Be Prepared!

We find ourselves today in the book of Acts. The reading begins at 7:54 and ends at 8:1. At the very heart of the scripture is the uncomfortable topic of death. One of the leaders of the early church, Stephen has died. His death sent a shockwave through the early church because he was so respected. He was the first one outside of the Apostles to perform a miracle. That miracle was important because it demonstrated to the people that God was still with them. Everyone was excited about the miracle except one small, yet powerful, group, the Sanhedrin. They were the Supreme Court of the orthodox faith. Like Jesus and Peter in the past, they had Stephen arrested. His trial does not go well. In the section prior to our reading, we are told he addresses them with little respect. In bold words, he tells them about God’s plan of salvation. Jesus was the final act of love. That was not what they wanted to hear. According to our reading, they reacted to his words in a violent way. In an emotional rage, they drag him out of the city and stone him. It must have been a horrific scene. The light that shined so brightly in the beginning of the day was now extinguished. It is at this moment the text begins to speak to us. There is no other way to say it. Stephen is dead. On the day he was born, his world shed tears of joy. Now, his world was shedding tears of sorrow.

Death is an uncomfortable topic. It shouldn’t be. Just like birth, it comes to each one of us. No one gets out of this world alive. The mortality rate of the world is 100%. Some will leave sooner; some will leave later. However, everyone must leave. Death does not discriminate. It takes the young and the old. It takes the educated and the uneducated. It takes the rich and the poor. It takes every race. Have you ever wondered how long you will live? Have you ever wondered what month you are going to die? Have you ever wondered what day of the week you will die? I never have liked Tuesdays. Have you ever wondered how you are going to die? Will your death be a long-drawn-out affair, spending your final days alone in some institution? Will your death be sudden, like Stephen’s? That is how I would like to go.

This blog is wrapped around three questions about your death. I have the license to ask these questions because part of my job for forty years was to prepare people for eternity. The correct answers to these questions are illustrated in today’s text about Stephen. However, this message is not so much about dying. It is about living life to the fullest! Mark Twain (1835-1910) once said, “The fear of death follows the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”  This is question number one.

Are you prepared to die socially? In the fourth chapter of Genesis is one of the great stories of the Bible. How well do you remember your family history? Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. They came from the same biological parents but they, personally, were completely different. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. In time, both men sacrificed to God. Cain brought fruit; Abel brought meat. You can call it favoritism, but God preferred Abel’s offering, the meat. (Can you really blame him?) Cain gets his feelings hurt and positions himself to do something ugly. The story ends when Cain kills Abel. This story teaches us a variety of things. One of those things is the value of human relationships. God expects us to maintain healthy relationships with one another. Are all the relationships in your life healthy? Are there any relationships in your life that are near death?

The Bible does not really give us much detail, but it is safe to say Stephen had healthy relationships. Everyone in the church respected him. It is safe to say everyone in his life respected him. Does everyone in your life respect you? How many damaged relationships are in your life? I am not just talking about your siblings. I am talking about everyone, your parents, children, neighbors, and co-workers. God expects us to maintain healthy relationships. Do you have any relationships that need repair? Don’t wait! This is question number one. If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? This is question number two.

Are you prepared to die personally? Next month, my wife, Kathryn and I are traveling to western Turkey and Greece. We are traveling alone. We are traveling with a group led by East Ohio Annual Conference Resident Bishop Tracy Malone. In all there are thirty-seven of us. The trip was promoted as The Journeys of Paul. I am so excited. I love to travel, and I need an adventure in my life occasionally. It is a big world and I want to see as much of it as possible. I was sharing my excitement with a friend, and he simply asked, “Why?” He spent the next few minutes telling me in a nice way that I was a fool. He tried to discourage me from going. He ended by saying, “I hope you are happy living in a Turkish prison.” I ended our discussion quickly and walked away frustrated. I have never understood why people do that? Why do so many people discourage others from doing something? I was not inviting him to come. I was telling him I was going. I enjoy traveling and I want to learn more about the Apostle Paul. Have you ever discouraged someone from doing something they wanted to do? Let me ask you this question:

What do you still want to do with your life? I am not just talking about traveling to odd places. I am talking about your passion. Stephen was passionate about Jesus! What are you passionate about? Is there some place in this world you still want to go? Is there some book you would still like to read? Is there some language you would still like to study? When Thomas Jefferson died, he was studying German. Is there someone you would still like to meet? Is there something you still want to build or own? Don’t wait! If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? Would you be prepared personally? This is question number three.

Are you prepared to die spiritually? As I write this blog, one of my family members is in the Intensive Care Unit in a hospital in the suburbs of Cleveland. His medical situation is complex, so the family as asked many questions. The more questions we asked, the more confused we have become. The more confused we have become, the less hope we have. At one point, the kind of questions changed. They went from medical questions to spiritual questions. People started questioning his salvation. Those are the hardest questions to answer because we are not the judge. We pray that somewhere along the way our family member accepted Jesus, because Jesus is our hope of salvation. Heaven would not be the same without him. The one thing no one can question is Stephen’s salvation. He has a vision of heaven. If this was the last day of your life, would you be prepared socially? Would you be prepared to die personally? Would you be prepared to die spiritually? Let me end with this story.

You do not have to be a Civil War expert to know the name Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (1824-1863). The one-time instructor at the Virginia Military Institute was respected by both friend and foe for his courage during battle. He was once asked about the source of that courage. This was his response:

My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God (knows the) time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter where it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.

It is interesting to note that Jackson died eight days after that quote. He was accidentally shot by one of his own soldiers. That shot caused him to lose his arm, which led to pneumonia. I must ask you:

Are you prepared to die? Stephen woke up that morning and didn’t have a clue he would be gone that night. Maybe that will be our story? Only God knows. That is why you must always be prepared. Are you prepared to die socially? Are all the relationships in your life perfect? Are you ready to die personally? What do you still want to do? Are you ready to die spiritually? Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior? I hope so. Heaven wouldn’t be the same without you!

The Ultimate Disappointment

The Mackenzie River is Canada’s largest river system. It runs through vast sections of its barren Northwest Territory and empties into the Arctic Circle. It was named after a Canadian explorer, Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820). He lived near the end of the eighteenth century and longed to lead an expedition across Canada to the Pacific Ocean. His incredible journey was completed in 1793, 11 years before Lewis and Clark. That was his second attempt. His first attempt ended in failure in 1789. The first attempt failed because the group traveled on the Mackenzie River. They hoped it would empty into the Pacific Ocean. Instead, it turned north. History tells us the original group was devastated. In his diary, Mackenzie himself, called the river that now carries his name, The River of Disappointment.

Have you ever experienced disappointment? Have you ever been disappointed in your spouse? Have you have been disappointed in your children? Have you ever been disappointed in your parents? Have you ever been disappointed in your friends? Has anyone here ever been disappointed in the government? Have you ever been disappointed in your church? Have you ever been disappointed in your pastor? Have you ever been disappointed in yourself? You can admit it. From time to time, we all do it. You turn your critical eyes inward, and you don’t like what you see. You are not alone. Some of the greatest people in the history of the world have been disappointed in themselves. Consider these names with me. We consider them great:

          Did you know, Alexander the Great (356 BC-323 BC) conquered Persia, but broke down and wept in disappointment because his troops were too exhausted to push on to India?

          Did you know, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), the father of modern international law, knew disappointment? Near the end, he said, “I have accomplished nothing worthwhile in my life.”

          Did you know, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), sixth President of the U.S., knew disappointment? In his diary he wrote, “My life has been spent in vain and idle aspirations, and in ceaseless rejected prayers. I hope I did something beneficial for my species.”

          Did you know, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) wrote words that continue to delight and enrich our lives, and yet he knew disappointment? He wrote these words for his own headstone, “Here lies one who meant well, who tried a little, and failed much.”

          Did you know, Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), who opened Africa and established an empire, knew disappointment? His last words were, “So little done, so much to do.”

          In 1858, the Illinois legislature–using an obscure statute–sent Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) to the U.S. Senate instead of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), although Lincoln had won the popular vote. When a sympathetic friend asked Lincoln how he felt, he said, “Like the boy who stubbed his toe: I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh.”

You are not the first person, and ours is not the first generation to experience disappointment. It is one of those things that links one generation to the next. However, this evening’s scripture lesson is not just about being disappointed. Our scripture lesson is about the ultimate disappointment, death! If you are ready to look at this evening’s scripture lesson say, “Amen!”

We find ourselves this evening in the twenty-seventh chapter of Matthew. Much has already happened. The events of that first Palm Sunday, just days earlier, seem like years ago. The cheering crowd has disappeared, replaced by a grieving handful. The picture is not pretty. Jesus is being executed. In my station in life, I have witnessed many die. It’s always hard. No matter how prepared we might be, the end is shocking. The person goes from being a human being to a corpse, in a matter of seconds. Each time, I’m reminded of the fragility of life. It was no different for Jesus. The young man, full of life earlier in the day is now gone; he is now just another rotting corpse. The eyewitnesses of his execution are not just disappointed, they are devastated. We visit the death of Jesus annually, but it never changes. The death of Jesus is shocking. It must have been hard to witness. Today, Good Friday, we are forced to answer this question:

Why was the death of Jesus necessary? There isn’t a single answer. There are several answers. Let me give you just three. Each one is a reminder.

          1. The death of Jesus reminds us of the ugliness of sin! Our world has demoted sin. Many believe they can earn their salvation. That is simply not true. We are saved by grace, because we are all sinners. (Romans 3:23)

          2. The death of Jesus reminds us that the eternal is more important than the temporary! Jesus’ hours of agony on the cross made the opportunity of eternal life possible.

          3. The death of Jesus reminds us of God’s great commitment to us! The people that love you the most, have sacrificed the most. Jesus sacrificed it all.

The theological reasons behind Jesus’ death cannot replace the sting of his death. After all, death is the ultimate disappointment. If death makes you uncomfortable, say, “Amen!” There is no way to observe Good Friday without accepting the death of Jesus.

Years ago, it became of tradition to worship on Good Friday at a local cemetery. A mausoleum inthe middle of a cemetery is a good place to be on Good Friday. After all, Jesus was dead. For me, the first year was the most uncomfortable. It was new, so I came out in the middle of the afternoon to just settle. The weather was perfect for Good Friday. It was cold, and the rain could not have been any harder. I stood at the back door and watched the rain come down in buckets. I was thinking about the death of Jesus, and I was humbled. I was completely alone, except for an elderly woman. She wasn’t inside, she was outside, holding an umbrella, standing next to freshly dug grave. I didn’t know her story, and yet I did know her story. Her long-time husband had died, and she came to visit him. The rain and the thunder could not mask her crying. Listen to what I am about to say. She wasn’t just crying. She was wailing. Her heart was broken; the love of her life was gone. She wasn’t just disappointed; she was devastated. For a second, I thought about going out to comfort her, but she needed to be alone. With nothing else to do, I watched her grieve. Then, it hit me. It was Good Friday and she was crying over the death of a loved one, just like Jesus’ loved ones cried for him.

It is Good Friday. How many tears have you shed for Jesus today? How much do you really love Jesus? After all, Jesus is dead, and death is the ultimate disappointment. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) once said, “It costs God nothing, as far as we know, to create nice things; but to convert rebellious wills, cost him crucifixion.” May God bless us as we make this spiritual pilgrimage together.