This past week, my wife’s uncle died at the age of 79. Death is a hostile enemy, and we as a family have been mourning and weeping over the loss of our loved one (Romans 12:15). In our grief, I was reminded again that one of the main roles of your pastor is to prepare you to die well. Thomas Boston (1676-1732), a Scottish preacher who pastored a tiny little church in the countryside south of Edinburgh, once said that “as the believer’s life is different from the unbeliever’s life, so also the believer’s death is different from the unbeliever’s death. For the unbeliever, death is a loss – the greatest loss; but for the believer, death is the greatest gain.” Paul says in Philippians 1:21 “for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul says “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
Carl Trueman wrote an article recently entitled: Christmas and the faith and courage to live—or die (http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2011/12/christmas-and-the-faith-and-co.php).
I hope you find encouragement in the gospel as you read this article. Trueman writes: “One of the most intriguing passages in the New Testament in terms of Christ’s advent is the song of Simeon. When this old man meets the Christ child in the Temple, he reacts by telling God that he is now ready to die. `Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.’ The words are very familiar; so familiar, in fact, that their strangeness has been lost. To be ready to die is surely odd: we live in a world which refuses to acknowledge death because we all fear it so greatly and hope desperately that, against all odds, we can cheat it even if nobody else can.
Many years ago I came across Helmut Thielicke’s book, Man in God’s World: The faith and courage to live – or die (Thielicke was a German Protestant theologian who lived from 1908 to 1986). It is a collection of sermons he gave which basically followed the pattern of Luther’s Small Catechism. The sermons are interesting but it was not so much them that caught my attention as the Foreword in which Thielicke describes the context in which the sermons were given: midweek meetings in Stuttgart Cathedral at the height of the Allied bombing campaign in World War II. There, week by week, Thielicke preached to a motley group of workers, businessmen, students, professors, soldiers and generals, Nazi functionaries (there incognito), Jews, Dutch deportees, and schoolchildren. Each time he did so, there would be faces present that would be absent the following week because an Allied bomb would have taken them. Indeed, one evening, the lecture was itself interrupted by a bombing raid and two congregants and the organist were killed there and then. Thielicke was truly preaching as a dying man to dying men.
Here is how he described one incident:
‘After an air attack I was helping with the clean-up operations and was standing at the edge of a huge crater opened up by an aerial bomb. It had killed an officer and fifty women auxiliary air-force aides. A woman came up to me – she was the wife of an officer who had been killed – and asked whether I was Helmut Thielicke; for I was covered in dust and grime and she did not recognize me at first. She then showed me her husband’s cap and said, “This is all that was left of him. Only last Thursday I was with him, attending your lecture. And now I want to thank you for preparing him for his death.” Then she quietly shook my hand.
What we were doing there was teaching theology in the face of death. There the only thing that was of any help at all was the gospel itself. Everything else simply dissolved into thin air.’
What Thielicke was doing was what all preachers do all the time: teaching theology in the face of death. The difference is that most of us have comfortable enough lives and circumstances that we are able to pretend to ourselves that we are really doing something else, that death is not really real at all. That is surely why so many churches become distracted by so many trendy ministries of trivia rather than the simple proclamation of truth.
This Christmas, the challenge of preaching is to bring people into the presence of Christ, not with the unattainable ambition that fear of death, the final enemy, will be taken away; but certainly with the desire to prepare people for death. And if Thielicke, and Simeon, are right, this is not magic or clever or particularly sophisticated: it involves teaching people the simple, straightforward, unfathomable truth of God Incarnate.”
Thanks be to God that my wife’s Uncle Tony died well. Tony knew he was a sinner who deserved condemnation and wrath. But Tony also knew that he was declared righteous by a holy God on account of the perfect righteousness of Jesus. Tony died well by resting in the blood and righteousness of Christ alone for his salvation (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Are you prepared to die? During this season of advent, we can be comforted in life and in death as we remember that Christmas is all about the gospel, which is the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Praise God that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).