Pastor Vince Gerhardy
An elderly man lay dying in his bed. In death’s agony, he suddenly smelled the aroma of his favourite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs. He gathered his remaining strength, and lifted himself from the bed. Leaning against the wall, he slowly made his way out of the bedroom, and with even greater effort forced himself down the stairs, gripping the railing with both hands.
With laboured breath, he leaned against the doorframe, gazing into the kitchen. There, spread out on the kitchen table were literally hundreds of his favourite chocolate chip cookies. Had he died and gone to heaven?
Or was it merely one final act of heroic love from his devoted wife, making sure that he left this world a happy man?
Mustering one great final effort, he threw himself toward the table. His aged and withered hand made its way to a cookie at the edge of the table, when his wife suddenly smacked it with a spatula.
“Stay out of those,” she said. “They’re for the funeral.”
One of the most inevitable events of life is that death will come to all of us. That’s a morbid thought and it’s good to be able to smile occasionally at death. The Bible, however, does more than smile at death, it laughs at death. In mockery the apostle Paul calls out to death saying, “Where is your sting, death? You are powerless because Jesus has defeated you through his own death and resurrection. You can’t hurt us, death, because Jesus has given us a wonderful new life after this life”.
There is saying (I don’t know it’s origin) that goes like this, It is a glorious thing to ride upon a ship that may well be shaken by storms and tossed about by the waves, but no matter what happens, we know, it will reach the harbour. This little saying about the sea and its storms reminds us that our voyage through life might be rough and dangerous but one day this voyage will end and we will reach the quiet waters of the harbour that we call heaven.
Let me illustrate this a little further. Think of a mystery or thriller novel or movie. As you follow the story you are never quite sure what will come next and how the writer will bring the story to a conclusion. If the writer is clever, he/she will surprise you with a twist in the last few pages, and there is an ending that you had never anticipated as the story unfolded. You are kept on the edge of your seats not knowing what will be revealed in the last pages.
That’s how some people live life. They are always on edge as life’s story unfolds never too sure what will happen, always aware that the story will end one day but what will happen on the final pages of their life story is a mystery. They resign themselves to the fact that they will just have to wait and see.
They believe that death is inevitably the last chapter.
They are unaware of the epilogue which is not the end but the beginning of a new story.
A SERMONWRITER SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Thanks so much, Dick! This is great. Your exegesis is the thing that really helps me to have confidence in my preaching. I hate to walk into the pulpit thinking that I understand the passage but having nagging thoughts about issues that I am not sure I really have a handle on. Your exegesis helps me to feel that I have a firm grasp of all of the issues.”
There is another kind of story. Whereas the author of a crime thriller obscures the ending of his story, there are some great writers who tell us at the beginning of the book, perhaps even in the subtitle, that their book is a tragedy, and that therefore the most brilliant and fascinating character of the story will meet a tragic end or live happily ever after. From the beginning of the book and movie Lord of the Rings we believe that evil will be defeated. We know how the story will end. The skill of the story teller then is not in keeping the reader in suspense, waiting for the ending because he/she already knows the ending. However, in a tragedy or great novel one asks: “What will happen in order that the sad or happy ending which I know from the beginning will be worked out in this person’s life?”
Likewise in the stories that tell of a person that goes from “rags to riches”. You know how the story starts and finishes. The main character starts poor and finishes rich. The interesting part of the story is how the life of the person unfolds between being nobody to becoming a somebody.
God has not made our life a mystery story with an uncertain ending, but rather that on the first page of our life, when the baptismal blessing is pronounced upon us, he reveals what that ending will be. The Bible tells us that on the horizon of our lives there stands a person at whose feet all the zigzag roads in the adventures of my existence will end. At your baptism you were “baptised into (Jesus’) death” (Romans 6.3), but “just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father” you too have been given the certainty of a resurrection like that of Jesus. Listen to Paul, “If we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will also be part of his resurrection” (Romans 6.5).
At your baptism he has claimed you as his own, as his own child, an heir to eternal life.
At your baptism you are one with Christ in his death and resurrection; you are forgiven and reconciled to God.
At your baptism he comes to you with the deepest love and says, ‘I love you. I will be with you always!’ That is tremendously comforting to know when we do eventually walk through the final shadowy valley. The Lord is with us! He is with us every step of the way as we go through it, to strengthen and help us if the way gets hard.
I know my ship will reach the harbour; I know that the next pages of the calendar contain only a prologue to this grand concluding chapter – eternal life with my Lord and Saviour.
You can be confident that the operation you are facing,
the business crisis you are confronting,
the exams ahead of you,
the career successes and disappointments,
the trouble you are having with your children,
they are all stages on the way to this one great point.
Or to look at this from the point of view of world history – the famines, earthquakes, wars and civil wars, the refugees, the murders and the loss of love in our world, as Jesus says, are all stages along the way. They are a prelude to the great moment when Christ will break into our history and call us to life forever in heaven.
Whoever said that it is a glorious thing to ride upon as ship that may well be shaken by storms and tossed about by the waves, but no matter what happens it will reach the harbour, must have been listening to the Bible and its message of hope.
As much as we would like to hop on some “celestial lift”, press the button marked “Paradise” and be whisked to the “heavenly floor”, quickly and comfortably, with no pain and no suffering, this is just not reality. But even though death often brings sadness into our lives when someone dear to us leaves this life, and even though death can be distressing when we see how people suffer before their last moment in this life, there is no reason to see death as a tragic mystery, as a fearful foe, as something that makes no sense to us.
It is Jesus who makes all the difference. We are certain of the forgiveness and the eternal life that Jesus has won for us through his death on the cross. We know that our future is safe in the hands of our loving Saviour who has written the end of our life stories for us – or should I say, he has written the beginning of oureternal life stories. For the Christian, everything in life is moving to the finale, everything is moving toward that time when we will be able to enjoy the perfect joy heaven. We know how the story of our earthly life is ending – it is not a mystery.
It is true we don’t know what events will lead up to our departure from this life, but there is no mystery where the person who trusts in Christ will finally end up. Jesus said: “He who believes in me will still live, even if he dies. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25b-26). That is God’s promise.
There is no doubt that God has written the final chapter of this world’s history, when he says, ‘For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth…. Behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. … There shall be heard in her no more the voice of weeping and the voice of crying’ (Isaiah 65:17-19).
Our life is not a mystery story with an uncertain ending, neither does the history of our world have an uncertain ending. Christ has made sure of the ending of our life stories. He has won for us eternal life, a place in heaven, victory over death.
In the meantime the rest of the story of our lives is lived in anticipation of the final ending, just like any “rags to riches story”. We know the ending but the way the story between the beginning and end is filled in is extremely important. Jude says: “you, beloved, keep building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. On some have compassion, making a distinction, 1:23 and some save, snatching them out of the fire…” (Jude 20-23a).
And didn’t Jesus say in his parable about the Last Judgement that those who have shown love and mercy in the name of Jesus will be given a blessed inheritance? As we wait, and while God goes on giving us life, he’s in charge of our life and we are dedicated to serving God and others. Our one concern now is that God’s will is carried out and that we will be ready for day when we leave this life.
There isn’t much time to do the tasks that God has given each of us. We need to do them now, life is too short to put things off until tomorrow; our lives flee like a shadow and tomorrow the opportunity maybe gone. Make the most of the time we have on this planet. The end may come and all the things that we had put off until another day will be left undone.
No matter what triumphs, what losses occur between now and the end;
no matter tragedies and strife will take place on the world scene;
no matter what happens to me over the years, I know my ship will reach the harbour.
It is a glorious thing to ride upon a ship that may well be shaken by storms and tossed by the waves of life, but we know that no matter what happens it will reach the harbour.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2007, Vince Gerhardy. Used by permission.