I saw a picture on Facebook this week that grabbed my attention. The reason I noticed it was that it was a picture of a Nativity scene, which I thought was out of place at this time of year. And the caption read, “We know how to prepare for a birth. But do we know how to prepare for a death?” And I think that is a fitting question for us to ponder on this Good Friday evening.
On the one hand, there are some things that we do to prepare for death. We write wills, so we can be sure that what money we have left is used to pay off debts and can go to provide for our family members who outlive us. We make sure that, if we die before our children are grown, there is someone that we trust who will care for them. And with the advance of medical technology, we are starting to make sure that we have living wills as well, so that our families know how best to care for us if we are incapable of making those decisions. Some of us even plan out our funerals before we die—which, as a pastor, I highly recommend that you do.
But, does that make us any more prepared for a death when it comes? Jesus’ disciples thought that Jesus was the Messiah who would liberate the people of Israel from Roman oppression. That may have been why Judas had decided to betray Jesus to the officials—perhaps he thought he could get a rebellion started that way. No one was prepared for Jesus to actually die, and even as he was dying, they may perhaps have been expecting him to perform a miracle, come down from the cross, and demonstrate that he was, in fact, God’s Son. No one thought he would actually die.
And even when we, today, prepare ourselves for death by making a will, a living will, planning our funerals, and all the rest of it, we are never prepared for it when it comes. Every death around us means that we have to confront our own mortality and admit that one day we, too, will die. And we don’t like to do that. We like to live with the illusion that we will live forever, that things will go on as they have always gone on, that the people we have around us will always be there, for good or ill. We cannot imagine, and we don’t want to imagine, the possibility of no longer existing in this world.
We have built a culture around denying death. Instead of naming it a “funeral,” we call it a “celebration of life”. Despite the fact that at most funerals, there are joyous moments as we remember fun times with the deceased person, there is plenty of sadness and tears, too, so I personally would not characterize this event as a “celebration”. I think “celebration of life” is a euphemism we use to try to soften the word “funeral,” and everything else that goes along with the word “death”. What’s even worse, I think, is those who do not want any kind of funeral or memorial service at all, for I think that is, again, not only denying the living the opportunity to remember the good times and to mourn the loss, but also denying the living the necessary opportunity to confront their own mortality.
Good Friday is about confronting death. Good Friday is about remembering those first disciples, who did not know that there would be more to the story. Despite what Jesus had said in his life here on earth, the disciples did not understand that he would rise from the dead. They saw Jesus being crucified. They testified that he was, indeed, dead. They thought that, with the death of their rabbi, it was all over for their fledgling movement. Their hopes, their dreams, their expectations were completely shattered.
But the good news is this: God is still present in death, and God will not let death have the last word. So, this evening, I invite you to reflect on those whom you have loved who have died, and to remember them this night. I invite you to bring all of your shattered hopes, dreams, and expectations and lay them at the foot of the cross. I invite you to experience that feeling of, “What will we do now?” that those first disciples felt. I invite you to argue with God and to rage at God. But most of all, I invite you to experience God’s great love for you and for each person on this earth, the love that sent Jesus to the cross to die for us. And I invite you to let God have the last word in your lives—that, even though one day each one of us will die, God and God’s love for us will have the last word. Amen.