Happy New Year's Eve!
Most societies past and present have year end festivals. Such festivals usually focus on the past being swept away and beginning anew. Today marks the end of the Church Year, but our focus is different.
We focus on the fleeting nature of this life. Did you catch that in the sermon hymn? Can you believe we sing a hymn that says we don't want to live always in this life? We sang "The few lurid mornings that dawn on us here/ Suffice for life's woes, are enough for its cheer." How different this note is from say the country song that says, "I'm gonna live forever, not going to cross that river." Even if our hymn didn't upset you, the prayer in the Introit is "worse." Can you believe we pray for the Lord to show us our life's end, the number of our days, and how fleeing our life is?
This prayer tells us two things: 1) Unless the Lord shows us how fleeting our life is we will believe the song that says we're gonna live forever. 2) Only the Lord can really do this. In Psalm 139 we're told that the Lord knows every one of our days before we've lived one of them. He knows the exact number of them. So when the doctor says you have 6 months, he doesn't know that. Neither does the doctor know who says you have many years to live. Same goes with those life expectancy tables. They say if you're this age now then you can expect to live X number of years more. You had better expect to do no such thing, at least not according to our text.
According to the text, no matter what your age, lifestyle, health, blood pressure, or cholesterol your Lord wants you to know that you're life is fleeting. Like an ember popped out of a fire quickly goes from orange to ashen, so are you. Like an ever rolling stream time bears all its sons, and daughters, away. As quickly as a dream flies out of your thoughts at the opening of day, that's how fleeting your life is.
But that's not all. The Lord has made your days a mere handbreadth. That's a unit of physical measurement. Actually, it's the smallest natural measurement. A handbreadth is 4 fingers. You know when kids are small they'll stretch out their arms and say, "I love you this much." Well, regardless of what your doctor, your heart, or your mind tells you, your Lord tells you that you have this much, four fingers, left to live.
Even four fingers may convey too lengthy of a life. So the Lord goes on to say, "Each man's life is but a breath." This isn't a reference to the last breath you'll take. This is a reference to a breath on a cold glass. It fogs only for a moment, and then it's gone. That's your life, that's my life, that's everyone's life. We're no more enduring then a breath of air on a glass.
Don't like to hear this, do you? I'm doing to you what the Ghost of Christmas future does to Scrooge. Do you remember when it takes him to the graveyard? The climax of that scene is not when Scrooge sees Tiny Tim's gravestone. It's when he sees his own. If you read the book or see one of the movies that are faithful to the book, you'll notice that the Ghost of Christmas future makes it plain to Scrooge long before the graveyard scene that he is the one buried. The Ghost takes him by his own house, to his own deathbed, to people he knows happy about his death. Yet, Scrooge doesn't get it till he sees his name chiseled in stone, and then he is undone.
This is what I'm doing to you. Or more accurately, what I am doing to your old adam, your sinful nature, your sinful flesh. It will not believe and does not want to hear that it is going to die. It fights for life and at even the thought of death as much as any wild animal that is cornered and knows it's about to die. What is "gospel" to the flesh is this: "If you watch what you eat and do your exercises, you will live longer." And this, "Your mother, father, and grandparents lived to a ripe old age, you will too." And this too is Gospel to the flesh: "You can reduce your risk of dying by doing this or not doing that."
Sorry, the risk of you dying is 100%. Hebrews says, "It is appointed; it is decreed; it is determined for a man to die once." Its ashes to ashes, dust to dust for us all. The first death, apart from some miracle of God as in the case of Enoch or Elijah, is absolutely unavoidable. Even if you eat a vegan diet, exercise like Lance Armstrong, and get every preventive medical check up there is you're still going to die.
What a downer of a message. Who want to be told this? No one, but you need to hear it. You need to be told your life is fleeting, no more than four fingers in length, and hot air on cold glass, so you might focus on the One who is Eternal Life.
The One who is true life has never willed for you to live forever in this fallen life. After the fall, He placed cherubim with a flaming sword to stand guard outside of the Garden of Eden. Why did He say He did that? "Lest man stretch forth his hand and take from the tree of life and live forever." This is Gospel. The Lord doesn't want you to live forever in this fallen life. He doesn't want you to live forever in this vale of tears, in this land of sorrow, in this old order of mourning, of crying, and pain.
Now, once you're to the point of confessing with Holy Scripture that your life is fleeing, a handbreadth, a vanishing vapor that can't be extended by anything you take, do, think, or believe, what hope do you have? What is the Psalmist's answer in the Introit? "My hope is in you."
There is no hope in a healthy lifestyle or even in health itself because that can change with one lump or just a bump on the head. There is no hope in medicine or even your age. Death is no respecter of age or medicine. Young people die and people die with medicine in their mouth. Your hope is in the Lord who made heaven, earth, and you too.
You know why? Because the Lord who made heaven and earth didn't stay in heaven. He took on flesh and blood in the womb of a virgin. Not for the purpose of living a healthy lifestyle, but for the purpose of keeping the Law. The reason these flesh and blood bodies are of few days and born to trouble is because of God's just judgment against sin. Adam and Eve were created perfect. Had they remained perfect they would be living among us today. But they sinned, and we inherited it. And God's righteous judgment against sin is death. So under a sentence of death these frail bodies live out their few days
Jesus entered our flesh and blood to live under our death sentence all the while fulfilling the holy Law of God that had to be kept. Satan and the world did all they could to make Jesus sin in thought, in word, or in deed, but Jesus didn't. Yet still Jesus died, not because He sinned but because we do. And Jesus didn't just die a painful, humiliating physical death by crucifixion. Jesus died that second death, the eternal one. He died the death where a person burns and burns but doesn't get burned up, where a person is devoured by worms but isn't eaten, where a person is cast out from God without pity, mercy, or hope.
This Jesus is your hope in the face of death or in the face of a difficult life. This Jesus is your hope when your flesh says it's hopeless, when your sins say it's hopeless, when all the world says it's hopeless. This Jesus is your hope when your days fly by faster than a weaver's shuttle or when they drag on hour by dreary hour. Why? Because this Jesus is the only One who can save you from your sins, your death, and your damnation.
Remember Paul's divine math in I Corinthians? "The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law." Your death stings because you are a sinner. Your fleeting life bothers you because you are a sinner. You know you are a sinner; you feel you are a sinner; you taste that you are a sinner because of the law. You don't do away with the law by a healthy lifestyle, taking medicine, exercising properly, or eating rightly. Only in Christ is the Law fulfilled, taken away from hanging over your head. You can't find even one commandment that Jesus didn't keep for you. You can't find even one commandment that you must keep before you can go to heaven. Where there is no law where is the sin? And where there is no sin where is the sting of death?
When death is regarded as the greatest evil, you live your whole life focused on it. It must be feared, avoided, anything must be done to outwit it. But where death is defeated the story is different. One of my favorite Bible passages is Hebrews 2:14. "Through death Jesus destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and delivered all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery."
You know that slavery, don't you? Always giving death it's due. Always wondering what this new medical study, this new diet, this new exercise program can do to save you from death. Always trying to make it so your life is not fleeting, more than a handbreadth, or longer lasting than a vapor. Away with such slavery! You've been freed by Christ the crucified. You've been freed to live focused on Him.
That means you are free to be a pilgrim here, one just passing through, a stranger and a sojourner as the people of God have always been. Here you don't seek a lasting city, an enduring home. Jesus has redeemed you for far greater riches than this, for far more beauty than this, for far more life than this. You can live this life focused on your King who is coming back to get you rather than on the death that is out to get you.
New Year's Eve is that symbolic hour of mortality. On it some stop up their ears at the incessant taunting of the death that is out to get them by crying, "Let us eat, drink, and forget about death for awhile." Not us. We don't focus on death, but we don't forget it either. We ever want the Lord to show us our end and how fleeting our life is, so we might know that life can't be found in us but only in connection with Him. We don't celebrate by forgetting about death, but by remembering what really is life. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Last Sunday in the Church Year (20061126); Psalm 39: 4-8