As I go into a cemetery I like to think of the time when the dead shall rise from their graves. […] Thank God, our friends are not buried; they are only sown! (D.L. Moody)
For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity. (William Penn)
The soft rhythm of the falling rain. The darkened skies, like a blanket. I’m wrapped up in the cosmic sounds of the autumn. Trees yellowing. Grass withering, Heat dissipating. A powerful world changing around me, echoing my heart. Dancing in the beautiful brisk colors are vapors of the fall crisp cold, rustling the warm vegetation. The layers of frigid air buffer the rays of the glorious sun. It’s autumn. Fingers of winds and cold pinch at my face. No season could better project my heart than autumn. I am mazed between the chilled grief and the warmth of the living words of God, a beautiful display of vivid gospel colors and echoes of painful living memories.
As I meditate on the change of seasons with a grieved heart, I discover a mysterious dichotomy swaying in the bitter autumn air. There is dying and living, two realities at war beneath the visible surface of the dirt. Inside the trunks, the flower stems, the soil—life gathers quickly to preserve the heartbeat of living organisms. Enough life conglomerates to sustain the plants through dreadful winter months. I imagine the green life gathering and retreating like a battalion, following an already encoded route in creation. Marching towards roots, toward the interior, away from the surface and the frigid outdoors. All cooped together to preserve the living spark of the vegetation under the white blanket of snow. What’s left behind is bleak death. Colorless, odorless, motionless. Death is, therefore, but the result of withdrawn life—not its cause. As I sip my hot coffee in the cold morning sting, my mouth gives way to a comforting realization: “Death is not the cause of the autumn changes: life is!”
But how powerful is death, anyway?
From where I stood, death looked frightening and ruthless. Unstoppable. Uncurable. Untouchable. Her doctor came in with devastating words: nothing left to do. Cancer was advancing, and no chemo drug was pulling it under. No weapon left. Go home and say your goodbyes. We watched helplessly, days on end it seemed, as death slowly ate away all life from her body. Her toes and hands turned cold and purple first. Living cells marched quietly away from the limbs, towards her heart, and other most important organs to keep them warm. Living breath was slowly withdrawing, giving way to arctic winds of deadly winters. Death makes a terrible first impression because it leaves an unforgettable mark on our eyes.
I wonder if Jesus’ mother felt the same about death as she watched her son die on the cross. Pierced hands and feet, blood flowing down the rugged cross, head tucked in a thorny crown, flogged back, disfigured body, spat upon face. The deadly prongs crawling devilishly all over his body, and her eyes were watching it all painfully still. At the foot of a blood-stained cross, Mary stood, watched, cried, gasped, wiped her tears, and looked some more. She must have watched in gasping horror. Utter hopelessness. Painful gaze. Death was crawling like a spider on Jesus’ body. Unstoppable. Uncurable. Untouchable.
The Bible reminds us that death is only as powerful as God allows it to be (Job 1:12). Jesus’ own death was planned, supervised, and approved by His heavenly Father. The devil’s prongs on the messianic skin stretched only as far as God’s sight moved them in approval. The holiness of God keeps death’s dark fangs on a tight leash. Death marches on God’s Word-beat no matter its invincible mirage projected onto human minds and hearts. Death is given access only by heavenly measures. “Everything [Job] has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger,” God decrees to the devil in Job chapter 1. The devil’s power over any believer is flexed only within the boundaries of God’s breath. A faint blow from God’s nostrils and the devilish vapors would utterly dissipate. Death, God is more sovereign, still!
A thundering word from the Father and the crawling, roaring devil would have cowered in squeals of defeat. On that Skull Hill, some 2,000 years ago, dressed in nothing but sin and nothingness, Jesus chose to be still and weaken Himself so death could walk all over Him. Death devoured Jesus not because He was too weak to defend Himself. Nor because the Father’s gaze stared away for far too long. What Mary’s eyes were witnessing was the horn of salvation raised for all to see, the climax of the divine power made glorious by acts of self-inflicted weakness (Luke 1:69). Death, God is more powerful, still!
Death for Christians is “not the end of our relationship, only an interruption. [It] is not the end of adventure but a doorway from a world where dreams and adventures shrink, to a world where dreams and adventures forever expand” (Randy Alcorn). God calls the Christian dead “blessed” because they die in the Lord, not in vain (Revelation 14:13). They belong to an eternal God who gives them “peace” and a “home” with Him beyond death. (Luke 2:29; 2 Corinthians 5:8). Their sonship to God is assured in death as it was in living. In fact, through death, they are ushered into their own homeroom in heaven, prepared by Jesus Himself. There’s glory—immeasurable, heavenly glory to be revealed to every dying Christian. Death, God is good still!
In the heart of the cold earth, life gathered in bundles and heaps, keeping warm and waiting. Life in the cracks of the earth is waiting for its time to be birthed again. Death makes me think of life. Earth makes me think of heaven. And I find myself waiting. Waiting for the eternal spring with no autumns and winters. When death is forever swallowed up and destroyed, and tears are wiped away for good (1 Corinthians 15:26; Isaiah 25:8). An eternal living with no more mourning, crying, pain, cancer, loss, sickness, death. For all these would become but dried leaves that will pass away, along with their own devilish roots and prongs. Death, Christ is more victorious, still!
In dying, like in living, God is sovereign, powerful, good, victorious. He chose not to save my sister’s life. Or Job’s children. Or His own Son’s life. In God’s big story, death is a character God tolerates for a little bit longer, not to hurt His children, but to reveal all that He will forever be.
It wasn’t that death was winning when my sister was dying. Death’s every advancement in her cells and organs was being approved by God’s holy sight. The Lord planned her entrance and departure from this earth with just as much love and involvement. The day my sister died was, in fact, her breath returning to the mouth of the Life-Giver, who breathed it into her in the first place. For Christians today, death is like the autumn, really. All the vapors of living breath huddling together, preparing to follow the march of the divine, vocalized trumpet, calling it to the heavenly home. What’s left behind are deadly hooks snapping away into the cold, purple, lifeless flesh: for death is the result of life going home!
[This blogpost was first published on October 25, 2018 on Prince on Preaching Blog https://www.davidprince.com/2018/10/25/death-on-a-leash/ -]