Today we begin our preparation for the upcoming Feast of the Nativity. Jesus both brings the Gospel to us and is, Himself, the Gospel. The announcement of His coming Kingdom is the best news that we could ever have received. It’s the best story in the whole world. In Advent we don’t only prepare for the celebration of His nativity, but we also look forward to His return. Jesus is coming again, in power and glory, to bring this last Age to a close. We don’t know much about what will follow but we have been told a few things:
He will lead His people on the earth to victory over all His enemies. All those who have “fallen asleep” will arise transformed and all those who are alive will have their corruptible body changed into an incorruptible one—like His. The lame will have good strong legs, the blind will be able to see like eagles. Those who had mental impairments will have perfect cognition, better than any earthly genius in their prime.
Then Jesus, the Word of God will also recreate the cosmos, cleansing it of every stain. So the renewed People of God will have a refreshed Universe to inhabit. All the beauty and grandeur of the old creation will be retained and magnified and new glories added to it. Death and decay will be subjugated. All these things will happen when Jesus comes again. All these things we have to look forward to. Today, however, I am going to emphasize the magnitude of that Good News by telling you about some bad news, namely death.
As long as there has been life, there has been death. All single-celled creatures Bacteria and Archae, die. All multicellular creatures are shaped by death in the form of apoptosis—programmed cell death. Spaces in our bodies are formed by this. These cells—like those between our fingers and toes—are flourish for a time in their place but then perish in a coordinated manner. Their demise shape our proper forms. We could not live as we do if they did not die. Death is part of life.
The death of the whole organism is also natural. Billions of men and women, not to mention the trillions of other animals and plants and uncounted megatons of microbial life, have passed before us. So why do we feel death is somehow wrong? Why do we perceive death as an awful thing? In the case of his dead friend Lazarus, Jesus wept. In Gethsemane, He begged the Father that it might pass from Him. This is the God-Man asking for—and being denied—a reprieve from death.
I don’t have any easy (or even difficult) answers. There are a few things that we can discern. Christians believe that a cosmic catastrophe preceded the creation of mankind. God’s good creation is also subject to influence by angelic powers and principalities who use their free wills to rebel against God. Their native powers are strong and their intellects formidable. How exactly they came to be able to manipulate creation is unclear but God allows them to sometimes act in ways that lead to massive death and chaos. Not only this, but they have worked to effect and maintain our alienation from God and have exploited both that alienation and our natural ignorance to spread the fear of death in the human race. So death has been made a monster by Man’s unfaithfulness to God and the demonic manipulation of human psychology. Death has become the “King of Terrors” (Job 18:14) since man’s Fall.
Death is an awful thing. The Devil desires to reduce the creation of God to nothing—to annihilate it out of envy. Since he doesn’t have that sort of power, the best he can do is to kill and to destroy. He can’t turn something into nothing, but he can try to break what God has made.
That’s why it was so important to him to have humanity estranged from God, our source of life and goodness. It is God’s intent for mankind, led and guided by Him, to be His viceregents and stewards over the Universe. But our sin interferes with the integrity of that relationship—and gives the demonic powers an opening in which they can operate. I think this is why Jesus calls Satan the “Prince of this World”. The Devil is the chief malefactor and sustainer of the cursed order of the universe. But fallen humanity are his enablers. (Jesus identified the chief priests and scribes rhetorically as sons of their father the devil.)
The natural consequence of this rupture of sin, as James tells us (1:15) is death. I admit the causality is not straightfoward, but I think that’s why tsunamis and earthquakes and meteors all other sorts of natural disasters can kill hundreds of thousands of people—because of these hostile principalities and powers.
Historically, to “protect” themselves from such evil happenings, men have resorted to all sorts of magical pacts and the worship of awful gods. In the Bible, rulers often sacrificed their children to Molech to avoid some evil or to ensure something beneficial (such as a good harvest). Which brings me belatedly to my text from the OT reading for morning prayer–Isaiah, chapter 28, verses 14-18:
“Wherefore hear the word of the Lord, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem. Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us: for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves: Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste. Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place. And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it.”
It makes sense that one should try to make a pact with one’s enemy to avoid undue trouble. But this logic falls apart when one’s enemy is utterly implacable and cannot be reconciled to you. In this case the only solution is to destroy or nullify the enemy. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you to know that we’re not strong enough to defeat the Devil and to abolish death. We can’t close the rupture that allows demons to act in the Universe. We can’t even fix what we helped to break because we’re still trapped in our own sins.
But—enough of the bad news—we are gathered together here today to praise and worship the One who can. Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the son of man. Jesus didn’t fall when He was tempted.
Jesus willingly went to the cross, accepting death so he could destroy its hold over His People. Death now has a death sentence over it. Jesus descended into Hell to release those the Devil held in bondage. Hell and the Devil has no hold on Him and it can have no hold on those who believe on Him.
Death will be the last enemy destroyed when he returns:
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15: 55-57)
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.†