Romans – Digging Deep: Death Haunts Us All

Death Haunts Us All

Romans 5:12-14


Does anyone remember singing this little song as a kid at about this time of year: “School’s out! School’s out! Teacher let the monkeys out!” Or there’s Ozzy Osbourne’s edgier version: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks. Out for summer, out till fall. We might not come back at all. School’s out forever. School’s out for summer. School’s out with fever. School’s out completely.” Do you remember how you felt walking out of school at the end of the last day, with summer vacation in front of you? I can’t remember many times when I’ve felt that sense of relief, of peace and happiness. And I LIKED school! By the end of summer I was usually looking forward to going back. One can only take so much of one’s siblings. But even as someone who was and is an avid reader and a great writer and who was a very good student, there was something incredible about three months of no deadlines, no homework, no getting up early, no exams, no papers. Handing in that last essay. Taking that last exam. Giving that last speech – and then heading out the door into a summer filled with warm days – there was nothing like it.


As adults, we know a similar feeling when a big presentation is over or a big, stress-inducing event is done. It’s that sense of relief that something that has been hanging over my head like a dark cloud is over; something causing me to be stressed and anxious and to lose sleep is now behind me. And I experience that mix of freedom and joy and relaxation and calm that we call relief. Something big is looming on the horizon, and then it’s passed, and I can breath again.


But there’s one massive event that hangs over every human being like a dark cloud looming on the horizon – and that event is death. Anyone here ever known someone who has died? Right! We all do. Why? Because every human being who lives and breathes will eventually die. Every beating heart will eventually run down. We don’t like to think about it. We try to ignore it. But the truth of the matter is that death haunts us all. And that is a truth that St. Paul wants us to understand. Turn with me to Romans 5:12-14.


Doesn’t that passage just bless you? Doesn’t it make you want to jump out of your seat and yell “Hallelujah!”? Who’s going home and writing this passage out on a notecard and sticking it to their bathroom mirror to read every morning? I mean, come on. Sin and death – two topics we’d rather not think about. What can be more uplifting than that? But St. Paul, in what biblical scholars consider to be one of the most critical chapters in the entire Bible, forces us to take a good hard look. And what he has to say flies in the face of all that we as Americans hold dear: Death haunts us all.


But what Paul really wants us to understand is why there is so much evil in the world, why so many bad things happen, why there is so much pain and struggle. Now, we tend to view the world through the lens of whatever emotional state we’re in at the time. When things are going good FOR ME, I tend to view the world through rose-colored glasses. I emphasize the good and minimize the bad. And when things are going bad FOR ME, I minimize the good and emphasize the bad. And we tend to think of well-adjusted people as being relatively happy, optimistic people. We label unhappy, more pessimistic people depressed. Funny thing though – research now shows that depressed people tend to have a more realistic view of the world and of world events than do non-depressed people. Turns out they’re the sane ones and those of us who aren’t all that depressed are probably mentally ill. Because the truth is, there IS a lot of pain and evil and struggle in the world, if not always for ME, then certainly for many, many others. So how do we reconcile that with this world being created by a loving, powerful God? How can there be so much hatred and foolishness and degradation in the world God has made?


Paul explains it all in the 25 words of V. 12. So sin came into the world through one man, and death is the consequence of sin, and sin and its consequence death spread to all. Now, there’s a crucial principle that we have to understand here, and I have found that most Americans and others living in “westernized” countries have an incredibly difficult time wrapping their heads around it. I’ve been yelled at by very lovely, kind, compassionate, tiny, elderly women when teaching this passage in a Bible study. The principle is the basic solidarity of the human race.


So let me ask you a question. Does it seem fair to you that all people get punished for the sin of one? “Sin came into the world through ONE man, and death through sin, and so death (like a contagious disease) spread to all men because all sinned …” Sin came into the world through ONE man and tainted everything and everyone. Does that seem fair to you? If you’re nodding your head yes, you’re lying. Let me ask it this way. If I murder someone, should you be punished for my sin along with me? Every one of us would say, “Of course not. That isn’t fair.” You see, we tend to view each person as an island unto themselves. I am culpable for what I do. But I am not culpable for what you do. Our entire sense of justice and fairness is based on that truth.


In the Old Testament, Joshua 7 tells the story of the events immediately following the fall of Jericho. After the mighty city fell, the people of Israel then marched on the much smaller city of Ai and were defeated. Ai was tiny. Just a small portion of Israel’s army was needed. But unlike at Jericho, where they won in the face of insurmountable odds, they were defeated and humiliated when they should have won easily. Thirty six men were killed in that attack. None in the attack on the mighty Jericho. And then it was discovered that TWO MEN, Achan and Zabdi kept for themselves some of the treasures of the city that were supposed to have been put into God’s treasury in the tabernacle. So of the millions of Israelites marching around Jericho, TWO MEN commit a sin, and all of the people experience a military defeat in which thirty six innocent men, men who had followed God’s command and done everything right, were killed. Does that seem fair to you? And I want you to see what happens next. Joshua, upon hearing of his army’s being routed at Ai with 36 men dead, tears his clothes in grief and falls on his face before God for the rest of the day. And this is God’s reply: “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies” (Jos. 7:10-12).


Achan and Zabdi were the ones who had sinned. Not everyone. But God said “Israel has sinned.” In our westernized mindset, “No, Israel didn’t sin. Achan and Zabdi sinned.” But that isn’t what God said, is it. He said, “Israel has sinned.” We as human beings are, at a basic, foundational level, connected to one another. And what one person does has a deadly impact on the whole. Not just in our families or in our community, but globally. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Like a contagious cancer, sin entered the world through Adam, which is the Hebrew word for man, or mankind, or today we might say humanity. And death came because of sin.


And sin not only tainted the one man, it tainted all of humanity. At a very basic level, because we are all connected as human beings created in the image of God, sin entered into every one of us before any of us were born, because every human being born since that time has been born with a sinful human nature. I mean, we often talk about the innocence of childhood, and as humans go there certainly is an innocence there, but lets be honest. The first word a baby speaks isn’t “yours,” its “mine” isn’t it. It isn’t “yes,” it’s “no.” Worship and protection of self above all else. That’s the essence of sin. And that core condition – sin – manifests itself in the multitude of sins that mark our lives, each of which is simply a symptom of a deeper disease.


And sin is always a fatal disease. Death is the consequence of sin. So what exactly is meant here by death? Death happens at two levels. One is the physical level. We all know that. Every living thing dies eventually. Some die before their time, too young, and that is always a tragedy. But we will ALL die, and that terrifies us. Hebrews 9:27 says, “… it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment …” We will all die. But death also happens on another level, and that is the spiritual level. Spiritual death is the condition of being separated from God. That’s why Paul can say to some very physically alive people, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Notice how backward those words are. You WERE dead. You ARE NOW alive. That’s backwards. As far as physical human experience goes, we can only say, “He WAS alive, he IS NOW dead.” We can only be dead in the future. We cannot be dead in the past if we are still alive right now. That doesn’t make any sense. But spiritually we are separated from God because of sin and THAT is a much deeper form of death, a form that, if pressed on into eternity because we haven’t accepted God’s offer of forgiveness in Christ, we can only describe as hell. Separation from God.


But if sin and death can enter the world through one man, so too can forgiveness and life, and that happens through Jesus Christ. When Christ hung on the cross, the sin of all was placed on the one, and the wrath of God that was the just punishment of all, because all have sinned, was aimed at the one with laser sharp precision. And when he yelled in agony the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he wasn’t just quoting Psalm 22. He was experience our spiritual death. And when that happened and Christ was raised again to life in victory over the grave, death itself, the experience of every human being who has ever lived and ever will live, hanging over each one of us like a dark cloud, was changed. And so Paul in 1 Corinthians says, “’O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-56).  Death’s sting comes from eternal separation from God. “The sting of death is sin.” But if death’s sting, sin, has been defeated by Christ on the cross, death for the follower of Christ becomes the means by which the believer is ushered into the presence of God AND NOTHING MORE. Of course it’s scary. Because we don’t know exactly what happens or how it happens. But in Christ, death is a bee without its stinger. And what is a bee without its stinger? A housefly. Anyone here afraid of a housefly? I mean, yeah, it’s creepy and kind of gross, but it can’t do anything to me.


So what is the result of this transformation of death for the believer? We are no longer physically afraid of death, right? Nope. We’re still afraid. We no longer mourn those who have died, right? Nope. We still mourn, and it’s appropriate to mourn loss. So what happens. We don’t LOSE fear. We GAIN courage. Look at 1 Cor. 15:58. Right after Paul has proclaimed death’s loss of it’s sting in Christ, he says, “THEREFORE, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” For courage to be courage, fear HAS to be present, otherwise you aren’t showing courage, you’re simply living without stress. Jesus quaked in fear before the cross, but he went anyway. That’s courage. In my funeral sermon I usually include this quote by John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” When followers of Jesus, quaking in fear but full of courage, refuse to deny their Savior even when threatened with death, we show that death is a defeated foe. It’s still a foe. It still causes fear, but it has been defeated.


Most people are somewhat familiar with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, whether through the books themselves or through the movies that have been made of three of the books. But it’s actually a series of seven books that are as much for adults as they are for children. And the last book is called The Last Battle. At the end of that story, C.S. Lewis wraps up both the book and the entire series with a description of life after death as only he can: “’The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.’ And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” The term is over. The holidays have begun. Yes, death haunts us all. But death itself cannot kill you. It can only serve as a tool through which Jesus Christ ushers us into the presence of God once and for all. Thanks be to God.