It is difficult to hear the cell phone when you are sitting around the pool on vacation - especially when you are watching an approaching thunder storm and sitting in gusty winds. Thus it was nearly two hours after receiving the phone call on Tuesday that I finally saw that I had a voice mail. The voice mail simply asked me to return the phone call of a pastor friend of ours. He wanted to advise me of a situation regarding another one of our friends.
The news was not good. On Monday night, while vising their daughter in South Carolina, our friend's wife suffered a major heart attack. She was on life support while they waited to determine a strategy. The news made me anticipate that we may not be seeing this friend again until Christ returns to create the new heaven and the new earth.
Ironically (or was it a 'God thing'?), at the time of these phone calls, I was reading a theological article on "The Reformation of Dying and Burial." The scripture passage under discussion was 1 Corinthians 15.54-57: "When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' 'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
Shortly before his own death, Martin Luther had commented on this passage, writing "Death lies on the ground. It has lost its kingdom, might, and victory. Indeed, it had the upper hand. The entire world was subject to it because of sin, and all people have to die. But now it has lost its victory. Against death's rule and triumph our Lord God, the Lord of Sabaoth, has his own victory, the resurrection from the dead in Christ. For a long time death sang, 'Hooray! Triumph! I, death. am king and lord over all human beings. I have the victory and am on top.' But our Lord God permits himself to sing a little song that goes, 'Hooray! Triumph! Life is king and lord over death. Death has lost and is on the bottom.' Previously death had sung, 'Victory! Victory! Hooray! I have won. Here is nothing but death and no life.' But God now sings, 'Victory! Victory! Hooray! I have won. Here is nothing but life and no death. Death has been conquered in Christ and has died itself. Life has gained the victory and won.' ... This is the song that will be sung by us in the resurrection of the dead when this mortal covering becomes immortality."
Then Luther goes on to write "Now death is choking off our life in many ways and making us miserable, some by sword, others by plague, one person by water, another by fire. Who can count all the ways death is strangling us? Death was alive, ruled, conquered, and sang, 'I won. I won. I, death, am king and conqueror of the whole world. I have power and rights over everything that lives on earth. I strike with death and strangle everyone, young, old, rich, poor, of high and low estate, noble, commoners. I defy those who want to protect themselves against me.' But now death will soon sing itself hoarse and to death. Then his cantata will soon be laid to rest. For on Easter another song came forth, that goes, 'Christ is arisen from all suffering. We shall be joyous, Christ will be our comfort.' Death, where is now your victory? Where do you find him who lay in the grave, whom you killed on the cross?" Luther found him - that is, Christ Jesus - as we find him: alive, present in his word, and ruling his people with grace and mercy.
Death's sting remains nasty. It is invasive, insulting, and painful. Sometimes it strikes suddenly. Other times in creeps in slowly. Still, at other times, it seems to be a combination of the two.
But, as Luther reminds us ... and as 1 Corinthians 15 states so clearly ... death is defeated. Easter is coming. And in our baptism we have been raised with Christ to walk in the newness of life with him in victory. "I want to make clear to you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand and by which you are saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you. ... Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." (1 Corinthians 15.1-4)
It is now Thursday morning and we have heard no additional news. We have been praying for Ruth, Arnold, and their family. Many, many others have been doing the same. We wait and watch. We pray and hope.
Which, of course, is always the story of our lives. "Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven. ... Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Matthew 24.36, 44) These, as you well know, are the words of Jesus.
In the same chapter I have quoted earlier, Paul reminds us, "If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone." (1 Corinthians 15.19). In this world we hope and pray constantly - and all the more so when life stinks or stings - knowing God will supply all our needs in just the right way. Yet, at the same time, we know that a time is coming when we will say with finality, "Where, death, is your sting? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 15.55, 57)