Death’s Dark Shadows
People have been dying for thousands of years. You expect it to visit you at some point in life, but when it comes, it usually kicks down your door as an uninvited guest. You might think about death every once in a while when you see some tragedy on the news, but even then, it’s still so “out there.” After a few minutes you move your eyes off the TV and take another bite of your chicken sandwich or PB&J. You forget about it.
This year, I couldn’t forget about it. I spent countless days in 2016 believing I was going to die soon. I had various little ailments that wouldn’t go away, and I convinced myself they were symptoms of some deadly disease. I was anxious, and I was afraid. Let me explain how I got there.
While all deaths are grievous and unnatural, the saints of Immanuel have endured a number of truly tragic deaths over the last couple years. We’ve seen the deaths of babies, from early miscarriages to sons born prematurely. The families still grieve the loss of their precious little ones. We’ve lost one dear elderly brother—a founding member of the church as it exists today—who died an old man yet is missed beyond belief. We watched a middle-aged brother, a faithful husband and father of 3, fight brain cancer joyfully in Christ to the bitter end. And most recently, we lost a sweet sister quite unexpectedly in the middle of the night, the mother of 6 wonderful children and wife to an equally gentle and humble husband. She was 35.
Children’s innocent naivety about death only lasts so long; eventually, it melts away, and the reality of the death sentence placed over them by the curse sinks in. You learn to expect death, but when it happens to your loved ones, it punches you in the gut and leaves you sucking for air on the cold floor. And, when you observe death around you, in your circle, close by, you start to ask, “When will it be me?”
That’s what happened to me. I saw these holy and beloved saints die, and I began to wonder if I would be the next tragic loss. If my girls would be the ones left without their daddy. If my wife would be the one unexpectedly planning a funeral.
In my mind, I know there is hope in Jesus, but I just can’t seem to get over the tragedy of that kind of loss. It’s all so…sad.
I suspect there are many Christians who feel this way. They believe the Bible when it says that they will be raised with Christ, that their sin has been paid for, and that they will live for eternity with him. But, underneath, they live with a kind of depression that desaturates life on this earth. They go through life with the kind of “vanity” mindset that characterizes Solomon in Ecclesiastes. I know, because that is the way I often feel. Death’s dark shadows weigh heavily upon us.
Emmanuel, The King
In the face of it all, the message of Christmas is one of overwhelming happiness. It is the massively joyful message that God became man and experienced the very same tragedy that we experience here in the shadowlands, emerging the victor, banishing our doom, and lifting our downtrodden spirits.
There’s one event in Jesus’s life that illustrates this truth perfectly. In John 11, we witness a true tragedy: Lazarus—a friend, a brother, a saint—unexpectedly falls sick and dies. His sister, Mary, weeps at Jesus’s feet and asks why Jesus didn’t come earlier and keep her brother from dying. In response, Jesus triumphantly declares, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And then, ironically, he proceeds to weep over the loss of his friend. Why? Because death is not the way he intended it to be. He knew, intimately, the tragedy of death on this earth. And yet, it was not a tragedy beyond his ability to redeem: he raises Lazarus from the dead, foreshadowing what is to come for all of God’s children on the last day.
The message was clear: the King had arrived, and he was putting an end to the tragedy. After thousands of years, the darkness was finally put to flight, and the stench of death was being banished from the earth.
At Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of this King. He is Emmanuel—the God who is with us—and that is very encouraging. When anxiety and sadness over death creep in, I take comfort from the fact that he has not abandoned me on this side of eternity. He is here, journeying with me, until I make it safely home. And on the way, he brings light and color to the things that were formally dark and gray. (Isaiah 43:2; Luke 1:78-79)
The story that humanity desecrated has been rewritten. Instead of the brokenness that we feel and see here in the shadowlands, another tale has been told in the story of Jesus: death is defeated. The birth of one baby—and his subsequent death and resurrection—signals the end of death for infants, for the elderly, for middle-aged mothers and fathers, and for all who confess along with Mary, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:27)
Take courage, Christian. You don’t need to fear death, because you will never truly die. The sting of death has been taken away. You’re living now in the light of resurrection, and the time for tears is nearly over.
The King, at last, has arrived, and he is bringing you home.