Friday, April 1, 2011

A Devotional for the Twenty-Fourth Day of Lent

O Lord, God of my salvation,
 when, at night, I cry out in your presence, 
let my prayer come before you;
 incline your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of troubles,
 and my life draws near to Sheol. 
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
 I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead,
 like the slain that lie in the grave,
 like those whom you remember no more,
 for they are cut off from your hand. 
(Psalm 88:1-5)

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:8-11)

Stories about post-death existences intrigue me. Vampires, zombies, and ghosts violate the finality of death, but in a way that makes them very unpleasant. They are separated from everything that lives, but they still get to hang around and bother everyone. There is a subtext to these horror stories: Even if death can be cheated, you probably won’t like it much.

The psalmist speaks of death in a desperate way. He feels as though he is already in the company of the dead because it seems like God has forsaken him. For the ancient Hebrews, death was a shadowy post-life experience if it was anything at all. To be consigned to the grave was to be truly gone and forgotten, even by God.

Some might say that for death to simply be the end of life—a shutting off of human consciousness—would be a relief from the stresses of human life. Others see horror in eternal nothingness—such a thing is unfathomable to us. To sleep and never wake is something that perplexes and frightens us.

The older I get the more concerned I am about the whole death thing. I’ve been a follower of Jesus for a pretty long time, but I still find myself fretting from time to time about what happens after death. I appreciate all the metaphors in the Bible about the heavenly city and all that, but I still wonder what it might be like to die and enter a realm that I have never before experienced. Worse yet, what if I’ve been on the wrong track all along, and death is just death, or even an eternal banishment to a mall in New Jersey? You never know.

The apostle Paul, however, speaks of a greater hope than my dark little mind can create. He recognizes the power that sin and death have over human beings. He also understood the magnitude of God, in Jesus Christ, experiencing human death—in essence, allowing the powers that destroy human existence to have their way with him. Paul says, that in the death of Jesus, all human death is represented. He dies on our behalf in that he represents us all in that terminal place.

It is the resurrection of Jesus that gives a sucker punch to death. In the post-death Jesus there is no ghoulie or ghostie, but a new life that destroys death’s power to have the final word for human beings. Paul says that the resurrection of Jesus also represents something for all of us: Hope that we will also be made new, and that death will not speak finally for us.

But there is something more in Paul’s words. Resurrection is more than an anticipated hope; it is a living reality. He says that, if we have died with Christ—that is, if we have trusted our lives to what God has done in Jesus and no longer allow sin to dominate us—then we now fully identify with him in his resurrection. And that means that our lives are now grounded in hope rather than in despair.

Hope changes the way we live today.

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