Finding Life in a Time of Death

Can you believe it?

I would not believe it if you had told me a few months ago that our Governor would be asking us to stay at home, avoid traveling or shopping, and wear a mask if we do go outside. And yet that is what happened recently. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, shop, even breathe.

And so, some questions may occur to you that would not normally come up. The most important one is one that you would rather not think about: What if I get sick and die? I realize this is not a question you want to consider. Still, don’t push it off. It is one that you can and should be ready to answer. 

As of today (Friday, April 17), there are well over 10,000 deaths in NYC because of this COVID pandemic… 600 n NY State within the past 24 hours, many of them here in Queens. So, even though the question is not the most enjoyable, it is one that I as a pastor hear often and one that I must try to help you answer.

On a physical level, when your doctor gets personal with you, you are thankful, right? Your ankle is broken, your skin irritation is cancerous. You don’t get offended, it’s just the facts. You are thankful.

So, let me give you a spiritual prognosis. This prognosis is not mine, but the Bible’s. Every point I share will be from the Bible.

Sickness will come to all of us.

Sickness will come to all of us. And most often we recover. But sometimes we don’t. One day you will not recover. One day, a mask will not stop you from dying.

So, let me encourage you to be ready for that. Be ready, not just for sickness, but for death. The Bible says, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). That verse says death is appointed – the idea is reserved for – laid up for. The day of your death is not a surprise to God. It is waiting for you.

David puts it this way in a popular Bible Song: “You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day has passed” (Psalm 139:16). God records and plans every one of your days, including the day of your death.

It could happen today through this virus. It could happen tomorrow through a blood clot in your leg, or a tornado ripping down a tree, or a hit and run accident or any number of a multitude of other things. Every second 2 people die in the world. That is astounding. But regardless of how it happens, it will happen. You will die. You have an appointment with death that you cannot skip or reschedule or avoid. Your earthly life too will be extinguished. At that point, your real you departs from this body.

All of us want to avoid death, and many of us want to avoid thinking about death. What wants to consider such a morbid question? But we need to think about death, even our own death. And we need to be prepared to answer this question. In that light, maybe sickness can be a merciful way for God to confront us with this question before we die. And he wants us to be prepared with an answer.

What happens after I die?

After death, then what? Let’s look at the Bible verse from earlier: ““It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). What does the Bible verse say? Not what does a pastor say or a guru say, what does the Bible say? After death comes judgment. Maybe you don’t like to think about people judging us. But then, some people relish it. It is astounding to me how many popular reality shows right now have judges. People sing, dance, cook, run, make glass, make legos… Everything! And there are these judges who evaluate the performance or the product and give a decision about what should happen next.

The Bible says after your death comes judgment… and this is the ultimate judgment. What will that judgment look like? “For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body” (2 Corinthians 5:10, NLT). Jesus Christ, God’s Son, will be the Judge, and He will judge us based on our works, what we did in our body.

What punishment could I receive?

Think back to the story of Jonah. The prophet preaches to the sinful city of Nineveh, warning that the whole city will be destroyed if they do not repent. Imagine that! An entire city suffering from a military invasion that wipes out the population, or a storm or fire that levels the city to the ground, or a disease that spreads throughout the people and paralyzes the city’s normal functioning. Now that would be bad. But it would not be as bad as judgment after death. And that is my primary concern for you today.

The real scary judgment is the after-death judgment. This judgment is eternal death, eternal separation from the life-giving presence of God. This next Bible passage is a longer one, but a sobering and a very true one: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-15).

So there is a future judgment. You will appear before your Creator and the records of your actions will be opened for inspection. You need to be ready for that. Have you broken one of His laws? Even once? If you end up on the guilty side of that verdict, the punishment is terrifyingly real. God must punish all law breaking not just with physical death, but with eternal spiritual death.

With the story of Jonah, God sent the prophet before He sent the judgment. Is COVID a judgment from God on our society? Well, perhaps. Or perhaps it is also a modern day Jonah, sent to warn us of the judgment that could be awaiting us when we die.

Can my good outweigh my bad?

When we begin to realize our precarious situation, we look desperately for answers. How can we remove our guilt and convince God that we should not be punished. Historically, humans have attempted different solutions, whether sacraments or pillars or 613 mitzvot or a foreign mission or a quota of volunteer hours.

Often we hope that God’s judgment is like two scales on a balance and that our good will outweigh our bad. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in God’s court. It doesn’t even work in a human court.

When someone appears before a judge for theft, they are not asked, “Have you stolen more than you have given?” They don’t hear the judge say this: “Well, we realize you took this person’s car. But you know what? There were many days that you did not take people’s cars. On a whole the days you stole are much less than the days you did not steal. So, the non-criminal days outweigh the criminal days. You’re ok.”

No. When someone steals a car, they are held responsible by the court. God’s judgment is like that. Each broken law must be judged. If you have broken God’s Law, you are a lawbreaker in his courtroom. Each of God’s Laws is like a link in a chain. If you break one, you have broken the whole Law. And all of us have broken the laws, laws about loving God supremely or lying or stealing or hating or mocking God or unfaithfulness to marriage.

You could summarize our predicament this way:

First, God cannot lower His standard of judgment. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Second, God cannot tolerate any crime. “You are too just to tolerate evil; you are unable to condone wrongdoing” (Habakkuk 1:13).

Third, God cannot overlook our crimes and give us a pass. “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).

What hope do I have?

At this point, you and I are stuck. We face a certain death and certain judgment after that death. Our guilty verdict is certain. What hope do we have? Ironically, we find hope in the same verse that declares our judgment:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

Notice that the wage, or payment, for sin is death. When we sin, we have worked hard to earn a paycheck, and the amount listed on that paycheck is death. But the verse doesn’t end there. We are told of a free gift from God, and this gift is not death but eternal life! This life is available in Christ Jesus.

So how does this work? Let’s go back to another verse we saw earlier: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… (Romans 3:23-24).

We who have sinned can be justified. This is a term that describes a judge declaring someone righteous. Again, we are told that this is a gift, something we cannot possibly earn. And this is possible because of Jesus who redeems us.

Other verses will help to explain this idea more clearly:

This justification is based on the bloody cross-death of Jesus. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9).

God attached all of the legal charges against us to the cross. “God canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).

Jesus took our sins on his own body on the cross. Because he was wounded, we can be healed. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

Jesus is God’s lamb who takes away the sin of the world. This is a rich image, fulfilling the sacrificial rituals of the Old Testament. The sacrifice assumes the sin and then absorbs the punishment for that sin. “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Isn’t this amazing? Jesus was innocent and perfect, not sinful at all. Yet, He voluntarily died a criminal’s death on a bloody Roman cross. This cross was more than just the scene of a great mistrial; it is the scene of the greatest of all transactions. It is here that Jesus assumed the sin of the world and then willingly absorbed the infinite punishment of God for that sin. And three days later, Jesus rose from the dead as proof that the sacrifice had been accepted and death would no longer be the certain destiny for sinful people like you and me.

God can dismiss our sins and grant us eternal life based on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

How can I be declared righteous?

Let’s return to the courtroom. The Judge has declared the guilty verdict and its corresponding sentence. You, the defendant, hang your head. You are destined for death. But then you hear a movement, and you see that your defense attorney has stood up, and you realize that he is the son of the Judge. “I volunteer to pay for this person’s crime. Please declare me guilty. I am willing to accept his punishment.”

The judge looks at you. “Are you willing to accept this offer? Do you want to walk free?” Your lawyer turns to you, waiting for an answer.

This is where we stand right now. Jesus has died, and now he offers you the gift of eternal life. So how do you accept the gift?

There are no magic words or a special script to recite. God is more concerned with our heart and mind than with our lips.

Jesus identified two key parts of our response. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Believe points us to a personal faith in Jesus. We entrust ourselves to him and depend on Him for eternal life. It doesn’t mean we add Jesus to our personal pantheon or accept the historical facts about his life, but it does mean we trust Him personally, completely, and exclusively

Repent means humbling ourselves, acknowledging our sin against God, and turning from that sin. It doesn’t mean that we have to clean up our act or change ourselves, but it does mean that we have a change of heart about our sin-filled pattern of living.

A heart that will be saved essentially says this: “I don’t want my sin. I want only Him.”

What if I get sick and die?

Well, If you are believing this message – if you are turning from sin and trusting in Jesus, then he will take you to HIs presence after death. And one day He will raise up your body to join your real self and live on forever with Him.

When one of Jesus’ close friends got sick and died, Jesus cried. There is sorrow there. But He used that sickness and death to ask people very personally to trust in HIm and His ability to give life.

Jesus said to His friend’s sister, whom He also cared deeply for… as they looked on the tomb: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”  (John 11:25-26).

This was Jesus’ message. This is the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is one of the reasons why COVID-19 has come to your life. Will you repent and believe?