"Death be not proud, for thou art not so," wrote John Donne (1572-1631), the great poet and much-quoted pastor of St. Paul's Cathedral. Yet, then as now even the most memorable words in our language can seem empty and cold. Death seems to terrorize us like a dark specter as it stalks the wounded widow and oppresses the lonely orphan. Lest we face this menace of mankind as if it didn't exist, as if it had been eradicated from the world or as if we could stand stoically flint-faced and unmoved by it, we must acknowledge the Bible does admit its gruesome and inhumane attack on our emotions.
My beloved, the apostle Paul says we grieve, not as those who have no hope, but we grieve nevertheless. Even our blessed Savior wept and literally was bent over in visceral grief as He witnessed the death of His friend Lazarus and the mournful scene before the cold crypt. Jesus Christ knew the destiny of death in the Father's glorious plan of redemption for the world. Yet He sympathizes with us and in His humanity has felt not only the festive joy of a friend's wedding at Cana, but also deep sadness at a friend's funeral at Bethany. We must never minimize the sense of deep, personal loss of even the most devout of believers.
I think of the great faith of a dear couple I've known for years. I always will recall their greeting to me after my last sermon of the day in evening worship, encouraging me in the gospel to keep preaching. What a blessing they were to me! What a couple they made! To deny that the husband's death does not leave a sense of loss is to deny our very humanity and that of Christ's! Yet we ask God to comfort this widow because the home going of the one she loved is a great and painful loss to her, to their children, to the grandchildren and to the countless people this man of God touched. I personally feel his loss in my own life.
We affirm the words of the psalmist: "The Lord remembers our frame and has pity on His people. For He knows our frame; He remembers we are dust" (Psalms 103:14). Indeed, the Lord speaks of the passing of His saints in a most comforting way when He said in Psalms 116:15, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." In John 5:1-47, Jesus tells us that when a man repents and trusts in Christ--when He makes that monumental transfer of trust from self to Christ, his sins are laid on Jesus, and the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to him--something glorious happens:
"Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but he has passed from death to life."
God has done something amazing with death. What has God done with death? Our God has sweetened the pain of death.
Note the Lord says, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." Precious is a word I thought one dear saint coined herself, for she always would say this or that was "just precious, Mike." I loved hearing that phrase from her! However, she was using a biblical word. Precious is the Hebrew word yaqar, which means "valuable." It is used to refer to godly women. I like the word sweet--"precious, valuable and just plain sweet in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints."
Now how is death sweet? It is sweet in that the Lord called that one from the womb, sweet in that He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for that one, sweet in that He sent His Spirit to seal the work of Christ in that person's life; and then when the time was right for the Lord to call His child home, that too is precious, valuable, just plain sweet.
The word sweet comes to the lips of many as they fondly remember men, albeit in a very manly way. We all know men of whom it can be said, "He was a precious man of God, and he was sweet in his heart for God and for others."
I often have heard that folks get either sour or sweet as they grow older. I hope I get to be like my dear friend who has passed away: sweet.
This I know: Because of the valuable sacrifice of Christ for his life, he was sweet to the Father. Thus, God has sweetened the pain we feel today as we gather to remember his life. For "Precious in the sight of the Lord" is the home going of His child and of all men and women, boys and girls, who repent and trust in His sweet Son, Jesus Christ.
What had God done to death? Sweetened it. He's done something else, also:
Our God has sanctified His people before death. The Bible says that all who believe in Him are saints. In fact, 80 times in the Bible God uses the word saints to describe those who believe in Him.
Recently, the Vatican told us Pope John Paul II was on the road to official sainthood. With all due respect, God, not man, makes a saint. Paul writes in Romans 1:7 to those who were "called to be saints." I went to a Nazarene college, and we used to talk about the emphasis in the Nazarene Church upon holiness. Holiness comes from grace; it comes from Christ at work in a life. You see, that sweet man of God whose life we are celebrating was a holy man of God, a saint because God was sanctifying him, making him saintly, making him to be more like Jesus throughout all of the days of his life. Why? One reason was that by the time he went home to Christ, he had spent many hours in prayer, many hours in looking to Jesus and depending on Him for his life. When Jesus took him and led him into His presence, Jesus was not a stranger to our friend. He is not a stranger to His people who are His chosen ones. He is their friend, their Savior, their longed-for Savior.
We are precious in His sight because we are saints. Paul says we are saints in the household of God, that is, in the family of God. God transforms our souls, and we are born again. Then we are justified, declared "right with God" because of the finished work of Christ. We are adopted into His family as His children. Thus, God makes us saints, His chosen ones.
That can be you today if you will repent and receive Christ. You can know for sure that you are His and He is yours. You can know for sure where you are going when you die, just like my friend knew. You can do that with a simple prayer right now where you are. If you are a saint, if you are His child, then today is a day to renew your commitment to Christ and grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. In the movie It's a Wonderful Life, the delightful Clarence got wings as an angel by helping Jimmy Stewart's character. He became a completed angel. Our friend who we remember today was an angel in many ways, though he didn't earn wings. He did receive the free gift of being a saint, not because of anything he did, but because of what Christ did for him. He believed by faith in Jesus Christ, and it was accounted as righteousness. He was beautified by God. He became a saint. Today he is fully glorified and worshipping Christ face to face. Today, he and all who have trusted in Christ and have gone on to be with Jesus are completed saints.
What has God done to death? He was sweetened it. He has sanctified those who pass through it so they are His saints. Finally, our God has secured His possession through Jesus Christ.
Our Lord Jesus taught in the Gospel of John 5 about His authority as the Son of God. In verse 24, Jesus said that whoever hears His Word and believes in Him has eternal life. That word in the Greek means "possesses," and the manner in which it is used by Jesus means that whoever believes has eternal life here and now, not just in the next life, as some think of Christianity. In fact, Jesus enforces that teaching by saying those who die in the Lord do not come into judgment but have passed from death to life.
God already secured His possession--that is, His people--and given us eternal life the moment we trust in Him. Our friend has been living in a state of eternal life since that young age when he repented of his sins and trusted in the resurrected and living Christ. Jesus secures our eternal life by His death on the cross. Paul, in Romans 8, tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Jesus says that no one can snatch us out of His hand. There is no judgment for us. The judgment for all who trust in Christ happened on the cross when Jesus died for our sins. We are acquitted on the day of judgment because of Jesus Christ.
Do you have that security? Do you know that if you died today, you would see Jesus Christ as your Savior, not as your Judge? You can have this assurance by doing what Jesus says in John 5: Hear the Word of Life and believe in Christ, believe that He lived the life you never can live and died the death that should have been yours. Then you will have passed from death to life.
My friend did not complete a journey this week. He began that journey many years ago. He continued a journey--a journey of worship, love and eternal life with God.
If you believe in the One our beloved friend believed in, you not only will see him again, you will see Jesus Christ face to face. That is the promise of God. That is the gospel. For in Christ, the pastor-poet's words are true: "Death be not proud...for thou art not so. Death, thou shalt die!"
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Wright, N. T., Kevin Harney, and Sherry Harney. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church: Six Sessions: Participants Guide. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2010.