This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Resurrection". See series.
Tony Campolo, at the end of a sermon titled, "The Year of Jubilee," tells this story:
I went to my first black funeral when I was 16 years old. A friend of mine, Clarence, had died. The pastor was incredible. From the pulpit he talked about the Resurrection in beautiful terms. He had us thrilled. He came down from the pulpit, went to the family, and comforted them from the fourteenth chapter of John. "Let not your heart be troubled," he said, "'You believe in God, believe also in me,' said Jesus. Clarence has gone to heavenly mansions."
Then, for the last 20 minutes of the sermon, he actually preached to the open casket. Now, that's drama! He yelled at the corpse: "Clarence! Clarence!" He said it with such authority, I would not have been surprised had there been an answer. He said, "Clarence, there were a lot of things we should have said to you that we never said to you. You got away too fast, Clarence. You got away too fast." He went down this litany of beautiful things that Clarence had done for people. When he finished—here's the dramatic part—he said, "That's it, Clarence. There's nothing more to say. When there's nothing more to say, there's only one thing to say. Good night. Good night, Clarence!" He grabbed the lid of the casket and slammed it shut. "Good night, Clarence!" Boom!
Shock waves went over the congregation. As the preacher then lifted his head, you could see there was this smile on his face. He said, "Good night, Clarence. Good night, Clarence, because I know, I know that God is going to give you a good morning!" The choir stood and starting singing, "On that great morning, we shall rise, we shall rise." We were dancing in the aisles and hugging each other. I knew the joy of the Lord, a joy that in the face of death laughs and sings and dances, for there is no sting to death.
We've been looking at why Jesus' resurrection from the dead matters, guided by the greatest chapter in the Bible on the subject, 1 Corinthians 15. Today, in verses 50-57, Paul draws this great discussion to a stirring conclusion. Here is why the funeral of a believer ought to be completely different than any other funeral. Here is why Christians should live with a loose grip on life on this earth and need never tremble at the thought of death. Since Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we who believe in him are assured of two great promises.
We will all be changed.
God has always intended the people he created to have bodies. We can imagine being us without bodies; we imagine flitting here and there, living like we do now in our heads. But we are meant for better. The great Creator's highest creation is mankind, the perfect blending of body and soul. But now these bodies are shot through with dehumanizing sin. It's in our bones. It's killing us.
These mortal bodies must be changed because they won't work in God's eternal kingdom. They can't breathe there. They can't move there. They can't last there. The beauty there is too bright for these eyes, the fragrances too intoxicating for these noses, the feasts too sumptuous for these taste buds, the hymns too musical for these voices, the sounds too delicate and thundering for these ears, the leaves, stones, friends, and Savior too holy to touch with these hands.
So praise God that "we shall all be changed." To go home to God's kingdom, we must and we will be changed. For one thing, we shall find ourselves in bodies that cannot deteriorate. No dulling or draining or decaying—bodies that are always fresh and strong. Our resurrected bodies will not have any death in them. Now, death is not just evident in our wrinkles and dimming eyes or aching bones. Death is evident in our carelessness about what is right, in our wishy-washy consciences, in our love of earthly things, in our weariness of the holy and beautiful. All of that death deep in our blood and bones will be changed to a holy, Christlike immortality—a life that seeps deep into our consciences and minds and wills and spirits—the very breath of God going to the core of who we are.
This great change will come at the instant of the trumpet blast announcing Christ's second coming. Paul filled in the details more in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." In Matthew 24:31, Jesus talked about the trumpet, too: "And [the Son of Man] will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other."
In Numbers 10, God told Moses to have two silver trumpets made. "Use them," the Lord said, "for calling the community together and for having the camps set out …. This is to be a lasting ordinance for you. When you go into battle …, sound a blast on the trumpets …. Also at your times of rejoicing … you are to sound the trumpets." And so on that great day when the people of God set out for the land God has promised, when the final battle over Satan looms, when that great day of rejoicing is about to begin, God sounds the trumpet!
Here in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul emphasizes that we will be given new bodies instantaneously, happening in a split second. Some believers will be alive on that day, but whether in the grave or walking the earth, we will all be changed, receiving bodies which now we can only begin to imagine.
C. S. Lewis tried to imagine those new bodies in his story about life after death called The Great Divorce. He describes them this way:
I saw people coming to meet us. Because they were bright I saw them while they were still very distant, and at first I did not know that they were people at all …. The earth shook under their tread as their strong feet sank into the wet turf. A tiny haze and a sweet smell went up where they crushed the grass and scattered the dew. Some were naked, some robed. But the naked ones did not seem less adorned, and the robes did not disguise in those who wore them the massive grandeur of muscle and the radiant smoothness of flesh. Some were bearded but no one in that company struck me as being of any particular age. One gets glimpses, even in our country, of that which is ageless—heavy thought in the face of an infant, and a frolic childhood in that of a very old man. Here it was all like that.
We shall all be changed! And that is one great reason why Christians can dance in the aisles at a funeral! The second reason is this:
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Since Adam and Eve, through all the civilizations of mankind, death has been on an unfettered rampage. The Puritan Thomas Brooks wrote, "Death has for its motto, 'I yield to none!'" He said, "Death is the greatest monarch and the most ancient king of the world."
But death's death warrant has been signed and in that instant when Jesus returns, death will give up his sword and keys. Death will be swallowed up once and for all! Paul is remembering a wonderful passage from Isaiah 25:6-8. Here is the real Easter feast: "a table prepared in the presence of my enemies," the wedding supper of the Lamb, the feast to which God has invited the lame and blind from every back alley and dark lane. It is a victory feast because the shroud of death has been shredded, the winding sheet lies folded in the tomb, and death is swallowed up in victory. The Lord, having destroyed death, now erases its damage, drying our tears, and removing the disgrace of our sin from all the earth. Oh, dear friends, that day really is coming. That feast really will be spread before us. We really will have our tears wiped away!
And do you know what we will say in that day? Isaiah tells us: "In that day they will say, 'Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.'" "Yes," we will tell one another again and again, "God did what he promised! Sometimes we doubted, but we did not give up. We repeated the Scriptures to fortify our faith. We prayed till we wept. We held each other up. We trusted him, and look where we are— he saved us!"
So now we can taunt death: "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" In verse 56, Paul explains just why death has always been so powerful: "The sting of death is sin." Think of death as a scorpion. It is a little and weak thing, except for the venom in its stinger. This venom is the sin that kills us inwardly, deeply, and brings a sentence of death upon us physically and spiritually. Ironically, the thing that makes the venom of sin all the more lethal is God's own law: "and the power of sin is the law." Knowing what God expected of us only made us more inclined to disobey. Sin became more powerful because of God's law.
But Jesus forgives our sins, and fills us with his own Holy Spirit, giving us hearts that want to obey. And in that great saving work, with sin forgiven and washed away, death loses its sting. There is no poison in it. It comes, but it does no harm. We can taunt it without fear; indeed, we can even welcome its coming, for "to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain!"
John Donne was a great Christian and a pastor in London in the early 1600s, through three waves of the Black Plague that killed thousands. For months, he thought he, too, was dying of the plague. But he wrote as one who understood this text in 1 Corinthians. These are the beginning and ending lines of one of his great sonnets:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me …
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Thank God that he gives us this mighty victory through our relationship with Jesus Christ.
This week I read a couple of funeral sermons by Thomas Brooks. He blessed me by reminding me how, for the believer, death not only ceases to be our conqueror; death actually becomes God's meek helper. He wrote, "Death is another Moses: it delivers believers out of bondage, and from making bricks in Egypt." Brooks also said,
Remember this—death does that in a moment, which no graces, no duties, nor any ordinances could do for a man all his lifetime! Death frees a [person] from those diseases, corruptions, temptations … that no duties, nor graces, nor ordinances could do …. Every prayer then [when we die] shall have its answer; all hungering and thirsting shall be filled and satisfied; every sigh, groan, and tear that has fallen from the saints' eyes shall then be recompensed. That is not death but life, which joins the dying man to Christ!
One afternoon 19 years ago, May 2, 1990, I heard holy things. I visited a father and husband from our church in Pennsylvania named Larry Hildreth. He was just in his 30s, and he was near death from cancer. I had gone to serve him communion because he was too weak to come to church. He was a deeply thoughtful man, and that day as he spoke, slow and deliberately, I realized I was hearing extraordinary things. I started scribbling them down on the margins of a bulletin in my Bible. "Even if I have a short time to live," Larry said, "he's given me a great hope. Sometimes life throws us some tremendous curves, but death has lost its sting." I wish I had time to read to you the two pages of insights I got from Larry that day about suffering, about his struggle for faith and his experience of God's strength. "At the point in my life when I'm the weakest," he said, "I'm the strongest I've ever been."
We started talking about his funeral, which as it turned out would be exactly one month later. He told me he wanted lots of singing; I remember how Larry would put his head back and sing with such unabashed gusto in church. I asked him what he wanted his funeral to be like. He said, "The only thing I want people to think on that day is joy [and he raised his hands deliberately in a slow, triumphant clap]. When I pass into his kingdom, I envision this spectacular light, this spectacular feeling of being able to let go. I've felt a lot of grief for my children, my wife, my family, myself, but I've had to get over that. Once you get past that, you know that God is there—that spirit of joyfulness. It's going to be a happy day for me. No grief for me. God chose me this time!"
Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.