I think it was April 1st – can’t quite recall – back in 2018. Easter Sunday afternoon – pastor naptime – my phone rang. It was my brother. “Phil, Dad was just terrible today… Barely got through the sermon in the service; couldn’t do communion; he looked terrible…” And then he went into the hospital. And then I went down there. And we heard terrible news we knew had been coming – been hearing it like some train far off down the tracks and around the bend – but now it was bearing down and thundering by. And it reverberated into hospice at home and all those things that come along with it – meetings and prognostications about how much time left. And it was unknown no matter. So I left – said “just in case” last goodbyes – and came back here. For eighteen more days, until my brother called again. Didn’t say much that I remember except, “Dad’s about to die…say your last words.” So, as my brothers and mother gathered around my father in his bedroom at home… I was in the 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis, with three little girls sitting in car seats in the back and wondering what exactly Uncle Andy was saying… I said more last words.
I’m thankful for that moment and the opportunity. But also, it’s garbage. I mean, that’s not how it’s supposed to go, right? People aren’t supposed to die at 63. And you’re not supposed to say goodbye over a cell phone bumping down a concrete road in a light industrial part of town – heaven’s hopes and professions of love paired with forklift carrying railroad ties… Garbage, I say.
Death is sickening and crushing and crippling and hurtful. And I can proclaim it garbage all day long but it is actually the pattern, isn’t it? People do die at 63 and 4 and 107; of diseases or by murder or just plain old age; at the worst of times and just when you expect it; sometimes quickly and sometimes slow, over years, with pain and difficulty.
Paul’s got it right in Romans 5, starting at v.12. “death came to all men”. Of course, the reason why is important too… “[S]in entered the world through one man, and death through sin…” The first man, Adam, sinned by disobeying God’s one command, “Do not eat from that tree…” And, when his wife ate and he did nothing, and she took him the forbidden fruit and he did exactly what was forbidden, then God’s promise/threat came true, “you will surely die…” Indeed, “death came” to Adam and Eve, and through them, to you and everyone else. Because Adam transgressed – crossed God’s command.
And, I suppose, some might reason that we could escape death by our good measures – medical technology, human goodness. But, I think vv.13-14 are sort of instructive as to how deep the implications go… During the time when there weren’t any laws from God to break, from Adam to Moses with no revealed law from God for people… When you’d think that people would be off the hook and guilt-free, so to speak, not logging transgressions on their record and thus having to pay with death… Still then, even then, “Nevertheless, death reigned (handed out death-sentences like a tyrant king)…even over those who did not sin by breaking a command,” like Adam did. Death still reigned. The law just points out the pattern in us…
The first American colonists knew it and reflected it in their little child textbook, The New England Primer, “In Adam’s Fall, we sinnéd all.” Paul’s focusing on the all-encompassing problem of death, but he’s said more already. We don’t just observe it, we participate in it. Run back to Romans 3 as we heard it a few weeks ago. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Today it reads, “death came to all men, because all sinned.” The world – each person – has missed the mark of God’s holiness. It’s all-encompassing: sin and death and destruction in the whole human race and experience from beginning to end.
Do you see the pattern? Inescapable death by disease and doing and destructive choices and descent from Adam. It’s all-pervasive, not discriminatory, all-inclusive… Death reigns. And we feel it… We may not like it but we know it deep down. And it affects things…
That’s actually the benefit and the problem with patterns. They suck you in… Think of music. As a man, nothing is more indicative of the vacuum pattern than Disney music. I don’t like to admit it, but I can sing right along with “I Can See the Light” from Tangled and all the hits from The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. It’s worse though. I know most of those newer things on Disney+ like the music from “Descendants”, vols. 1, 2, & 3. And so, recently, as I drove the family back from a getaway, I made gracious allowance that Descendants 3 would be the soundtrack of our drive. And even as my testosterone protested, I found myself swaying along and drumming out the beat on the steering wheel… heartily pretending to any other passing drivers that I was listening to Queen’s Freddie Mercury belt out “Don’t Stop Me Now” instead of Maleficent’s daughter singing, “Queen of Mean”. I loathe it, actually, but I just couldn’t help it. That beat, the rhythm, the punctuation and procession of lyrics, the pattern sucked me in.
So I think that’s the question this morning. You see the pattern of death, but is the pattern all you see? Certainly there’s the temptation to get sucked in to this world’s death. It’s devastating, so just despair – sometimes that gets you at a funeral. It’s pervasive – sin is personally yours and maybe your personal sins just pervade all your thoughts, so that you understand how terrible they are – the pictures in your mind you cannot drive away, the words you allowed to come out of your mouth, that thing you did over and over again. It’s the evident decay of sin in all that you watch on the news and all that’s proclaimed, and you participate in the pattern when you’re too afraid to say what God says is right for fear you’ll lose your job or respect or a friend. As believers, we’re tempted to be drumming along to the tune of death, sucked into the pattern, perhaps even patterned, lulled into unbelief that disregards the design God has made. The one Paul reminds us of in Romans 5, especially, when he says that Adam, for all his sin, was a “pattern of the one to come.”
Paul’s reminding us and resetting our frame. Adam was a negative pattern of Jesus. I recently poured a concrete countertop for a bathroom. Simple project – prepare a mold out of wood, caulk the seems, put in the knockouts for the sink, etc. then pour in your concrete and let it dry. Then break that mold off and discard it – it was just the reflection of the shape you needed. So also Adam… In v.15, where “the many died by the trespass of the one man [Adam], how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” God’s work in one man, Jesus, overflowed to many – much more than Adam’s work did. How much more? Abundantly more! Incredibly more! So that you could even reason this way: it was by a death, the terrible, heinous death of the one, righteous man, Jesus Christ, that guilt was marked “paid” on the world’s record. V.16, after our section, says it – Jesus’ gift of death followed “many trespasses and brought justification.” Without qualification – if you’ve sinned, it was paid. The world’s sins wiped out in one sweep! That’s abundant; that’s overflowing! It’s all pervasive. In fact, Paul can say that “death reigned through that one man”, Adam, but so much more, incredibly more, far greater is what Jesus brings to those who stand in the midst of all this death: “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness, [they] reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” who rose to life again.
There’s a pattern of beauty; a poetry even… One of the Romans commentaries I was reading this week pointed me to a phrase by the metaphysical poet, John Donne – from the 1500’s, an Anglican cleric and English writer – many poems, some scandalous, others dismissable. Some good ones for this, though… Like his objective, Christian thought about death in his Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud, where he says,
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.
And, in Christ, it’s true. Death holds no power over those who stand within the life of Jesus Christ by faith. Death holds no power over you – because God’s gift is abundantly set forth in grace for the whole world…
Or consider Donne’s words in the face of sickness, at the door of death:
… As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”
Especially for these times where death walks among us a sickness… There’s a chance you can be taken by the COVID but here is a divine certainty you’ll wake up with a crown. This is, as the theologian Martin Franzmann said, so “‘much more’; not the reign of a power over [people] but [people] themselves reigning, [people] royally alive, [people] who have received the abundance of God’s grace and His free gift of righteousness” (Romans, A Commentary, p.101) by faith in Jesus Christ.
Or consider, last, Donne’s poem, A Hymn to God the Father wherein he contends with his continual sins and all that is not done as sin and death rolls on and on. The final verse, his sin of fear, he prays like this…
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.
Perhaps more than anything, dear friends, in Jesus Christ, the abundant gift of God’s grace, do not fear – not sickness, nor persecution, neither sin, nor condemnation, not riot, nor even death. For God has patterned his love to draw you in – to comfort and joy, forgiveness and peace in Jesus Christ. Do you see it? Can you sing along? For…
Where sin did increase and reigned with deadly crown
And ruin wrought, much more God’s grace did grow;
By Christ’s blood bought, us he made to be his own
in lasting life, righteous increase to know;
And, grace so done, as God has done;
We fear no more.