Greet death unafraid

Sermon for 12 July 2009

As we listen for the Word of God,
let us pray:
God our refuge and strength,
you call us to give ourselves to Christ,
whether life is long or brief;
ground us in your love
and anchor us in your grace,
that we may find peace and joy
in knowing you;
this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

READING
Ephesians 1.3-14
Mark 6.14-29

I imagine John the Baptist in his cell, listening to the sounds of revelry and carousing at the party not too far away in Herod’s palace.

I know that’s a stretch; perhaps he was too far away to hear. But perhaps he knew it was going on anyway.

If John knew it was going on, he also knew his bible. He knew that kings’ feasts were dangerous affairs. Perhaps he thought of the story of Queen Esther; the wife of the Persian emperor, and he had told her three times,

What is your request?
It shall be given you,
even to the half of my kingdom.

When kings make such extravagant promises, their pride means they will do what they have said. That can make for an unpredictable situation. Herod must also have known the story of Esther, because he made the same promise to his step-daughter

Ask me for whatever you want,
and I will give it.
Whatever you ask me,
I will give you,
even half my kingdom.

But what’s a king to do when his bluff is called?

In the story of Esther, it meant that Haman, who was plotting against the Jews, was hanged.

In this story it means that John, who had been proclaiming repentance to the people, was beheaded.

These feasts are no respecters of persons.

So John may have heard the party, he may have heard about it. Or not. But whatever the truth, the time came when he knew he was going to die. I wonder how he faced death?

Perhaps the soldiers came into the cell with a drawn sword and a nervous look on their faces. After all, John was a prophet, a man of God. Killing a prophet isn’t the best assignment. But you’re only doing your duty, right?

I wonder how John faced death?We’ll never know. Mark’s Gospel isn’t interested in answering that question. But the question remains: What’s it like, facing death?

This week, some of us have had the privilege of walking with one of our number who was facing an ordeal that could have ended with his death. I refer to G, who had major surgery on Thursday.

G was clear that his survival through the operation was not guaranteed. While John faced certain death, G faced the possibility that he was agreeing to surgery that he might not live through.

He faced the possibility of death with courage and with strong faith. I was very impressed indeed with the way he did it.

How can we face death with courage and faith?

The Apostle Paul gives us a clue in our Ephesians reading today.It’s simply this: to know who we are. To know who we are.

Who are we?
We are people who have been blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing. We have been showered with the love of God. We are beloved children, adopted into God’s family.

Who are we?
We are forgiven. Whatever sins we have committed, whatever wrong we have done, whatever good we have failed to do cannot separate us from the love of God.

Who are we?
We are people who have let in on God’s plan, which is this: to reconcile everything—everything!—in Christ.

Who are we?
We are marked, branded, with the sign of the Holy Spirit. We are heirs, we are beneficiaries, of all that God has to give.

Who are we?
We are people called to live lives consistent with who we are. We are called to reflect God’s goodness in our day to day lives.

That’s what Paul says in Ephesians 1 in a nutshell.

In our Funeral Service, we commend the person who has died to the love and mercy of God. We place that person in God’s hands. Yet aren’t we already in God’s hands? Doesn’t God’s love and mercy follow us at all times? As the psalmist says,

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
 forever.

And in one of the prayers in Uniting in Worship 2, we find these wonderful words:

We pray for the dying, who face the final mystery:
may they enjoy light and life intensely,
keep dignity, and greet death unafraid,
believing in your love.

When we know who we are, we may ‘greet death unafraid, believing in God’s love’.

How can we face death with courage and faith?

By being who we are—in Christ. By living with faith, in hope. By letting love guide our lives.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting this is easy. I’m not suggesting I’m looking forward to it any time soon. But I am convinced that we can greet death unafraid if we live fully in Christ now.

I am convinced that opening ourselves to the great love of God now means that we can face the future in the confidence that God’s love is still there for us.
Let us pray, remembering the prayer I mentioned before:

We give you thanks for life itself,
loving and merciful God.
We pray for G,
that he may continue to recover from his time of trial.
We thank you for the medical, nursing and other staff
who are caring for him.
We pray for ourselves,
who will one day face the final mystery:
may we enjoy light and life intensely
as your children,
may we guard the dignity of others,
and one day greet death unafraid,
believing in your love. Amen.

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