The last few weeks, not to mention the last few years, challenged Viola. When I met her she could barely see and hardly hear. You know, deaf in one ear, can’t hear in the other. She knew who I was, that I was her new pastor after sixteen years of Pastor Janke. And, thankfully, even though she couldn’t really see me, or hear me well, she tolerated me.
She even tolerated me in these last weeks after the stroke that forced her from her home, that took her to Garretson, that took much of her peace of mind. She tolerated me, even though she was, I think, expecting Pastor Janke more than me. But she tolerated me, and she listened. Though she wasn’t always clear on everything, she was clear when we prayed, “Forgive us our trespasses.” Even though she kept waiting for “that other minister,” she let me whisper, or, let’s be honest, shout into her ear the promises of God, the promises of peace, and comfort, and life that belong to her because of Jesus.
It was a difficult time. Many prayed for just one thing: an end to agitation. I remember one of my first visits to Garretson when I could barely keep her in her bed. Even when calm, she was never totally calm. She wanted to go here or there, see this or that.
Maybe we don’t want to say we prayed for the Lord to take Viola. It feels wrong to think it, let alone say it. But we prayed for rest, for sleep. And the Lord granted it. And I don’t just mean the manner of her death: when Charlotte called and told me about Viola’s last moments on earth and rejoiced that it was peaceful and without pain. Viola slept.
But, in a sense, that’s meaningless. Many a dreadful sinner spending eternity in hell died a peaceful death in their beds. And many a saint, and I mean a true saint, one washed in the blood of Christ, one redeemed, restored, forgiven by the washing with water through the Word died deaths that we wouldn’t dare call sleep.
So we don’t judge eternal outcomes by how someone died. After all, death in any form is a perversion. Death proves, as the apostle Paul says, that we sin: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men because all sinned.” All. Not some, not a few, all. Not Hitler, not Stalin, all. Including you. Including me. Including Viola. Death comes for us all, painful or peaceful it comes and it’s no good.
We rightfully accompany death with wailing, weeping, gnashing of teeth, as at Jairus’ house, because death ends hope. Dead is the great fait accompli, the great irreversible. Death rides with the four horsemen and claims anyone he desires.
Until Jesus calls death sleep. Jesus, with one word, reverses the irreversible.
Cynics might call mind over matter. If I think positive thoughts I’ll lessen death’s sting. Yes, if Jesus is just another David Hume saying a table isn’t really a table until you’re in the room. Death isn’t really death if you call it sleep.
Except Jesus called Lazarus’ death sleep, and then woke him up. He called the death of that little girl sleep, and then woke her up. Then Paul talks about sleepers in Thessalonians: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
It isn’t mind over matter, not just because Jesus managed to wake up a couple of people, but because Jesus woke up. Paul to the Corinthians: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” There it is again: “those who have fallen asleep.” Only now Christ gets lumped in. He fell asleep. He laid down His life for His sheep. He woke up again. The firstfruits: which means more to come.
The common denominator here? God’s Word, God’s voice, God speaking. Jesus spoke: Lazarus came forth. Jesus spoke: the little girl got up. The Lord will shout at the end: the dead will rise. Not some, but all, believers and unbelievers, all who sleep, will awake. The big difference: “Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Believing in Jesus means that even if you die, you’re not dead. Jesus again: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
I couldn’t use all the hymns I wanted today. We’d be here for quite some time. But one stanza left out has always been a favorite of mine. It’s from the hymn, “All praise to thee, my God, this night.” It goes: “Teach me to live, that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the judgment day.” Until recently I misunderstood that stanza. I thought that “little” modified the word bed, that is, we were supposed to dread the grave which was the size of our bed. Since death is an abomination that made sense. We do dread it. Except “little” modifies “dread.” We don’t dread going to sleep most nights. In fact we enjoy sleep, an escape from the day, relaxing, refreshing. We sleep and we wake up.
This is how believers view death, but we need to be taught. We need to hear Jesus call death “sleep.” We need to see Jesus prove it by waking up the dead. We need to see Jesus wake up from death. We need the Spirit to teach us that by trusting in Jesus death becomes the same for us: a sleep from which we wake up seeing Jesus. It’s nothing to dread. And it teaches us about rising glorious on that awe filled day, when all those who believe in Christ will be gathered up, with Viola, “to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” We envy Viola, not the peacefulness of her death, but that her body sleeps and her soul’s in Paradise today with her Savior Jesus. Amen.