Screaming in the Face of Death
It is difficult to tell if the countenance is grinning, scowling, or yawning open with insatiable hunger, but it seems that Death’s face is closer than usual as it stares out from the inky shadows at the edges of life. Death feels more present than usual right now.
International headlines continue to report on disease-related and suicide death rates around the world as Russian bombs pound Ukraine. An unprecedented leak from the Supreme Court has foregrounded death in American political discourse in what is fast-becoming a new chapter of our commonwealth’s spotty history of securing the rights and privileges of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves and our posterity. On the personal front, two individuals of great significance in my own life have recently died. It feels like Death is staring at me, and he is not friendly. And yet, he is not unfamiliar.
Every Lord’s Day — and at least once during the midweek - I make my way to a little church property with a churchyard cemetery that occupies the better part of three acres. The immediacy of death and eternity is there, at the threshold of my congregation’s modest meetinghouse where we gather to praise the Lord of Life in the Land of the Living. The historic churchyard at “Old Antioch Church” confronts me with both a familiar foe - Death - and the Christian’s comfort - Christ’s sin-satisfying sacrifice and life-securing resurrection. Death may be staring out from beyond the event horizon, but Christ’s foot is on his broken neck.
Isaiah 25:8 anticipates Christ’s victory over death, peculiarly characterized in the preceding verse as an enveloping cover over all peoples: “He shall swallow up death everlastingly.” Paul expounds on this verse by affirming the certainty of Christ’s victory over death in 1 Corinthians 15:54: “But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.” We read in Hebrews 2:14 and 15 the application to us of Christ’s victory even as we continue to make our pilgrimage through the shadow of Death: “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”
As a Christian, these words (and indeed, the whole counsel of Scripture) are words of life that shield me and equip me against the terrors of death. With the world around us seeming to be covered by a heavy blanket of woe, the Spirit of God by His Word draws us out from under death’s suffocating embrace. Even as pro-death activists organize protests in front of Supreme Court Justices’ homes, throw Molotov cocktails through pregnancy crisis center windows, and push legislation through the US Senate to codify the insane legality of murdering the unborn, God assures us in His Word that Christ has vanquished death. Satan’s reign in God’s world is in fact unraveling. Death itself is coming undone.
The forces of this world, expressed through much of our current discourse surrounding medicine, education, celebrity culture, law, and politics deny the reality and inevitability of aging, dying, and death. They scream,
“This life is all there is! Nothing of worth pierces through our lived experience. Death is of no consequence. Simply ignore it. Do not think about it. Do not live in light of it.”
This is a vain coping mechanism which does nothing to address the severity of what awaits each of us. But God gives a different message that confronts death head-on. His is a message of life’s victory over death, a message of hope, the Christian gospel which has inspired the church of Christ and her individual members to be tenacious agents of life ever since Christ endowed the church with His Spirit of Life. The Christian makes no desperate scream in the face of death, but rather shouts in victory under the kingship and instruction of the immortal Christ.
Thus it is proper to ask Him, “what makes life good for the one who lives it?” Or put another way, “what makes my life worth living?” God in Christ teaches us “Flourishing (traditionally, Blessed) are you when people falsely insult you because of Me, and when they falsely persecute you because of Me, and when they falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11, 12). Your life is worth living when it is lived wholeheartedly for Christ’s sake and to the glory of God, come what may. As proved by the unified testimony of prophets and martyrs, not even Death can overshadow the saving power of Christ in a life lived for Him. Whether Death is grinning or scowling, yawning or simply peering out of the gloom, it is utterly powerless against Christ Jesus, the Lord of Life who is Himself Life in its fullest measure.
Zachary Groff is Director of Advancement & Admissions at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Taylors, SC, and Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Woodruff, SC.
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