Facing Death with Peace

I am dedicating this devotion to the memory of Hannah Ross, Christ’s daughter.

I began studying for this devotion last Wednesday, one week ago. It is inconceivable to me that the precious daughter of my friends would die tragically a few days later. God has proved his grace and mercy, along with his sovereign omnipotence and omniscience through his guidance this week. He knew that I, along with some of my followers, would need to meditate on his grace to face the death of a loved one. I am single, never married, and without children. I personally know the pain of losing a parent, but I can only feel the angst of losing a spouse or a child through the grief of my friends. After burying ten of his eleven children, John Owen wrote “…a due contemplation of the glory of Christ will restore and compose the mind…[it] will lift the minds and hearts of believers above all the troubles of this life, and is the sovereign antidote that will expel all the poison that is in them; which otherwise might perplex and enslave their souls.” (1) I hope you find comfort in these three passages.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) Our sovereign Lord sends us into some scary territory in this life, just as he did in biblical times when he sent Abraham away from his home country and sent Moses back to Egypt, where men wanted to kill him. In Psalm 23, David, who confronted his share of enemies, including Goliath and Saul, reminds us that the Lord doesn’t send us alone. He accompanies, protects, and comforts us in these times when we fear for our lives and the lives of others. God helps us not only when we are suffering alone, but when our entire community grieves, as is the case for my friends’ daughter. “God is in the midst of [Israel]; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.” (Psalms 46:5) Being surrounded by our brothers and sisters in Christ reminds us that our believing departed loved ones are in God’s care, and though we may be devastated to lose them, we need not fear for them or ourselves. I am so grateful for our church body and community of love who gathered together today to say goodbye to Hannah and remember her precious, creative spirit. 

Death casts a dark shadow into what feels like a low valley of despair and helplessness. We are the sheep who cannot see our way forward or out of its grip. The Lord, our Shepherd, knows what lurks in the shadows and, with his omnipotent rod, he banishes our demons. He uses that same rod to guide us onward when it is time to climb out. When death confronts us by taking our loved ones or even threatens our lives, our Shepherd eases our fears with his ever-peaceful, constant presence. We need not fear “…since everything…is determined by God, and comes not without his knowledge and will, and works for good, and cannot separate from the love of Christ… in a word, the presence, power, and protection of Christ, in and by his Gospel and ordinances, are what are here intended, and which are the comfort and safety of his people, in the worst of times and cases.” (2) As my pastor said today, in Hannah’s funeral message, we look to Christ for our strength, assurance, and resurrection—this is how we face the “valley of the shadow of death.”

“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55) Death stings. And the worst kind of death is sudden death, which stings like an arrow coming out of the bushes. In Africa, guards in the bush are sometimes trained to shoot arrows rather than guns because it is almost impossible to determine the source of the quiet shaft, as opposed to a loud gunshot. The silence of the arrow as it travels to its destination makes it even more dangerous because the shooter cannot be located. When death strikes suddenly, without warning, or time to prepare ourselves, its sting feels lethal—and is physically for its victim. But for the Christian, death is not a fatal bite of the Serpent, but a temporary trial, since the redemption of Christ, our antidote, is applied to the deep, bleeding wound. We may not relate easily to the idea of death being swallowed up, and I hope you will forgive my mixed metaphors. I appreciate the irony here since it’s usually a snake (serpent) that swallows its victim, not the other way around. However, here we have death boasting of victory, but Christ swallowed it whole on the cross, taking the sting of sin out of physical death for us so that we might have His life in our death and that of our loved ones. Hannah, and others like her, who have died in Christ have left their perishable, mortal bodies to exist in their imperishable, immortal souls fully, and will, in glory, inhabit imperishable, immortal bodies. Oh, how we will cherish our reunion with them! Jesus Christ has swallowed up the danger and pain of Hannah’s death for her as He has done for us, and we will know it when it is our time. As Matthew Henry stated, “Death may seize a believer, but it cannot hold him in its power. How many springs of joy to the saints, and of thanksgiving to God, are opened by the death and resurrection, the sufferings and conquests of the Redeemer!” (3)

 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” (Psalm 46:1-3) God gives us evidence of His safety and comfort amid scary events; when the earth trembles, He won’t. The Lord holds onto us as we shake until we can melt into His mighty, loving embrace. The people of Christ are safe and secure even when the ground under us seems to move because God is our security. I almost didn’t write this devotion today because Hannah’s death is too new, our grief too raw, the pain of losing her too close to the surface. But who am I to change God’s sovereign plan for my writing, or question His ability to hold us, to be our sufficient refuge as we mourn and grieve today? And, can we accept that we will be sad but do not have to also be afraid of death, or of going on to live without our beloved? Since God is our refuge and strength, we will not have to tremble in fear. We may indeed be very sad, but we are looking out from under His wings of hope and protection until that day when He also takes us out of this world, and its harrowing traumas. 

The great Christian reformer, Martin Luther wrote, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, and spirits.” In 1529 he composed “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” based on Psalm 46. (4) It is fitting to close with the hymn and its powerful reminder that in God alone is hope, safety, and ultimate peace.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing: For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing; Dost ask who that might be? Christ Jesus, it is He.  Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same, And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us; The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth; The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth; Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.

(1) Quoted by Reeves, Michael, “Rejoicing in Christ,” Chapter 4, InterVarsity Press, 2015.

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Psalm 23:4,  https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/psalm-23.html

(3) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 1 Corinthians 15:54-55,https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/1corinthians-15.html

(4) Morgan, Robert J., “Then Sings My Soul,” Nelson Publishing, 2003.

May 16, 2019            

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