Facing Death Without Fear

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

April 12, 2009

Graveside Sunrise Resurrection Sunday Service

Facing Death Without Fear

This morning we are gathered in a graveyard. It is a fairly typical graveyard. There is an effort to landscape with trees and shrubs to make it more peaceful and pleasing to the eye. There are a few statutes scattered around that seek to add human art to the beauty of the area. There are also a few monuments in various places that call us to be thoughtfully reflective. But for all the effort to make this place quiet, serene and peaceful, there is one feature that stands out that makes the place very unsettling to most people. This place is filled with headstones. Every headstone marks the final resting place of the body of one or more people. People that were at one time alive, vibrant, and interacting with others. People that had at one time shared their emotions with others. People that at one time and expressed their thoughts with others. People that at one time had made daily decisions that affected the lives of others. People whose bodies now lie quiet and still. Most people find the presence of so many headstones morbid and therefore unsettling.

I have been to several of the Forest Lawn Memorial Parks in California that have tried to overcome the unsettling nature of a graveyard by paying careful attention to make the landscaping truly lovely accented by very well done and beautiful statuary, and by prohibiting headstones and only allowing ground level plaques. They succeed to some extent, until you notice that at certain angles, you can see hundreds of these plaques all arranged in very neat rows at one time, then you are reminded, that you are in a graveyard.

Death makes the living uncomfortable. We do not like to think about it, yet, to date there are only two people in all of history that have ever escaped death. Enoch, who was not for God took him (Genesis 5:24), and Elijah, who was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire and whirlwind (2 Kings 11:11). Even all those in the Old Testament that lived for incredible lengths of time – 900+ years still died. In our own time very, very few make it to 100, and no one in modern times has made it even to 150. Unless the Lord intervenes directly, all of us will also one day experience death, the cessation of all bodily function. The physical material that makes up our bodies will return to the dust of the ground from which God originally made man.

Why then have we gathered this morning? Are we just a bunch of morbid people that are in great need of psychological intervention? Those that do not share our beliefs might conclude that, but we know differently. We have a hope, a confident assurance of the future, that transcends the morbid nature of being in a graveyard, that transcends even the natural fear of death itself. We are confident that one day many whose body’s lie in these grave today will have those bodies changed into a glorious resurrected body that will escape these tombs to meet the Lord Jesus Christ in the air and be with Him for evermore. We have gathered at this particular grave, that of E. Myrtle Baker, because she was one of the first members of our church and had placed her faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin and trusted His promise of eternal life. She believed the promises of God that one day she would be given an imperishable, immortal body.

How is it that we can be so confident of these promises? How can we know that we have not fallen for the promises of some huckster’s visions of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by? Because the one who promised these things conquered death himself and the evidence for His resurrection is overwhelming.

The angels told Mary at Jesus’ empty grave, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead ? 6 “He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, 7 saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again” (Luke 24:5-6). A short time later Jesus revealed Himself to Mary while still in the garden. That He was physically present is demonstrated by Him having to tell Mary, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father ; but go to My brethren, and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father , and My God and your God’(John 20:17). Jesus revealed Himself to Peter and Cleopas as they were on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32). He then revealed Himself to 10 of the eleven disciples that were gathered together that night telling them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” He then asked for something to eat and ate broiled fish before them (Luke 24:38-42). Eight days later He revealed Himself again to the disciples, this time with Thomas present and He told Thomas to “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas responded, “My Lord and My God,” and then Jesus added, Jesus ^said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed [are] they who did not see, and [yet] believed.” (John 20:27-29). A short time later, Jesus was with His disciples in Galilee where at one point He was seen by over 500 brethren at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6).

Our confidence in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the same as that of the disciples. We do not have to be eyewitnesses ourselves to believe. We can believe because of the faithful witnesses of those who saw and heard and touched. The apostle John put it that way in 1 John 1, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life . . . we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” The apostles demonstrated the character of being men of truth, and the radical change in their behavior after the resurrection from fearful and hiding to bold and publically proclaiming the resurrected Jesus even to the point of being martyred for their faith is proof that what they saw, heard and touched was the resurrected Jesus Christ.

As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we no longer need to be uncomfortable in a graveyard because we no longer need to fear death for a couple of reasons.

First, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:56, “the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law,” and because Jesus Christ has fulfilled the law and removed us from our bondage to sin, the sting of death is also removed. Jesus, who knew no sin, was made sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are no longer under the law, but under grace having the bondage to sin broken and becoming slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:15-18).

Second, we have the same confidence as Paul that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:20) because to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). That is why in Philippians 1:23-24 “hard-pressed from both [directions,] having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for [that] is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” Paul had no fear of death because he knew that his spirit would immediately be in the presence of the Lord. I realize that some Christian groups teach that the soul will sleep until Jesus returns, but that is not what Paul believed or taught, and I trust the apostle Paul a lot more than speculating theologians. Myrtle’s body is in this grave, but Myrtle’s soul is already with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Third, there will be a day that our bodies will be changed to become like the resurrected body that Jesus now has. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15 that it is necessary for us to have a different type of body for flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. We must have bodies that are imperishable and immortal. That is exactly what will happen when Jesus returns. 1 Corinthians 15:52 tells us that this will happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 tells us, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of [the] archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.” Those who have already died will precede those that are alive and remain, but all those who belong to the Lord Jesus Christ will be changed instantly and have glorified bodies. And while do not know the exact nature of those bodies, we do know they will be like the resurrected body of Jesus (1 John 3:2).

We are gathered in a graveyard, but it is not the troubling place it is for those who are not Christians. As those who have placed their faith and trust in the person, work and promises of the Lord Jesus Christ, we no longer fear death. We are standing next to the grave of our beloved sister in Christ, E. Myrtle Baker, but we know that all that is here are the remains of her earthly body. Her soul is already enjoying the joy of being in the presence of our Lord. We are here today in this cemetery and at this grave to bear testimony to our belief, that one day that her body lying in the casket buried here, as well as those of every other true Christian around the world, will be changed and made alive, and their graves will not be able to contain them any more than the tomb was able to contain Jesus. He is alive! So shall we be as well.

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