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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Freedom From The Slavery Of Death

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

Published today in honor of Rev. Jerry Reiter’s 90th birthday celebrated in Heaven Friday 01/29/2021. *Originally delivered Sunday 02/02/2003 - one day after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas upon re-entry, killing all seven astronauts onboard.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned -

To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, 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!

Romans 5:12-15

In Las Vegas, at the funeral of a notorious gambler, a friend was delivering the eulogy. He went on and on with fancy, flowery phrases that tried to cover up the fact of death. At one point he said, “Let us not try to look upon our dear friend as dead, but merely asleep!”

A gambling pal of the deceased standing in the rear of the funeral parlor said to those around him, “I’ll give you 8 to 5 he’s dead.” There were no takers.

Death is no laughing matter, is it? Trying to treat it with humor, or pretending it doesn’t exist, doesn’t make it go away – or have any less sting. Death is a reality, as we saw again, so dramatically yesterday*. Not only is there an obituary page in every newspaper, but the headlines tell of people killed by other people, dying in accidents, or succumbing to dreaded diseases.

Considering how much we’re exposed to its reality, why is it that we find death so hard to face? Why do we try to brush it aside? Maybe it’s too much of a reminder of something we can’t control. Maybe it reminds us that failure isn’t overlooked by God – our failure to keep His commands is punished eventually by death. No matter how flowery the phrases – no matter how much we deny it – death is death. It most certainly is real.

How did that come to be? Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Romans that “Sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” Adam failed to pay attention to God’s warning and broke the relationship. Failure brought punishment, the punishment of death. The failure was so severe that only an extreme solution could offer help. And that solution was for God to send His Son to offer His life as a ransom for ours. Christ took on Himself the punishment for sin and so overcame the reign of death.

I doubt that Adam and Eve really understood death and its effect at the time of the Fall, but it wasn’t long before they knew only too well the pain and sorrow it could bring. When Cain killed Abel, death’s reign was known. It wasn’t enough that they had lost their comfortable life in the Garden, or that they had to work and sweat in the world. They had failed – they had sinned – and the clearest reminder of that was one son dead and another banished.

No amount of sorrow could turn things around. Their attempts to hide from God and cover up their sin by blaming Satan didn’t work! Nothing they did could change the punishment. Death was in control, and it affected all creation. All people suffered – physically and spiritually. There was no longer any harmony – only disharmony – no longer was there understanding – only misunderstanding. Man now struggled with himself, his world, and his God.

And over the centuries, nothing has changed! As intelligent as we think we are, we still battle all too often on our own, with the same result – death! Only God can help, and yet we still continue to try to devise our own ways to conquer death. We’re like little children who think they can do everything on their own. And the more we try to solve the problem of death by ourselves, the more we fail, and the tighter death’s grip becomes. The only thing our solutions do is separate us further from the truth we need!

Like a little girl whose mother became very ill. After a time in the hospital, she returned home but was confined to bed. Her 8-year-old daughter wasn’t aware of the terminal status of the illness. Until one afternoon when she stood outside the bedroom door while the doctor and her father visited her mother. And she heard the doctor say, “I’ll be frank with you. The time isn’t far off. Before the last leaves have gone from the trees you will die.”

Sometime later the father came to the breakfast table, but his little girl wasn’t there as she usually was. He went looking for her, and found her out in the yard. His heart was broken as he watched her picking up the leaves that had begun to fall. She was using thread to tie them back onto the branches of the tree.

We’ll go to any lengths to try to break death’s grip. But no matter what we try to do to overcome death, it’s never enough. Sooner or later it comes and takes away what seemed so precious and enduring. Not wanting to die changes nothing. Denying death only keeps us from receiving the help God has made available.

The tragedy of life is not that people die, but that they never truly live! Without God we can’t overcome the fear and the frustration of death. People don’t see the real problem that causes the reign of death, and so they’re not in touch with the abundant life that God has to offer.

We can spend our time running around in life looking for inner peace as the solution to this age-old problem, but the world isn’t going to give it. It can’t. No matter how well off we are, no matter how healthy, how popular, how famous, or how successful we may be, there’s nothing apart from God’s help through Christ that can make any difference.

Jesus speaks of this when He says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Through faith He brings us understanding of who we are and of what He has done. Life in Him gives peace and meaning because in Him the reign of death has ended, and so has the terror death brings.

Jesus is the answer because He offers life. He says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” His ransom on the cross made it possible for us to be forgiven and to know that life does not stop at the grave, but continues throughout eternity! He prepared a place for us and waits to take us to live with Him there. Freedom from the slavery of death is God’s special gift in His Son, who revealed it at the empty tomb on Easter. When He came to life, God had conquered death, once and for all. Paul says in his Roman Epistle, “If many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God, and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ, abounded for many.”

Jesus dealt with the root problem: sin. He conquered it on the cross by accepting its sting in His own body; and He proclaimed His sure victory when He came forth from the tomb full of life!

The effect of Christ in our world is far greater than the effect of sin! Sin brought death, but Christ brought life! He carried our burden of sin to the cross where He died. And risen from the dead, He helps us see beyond the grave to the precious gift of Heaven that God offers. He helps us to realize that we have nothing to fear. The fear of death is gone because of the victory of our Lord, Jesus Christ. John tells us, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” As we face death, we can be sure of this: God’s victory is sure!

Let me tell you about another 8-year-old daughter – my own. Valerie was 8 when her Nana (Carol’s mother Arbutus) died at our house. Nana spent her last months with us, dying of cancer. But on the day she died, Valerie was in Connecticut with neighbors, visiting their relatives for the weekend.

So when she came home, Carol said to her, “Do you know what Nana did while you were gone?” “No, what?, Val asked. “She went to be in Heaven with Jesus.” And Val said, “I knew she’d do that while I was gone!!” Oh, she cried, all right. Cried at the funeral service and made everyone in the church cry! But in her 8-year-old way, she knew that her Nana was still alive with Jesus!

God paid a big price when He sent His Son to the cross. He paid a big price to bring us back to Himself again. He paid the price to satisfy the demands He made when He said man must die. He did it all out of love. As we struggled with the concepts of death, He sent life.

In all that happened on Calvary, God’s love could be seen. He cared and His son cared. In love He laid down his life in our place – one man for all people. And coming out of the depths of death, He announces that it’s okay – it’s safe. He says, “It’s safe because I’ve been there. It was victorious over me, but I’ve overcome it! And I’ll be with you in death, even as I’ve been with you in life.”

The conquering power of Christ that’s ours by faith isn’t going to change life so that there are no more disappointments, sorrows, heartaches, losses, pains or frustrations. But it does assure us that whatever we face, He faces it with us! As we struggle, we’re assured that we’re not alone – He’s with us. As we face the burdens of life, He’s close by.

And when the time comes that we too face that ancient, dreaded enemy, death, we can know that Christ has opened the door, and waits to carry us through to live with Him forever.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:54-57)

And when our last day on earth is here, may we say with old Simeon, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.” (Luke 2:29)


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