Once to Die
By Dr. Mickey Anders
“He brushed his teeth twice a day – with fluoride.
The doctor examined him twice a year.
He slept with plenty of fresh air.
He watched his diet and took his vitamins.
He golfed, but never more than 18 holes at a time.
He got at least 8 hours sleep every night.
He never smoked, drank, nor lost his temper.
He was set to live to be a hundred
His funeral will be held Monday.
He is survived by 18 specialists,
4 health institutions,
And numerous manufacturers
of health foods and vitamins.”
Sometimes I think death is a surprise to all of us. We are masters at putting the thought out of our minds. We tiptoe around death as if ignoring it will make it go away. Others think it is just too morbid to think about. But our text for today reminds us of the harsh reality, “It is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
The first thing we can safely say is, “Death is inevitable.” Frank Pollard tells a story about working in the oil fields as a young man before he entered the ministry. He said he worked with a man who was big. He was very big physically. He had a big life, a big mouth, a big heart, a big appetite. Everything about him was big. He had the most wonderful attitude toward life, it seemed. He had a most unusual kind of work ethic. He worked cheerfully. He worked hard. He did what needed to be done. He dug the ditches. He put in the pipes. He set the stop valves. He did everything he was supposed to do, but he never really cared if he did it right. When he would do something wrong and have to dig it up and do it all over again, he’d say, “Fellows, don’t worry. No big deal. None of us is going to get out of this life alive anyhow.” (2)
Mark Twain once said the same thing this way, “This life is a losing proposition; nobody gets out of it alive.”
Death happens all the time. It’s a statistical fact. No matter how we look at it we are going to die. It’s inevitable. Ultimately the death rate is 100 percent. We can try to postpone it, and we should. We can try to lessen its pain. We can try to deny its existence. But one thing is clear: We cannot escape death.
One out of every 111 people in the world will die this year. In fact, on average 1.76 people will die every single second. Fifty-five million people die in this world every single year — 152,000 people per day. From the time this worship services starts to the time it stops, 6,340 people will have died.
Dustin Hoffman, the Academy Award winning actor, amazed audiences with his incredible characters like Tootsie and Rainman. In an interview, Hoffman revealed his plans for the epitaph on his tombstone. He said it will simply read, “I knew this was going to happen.”
What should our attitude toward death be? Is death a friend or a foe? Is it just a natural part of living or is it an enemy to be conquered?
Some people have made the study of death into a science. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote several books about dying, her most famous was On Death and Dying. She suggests that death is the natural end of life. It is just a part of the life process, and we should learn to accept it as such.
The Psalmist says,
“The days of our years are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty years;
yet their pride is but labor and sorrow,
for it passes quickly, and we fly away…
So teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom”
(Psalm 90:10 & 12).
Revelation 14:13 says, “I heard the voice from heaven saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.'” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors; for their works follow with them.”
The book Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom has been an incredibly popular book about a mentor who was dying. At one point in the book, Morrie Schwartz says to Mitch:
“Take any emotion – love for a woman, or grief for a loved one, or what I’m going through, fear and pain from a deadly illness. If you hold back on the emotions – if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them – you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails. But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely…”
Morrie stopped and looked over at Mitch, perhaps to make sure he was getting this right.
“I know you think this is just about dying,” he said, “but it’s like I keep telling you. When you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” (3)
A preacher friend named Fred Kane tells the story about one night when he played a parlor game that called for the leader to call out a word, and then the others were supposed to choose a synonym for that word. The woman leading the game said, “The next word is `immorality.'” There was quiet in the room. She said, “Well you ought to get that, Rev. Kane, you are an expert in immorality.” He said, “I think the word is `immortality.'” Then he added, “I am not an expert in immortality. In fact, no one is. There is only one way to become an expert, and that is to face your own dying.” (4)
The Apostle Paul did that in Philippians. He described his dilemma saying he was hard pressed between his two choices. He could die and be with Christ, or stay and continue his ministry. Finally, he concluded in verse 21, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
But in many other places in the Bible and in society death is viewed as the ultimate enemy.
A famous poem by Dylan Thomas says:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (5)
Woody Allen said, “When I die, all I want is just a few of my good friends to gather around the casket, and do everything in their power to bring me back to life.” (6)
Death is an enemy. It is a great destroyer. Death takes all the aspirations of people, the dreams of their heart and the memories of the mind. Death severs the ties that bind a person to their loved ones. Death’s work is relentless, cruel and merciless.
Death is an enemy to be defeated. Death leaves sorrow, pain, loneliness, and unfulfilled dreams in its wake. We must not accept it as a simple part of the human life cycle. Death is too destructive to embrace.
1 Corinthians 15:26 says, “The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” Paul argues that death came into the world by the sin of Adam, but the life of Christ brought resurrection of the dead. He concludes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57:
“But when this corruptible will have put on incorruption,
and this mortal will have put on immortality,
then what is written will happen:
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘Death, where is your sting?
Hades, where is your victory?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul says that Jesus Christ, “abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the Good News.”
And John the Revelator makes that great promise in Revelation 21:4, God “will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more. The first things have passed away.”
These verses are a wonderful affirmation that Christ has conquered death, and we do not have to fear death. But we must confess that it is still a mystery for us. Many people struggle with their fear of death. It is hard for us to affirm with Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:51, “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.”
In spite of our lack of understanding, we want to affirm the victory over death. We want to have hope for life beyond this life. But we are still faced with the task of living.
John Killinger tells of a woman who is approaching the end. She says, “I am ready to go, but I am not ready to leave.” She’s a woman of faith. She’s prepared herself, not with the inevitable stages of dying, but with the promise of the gospel. So she is ready to go. But she also knows that it isn’t right. She wants to live. So she isn’t ready to leave. (7)
In the movie The Secret Garden, based on the book by Frances Burnett, a little girl — Mary — is made an orphan when her parents both suddenly die. They really didn’t care much for her anyway. She moves to England, to Misselthwaite Manor, the mansion of her eccentric uncle, Lord Archibald Craven. His wife has died, and he has withdrawn from living — even refusing to love is only son, Colin, lest Colin die, too. Mary roams the mansion until one day she discovers a sickly boy in his bed, her cousin Colin whom she did not even know existed.
Everyone had told him that he was dying, that he was developing a lump in his back like his father’s and would one day die at an early age. He had lived his whole life in the sick bed, waiting to die.
“Don’t you ever go outside?” Mary asked.
“Never,” Colin replied.
“What’s the matter with you?” Mary asked.
“I’m going to die,” Colin said.
“From what?” Mary inquired.
“Everything,” Colin replied.
On their second encounter, Colin, of course, is still talking about his favorite subject — dying.
“I hate the way you talk about dying,” Mary said in disgust.
“Everyone thinks I’ll die,” Colin replied.
“If everyone thought that about me, I would not do it,” said Mary defiantly, as if she could deny death its due.
In their third encounter, while Colin continues to speak of his impending death, Mary shouts, “What do you know about dying?”
“My mother died,” he retorts, as if death is a strange disease that only runs in his family.
“Well, both my mother and my father died,” Mary countered, as if to say she, too, had known the sting of death. What she is saying to Colin is “Get over it! We will all die. But there is a time to live!”
John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud tells about a boy who is diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of sixteen. From his father’s point of view, it tells about his will to live and to learn. Johnny Gunther was a very intelligent person. He had always dreamed of going to Harvard someday. During his fifteen months of cancer, Johnny was always enthusiastic about living. If you saw him on the street you would never have guessed that this boy has brain cancer and is going to die. Johnny had a very strong look on life. At one point in the book Johnny said, “I have so much to do, and so little time to do it!” During his illness Johnny would always keep up with schoolwork. He rarely complained about pain. All he really cared about was making the last few months of his life worth living. When Johnny died it simply said on his tombstone, “Death, thou shalt DIE!” (8)
Howard Batson, pastor of First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Texas, says that death is like taking a long trip. At first, we are busy asking how much longer, how much farther. But then we relax and drift off to sleep in the back seat of the car. Then miraculously we wake up the next morning in our bed.
How did it happen? When we arrived home, our dad picked us up from the back of the car. He carried us to our room and put on our pajamas. Then he gently laid us in bed. We woke up the next morning and we were at home.
Death is something like that. Somewhere in the journey of life, we, too, go to sleep. But our loving, heavenly Father will take us in His arms and carry us to a place He has prepared for us.
Jesus told His disciples not to be afraid. In His Father’s house there were “many homes. If it weren’t so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. 14:3 If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also” (John 14:2-3).
Jesus took the mystery out of death. We don’t have to be afraid anymore. He experienced death. He emerged victoriously alive and said that we, too, will experience life after death in the kingdom of God, in the presence of the Father and the Son. (9)
Because He lives, we can live too.
1) 4) “No One Will Get Out Alive” by Dr. Howard K. Batson, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Texas, December 2, 2001, http://www.ethicsdaily.com/doclib/upload/011202.htm. Retrieved 10/15/03.
2) Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 103-104.
3) “Alive Now” by Fred Kane, posted on PRCL, April 16, 2000.
4) The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, New Directions (New York) 1971.
5) Fred Kane, op. cit.
7) Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther, review posted on Amazon.com
9) Batson, op. cit.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003 Mickey Anders. Used by permission.