Home Before Dark
I Thessalonians 4:13-18
It was a question which was put to literally thousands of individuals all across this country: “Do you believe that there is life after death?” I was surprised to read the results of the survey. The results indicate that only about half of the adults in this nation believe that there is life after death; one quarter say that they are not sure; and the rest believe that death is the end of our existence. If that survey is anywhere near accurate, then we who occupy Christian pulpits in this land are not doing an adequate job of preaching this cardinal doctrine of our Christian faith. So today I want us to take a long, hard look at the question: Is there life after death? Let’s begin here…
I have to ask: Have you been gripped by the reality of death?
Late one afternoon, not long ago, I was on my way home. Earlier that day, I had spent time with one of the members of our congregation trying to help that person come to grips with a death in the family. It had been a hard and painful conversation. My heart ached for this family who was experiencing such grief. I support that is why, as I drove home, my thoughts roamed about the subject of death.
Homecoming is always a pleasant, even an exciting thing at my home. That day was no exception. I drove home through the pale orange twilight. The rapidly descending darkness was draining the light out of the day. I knew what was about to happen. I would turn the corner and see the lights of home. I would pull into the driveway and get out of the car. There would be those few steps to the back door. There would be the hearty call: “Hi! Anybody home?” There would be the sharp barking of the dog and the shouted replies. Then there would be the laying aside of the coat and tie and briefcase, as well as the burdens of the day, in order to be absorbed into all the love that home possesses. Oh, how wonderful it is to come home before dark. And I could not help thinking that day that surely death must be like that—coming home before dark—returning forever to warmth and love and light and joy.
But you know, not everyone thinks of death like that. Francis Bacon once said that people fear death like children fear the dark. I think he was right. For many of us, death is darkness and we are afraid of it. When the author, O. Henry, was only forty-eight, the end of his life came swiftly. The last words he spoke to those at his bedside were these: “Please turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.” Yes, the uncertainty of the darkness of death can be frightening indeed. I think that is why the Bible describes the Kingdom of heaven this way: “There shall be no night there.”
There are so many people who are afraid of death. They do not want to confront it. They do not want to discuss it. They do not even want to think about it. They prefer to pretend that it does not exist—at least not for them. I wish it were possible for me to stand here and tell you that you would never have to walk through the darkness of death. But I cannot do it. Death will come. When it will come or how it will come, we do not know. But it will come. Of that we can be sure. Have you faced up to that? Have you come to grips with the reality that one day you will experience the descending darkness of death. Are you afraid of it? Or are you afraid to even talk about it?
My beloved, please don’t dodge the question. Dr. Felix Marti-Ibanez has said: “The person who comes to grips with the reality of death lives a fuller and better life because he has put death in its proper place.” Yes, come to grips with the reality of death in your life.
But we can’t stop there. I have to go on to ask: Have you been gripped by the hope of life after death?
I want to suggest that you do something for me. Sometimes between now and the time you go to sleep tonight, pick up your Bible and turn to 1 Corinthians 15. Read it through—it won’t take you long. The words may puzzle you a bit. Paul at points uses strange language. It may confuse you at first. But if you permit that passage to catch hold of your spirit, then I promise you that you will discover it to be something which will lift your spirit to the heavens. It flashes like lightning and rolls like the thunder. It is great rushing river of words all seeking to express the inexpressible and to describe the indescribable. It is an ecstatic affirmation of our faith. It proclaims that because God is God, that there is a glory waiting for us—a glory far beyond our imagining—a glory which shall sheer away the limitations of our mortality and usher us into eternity with a resounding flourish. So read the chapter. You may not understand it all—I certainly don’t—but if you let the words begin to sink it, then you’re going to have kindled in your heart a red-hot faith and a never-ebbing hope. You’re going to discover that you hear in your life the sound of a drumbeat—the triumphant drumbeat of the Gospel: “When the perishable shall have put on the imperishable, when this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”‘
Down through the centuries, young and old alike, have been gripped by that enormous hope. You see it in some of the greatest hymns in the church. Bryant Kirkland reminds us that Martin Luther was just 38 when he wrote:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also,
The body they may kill,
God’s truth abideth still,
His Kingdom is forever.
Ray Palmer was 22 years old when these words flowed out of his heart and onto a page:
When ends life’s transient dream
When death’s cold sullen stream,
Shall o’er me roll,
Blest Savior, then in love,
Fear and distrust remove
O bear me safe above, A ransomed soul.
John Henry Newman was barely 30 when he wrote:
Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark and I am far from home
Lead Thou me on!
I say it again, young and old alike have been gripped by the reality of life after death.
Peter Marshall tells of the faith and hope of his father as he faced the darkness of death. Marshall writes: “One of my clearest memories from my early years is that of the deathbed of my own father. I can still hear the playing of the tall organ that stood in the parlor. I can still hear the weeping relatives as they sang. He asked them to sing his favorite hymn, and as they sang he joined in singing with them, so that as the waves of death began to roll over him, these were the words on his lips:
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate
And hath shed His own blood for my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Yes, down through the centuries, young and old alike have come to that belief. They have caught a glimpse of the promise which lies far beyond the horizon. And they have built their lives and their faith upon this solid cornerstone: that just as God sees us through the days of our lives, so He will see us through the darkness of death.
But that is why I must also ask: Have you been gripped by the Christ who makes that hope sure?
There can be no doubt of it—death will come to each of us. But there can be no doubt of this either—Christ has promised to be with us when death does come. We have nothing to fear. He has promised us that we will simply walk beyond the curtain of death to live again, to live on and on and on. Oh, not with a body exactly like this—not with a body that can ache and bleed and die—not with a spirit which can be wounded and tormented by emotional pain—not with a heart which can be easily broken—not with a life which can be twisted by sin and selfishness—No!—that is not how it shall be. Rather, we shall walk through the gates of the Kingdom of heaven fresh and clean and whole, full of health and joy and peace and power, radiant—radiant I tell you—in the reflected glory of our heavenly Father. That is the promise and Christ has made it sure.
How do we know? Paul—Thessalonians: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him all who have fallen asleep.” There’s the answer. The promise is sure. Oh yes, there is still death. Our bodies change and decay. The end of our time on earth does come. It’s real—and it’s a harsh, hurtful reality. But that reality can no longer strike terror in our hearts, because Jesus Christ has drawn the sting out of death once and forever.
There was a little girl once, the only daughter of a widowed father. Every night as he would tuck her into bed, she would look up at him and say: “Goodnight, Father, I will see you again in the morning.” Then she was stricken with an incurable disease. She grew steadily weaker. Then just before the end, she looked up at her father and said: “Goodnight, Father, I’ll see you again in the morning.”
You know, somehow I believe that Jesus’ last words from the cross were no different. You remember them? “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” You see, I believe that all through the years of His childhood as Jesus, in the darkness, would prepare to go to sleep and would say His prayers, He would end with these words: “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” So that at the last on the cross, with the darkness of death beginning to descend, the words were on His lips again: “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.”
So the atheist Bertrand Russell might say: “I believe that when I die I will rot and nothing of me will survive.” The skeptic, Thomas Hobbs might say: “I will take a leap in the dark. I commit my body to the worms and my spirit to the Great Perhaps.” But the Christian—the person who is gripped by Jesus Christ—the Christian says: “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Yes, my Christian friends, there is life after death. I believe it—I believe it with all of my heart. Let me tell you the moment when it first became clear to me.
I was seventeen years old. October, 1959. I was standing at the bedside of an old man. As I looked down at him in the fading light of a late autumn afternoon, even my seventeen-year-old eyes could see that death was very near. That old man was my grandfather’s best friend. I have such rich memories of that old man and my grandfather together, entertaining us as children, hour after hour, with one story or game after another. I think I felt almost as close to that old man as I did to my grandfather. And he must have felt close to me. You see, he had asked that I be brought to his bedside. So I stood there with all of the hesitancy and uncertainty of a boy standing in the presence of death. He opened his eyes and looked at me. He said: “Son, how is your grandfather?” I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. So I stammered out an answer: “He’s fine, just fine.” The old man closed his eyes and said: “I don’t know why I asked you that. I just saw your grandfather this morning and he looks like he did when we were young.” You cannot know what I felt at that moment. My grandfather had died two weeks earlier. The old man had not been told for fear the shock would be too much. Understand that what he said to me that day did not come from a confused or addled mind. The doctors in attendance indicated that his mind remained crystal clear right up to the moment of his death. I became convinced that afternoon that somehow—I cannot begin to explain it—but somehow God had permitted that old man in his last hours on this earth to catch a glimpse of the life that is to come. And from that moment to this, I have never once doubted that there is life after death. Never once.
I commend to you this Jesus who makes this hope sure. Take Him into your heart. Take Him into your life. If you do, then one day when the darkness of death begins to fall about you and the fear of it begins to fill your heart—at that moment, a nail-pierced hand will reach out and grip your hand. And the wonderfully warm voice of Jesus will whisper in your ear: “Do not be afraid. Look up ahead. What do you see?” And you will look and you will see and you will answer:
“I see the lights of home.”