Dancing Over Death
|My Parents Graves|
: 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 Reading
When, as a boy, I would go with my grandparents to the cemetery, they would instruct me not to walk on the graves. They taught me to walk between them. For them, respect for the dead was an important thing, and one way you showed it was by not walking over the graves. Because of this training, I still have great difficulty walking on a grave.
If walking on a grave offended my grandparents, how much more would dancing. Dancing on a grave is not only disrespectful; it is an expression of joy that the person is dead and buried. I suppose some of us might without remorse dance on the grave of a man like Saddam Hussein. But we would never dance over the graves of those we love and respect. Shed tears on their graves, yes; dance, never.
There is one grave I am planning to dance over, and I can't wait. It is the grave of death. Let's see why we will dance over death from Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15:44-57.
Look first at the way Paul taunts death in verses 54 and 55. A day is coming when the perishable will put on the imperishable and the mortal will put on the immortal. Paul is talking about our bodies, the bodies we have now, which are flesh and blood, perishable and mortal, and the bodies we shall have which will be imperishable and immortal. When Christ comes again we, who are Christian believers are going to be transformed. It will happen to us all, both those who have died and those who are still living. Our present bodies, which are under the power of degeneration, disease, death, and decay are not suitable for the age that is to come and for the new universe which will be vibrant and pulsating with life. This is the reason that not only must the dead be raised to an immortal life but also those alive must undergo a radical transformation to an imperishable life. This change will occur instantaneously in a moment, an atom of time, in no longer than it takes for your eye to twinkle - we might say in a split second or a nano-second.
When Christ returns, when we are raised and/or transformed, then will Isaiah's prophecy be fulfilled. Isaiah had written: "He will swallow up death forever; and the LORD God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken" (25:8). The return of Christ will mean the full fulfillment of the prophecy. The shark of death will be swallowed by the whale of resurrection. The broken hearts will be mended and every tear replaced with a smile. All shame and reproach will be overcome by vindication. There is no doubt that this is going to happen. It has been guaranteed since the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not all the effort of the devil nor all the powers of hell can prevent it. All that is waiting is the consummation - it is not in doubt. When it will happen, we do not know; that it will happen we do know with certainty.
Therefore Paul begins to taunt death - even now in anticipation of the final, full victory. "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" We might imagine death answering, "Where is my victory? It is in the cemeteries full of my victims. Where is my sting? It is the dread of me that is present in every human heart. No one has ever yet escaped my grasp, and no one, except to escape suffering, has ever gone willingly. How do you dare to taunt me? I have been fought off and delayed but never defeated."
And we answer, "Right you are, death. But there is one exception to your universal reign over the human race. There is Jesus Christ who submitted to your worst, but rose again to a glorious, immortal life you cannot touch. His fate is our fate. Your fate is to be cast into hell, but ours is to rise and be made like Him. Therefore we defy you. Even amid our tears at the deaths those whom we love, even knowing the gruesomeness of what you can do to us, we taunt you. We will dance on your grave."
Paul is not one ever to have doctrine far from his mind, because for Paul doctrine is nothing but an expression of God's truth. Truth is the basis for all Christian faith and life. For Paul Christianity works this way: It is founded upon facts, the facts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and it is grounded in doctrine, the explanation of the significance and meaning of those facts. Here, as Paul taunts death he goes back to doctrine.
Why is there death? Was it inevitable? Did God create us to die? And why is death such a terror to us? Why cannot we not persuade ourselves that it is as natural and benign as a leaf falling from a tree in fall? We cannot because the sting of death is sin. The reason for death is sin. We were not created to die. Death is not a natural part of our constitution. God warned Adam and Eve if they disobeyed His command, he would die. Adam was not only the first man, he was the representative man. What he did has consequences for all who come after him. Paul explains in Romans 5: "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned..." (5:12). The chain was Adam, sin, death, and that chain continues through all history down to Jesus Christ, where for the first and only time the chain is broken. Death is the consequence of sin. We dread it as we do because we know that death is judgment in itself for sin and because we know that death then exposes us to something worse, the eternal judgment of God on sin. Physical death, which is bad enough, can lead to eternal death. The sting of death is sin. If the sting could be removed, then death would not create the fear and dread which it does.
What gives this power to sin is the law, that is, God's law. The law is what reveals sin as sin. We might think that we are OK until we compare ourselves to the law. Then it becomes clear that we both violate and fail to live up to the standards of the law. Then, because the law is God's law, it becomes clear that our rebellion is not against abstract law, nor against man's rules, but against God. The law is given by God. The law is grounded in His character and expresses His will for us. The law also announces the penalties against sin, so the law condemns us. The law warns us that whoever sins dies. And the law reveals our powerlessness to do what the law requires. Try as you might to keep the law and you will fail. The law can even provoke you to sin more. Just as your mother telling you that you cannot have a cookie out of the cookie jar focuses your attention on the cookie jar and creates within you a compulsion to have a cookie, so the law's "don'ts" can make us want to do what it forbids. So the law reveals how powerful a grip sin has on our lives.
The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. If sin is dealt with, if its guilt is removed, if its penalty is paid, if its power is broken, then death is not the enemy it was before. It remains an enemy, but an enemy whose stinger is removed. Its victory is partial and only temporary. While death separates the soul from the body and removes us from this world, it ushers us into the presence of the risen Savior where we will await the day of our own resurrections.
The taunt of death, the teaching about the relationships of death, sin, and the law lead to an outpouring of thanks: "But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
There is victory now. Sin no longer is the defining fact of our existence. We are not freed from its presence. But we do not go about our lives haunted by guilt. We can live with our consciences clear. Sin, all sin, deserves condemnation, but for us there is no condemnation, no dread of facing the consequences our sin deserves. Sin continues to have an influence on our lives, but we have been freed from its dominance. We are cleansed and forgiven; and we are new men and women, dead to sin and alive to God. All this is accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ. He took our guilt; He suffered our punishment; He broke sin's grip. We can live without fear, and we can die without dread, because the great enemy of sin has been defeated by Christ in His life, death, and resurrection.
But there is also victory to come, a victory we can celebrate in certain anticipation. We shall be victorious, not only because our spirits will survive death and go into the presence of Jesus, but also because on the last day we will be restored to human wholeness. Our spirits, free of even the presence of sin, will be reunited to our bodies which will be free of any of sin's consequences. Our perfected spirits will be joined to our immortal bodies. Then at last we will be what we were created to be - whole and human, fit to live in God's presence, to serve, worship, and enjoy Him forever. Then we shall experience those things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard that God had prepared for those who love Him.
I can't dance. Don't get me wrong. In my mind I am a very good dancer. I can be Baryshnikov, or Fred Astaire, or John Travolta. I've got moves. But, alas right now my brain and feet don't and can't cooperate. It frustrates me and embarrasses me. The associate minister almost got himself fired when he called me out to dance with my daughter-in-law on her wedding day.
But one day I am going to dance - when Christ comes again, and I am raised from the dead. Christ will cast Death and Hades into the lake of fire, and I will look on them and say, "Good riddance." And I will dance.
When we come to this Table and commune with our sacrificed and risen Savior, we know it's all true and all certain, and as we leave, if we don't yet dance, we skip a little for the joy.