The Four Last Things: Death


Sermon for Sunday, November 29th, 2020

Advent I


The really scary thing about this plague that has been running rampant through our world this year is that this virus has a strain of unpredictability about it. 

On the one hand, doctors and scientists have identified clear high-risk activities and high-risk groups. There are some patterns to how the virus is transmitted and who is likely to suffer the most from it. 

On the other hand, we all know stories of extremely high-risk individuals that contracted covid and defeated it, some barely suffering any symptoms, and we all know stories of healthy, young individuals that this virus has killed quickly. There is this degree of uncertainty to our lives right now. Granted, it is not a huge degree of uncertainty, compared to our ancestors and compared to much of the world even now we live in relative comfort and safety, but still the grim specter of death has invaded our lives this year in ways that we would not have even imagined on the first Sunday in Advent last year. We have less certainty. The reality of death and the possibility of our own deaths is probably a little bit more real to us this year, than it was last year. Let’s face it, we have gotten very used to shying away from death in the modern, western world. We’ll show it on TV, and in video games, and in movies, but we don’t want to talk about it or think about it in real life. It makes us uncomfortable. It has gotten to the point where we won’t even talk about death at a funeral anymore. We have gotten so good at blocking the reality of death out of our daily lives, that we can no longer process it when it actually happens. We were not always this timid.

When I was a child, which really wasn’t all that long ago, I can remember that the first prayer my grandmother ever taught me, was the “now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. You know:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Think about that for a second. In my first prayer as a child, I was taught about the reality of death. And you know, I didn’t find it unusual or upsetting. It didn’t give me horrible nightmares. I didn’t envision snakes encircling my bed like in that Metallica video enter sandman, which that prayer makes a cameo in. You know what I find interesting about that prayer now? It is that it isn’t a prayer to be spared from death. Death is not presented as something that is scary or to be feared. Death is just a given in this prayer. The request is that if death should happen that we would be gathered unto God. The main fear here is not death, but separation from God. That is what we should be concerned about. Maybe death will come like a thief in the night, and maybe it won’t; our concern as Christians is not whether we live or die; it is whether in life or in death we are connected to Christ. That is what that prayer is all about.

Several years ago, I discovered this little prayer bear, where if you pressed his paw he would say a little prayer. And the prayer was “Now I lay me down to sleep,” only some of the words had been changed. Now it was:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

Angels watch me through the night,

And wake me with the morning light.

That is a very different prayer. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to you, but it is really a huge change. In the first prayer death is not something to be feared, it is a given; the second prayer is so afraid of death it can’t even say its name. The second prayer is just about God using his power or his angels to keep us alive for another day. Death is what is to be feared or avoided in this second prayer. In the first prayer, it is separation from God.

Maybe some well-meaning person thought that kids aren’t capable of understand or dealing with death, so they re-wrote the prayer. I don’t really know the origin of the new prayer. But what does it say about our own fears if we cannot discuss death with our children? What does it say about our faith as Christians if we treat death like it is the worst thing imaginable? What kind of power does death have over us if we are so afraid of it that we can’t even talk about it? We need to learn how to talk about it again, and this year is as good a time as any to start.

You know, there is an old preaching tradition in the church of using the four Sundays of Advent to talk about the four last things. You may think of Advent like an Advent calendar, a chocolate filled countdown to Christmas, but as our scripture readings make clear this morning, Advent is first and foremost about the second coming of Christ. Christians believe that the world as we know it will some day come to an end and that in that moment Christ will once again break into our reality, in powerful and glorious ways, and that that end will also represent a new beginning. There will be a new creation: a new heaven and a new earth. Things that seemed everlasting, like the sun and the moon and the stars will fade into insignificance in the light of the eternal creative Word of God. Things that we thought were important will no longer be so. Advent is about longing for God to be present in our lives and in our world. When Jesus talked about the coming of the son of man he used the image of a fig tree getting ready to sprout new leaves. In other words, this is something that will represent new life and new fruit. It isn’t just an end, it is an ending that is also a new beginning. So what are these four last things? What are these things that represent the end of one world and the beginning of another?

The four last things are death, judgement, heaven and hell. It used to be quite common for Advent sermons to be focused on these four last things, but it has largely fallen out of favor in recent years. But I’m in a festive mood, so I figured, what the heck? I’ll do a sermon series on the four last things, which is why we began by discussing death. Lucky you. And lest some of the more protestant minded among you think that this is some bit of old popery that I have dug up, there is an extended poem about the four last things written by the Puritan John Bunyan. What is the Christian response to the first of these four last things, death, according to Bunyan? Here is what he writes:

45. Among those glittering Stars of light

That Christ still holdeth fast

In his right hand with all his might,

Until that danger’s past,

46. That shakes the world, and most hath dropt

Into grief and distress,

O blessed then is he that’s wrapt

In Christ his righteousness.

47. This is the man Death cannot kill;

For he hath put on arms;

Him Sin nor Satan hath not skill

To hurt with all their charms,

48. An Helmet on his head doth stand,

A Breast-plate on his Heart:

A Shield also is in his Hand,

That blunteth every Dart.

49. Truth girds him round the Reins, also

His Sword is on his Thigh;

His Feet in Shooes of Peace do go

The ways of Purity.

50. His Heart it groaneth to the Lord,

Who hears him at his call,

And doth him help and strength afford,

Wherewith he conquers all.

51. Thus fortify’d he keeps the field

While Death is gone and fled;

And then lies down upon his Shield

Till Christ doth raise the dead.

Our greatest fear, as Christians, cannot be death, because death only has ultimate power over us when we are separated from God. That should always be our chief concern: in times of plague and in times of health, in good times and in bad times, in sleeping and in waking, in starting a new year and in ending an old one: are we being united to Christ? If we live, we live unto the Lord; and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live therefor, or die, we are the Lord’s. Our greatest fear is not death, it is separation from God. 

Advent is a celebration of our union with God. It is a union that we await and look to be completed in our Lord’s second coming; and it is a union that we have been given glimpses of in our Lord’s first coming. We stand and live our lives in between the two. For this next month I will be discussing the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. My hope in doing so, is not to bring down fire and brimstone on the month of December, but rather to encourage us as Christians to live and die as people who are longing to see Jesus. That is what Advent, and the entire Christian life is really all about: longing to see Jesus.