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Death Before Life
(A Lent Reflection)





Cuthbert cross

Death Before Life 

(Originally preached on the Fourth Sunday of Lent 2009) 

The sermon begins with a reference to the death of Jade Goody who was a controversial "Reality TV" start who died on cancer on 22nd March 2009, a week to the day prior to this sermon being preached.  


Read : St John 12: 20-23 

Jesus said "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." 

I am no fan of so-called "reality television". Uninteresting people of whom I have never heard thrown together in a contrived situation is not exactly high art. Indeed - in my personal opinion - it does not even rate as popular entertainment. For something to be entertainment it has to entertain, and I do not find reality television in the slightest entertaining. For something to be described as reality, it surely has to be real… or at least credible, which is not the case with most reality tv. Now I know that there will be some of you who take a different view, and you may find programmes such as "I'm a celebrity get me out of here" or "Big Brother" unmissable viewing. But they don't do it for me. 

And so, I doubt I would ever have heard of a young woman called Jade Goody had it not been for a rather well publicised incident a couple of years ago when she fell out with an Indian film star and said some rather unpleasant things.  

But whether or not you had previously heard of Jade Goody, I am sure that there are few who will not now have heard of her, of her battle with cancer, her wedding and baptism while terminally ill, and her death a week ago today.  

Of course, it is very possible to regard the self-generated publicity that surrounded her dying as wholly distasteful and macabre; a crude means of extracting maximum financial gain even from her own death, a kind of grotesque publicity stunt. There are many reason to be cynical, perhaps justifiably so. But that is not my view.  

Whatever motives may be attributed to her actions, she has - in my opinion - openly faced up to, and courageously dealt with death. She looked death in the eye and it is interesting that in so doing she chose to consciously and coolly embrace the Christian faith. She looked death in the eye, and in so doing, she has forced a great proportion of the British public to do likewise. 

And for that alone we should be grateful to her, whatever view we may otherwise take of her behaviour or lifestyle choices  

The truth is that in our culture we do not easily or readily contemplate, speak about or face up to death. Which is somewhat surprising given that it is universally inevitable! 

So, just in case any of us are in any doubt whatsoever, let me state the obvious. We are all going to die! And if you are feeling a bit down or in need of cheering up, then you may well feel that this is the last thing you want to or need to hear. However, for those of us who have faith in Christ the Crucified and Risen, while - of course - there remains sorrow in parting and possibly fear of the process and means of dying, there is no need to fear death, still less any good sense in pretending it will not happen! 

The preacher and contemporary hymn writer, John Bell, tells the story of an incident from about a hundred years ago when a traveller in Ayrshire came across and group if village children playing at funerals. 

At the front of the solemn procession came a wee boy walking slowly with a hat on his head. The undertaker. 

Behind him came two boys, their hands tucked under their chins, their backs arched… these were the horses. 

Then came four boys carrying a wee girl who had agreed to be the corpse. Bringing up the rear was a sorry procession of children snivelling into their handkerchiefs. These were the mourners. The traveller thought he would play along with the children and went up to one of them and asked quietly and respectfully, "Who's dead?" To which came the solemn reply "How should I know; I'm just a horse!" 

"Who's dead?"… if we encounter a group of mourners, or are passed by a funeral cortege or see a hearse go down the road, we might well wonder "who's dead?" But how should we tell? He was a stranger, she was unknown to us. And we go on our way and forget about it.  

At other times, we know all too well who's died. It is a loved one, he was one of the family, she was a friend. And when that is the case there is always sadness and grief, even when the one whose passing we mourn had a life that was good, long and fulfilled for which we offer thanks. 

But when the death is unexpected, or tragic, or too soon, or too young… then there is more than grief… there is shock, disbelief, anger. 

And let me say that I believe that anger is no enemy of faith. Anger is a right and Christian response to untimely or tragic death. For we surely do not and cannot believe that such a thing is or would be the will of God? Do we? Can we? What kind of God would this be who willed tragic or untimely death on people? Do we really believe in some arbitrary capricious deity? Not if we believe in the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. And so when, in this broken, fallen world in which so much happens that is not in accordance with the will or way of God, let us indeed be angry if - through tragedy, accident or disease, death snatches away one whose life has been too short. 

Certainly, there are mysteries in all this, too deep for us to readily fathom. But these are mysteries that our Lord was not afraid to address and was ultimately willing to embrace in his own untimely, tragic and unjust death. And in all this, there is surely a still deeper mystery!  

In our facing up to death… whether our own or that of a loved one… let us recall that anger can be appropriate, and that the whole business of life and death and faith are bound up in deep mystery; mystery which Jesus confronts in his teaching and in his final action. 

But let us recall too the promises of his teaching about death and the implication of that final act in the drama, his death and his resurrection.  

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." 

Jesus had set himself on the road whose destination he knew well would be Calvary. And as the weeks have progressed, our journey through Lent has brought us nearer and nearer to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to his death.  

Why did he die? Why is it that His death has such significance for the Christian faith and is so central to Christian worship, devotion and teaching? 

Why did he die? Well, in part we could say that it was because he upset people; both the Romans and the religious. His words did not suit them; his actions did not impress them, and what he said about life and faith and God most certainly did not please them.  

Why did he die? Because powerful people wanted rid of him. 

But the deeper truth revealed in the New Testament is that he died for us, for you, for me. His dying is not simply a tragic end for our faith's founder. In some way which even the biblical writers struggle to explain, this man who was God come among us and who had no sin, takes upon himself sin's punishment and penalty as he is crucified… takes on himself our sin.  

Now let's not get too concerned with trying to explain all this. As I said, even the biblical writers struggle to make sense of it and end up using different pictures to attempt to explain it, with talk of sacrifice, ransom, victory and more besides. How Jesus' death deals with the problem of our sin does not matter anything like as much as the simple affirmation that the biblical writers clearly make, that somehow, he died for us, and through his death, we are able to be reconciled to God. 

Why did he die? It was for you. And when we see his outstretched arms on the cross they are stretched out in the most complete and perfect demonstration of how much God loves us and how far he goes to win us back.  

But let's ask the question again. Why did he die? And here we return to our text: 

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." 

He died that he might enter into new life and bring that new life, that eternal life, that resurrection life, and faith, and hope to us! 

The picture he uses of a seed falling into the ground makes the point: it is only in dying that new life can come. 

His death and resurrection blaze the trail for us and give us hope and every reason to look at death without fear, and without viewing it as final. 

We who belong to Jesus Christ, belong to one who, though he was God's only Son, died. And he died so that whoever believes in him should know that... we also will die! 

And then he burst out of death's bondage so that all who believe in him might know that when they draw their last breath they are not going to remain still forever, but will take part in the great process we call resurrection.  

The gospel does not say that we will not die. It says we will die, but that God has taken care of that process. It is in his hands and those who die in Christ will also rise to new life in Christ.  

Death is a mystery… but then so is a seed falling in the ground and springing to life and bearing fruit. Death is a mystery, but so is the process whereby a caterpillar enters into its cocoon and, in time, emerges utterly transformed as a butterfly. Death is a mystery… but then so is birth (which can also be messy and painful). Death is a mystery… and one that Jesus Christ has faced and embraced and defeated!  

Death is a mystery… but then so is a seed falling in the ground and springing to life and bearing fruit. Death is a mystery, but so is the process whereby a caterpillar enters into its cocoon and, in time, emerges utterly transformed as a butterfly. Death is a mystery… but then so is birth (which can also be messy and painful). Death is a mystery… and one that Jesus Christ has faced and embraced and defeated!  

And if the way in which we face death is so transformed, then so will the way in which we face life be changed.  

It was George MacLeod, who of course ministered and preached in this church, who suggested that Christians should live as those who have already been measured for their shrouds, and who are not worried about when the undertaker will come.  

For the Christian there is no need to fear death. Indeed, facing the inevitability of our death, and having faith in the promise of life after death, will transform our living here and now. So let's book the funeral tea, even though it may not happen for very many years yet. These things should hold no fear.  

Jesus said "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." 

He also said "I am the resurrection and the life" 

And he meant it! 


I wish to acknowledge the influence of Rev John Bell in this sermon. Indeed, I have borrowed freely from some of John's ideas and language in this sermon. John Bell is, in my opinion, one of the most creative and talented preachers of our time (as well as being one of the foremost hymn writers of our generation). The two sermons of John's that have greatly influenced my own sermon are "Unless a Grain of Wheat shall Fall" and "On Death and Dying" both of which were originally published in the volume of sermons "Wrestle and Fight and Pray: Thoughts on Christianity and Conflict" John L Bell, part of the series "On Reflection" edited by Duncan B Forrester, 1993 St Andrew Press  

Rev David Denniston, March 2009

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