Freedom from Fear: Fear of Death

Freedom from Fear: Fear of Death

I had breakfast the other day with a colleague.  He’s the same age as me, and he told me that he has been contemplating his mortality a lot recently.    Thoughts like “How would my kids manage without me?” and “I would hate to die before finding out who wins the next presidential election.”  In short, it’s unsettling for him to think about how life would go on without him.

I – on the other hand – think about how much fun Diane would have once

I was gone because I have a lot of life insurance.  Too bad I wouldn’t be around to share the fun with her …

But seriously, I don’t really fear my own death.  Yes – if I hit a patch of ice and start to skid on I-70, I have a brief flash of fear that grips my chest – but I don’t have that brooding, existential fear of death that so many people do.

That said, I do get uneasy about the dying process – so I find myself hoping for something quick or something that happens while I’m asleep.

My real fear of death has to do with people I love.  Because working with grieving people is a sizeable part of what I do, I have been with plenty of people who have lost their spouses, children, and even grandchildren –and their grief affects me more and more.  I cannot bring myself to imagine life without Diane or any of our kids or grandkids.  So yes, I fear death, too.

Most of people fear it – often to the point of being superstitious. They don’t like to think about it or talk about it – and they certainly don’t joke about it.

One year, I passed out forms so people could tell me what they would like at their funerals. Only a small percentage returned them to me: some people thought making such plans is “morbid”, while others feared it might hasten their passing.  That’s certainly not why I do it.  I just want to spare grieving family members embarrassment when I have to ask, “What was your father’s favorite hymn or mother’s favorite Scripture passage?”  “Umm …”

Jairus was the leader of a synagogue – probably the one in Capernaum.  His daughter was dying, so he found Jesus and he threw himself at Jesus’ feet, begging Him to come to his house, touch her, and heal her.

Jesus started out with him, but was distracted by a woman who touched His cloak.  She had been bleeding for twelve years – as long as Jairus’s daughter had been alive.  She was healed immediately, had a conversation with Jesus, and received His blessing.

The story continues in our reading from the Gospel according to Mark, Chapter 5, beginning with verse 35.  Hear the Word of God:

[Mark 5:35-43]

Wait a second – Jairus had just received the most awful news of his life – that his daughter had died.  And Jesus simply told him, “Don’t be afraid;

just believe.”  Don’t be afraid?  Why would Jesus think that fear was the predominant emotion Jairus was experiencing at that moment?  Earth-shattering grief, certainly.  Soul-crushing sorrow, no doubt.  But fear?

Then again, what is the worst part of losing someone?  The realization that we will never see them again in this life.  That’s why we fear death – we fear the separation from people we love. So Jairus is experiencing a parent’s worst fear coming true – that he will never see his daughter again.

So Jesus tells him not to be afraid and to believe.  But believe what?  Certainly not to believe the men who had brought Jairus the news – because they assumed that Jesus could do nothing now: “Why bother the teacher any more?”

In God’s Providence – Jesus encountered the woman with the chronic bleeding while He was on His way to Jairus’s home.  That’s key to this story.  Jairus had witnessed Jesus’ power to heal chronic physical illness, so Jesus now had every right to ask Jairus to believe in His ability to heal the most chronic of all physical illnesses – death.   Jesus was asking Jairus in his darkest moment to exchange fear for faith – faith that Jesus could restore the girl to life.

When Jesus got to the house, He reassured the mourners that the girl was not dead but asleep.  They did not believe – in part, because they had not witnessed the healing – so they laughed at Him.  Jesus responded by telling them to leave.

Then Jesus, the girl’s mother and father, and Peter, James, and John went to the girl’s room.  There, He took the girl by the hand – granting Jairus’s request that Jesus touch the girl to heal her – and said, “Little girl, get up!”

It was no different than what a parent would have said to wake a child on a typical morning.  She stood up, walked around a bit, then ate something – as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

The sad reality of this story is that it is both incredibly common and incredibly uncommon.  Children die every day – from disease, accidents, war, crime – and far too often, suicide.  This story of a quick resurrection is extraordinarily rare – and those who were raised eventually died anyway.  Not every child is healed or raised, not every loved one is healed.

That point has never been as clear to me as it was Thursday evening.  The pastor of the Lutheran Church in Brookside is on vacation, so I have been handling calls for pastoral care.  On Wednesday, I saw a member of that congregation in the emergency room at Wheeling Hospital.  She was very sick, but seemed to have a lot of fight in her, so I told the family I would be back on Wednesday evening or Thursday to give her Communion.

I ran out of time on Wednesday and Thursday was busy, but I went to the hospital Thursday evening to take Communion to her and to Marguerite.  On the way in, I got a text from Marguerite’s daughter Pam, telling me how much better her mother was doing.  When I stopped at the information desk to get the other lady’s room number, they told me she had died.  So I went first to her room to be with her family members, who were in grief and shock from the suddenness of her passing.  Just down the hall, Marguerite’s family was celebrating her sudden improvement.

This is the tragedy and agony of life in a fallen Creation.  But in that tragedy and agony, we hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Your child is not dead but asleep.” “Your loved one, your friend is not dead but asleep.”

Jesus doesn’t promise that there will be no death, but He does promise that for those who belong to Him, death is only temporary.  He said that to Martha after her brother Lazarus died: “I am the resurrection and the life.

He who believes in me will live, even though he dies …”

He proved His power over death both for Jairus’s daughter and for Lazarus.  And He proved it when He rose from the dead Himself.  So for believers, death is more like sleep: our bodies will rest in the grave (or wherever they are) until the day that Jesus returns to raise them to eternal life.  That’s how Paul could write to the Corinthians: “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

One of the former mayors of Bridgeport – Charles Furbee – used to say when the village had to close a street or a bridge for repair or replacement, “It’s a temporary inconvenience for a permanent improvement.”  I never thought of Charlie as a theologian – but he was onto something.

For those who are in Jesus Christ, death is temporary inconvenience that leads to a permanent improvement.  It hurts – and we fear it and the pain it causes us – but Jesus calls us to believe in His power and promise to raise us to eternal life.

Amen.