Inconceivable! Bright Comfort in Death’s Shadow
Preacher - John Lee
Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 22; preached in Bethel Christian Reformed Church, Sioux Center, Iowa
PAGE 1: TROUBLE IN THE TEXT
The Biblical text for this evening seems like a strange place to look for comfort.
Jesus himself said it was “the hour when darkness reigns.” The hosts of hell were met in gleeful array around a tiny, God-forsaken hill called Golgotha. The place of the skull. Barren. Rocky. Dead. The horn blast of Hades sounded in the furious cries of warped human hearts: “Crucify him.” Dark spit spewed from the unshaven mouths of Roman soldiers as they cried in derision, “Hail, king of the Jews.”
It was the funeral of the Author of life. Deep shadow fell over the Light of the World. The ending of the Cosmic Alpha. The seeming defeat of the “Victorious One.”
Yet Jesus wasn’t the only condemned man on that hill, hanging in the darkness. Two other men joined him. Nameless. Human. Broken. Dying.
Standing at the foot of the cross this evening, we see one of them. He is guilty – of unnamed but self-acknowledged treachery against God and the human race, surrounded by the unseen demonic, haunted by images of his guilt, the twisted faces of his victims, the coldness in his soul, the hatred of the crowd around him, the bitterness of his fellow criminal, the bitterness in his own heart. In Matthew and Mark it is both criminals who initially heap insults. The sky is dark. His thoughts are dark. His body is on fire with pain. His nerve endings are raw. The pains of the spikes in his wrists claw up his arms. Death looms nearer, with an ever increasing cadence of doom. This is the hour when darkness reigns.
In the howling of the wind, as he shivers naked and beaten, he hears the acid tongue of his companion once again directed against the quiet man hanging between them, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us” (Vs. 39).
Yet now, at those words, something within him breaks. “The Christ…Save yourself and us.” Something about those words catches him off guard. Sure, they are bitter words in a bitter breeze, but they slice through his heart. “The Christ.” “Save…us.”
And almost in spite of himself, he finds himself crying out in a new faith born in the womb of pain, “Don’t you fear God…this man has done nothing wrong.” He then turns his eyes and he turns his soul to the bleeding man beside him and pleads, “Remember me.”
And that man, crowned in thorns, bruised and bleeding, quivering in the pain of death himself, raises his voice and through dry lips and swollen tongue speaks back, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Vs. 43).
We wonder how many heard what Jesus said. What could they have thought? It couldn’t have been a more inconceivable circumstance or statement. Two dying men. Unable to scratch an itch on their nose. Barely able to breathe. “Paradise?” “Today?” A promise of heaven in the bowels of hell? A promise of life in the grip of death? A promise of victory in the darkness of defeat? Ridiculous. Silly. Irresponsible. Inconceivable!
PAGE 2: TROUBLE IN THE WORLD
And we know about that incredulousness. That is the honest response of many of us to the words of the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 57 and 58 as we stand at the graveside of a loved one and smell the freshly dug dirt.
“If God loved Mom so much, why did he let cancer eat away at her lungs?” “If eternity is everlasting, what would have been so bad about leaving little Trisha with us for a few more years?” “If God could part the Red Sea, why couldn’t he just keep Tim’s car away from the alcoholic that night?”
Its hard to talk of the “resurrection of the body” when there is a corpse in the room. Corpses sure don’t talk about it. They don’t talk much about anything.
It is hard to think of “life everlasting” when the obituaries proclaim ‘life ever ending.’ Each day a new page, filled with names: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends. All dead. Gone. Their bodies stiff and buried. Our own bodies, stiffening, deteriorating.
When we stand in the mud with the mourners, sometimes the bright clouds of heaven seem far away.
Kevin Thomas knows. Coming home behind his nineteen year old daughter one autumn day he watched the unthinkable. Another car lost control and crashed into her car. Holding her broken, dying body all he could do was cry: “NO! Not like this. No! You can’t go.” She was eight months pregnant. As her life flowed out over her father through open wounds, so did her baby’s tender existence and so many of his hopes. “No!”
And as we stand with Kevin over the broken bodies of his only daughter and granddaughter, the Biblical promise reflected in the catechism does seem too good to be true. Inconceivable. Or worse, it seems cheap.
“They’re in a better place.” “God wanted another little angel.” “It’s all going to turn out alright….This is all part of God’s perfect plan!”
Such a Pollyanna attitude strikes many of us as overly optimistic. Pie in the sky – and half-baked at that. An overdose of the opiate of the people. “A better place?” “A perfect plan?” Tell that to a man who has to go to the dry cleaners to get his dead daughter’s blood cleaned off his slacks.
In the dark night of our soul: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” At the graveside of our child: “the life everlasting.” When diagnosed with cancer: “resurrection.” When sinking in depression: “life.” We are either a crazy people or the world is. Either we miss reality, or we see the deepest one.
Question 57 says we will be raised “Body and soul.” Question 58 says after this life we will have “perfect blessedness.” OK. Maybe sometime in the future or on the hazy horizon of the ever-receding tomorrow. But does that help Steve right now? What good does a promised feast on the morrow do for our aching stomachs of today? Of what use is a 10 foot rope to a prisoner in a 30 foot hole? Of what utility is the promised arrival of the calvery in a fortnight when we can see the flared nostrils of the enemy on our front porch?
PAGE 3: GRACE IN THE TEXT
Like the criminal, from the wrecks of our lives, often the best we can muster is to salvage a future hope in Christ. “Remember me WHEN you come into your kingdom.” Whenever that is, look back to this moment and remember.
But Christ says something shocking to the condemned man. Forget remembering. Not tomorrow. Not tonight. TODAY. Today, before the sun sets, before the first twinkle of Venus appears on the western horizon over the Mount of Olives, before children climb into their beds and pull the covers up…Today, this very day: “You will be with me in Paradise.” Inconceivable!
The criminal’s back still oozed blood. The fresh pain of broken legs still awaits him. The cool wind still stirs up goosebumps on bruised skin. He didn’t understand all the theology. But his heart is strangely warmed. In the pit of hell, in the darkness of death, Heaven’s light has dawned. He has a peace in his heart now. He has fellowship with the Savior now. And soon he will be in paradise.
PAGE 4: GRACE IN THE WORLD
And the Catechism echoes that shocking claim, resting the assurance of eternal Heaven on the reality of the present earth: “I already now experience in my heart the beginning of eternal joy…” Already. Now. Wow! Heaven climbs as an invader through the picket line of earthly agony. Herod’s hordes can’t keep it out. Golgotha’s nails can’t keep it down. Easter’s tomb can’t hold it in. The Spirit of God is on the loose in the land, comforting us, guiding us, reminding us that even in our agony, we hang on our crosses in the very presence of God – in the embodiment of His love and eternal provision!
We hope because Christ hung. We live because Christ died. We will be raised because he rose.
The portion of the Catechism we read this evening finishes its treatment of the Apostles’ Creed. We know the words. We say the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday. We say it when we are content. When we are gloomy. When we don’t give a hoot. But the words are incredible when we really listen. In the same service where we announce the death of Mr. Jones and the deteriorating health of Jeannie Goodrick, we join the ancient voice of all believers and profess: “I believe in the Holy Spirit…the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Inconceivable!
Recently a phone call got me out of bed. It was my friend Tom. Choking out the words he said, “Pete’s dead.” His cousin, his lifetime coworker, a newlywed — dropped dead at age 28 after a meal with his young wife. Heart attack. Tom didn’t know where to turn. After listening and praying on that stormy Saturday night, I started reciting the last few lines of the Apostles’ Creed. As I neared the end, Tom finished with me the well worn words: “I believe in the resurrection of the dead…life everlasting. Amen.”
“Tom, you’ve said those words on a lot of stain-glassed Sundays, wearing a lot of nice clothes. But what do they mean to you on a dark, rainy evening in late fall of 2019?”
There was a silence. Then a response. A whisper to His own soul, like a watchman seeing the first glint in the eastern horizon after a dark winter’s night:
“That this is not the end.”
The creed was reminding us that Pete is at this moment in Christ’s presence. Like a camper stepping out of a small dark tent and into the splendor of a sunrise over Glacier National Park. His body stays in the earth, but his spirit soars to new birth. He is right now, in Paul’s words, “Home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
And someday soon his body will follow along. At the final resurrection of the dead, Pete will not only join with the wife and mother he left behind, and Steve and his daughter and granddaughter, but they will also join up again with their bodies – new, glorified bodies. Talk about a homecoming! At the resurrection, our bodies will reunite with our souls, and our glorified, whole selves will reunite with each other. The bodies of resurrected saints on the Titanic will come splashing up from the North Atlantic. Revived troops will stand and march up from the cross-lined cliffs of Normandy. Graveyards will rumble and split. In the final banquet of God, death will be swallowed up in victory. And we’ll meet God. We’ll be whole. We’ll be together. We’ll be with Christ. Forever.
This is not easy medicine for hurting people. This is not instant relief. No. In moments of Golgotha’s darkness, we are invited into a faith that is deep enough to let God be God and grief be grief. The power of positive thinking is about as effective at stopping the freight-train of pain as a half-cooked pea on railroad tracks.
But we are invited into a mystery. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Behold, I tell you a mystery, we won’t all sleep, but we all will be changed, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye.”
That is hope for the future. That is life for the present. That is healing for our souls. That is restoration for our broken bodies. Wrinkles will be smoothed. Dead nerves will awake. Shriveled limbs will fill with pink, taunt flesh again. Parted lovers will once again embrace. We will be bodied saints. Whole people. We’ll have elbows to wiggle in praise of the King! The deaf will hear rousing songs. The blind will see the delicate petals of a rose.
That is good news for the crippled widow and the broken mind of a child with Down’s Syndrome. That is even good news for the rest of us for whom death may seem as unreal as winning the lottery and as undesirable as an execution. It is good news for the present and the future founded on nothing less sure than Jesus Christ.
Take Joni Eareckson Tada. After a diving accident on a hot afternoon in the summer of 1967 left her paralyzed from the neck down, she went through months of dark questions and teary cries. She wanted to die, but her lifeless limbs couldn’t even do that. She was too helpless even to take her own life. She gave up. But God did not. And little by little His love won her over. She writes of a moment of turning. One night, with pain streaking through her back and anger at God streaking through her heart, one of her friends helped Joni see that Jesus understood. Jesus had been paralyzed too. With his back on fire with pain from a savage beating, “he was paralyzed by the nails.” As that sank in, she too found, like the paralyzed thief on the cross, a new faith born from the womb of pain, and she heard the same inconceivable promise from Calvary: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Joni has since spoken to millions, authored books, leads a ministry, and even found time to get married. She writes: “Peace is internal, and God has lavished me with that peace. There’s one more thing. I have hope for the future now. The Bible speaks of our bodies being ‘glorified’ in heaven. In high school that always seemed a hazy, foreign concept to me. But I now realize that I will be healed. I’m just going through a forty or fifty-year delay, and God stays with me even through that” (Where is God When it Hurts? 135).
The resurrection of the body means hope for Joni. Future hope that one day she will dance again. But also present peace. The peace of God’s presence every moment along the way.
That is the peace and the hope offered us today. Just as Christ spoke to the thief from the cross, and to Joni through a friend, He has spoken to us this evening from His Word, promising us a future bodily resurrection and life with him now that will someday become life with Him forever.
Whether grieving or partying, crying or celebrating, birthing an infant or burying one, enjoying our first kiss or undergoing chemotherapy…the Christ of the Cross and the words of our confession invite us into a deeper reality that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart has ever imagined.”
But in Jesus Christ, it’s as sure as the dawn. Amen!