Seek Refuge in God…Even in Death
21st Sunday after Pentecost – October 9, 2016
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.
There is a Biblical proverb that is every bit as pessimistic as it is sad. It goes like this: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” What Solomon was getting at with those words was an important reminder. Death is closer to you than you think. Of course, we don’t want to think about the imminence of death every minute of the day. Who would? Instead, we focus on life. In fact, we are told to focus on life. A person busy with life has no time for thoughts of death.
But there are Christians in the world that do not have that luxury. There are millions of Christians in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, and they are all familiar with Solomon’s proverb: “Death is the destiny of everyone.” How could they not be? In areas of Syria and Iraq Christian churches are vandalized or seized. 50 Christians in Egypt and Libya were mercilessly killed because of their faith. And while these Christians have peacefully protested against their government’s persecution, they are beaten, imprisoned or killed.
That is what it is like to be a Christian in the Middle East. Things haven’t changed much in the past 2,000 years. When the Apostle Paul and his traveling companions went throughout modern day Turkey they faced the same persecutions. Paul wrote, “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”
In another letter Paul wrote he mentioned his circumstances on his recent missionary journey saying, “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger.”
But none of these references completely summarizes the pain and affliction Paul endured throughout his ministry. Paul would go on to make this summary for the Corinthians when he writes, “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”
It might be an understatement to say that Paul knew what it was like to walk with death. Here is how he describes his plight in our second lesson for this morning: “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.”
Have you ever been under the sentence of death? Have you been in a “near death” situation? Maybe you were so sick that during your surgery the doctor said it was “touch-and-go.” Maybe you were in a car accident and narrowly escaped with your life. Maybe you feel death knocking on your door every day.
If you have been in those situations you know a little bit of what Paul was talking about. You also know what Solomon was writing about: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.”
Have you been taking death to heart? It sounds morbid, doesn’t it? Why would we want to think about death? Why can’t we just enjoy the here and now? Of course, there is nothing wrong with focusing on your work and your day. There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoyment. The problem arises when we look to the distractions of this world to take our minds off of the big picture.
Thinking about death makes us sad. It makes us realize just how close death is. It makes us feel small, insignificant and weak. And we aren’t the only ones who avoid talking about death. Every time Jesus brought up death in his ministry his disciples tried to change the subject. “Don’t talk about death, Jesus. Let’s focus on life and ministry.”
What his disciples didn’t understand was that Jesus’ ministry and life was always meant to culminate in his death. It was the most important task Jesus set out to accomplish. Jesus explained this so clearly: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Jesus’ disciples didn’t want to think about his death…until they were forced to. Jesus willingly went to the cross and died. That inevitable death brought you life. Jesus’ victory on the cross not only won the victory over sin and the devil. He won the victory over death, too. In fact, he proved it by rising from the dead, just as he promised.
Jesus’ death gave focus to Paul’s life. Yes, Paul “felt the sentence of death.” But now listen to why he experienced all of those awful things. “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” Facing death gave Paul a new perspective on life. He realized that he couldn’t just rely on himself. Try as he may he couldn’t put off his own death.
He realized he needed to rely on God. “He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.” Since God could defeat death for you, he can certainly protect you and watch over you.
This morning God reminds you of the big picture, too. You don’t have to think about death every minute of every day, but don’t avoid the thought at all. And when hardship comes the Lord will give you the comfort only he can give. He will be with you always – here on earth and forever in heaven.
But perhaps it is our verse of the day that summarizes it best. “When calamity comes, the wicked are brought down, but even in death the righteous seek refuge in God.” Amen.