"Lighten up" is a popular expression meaning "don't take something too seriously." Scripture uses it literally in Psalm 13:3. David prays, "Enlighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death." Death is a heavy, dark burden. Hebrews 2:14 says that is through the fear of death that the devil keeps people enslaved. And we who on this All Saints' Day remember loved ones who have died know that it's not the separating but the dying that hurts. Being separated by death is different than being separated, but even here our Lord would have us "lighten up."
But death is a a deep darkness to try to lighten up. Isaiah 25 describes death as a shroud, a pall, over all people. And all people feel it, know it's there and they try to deal with it. Some people try to deal with the shroud of death by living. They eat, drink and be merry as if death can be out ran. But death follows them in their eating, drinking and merriment. For a moment, for awhile, for a time, they might feel as if they're not going to die. But living doesn't pull off the pall of death; it only makes it flap in the breeze for a bit, but then it settles back down on your life heavier and darker than before.
Health is another way people try to get out from under the shroud of death. Medicine, diet, exercise are modern ways to deal with dying. And no this is not an attack on any of these. I'm just pointing out that there are people who believe that certain pills, food, and activities can deliver them from dying. O they don't say it that way. No, they think it this way. "If I don't take this medicine, get this test, eat this diet, or do this exercise, I will die sooner." If only death was that light of a thing. If only the shroud could be pulled off our backs that easily. If only death were just a physical enemy. But it's not.
Therapy is another way people try to deal with the heavy mantel of death. What I mean by therapy is trying to deal with death by thinking or feeling differently about it. You hear of stars trying this. Remember when the show "Dallas" was a hit? The star Larry Haggman became consumed by a fear of death. Very often the shroud of death becomes thicker, blacker, and heavier when something good comes into your life. Most people are shocked when this happens to them because all of a sudden they see, feel and smell the musty pall of death where before they weren't even aware of it. Haggman tried to deal with his sudden realization of death by laying in a coffin a couple of hours each day. Tom Cruise embraced the Scientology cult to fend of his fear of death. A whole generation of us were introduced to a different view of death by the soothing tune of, "Don't Fear the Reaper."
But death doesn't care how you think or feel about it; it keeps on coming. Living, healthy living, or living with a different view of dying doesn't enlighten anyone or keep death from closing in on us. All the partying, pill popping, exercising, or therapy in the world isn't going to stop death or slow it down. The Valkyries are already riding forth on the battlefields of life and with Wagoner we can hear their relentless, triumphant approach.
Death never takes a holiday, but comes incessantly, certainly because all die not because they have high cholesterol, the flu, disease, or are involved in an accident, tragedy or war. No, all die because of sin. Once Adam fell into sin, he died and all in him died right then and there. The fountainhead from which we all spring, Adam, was polluted with death. We come forth into life dying. We come into this world tightly wrapped in the shroud of death. We forget about this as we dance on the surf of life for a short while until death slams ashore like a tidal wave and carries a loved one out to sea. Then we remember: the pall of death hangs over us all, and our eyes get heavier, our hearts get gloomier and all we can see is death wherever we look.
We will sleep the sleep of death even as we live unless we have light. Death will not only rob us of our loved ones it will rob of us what is left of our life unless our eyes are enlightened, unless we "lighten up." Only Christ can provide this light. In I Corinthians 15 Paul give this equation: the sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. Death hurts because of sin. Sin has such sway over us because of the law. Any attempts to deal with sin, or death by turning to the law will only shove you back under death and wrap you all the tighter in its heavy shroud.
Who but God can deal with God's law? Who but God can bear and sufficiently pay the just penalty for violating God's law? The perfect man Adam could not keep God's law. Then having broken it, he couldn't satisfy God's wrath. So death was master over all mankind. Our sins justly call for death and the law spotlights our sins so death is sure to find us. God's law has to be kept; God's law has to be satisfied but only God can do that, but God didn't need to, man did. So God became a Man in the Person of Jesus Christ. God put Himself under His own law to keep it perfectly in place of all mankind. Then, even more startlingly, God in Christ willingly suffered the death and damnation that sinners deserve. Death's claim on mankind was the law. Christ kept the law perfectly. Where's death's claim now? What about what man owed for breaking God's law? Paid in full by Christ on the cross. What more can be paid once a bill is paid in full?
Death tried to swallow Christ. On the cross, while Christ hung helplessly under the load of our sins and the curse we deserve, death saw it's chance to swallow the One who had been promised to crush it. Death did swallow Christ on Good Friday, but He had to spit Him back out on Easter morning. Christ the God-Man had allowed death to make Him suffer and die to pay for our sins. Once they were paid for, death had no claim on the God/Man because God is perfect and God is life. So Death had to spit Christ back out. It has no more claim on Christ or on anyone in Him.
Is a little bit of light coming into your eyes? Can you see a crack of light piercing that shroud of death that hangs over you? If not, you're not looking toward Christ. Where He is, there is light. Didn't you see all the light in the Epistle reading? Heaven is place where it's always day, where there is no night, because the Lamb, Jesus Christ, is it's lamp. Don't see your loved ones who have died in Christ in a place of darkness, of shadows, but in a place of bright, white, brilliant light.
Heaven is a place of light, and so is the Church. She is described in the Epistle as shining with the glory of God. She is a bright as a jewel because the Lamb, Jesus Christ, is there. All is light and life in the Church because the Lord of life is there. Can you see this truth? Well, open your eyes the rest of the way. Our dead in Christ are in the same Church we are. There is only one Church because there is only one hope, one faith, one Baptism. There is only one Light of the world and one Groom for the Church. Our dead in Christ worship the same Christ we do, pray to the same Christ we do, serve the same Christ we do. They have on the same garments of Christ Jesus we do. They hear the same Word of Christ that we do. They eat the same Bread of life in heaven that we do at this altar.
Do you want to know the simple but amazing truth? When I lived in Louisiana and my parents in Michigan, we were farther away from each other then, than we are right now. Yes, Michigan is farther from Louisiana than heaven is from here. Why? Because the Church on earth and the Church in heaven aren't two churches, but one. We belong to the same Church my folks and I and your dead in Christ and you. Your eyes that are so heavy with the sleep of death need to lighten up. Rather than seeing your loved ones in heaven as being on some distant shore where you can only from time to time barely make them out, you should see them as close as that Font, as close as this Pulpit, as close as that Altar. Since Christ is in the waters of Baptism, in His Word, and on this Communion Altar, that's where you will find His Church too, all of His Church, the one in heaven as well as the one on earth.
Let me try another illustration to bring the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ to shine on you and enlighten your eyes so death doesn't weigh you down as much. Did you see that lunar eclipse the other night? We had a good view of it from our back porch. While standing out there, one of the kids said, "It's neat to think that Daniel is looking at the same thing we are right now." Daniel is our son away at college in Wichita Falls. And it was comforting to think we were looking at the same thing at the same time.
That's how it is in the Church. The Church in heaven and on earth look at the same Christ at the same time. We see Christ through faith: in that font, in this ministry of the Word, on this altar. Our loved ones who are in heaven see the same Christ we do but He is not hidden in Water, wrapped in Words, or veiled in Bread and Wine. So think of your loved ones in Christ not 300 miles away in Wichita Falls, but right here, right now worshiping, praying, and adoring the same Christ you are. They look at Christ from one side; you look from the other. Your eyes, your hopes, your dreams, your lives meet in Christ.
Stare, focus, fixate on Christ and let His victory over death and His promise of life everlasting enlighten your eyes and lighten up your heart, so that death becomes no bigger of an issue for you than sleep. When those in Christ die in death, it's no more permanent than when they fell asleep in life. Christ will bring them back from death as easily as you brought them back from sleep. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Day (Observed, 11-7-04); Revelation 21 & 22