Monday, February 1, 2016

Preaching to the Dying

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Often preachers can be tempted to forget a simple truth.  We are preaching to the dying.  And no, I don't mean this in some sort of Kennedy Dialog Explosion Evangelism (or whatever it was called) sort of way where you ask someone, "What would happen if you died tonight?"  That treats death like a hypothetical - it treats death as a possibility which possibly might be closer than they like to think.
Death isn't a possibility.  Your people are dying.  You are dying.  And you live in a world of death.  Even in the midst of life, we are *in* death.

Seriously.  Every moment of your life in this world, you are stuck in the middle of death.  If you pause to look, you'll see it all over, in your body, in your friends, in your relationships, in stuff, in the world itself.

Don't believe me?  Perhaps you would do well to recall how St. Paul defines death.  He defines death as the wages of of sin.  You realize that is the point there is Romans?  Normally we say "the wages of sin is death" and tend to think of it only in the direction of "I do bad things, therefore I will die."  We think of getting this payment or wage someday down the line.  Nope.  We get it now.

Or do you not realize that the impact of every sin is death?  Is taking something good and wonderful given to you by God and seeing it... break.  Change.  Decay.  Fall apart.  Each time you feel that muscle pull - there's a little bit of death for you.  Each time that little doodad breaks - that's a little bit of death for you.  Each time you say that harsh, cruel word, your doing a bit of killing and a bit of the blessing that relationship was to be dies a bit.

Look around.  Look around and see the wages of sin in you and all around you.

Don't try to hide from it.  Don't try to deny it - to push it off to some hypothetical point in the future.  That's death.  Your death.  Even here and now, because you are dying.

And you know what, O preacher?  Your people are dying.  They are sick to death because of sin.  And it's terminal.

And they might be in denial.  Shoot, you might be in denial.  You might think if you can just gussy them up a bit more virtue or civility that you've fixed things.  No.  Still dying.  Maybe that eases some of the pain, make dying a bit easier.  But even the most virtuous man you know is dying - just like the person who eats the healthiest diet and exercises the most is still going to shuffle off the mortal coil sooner or later.  Now, there's a place for moderation, for virtue.  It can be a great thing if you understand what it is for.  If you eat moderately and exercise because it improves the quality of your short, short earthly stay - great.  If you think it's going to make you live, well, give it a century and the tombstone will show you wrong.  Likewise, the philosophers of old debated what was virtuous - that is what made life better, less painful.  But if you think it's a cure for death, a cure for sin - well, that's like the poor sap who gave up bacon but still died of genetic heart disease in his 50s.  Tragic.

Nope.  We're preaching to the dying folks - and even if we can dull the pain a bit, we're still dying.  And often times, there's hurt and confusion and denial.  Most of your people won't see the the wages of sin as death (let's admit it, we don't like to see this as death ourselves).  We don't like sin producing death - it bothers us.  Terrifies the tarnation out of the Old Adam.

So, when you preach - take some time.  Be blunt and honest.  No one likes a physician who beats around the bush or hides behind big and complicated words.  Give it to them straight, Doc.  They are dying.  The wages of sin is death.  You are preaching to the dying.

Which is why you lay it out, you preach the law with its utter bluntness... and then you get to your real job.  When they see death - that's when the fun begins.  Yeah, the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

See, if you remember that they are dying, you will remember what they need is life -- and not some dying "best life now" BS that is more befitting Joel Osteen or a politician trying to garner votes, but life.  Christ's life.  Life that will take this dying body, take me out of this body and death and raise me to new and real life.

I'm reminded of the words of Ignatius of Antioch in the letter to the Romans in which he says, "Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death; and while I desire to belong to God, do not give me over to the world" and "I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life."

You show folks the harsh reality, the harsh truth that they are dying... and then you give them the sweet and wondrous truth.  Christ Jesus knew they were dying, and so He died for them already, so He rose for them already, and He forgives them and gives them life -- life now, life eternal.

What are you to preach to the Dying?  The same things, the same Gospel you'd sing into their ears if they were laying there near motionless and barely breathing on their death bed - because in reality they are dying now too, just as much, and they need the same comfort.

And take they our life, goods, goods, fame, child or wife,
Though these all be gone, our victory has been won,
The Kingdom ours remaineth

Once in the blest baptismal waters
I put on Christ and made Him mine;
Now numbered with God's sons and daughters,
I share His peace and love divine.
O God, for Jesus' sake I pray Your peace may bless my dying day.

Though death may threaten with disaster,
It cannot rob me of my cheer;
For He who is of death the Master
With aid and comfort e'er is near.
Lord, may Thy Body and thy Blood
Be for my soul the highest good!

For Your consoling supper, Lord,
Be praised throughout all ages!
Preserve it, for in ev'ry place
The world against it rages.
Grant that this sacrament may be
A blessed comfort unto me
When living and when dying.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies.
Heav'n's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me. 

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