When we understand the certainty of death, we cannot be casual about life!
The author of the Letter to Hebrews, in the New Testament, Chapters 11 and 12, speaks of how we live out our days before the living and the dead. He gives an extensive list of well-known saints, who died believing that God's promise, which was unfulfilled on earth, would be gloriously fulfilled around the bend in the River of Life that we call death. He imagines that those heroes in the faith watch over those of us who are yet alive.
Then he says: "And what of ourselves? With all these witnesses to faith around us like a cloud, we must throw off every encumbrance, shed every sin to which we cling and run with resolution the race for which we are entered, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, upon whom faith depends from start to finish."
Look who's watching!
Perhaps you remember the ancient parable which reminds us of our destiny to join those who have preceded us to the Father's house.
One day when the Sultan was in his palace at Damascus a beautiful youth, who was his favorite, rushed into his presence, crying out in great agitation that he must go at once to Baghdad, and begged leave to borrow his Majesty's swiftest horse.
The Sultan asked why he was in such a hurry to go to Baghdad. "Because," the youth answered, "as I passed through the garden of the Palace just now, Death was standing there, and when he saw me he stretched out his arms as if to threaten me, and I must lose no time in escaping from him"
The young man was given permission to take the Sultan's horse and leave. When he was gone the Sultan went down indignantly into the garden, and found Death still there. "How dare you make threatening gestures at my favorite," he cried; but Death, astonished, answered, "I assure your Majesty I did not threaten him. I only threw up my arms in surprise at seeing him here, because I have a tryst with him tonight in Baghdad".
When we understand the certainty of death, we cannot be casual about life.
It is a sobering experience on All Saints' Sunday to recite the name of friends and loved ones who have died in the past year. It brings us face to face with one of the most central certainties in life -- death. This is a reality around which none of us like to linger very long, but it is such a profound and certain fact that it defines life whether we think about it or not. Every thing we do is conditioned by the fact that we are not here to stay.
Death is a reality from which we cannot flee. No one ever has.
There is but a thin and an invisible line between the living and the dead. We live out our lives close to that line, never knowing when we will cross it. We have no real knowledge about what lies beyond it. What we know is by faith, which is based on our trust in Jesus. All else is speculation. Since we know so little about death, what we believe is very important. It saves us from the fear that when we die we come to nothing.
We do not believe that death marks the end of life. Beyond death we continue in some form of existence, the exact nature of which we do not understand and can scarcely imagine. This is the faith which makes it possible for us to stand beside the grave of a loved one and not despair. For all that we do not understand about that dimension beyond death, we believe that we will understand at the appropriate time.
The Christian faith teaches us that life is not over when we die. Today, on All Saints' Sunday, we profess our faith in an on-going relationship between those who have died and those who are still living. We are touched as we remember our friends and loved ones who are dead. This recollection is an inspiration. But there is more!
When the Apostles' Creed Speaks of "The Communion of Saints," does it not mean more than the power of memory. Does it not suggest that there is an on-going spiritual relation between the saints who are dead and those who are living? Just as we believe that Jesus who was dead and is now alive continues to touch our lives, so we believe that our friends and loved ones who were dead and who are now alive, continue to touch our lives. If it does not mean that, then it has no more power of meaning than a secular affirmation concerning how it helps us to remember significant people who are dead.
Life is such that we need the support of the living. We need the influential memory of those who are dead. But, this matter breaks into another dimension when we realize that we have the on-going support of our friends and loved ones who have outrun us to heaven.
For many years I was pastor of a church which was only a few yards from a large cemetery. This proximity was a constant and tangible reminder that it is not far from where we are to where they are -- just a few short steps. The line between the living and the dead is probably less decisive than most of us think.
The idea that there is a living relationship between those two worlds is thrilling. The Bible clearly reminds us that those who have outrun us to heaven are balcony people for us in our continuing struggle in this life. It is not just Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. There is a whole cloud of witnesses, who having kept the faith, now cheer for us while we struggle to keep it too. There are some days and some ways in which we sense this to be true. Look who's watching!
Dr. William Barclay, in his Daily Study Bible Series on Hebrews, suggests that this unseen "cloud of witnesses" are witnesses in a double sense. Their earthly life was a witness to their confidence in Christ, and now, having won the crown of life, they witness our performance in the arena of life. When you understand it that way, it puts a new light on how we play the game. When you know that the "saints" are in the grandstand watching and identifying with every play you make, it not only makes you try harder, it also encourages you on the way. It gives you the courage that you did not know you had, to do things you did not know you could do.
On October 13, 1963, in a World Series game between the New York Yankees and the Dodgers, Sandy Koufax was pitching in Yankee Stadium before a record crowd of 69,000. It was a crucial game, and Koufax was one strike-out short of breaking the record of 14 "strike-outs" in a World Series game. As he later said, it was not only a challenge, but an inspiration, to know that among the spectators that day was the "Champ," Carl Erskine, who held the record -- up until that day. Sandy Koufax broke the record. He reached a new level of excellence because he knew the champion, Carl Erskine, was not only watching, but pulling for him too! It makes a lot of difference in the spirit and quality of your performance if you can sense and see the cloud of witnesses. It is thrilling to know that the greats of the game are not only present, they are pulling for you. Look who's watching.
The greats of the game know the cost of greatness. They know that it is not the critic who counts. No one has more eloquently explained why the knowledgeable greats identify with the person who risks involvement than the inimitable Theodore Roosevelt.
"It isn't the critic who counts, nor the person who points out how the strong stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and the sweat and the blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again; (because there is no effort without error and shortcoming) who knows great enthusiasm, great devotion and spends himself at a worthy cause; who, at the best in the end, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
The heroes of the faith are champions in the finest sense of the word. They challenge the novice to break old records of excellence and thus do what has never been done before. That makes you stand on your tiptoes and reach for a rung on the ladder which heretofore you have been unable to touch, because the champions -- living and dead -- are in the grandstand pulling and praying for you to do the job well. The author of Hebrews suggests that we live the very essence of life under the watchful gaze of the heroes of faith, who lived and suffered and died like champions in their time. How can a person avoid the struggle for greatness with an audience like that looking on?
When we understand that aspect of how things really are, all littleness drops away. And when we join them we too will look back and understand what now puzzles us; and we will call out encouragement to those who remain behind. When we see how much support we have from the unseen cloud of witnesses it will make a difference in our lives. Look who's watching!
Some years ago Columbia University had a great football coach by the name of Lou Little. One day Lou had a boy try out for the varsity team who really was not very good. But, the coach noticed there was something unique about him. He had an irrepressible spirit of enthusiasm. The coach knew he was not good enough to actually play, but he thought: "This boy will be a great inspiration on the bench. I will not be able to play him, but I will leave him on the team to encourage the others."
As the season went on Lou Little developed a tremendous love and admiration for this young man. One of the things he noticed about him was that when his father came to visit him, they would walk arm in arm around the campus. He and his father were very devoted to each other. One day Coach Little got a phone call informing him that the boy's father had died, and he was the one who had to tell him of his father's death.
When he got back from the funeral, the coach said to him: "Is there anything I can do for you, anything at all?" To his astonishment, the boy said: "Let me start the game on Saturday." It was the final and biggest game of the season, and the coach was really in a jam. But, he decided he would let him start, leave him in for a few plays and then take him out. The team was puzzled when the coach started someone who had not played all season. "He went on to play inspired foot ball, play after play. The coach left him in the entire game. He was voted the outstanding player of the game.
When the game was over the coach said to him. "Son, what got into you today?" And the boy said, "You remember my father used to visit me here at school and we would walk arm in arm over the campus. Well, my father and I shared a secret that nobody here at school knew about. My father was blind, and today was the first time he ever saw me play."
Look who's watching!
Save us, O Lord, from paralyzing fear about the inevitability of death. May we find comfort in the words of Jesus, who said, "Because I live, you shall live also." May we find encouragement in the faith that those who have out run us to heaven are cheering for us. We pray for the kind of faith that will allow us to walk unafraid into the mystery, knowing that you will be there to show us the way. AMEN.