As North Americans we live in a very strange time, comparatively to pretty much the entirety of human history and to this day, most cultures around the developing world. You see we live in a culture where most babies survive and grow up into adulthood, have kids of their own, and so on. So many diseases have been if not cured, than at least provided a treatment, my type 1 diabetes for example. More people live to old age in our culture than throughout history or in most places in the world, including the United States. Of course we believe this is a sign of progress, of greater knowledge, capacity, peace, options, choices, and freedoms.
So then when someone who is young dies suddenly and unexpectedly, it tends to shake not only our own sense of personal loss, but often times, even causes us to ask what are known as existential questions: why does death happen? What happens when someone dies? Will we see them again? And if we’re believers, we might add on the question of how God could allow death to come to someone young, just starting out, or with a whole life of possibilities and choices ahead of them.
I have to tell you that these are actually not questions that have been asked through history for the most part. Why? Because death, even death of young people, seemingly healthy people, people with a future ahead of them, were actually a fairly regular event. Whether because of disease, or accidents, or war, young men and women often had their lives cut short, and everyone pretty much knew this was a reality for them and those whom they loved. It was not unusual to lose at least one child in birth, or to have babies or young children or teenagers die. So the question for most people wasn’t, ‘why or how could this happen to someone so young, with so much potential,’ but instead, the focus was on what would happen with those who died. Where would they go? We can see in ancient Egyptian culture, ancient First Nations cultures, ancient South American Indian cultures, that the real question wasn’t, ‘why did this person die,’ but how do we ensure they are prepared for what comes next? What in this life must one do to prepare?
This was a tough week for me. I did in fact, lose a friend. Rob was his name. Rob worked at the bike shop out of which my cycling team trains. Little did he know that after training sessions, I would often go into the shop to talk to the guys and gals that work there because I needed to be grounded, I needed to feel not so alone and isolated as I felt working constantly, especially on my dissertation. But you see, because Rob was young and healthy, I expected that I’d see him whenever he was in there working. What reason did I have to think our conversation about England in the 17th century would be the last time I saw or spoke to him? After four deaths of young friends of mine, four unexpected and surprising deaths, you might expect that by this fifth, I would be used to the reality that no one, young, healthy, fit, wealthy, poor, is protected from death; that it can happen to anyone at any time. And yet the first question out of my mouth was, “how could you let this happen God?” I too, however theologically trained I am, am still a product of our time and culture.
As I do when sad, with sadness building into anger at my helplessness and lack of capacity and control of the situation, I sifted Scripture in my mind. What can I make of this? Why? Why? Why was he taken. Theology that attempts some version of saying, “he was taken because God has a greater plan for him, or there is a sure purpose to this,” enrage me. Not only are they empty of Scriptural truth, but they also convey a sense that God’s purposes involve the intentional and unjust destruction of people for an arbitrary reason, as if God reasons in the same way as does a psychopath on a murder spree.
To be sure, God has allowed people to suffer the consequences of their own actions; a just God could not do otherwise. He has also allowed human beings to live lives that have resulted in the most horrific of consequences for other people, from genocides, murders, wars, to abuse, manipulation, financial ruin, and suicide. And so we are right to scream out: HOW CAN THIS BE JUSTICE? How can this world belong to God if these things occur? Is God impotent to stop them? How can a good person, a young, trying to get it together person, a struggling young person who has a whole lifetime ahead to get things straight, die? But we are right to scream this out precisely because it is not God’s intention that we live in a world that is unjust. It is not God’s intention that, even if human life is finite, that natural death would cause us the pain and anguish of loss.
How can we know this though, when we see all around us all sorts of suffering where people have fault and where they also don’t? How can we know that this is not God’s intention when we know the sort of pain we all go through when we lose someone we love because we will miss them, because we don’t know what has happened with them, because there is a hole in our very selves that was filled with the space our experiences and memories with them took up?
I will tell you how we know what God’s intention is, and so also what it is not. We hear it today in our reading from Hebrews. Remember some of the things we know about Jesus that we’ve been covering in the last month: Jesus Christ is God, fully and completely. He is also fully and completely a human being. Jesus Christ was, as the Gospel of John put it, in the beginning with God. He is the Alpha and the Omega (or the first and the last). And finally, we know that this God of ours does not change. I’m not going to go into the metaphysical explanation here, but I will simply say that what all of these things together mean is that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man and not changing, really is ‘the first human being.’ And if he is the first human being and the last human being, his life shows to us God’s fullest intention for every other human being, and he shows us the fulfillment of his promise to come to us and to gather us in himself and to restore and reconcile us to him. Why is this important in my case, and perhaps in yours if you’re struggling with the loss of someone you love?
Because what this means in really concrete terms is that we can trust God when he promises that death isn’t the final word; that death isn’t the end of our lives; that just like the true human, the first human Jesus Christ, in him we are raised from natural death into life in relationship with him. This is how Hebrews puts it: Since, therefore, the children themselves share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
You see, I cannot say why Rob died. I remain sad, and angry, that he did. My doctor told me that emotion isn’t bad, rather that it signifies something of value to me. I think he’s right. You see, I think my sadness and my anger signify two things: 1. That death and my experience of losing a friend isn’t ‘the way things ought to be;’ 2. That my lack of knowledge about what happens now with Rob, and my lack of ability to control how things happen, is a realistic acknowledgement of the fact that in a world fallen in sin, fallen into death, the control, the victory over death comes from God in Christ through his Holy Spirit. Finally, although you and I will inevitably feel sad when those we love die, when we see people suffering, when we cry out, ‘why,’ because we lack knowledge and control our modern society suggests we ought to have over all things, our sadness is actually a sign of faith: it is a sign not only that we love our neighbor, but that we love God; that we know our world is not as it ought to be. And acknowledging our dependence upon God acting, taking on our flesh, dying for our sake, and rising again, we are not left in despair, but with the hope of restored and reconciled and eternal life with God. AMEN.