  Jesus resolutely sought to follow the Father’s will.
 Three times Jesus prayed this.  Three times Jesus pleaded.  Each time, Jesus finished praying, He faced the reality of human nature.  Three times Jesus found His closest followers sleeping, abandoning Him in His need, weary from eating and drinking and staying awake long into the night.  He first speaks to Peter who at this point, Jesus calls Simon because he is far from living up to his nickname of the Rock.  Each time the disciples have no excuse.  They become embarrassed.  At the time of Jesus’ greatest need; at the time when He is facing the reality of having His Heavenly Father turn His back upon Him, Jesus faces it completely and totally alone.

 It is tempting to point fingers at the disciples here, but we must remember that this text is not about them.  This text is not about their failure.  It has been well established that we fail time and again when it comes to being faithful to our Lord.  It has been established throughout the book of Mark that the disciples just don’t get it.  This text’s focus as is the focus of every Gospel is not upon the disciples or upon us, but upon Jesus.  And William Lane articulates what is going on here beautifully.  He writes, “The remarkable element in the scene is that in the midst of an unparalleled agony Jesus...came to look after his three vulnerable disciples and to warn them of their danger of failure in the struggle which was about to overwhelm them.”  Jesus’ compassion knows no bounds.  Jesus’ love of His followers and of the world has now bounds.

 Even after three times of pleading.  Even after three times of being disappointed.  Jesus is resigned to the Father’s will.  Jesus will not be like the first Adam who in the first Garden gave into temptation.  Jesus will not put His will ahead of the Father’s.  Jesus will suffer for our sake.  Jesus will become sin who knew no sin.  Jesus will face the wrath of God against the sin of the world.  He will lay down His life for the very ones who keep falling asleep and failing to support Him. 

 And He will do it because He loves them.  He will do it because He loves us.  He will face the most horrible thing anyone could ever face because of an overwhelming love.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved by Him.”  Jesus faces the most horrendous thing possible, so that we will not have to.

 And it is because we do not have to face the judgement of God that we can be at peace and face our own deaths.  It is because of Jesus that we can become like the martyrs: we can go toward our deaths at peace.  We can know that Jesus has paid for our sin, our guilt, our shame, our failure.  We can know that He faced down our greatest threat–eternal separation from God.  Death no longer has power.  Death no longer has sting.  On the cross, Jesus paid the price.  Three days later, at the tomb, the end is revealed.  Eternal life.

 I remember vividly arriving at the bedside of one of our members who died quite a few years ago.  She was a tremendous woman of faith.  She had fought long and hard with disease.  She strove and battled.  She was unconscious at the moment of my visit, but she was still trying to fight.  I placed my hand upon her head, and I spoke in her ear, “It is okay.  You have fought long enough.  You have done everything that you could.  It is time to be at peace.  It is okay to let go.”  Almost immediately, a peace and calm came over her.  Almost immediately, she seemed to realize that her earthly journey was about to continue into eternity.  She was able to rest assured that she would be with Jesus.

 My brothers and sisters, when we understand what Jesus has done on our behalf; when we understand that He has paid the debt of our sins; when we understand what He revealed to us in the resurrection; we are free to face death with a different lens.  We are free to face death armed with hope.  We are free to live without constant worry and fear and anxiety.  Because of Jesus and His struggle, we do not have to.  We can live life without fear, and we can die at peace because of His love.  Amen.

No comments: