January 23, 2015

Fear of dying, fear of death

A friend of ours will be buried tomorrow. He was too young to die, taken by an aggressive cancer and leaving a wife and children, yet he was oddly joyful. That, today’s readings, and the daily news have me thinking about death and the emotions of its anticipation.

Genesis 37 is the beginning of Joseph’s story. He had a dream about being a leader of his brothers, but that made them angry. He had another dream about leading his brothers and parents, but when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?”

His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind. Later, his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” Joseph said, “Here I am.”

He was young and not so wise in sharing his dreams, but he was obedient to his father. “So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’ ‘I am seeking my brothers . . .Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.’” The man said he’d heard them say they were going to Dothan, “So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.” (Genesis 37:10–17)

This seemed an odd detail until I looked at a map. Dothan was at least 20 miles from Shechem. Joseph determined to do as his father asked, even at personal cost, but the brothers didn’t care. They saw him coming, plotted his demise, but then sold him to a group of Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt. This meant that Joseph, a prisoner of strangers, was taken past his home on the way to who knows what, slavery, even death. I cannot imagine his emotions.

The next reading is directly about death. It says, “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” (Ecclesiastes 9:3–5)  Was Joseph despondent like this, or full of hope? Or was he filled with dread? Had it been me, I would be terrified.

The NT reading is also about death and fear, but something quite different besides . . .
Jesus had been arrested. Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest. He went inside and sat with the guards to see the end. (Matthew 26:58) What was Peter thinking?

When accused, Jesus said to the high priest, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

The high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spit in his face and struck him . . . .” (Matthew 26:64–68) 

At the threat of death, Jesus spoke His thoughts and revealed His emotions. He told them His destiny and while what He said angered His accusers, it tells us something about His response to eminent death.

Then Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. (Matthew 27:11–14)  Again, Jesus had no fear.

“And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.” (Matthew 27:31) And the One who controls the universe and could have called legions of angels to aid Him did not fight back nor resist death. Why? What did Jesus know about death that most people do not know? The writer of Hebrews answers this . . .  

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1–2)

Jesus knew where He was going and that He would be joyful. That knowledge sustained Him when even His disciples were terrified for Him.

For me, the Holy Spirit puts this verse in mind: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13) The Word of God sets before His children the assurance that we already have the everlasting life of Christ. Here on earth our bodies will perish, but like Jesus, and like our friend who died, we have joy and eternity with God set before us. Death is not the end.

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