Sunday, November 13, 2011

22nd Sunday after Pentecost - November 13, 2011

We begin with a quotation:

“Even now I cannot understand the measure of a life, but I can tell you this. I know that when he died, his eyes were closed and his heart was open. And I'm pretty sure he was happy with his final resting place, because he was buried on the mountain. And that was against the law.” 

This past year, Faith and I saw a movie called The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman as Carter and Jack Nicholson as Edward.  The two men are both terminally ill with cancer.  Edward is a wealthy man and an atheist, and he determines that he is going to fit as much as he can into his remaining weeks.  And so he makes a bucket list, things to do before he kicks the bucket.  He invites Carter along, as the two had become friends while sharing a hospital room.  And so the two men start doing things like skydiving, racing classic cars around a racetrack, visiting the Pyramids and so on.  As their travels continue, it becomes more and more clear that Edward is vainly trying to give his life meaning with all of these fabulous activities.  Deep down, however, he is hurting because he has failed at what matters most to him: he has a broken relationship with his daughter.  Without setting this relationship right, the arrival of death will be bitter indeed.  But maybe, with enough courage and wisdom, Edward can set the relationship right so that he won’t have to die all alone.  And then maybe death won’t be so bad.  This is the message that the movie conveys.

The Bucket List is a very interesting movie because it looks at how we deal with the inevitable arrival of death.  The conclusion of the movie, which is captured by the quotation with which I began, suggests that one can win some kind of victory over death by the manner of living one’s life and also by the circumstances of one’s death.  Thus, according to the film, Edward wins a victory over death because he has reconciled with his daughter and so he doesn’t have to die alone. Take that, Death!  Edward also wins a victory over death by being buried on top of the mountain.  Death is the ultimate law, but Edward is able to break that law, just a little bit, by being buried where he was.  For it was illegal to be buried on the mountain.  Ha!  Take that, Death. 

This kind of thinking is very common.  We try to win small victories over death in all manner of ways.  By great athletic performances, for example.  Breaking an important record might be described like this, “Adrian Peterson has achieved football immortality.”  “People will always remember what happened here today.”  It isn’t uncommon to hear these kinds of things.  We want to be remembered, even after our death.  To be remembered is to win some small victory over that death.

We also try to win small victories over death by giving assurances to those who have died, “You will live forever in our memories.  We will never forget.”  In other words, we are denying to death a complete victory by treasuring memories. 

We try to win small victories over death by appreciating every moment of our lives, “Make every moment count” we say.  “Live like there is no tomorrow.”  Because maybe by living intensely and passionately in the present, we can make our life so big and so overflowing, that death will be unable to swallow it all up.

I am talking this morning about these things this morning, because humanity has struggled with them for a very long time.  In our Psalm for today, Psalm 90, we find the great prophet Moses struggling with these things.

He writes, “You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’  For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.  You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.”

Life is like the grass which sprouts in the morning, but by evening it has been burned up by the sun and is dead.  Life is short.  Before we know it, life is drawing to a close and death draws near.  Nothing can be done to hold it back. 

Why is this so?  Moses knows.  Death, that terrible enemy of life, arrives as the result of sin.  Or to be more direct, death is the punishment for sin.  Moses writes, “For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.  You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins right in front of your face.”  Moses knows that God sees everything.  He sees it all.  He sees every shameful nook and cranny.  No sin escapes his knowledge. 

Moses knows this very well because he was the one who brought the Law down from the mountain.  He was the one who met God there and he brought down the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets.  He brought the Law to the people and told them to live by it.  And yet he knows full well that they cannot.  He knows that he cannot.  And he sees death approaching.  As they wander in the wilderness for those forty years, all of the people who left Egypt are dying.  All of them are dying and are replaced by new generations who will enter the promised land.  And he sees death coming for himself.  And he wonders what is to be done.  Is there some small victory that can be won over this dreaded enemy?

Moses, like us, seeks somehow to soften what he knows what must happen.  This is what he says, “Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”  “Lord, I know that we must die.  I know that this is the punishment for sin, but help us at least to make the most of the days that we have.  Teach us to take advantage of that time at least.  And let not the time be used for that which does not matter, but for something more important, for the pursuit of wisdom.”  You can see here that Moses thinks much like we think.  He knows that death is the end and seeks to gain some small victory over it.  “Lord, give us this small victory over death.  We know that it is coming.  We know that we will die because of our sin.  But give us this little victory to console us.”

I tell you this morning that this is what life is like under the Law.  We seek to wriggle away from inevitable death.  We try to win small victories.  We try to convince ourselves that death really isn’t that bad.  This is life under the Law.  When Edward was buried on the top of that mountain, he was not winning a victory over death or the Law; he was succumbing to them.  His life had been reduced to ash and was no more.  When we say that we will never forget, we may have good intentions, but we tell ourselves a lie.  We lie because our minds grow frail and though we would like to remember, so often we cannot.  And in any event, death will wipe away any such memories.  This is life under the Law.

In Psalm 90, there is no gospel.  There is no good news.  There is no promise.  There is no Jesus Christ.  There is no hope.  Death swallows everything because God has decreed that sin must be punished.

In just two weeks, the season of Advent will begin.  Advent, the time when we wait.  The time when we hope for a future.  Advent, the time when we ask God to send us a savior to rescue us from this law of sin and death.  Advent, the time when we yearn for the Word that is good news, the Word who gives forgiveness.  And so we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

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