Preached by Rev. George Yando on March 11, 2018.
Numbers 21: 4-9
Ephesians 2: 1-10
John 3: 14-21
A Word To The Dead
Let me begin this morning with a frank admission: some weeks that the task of preparing the Sunday morning can be a real problem, a struggle to decide what to say. This past week presented me with – well not so much a problem – but with a challenge of a sort I don’t often have to deal with. The Scripture lessons we read this morning were so rich in wisdom and insight, so laden with imagery and metaphor both vivid and graphic that the difficulty wasn’t so much about what to say as where to begin.
I was tempted by the Old Testament passage. We don’t hear sermons on passages from the book of Numbers very often. The story of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness and the peoples’ whining and complaining is a common theme from their epic journey from Egyptian bondage to freedom in the God-given new land. But the unleashing of the serpents in response to their lack of faith and the remedy enabling repentance and restoration of their relationship with God was compelling.
I began toying with ideas for a sermon title: “Let’s see, ‘Snakes in the wilderness,” “Snakes in the desert,” “Snakes on a Plain,” – P-L-A-I-N – “Snakes on a Plane!” “Naah!”
So . . . the Ephesians passage was “it.” Even then, the title, “A Word to the Dead” might seem a little off base. “Why offer a word to the dead? Seems like a waste of time because they’re, well, dead.” Hardly in a position even to hear, much less benefit from a message labeled as good news.
We, on the other hand are very much alive. Some would argue otherwise. As one minister once quipped, “You want to see the dead rise? All I have to do is pronounce the Benediction.”
Jokes aside, some would argue otherwise including the apostle Paul.
The passage we heard from the letter to the Ephesians begins with a description which is intended to be a picture of us before we were saved by Christ. It is quite clear in saying that it is talking about “all of us.” And the disturbing aspect of Paul’s depiction is that it doesn’t just describe us as cut off from God, but literally as enlisted in the service of an enemy ruler. Paul says, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”
“You were dead,” says Paul, “like everyone else.” That assessment may strike us as an uncomfortable overstatement; weren’t we very much alive, walking around, busy with the business and busy-ness of life?” Consider Paul’s image for a moment: we’ve all seen more than a few movies and television dramas involving police, criminals, underworld figures, drug dealers and such. A familiar plot element involves someone previously caught up in criminal activity becoming an informant, willing to testify against those above them in the criminal hierarchy in exchange for immunity, avoidance of prosecution. They often do so at great risk to their lives, fearing reprisal from those who stand to be arrested and convicted on the testimony of the informant. Protective custody, witness protection programmes and such, designed to protect them from harm often still leave the informants as “dead men walking around.” Having chosen a particular course of action, they often feel that their choices have destined them for death; that it’s only a matter of time before those they would betray come seeking revenge. “I’m a dead man,” they might say, “it just hasn’t happened yet.”
They’re not alone. And I’m not talking only about criminal elements in society. Left to our own devices, from the Bible’s view point, we are all dead men and woman walking. Not just criminals and informers. Not just rapists and thugs. Not just the greedy and the unjust. Not just the foul mouthed and those who physically abuse the young and the weak. The Bible says we all find ourselves in the ranks of the walking dead.
Lest we think Paul’s message here is for a segment of the human race that doesn’t include us, Paul says otherwise: our lives, our choices, our actions, our attitudes have conspired to condemn us to death, put us on a path that leads inexorably down to destruction. But then Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that God, who is always rich in mercy, draws upon the immense love He has for us. Even though we were dead in our sins, we become alive with Christ. It is by the gift of grace that we are rescued and healed. We are raised up from death with Christ, and given a seat in the heavenly family beside Him. Throughout the coming ages we will be shown the immeasurable riches of God’s grace poured out among us in Jesus Christ.
What does Paul mean when he says that we were “dead in our sins?” Death is an age-old symbol of separation, the ultimate separation from light and love. For much of their history the Jews did not believe in an afterlife, and in resurrection from the dead. They had little hope of any real life beyond the grave. The dead went to the dark, underworld, a place they called Sheol. There, they were cut off from the light and love of this world and their loved ones, and also cut off from the light and love of God. As a rule, the Jews had hope in this life only. One ancient Jewish writer recorded in the book of Psalms, argued: “If I go down to the grave, what benefit is it to you God? Can I praise you from Sheol?”
There were only a few exceptions to that understanding. Only occasionally did bursts of hope radiate out of the darkness of their gloom. One such bright gleam of light shone through some beautiful words in Psalm 139. The writer there claimed that death did not bring about complete and total separation, but writes:
“Where shall I hide from your Spirit?
Where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend up to heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”
Even in the face of dark death, in the dreaded place of death known as Sheol, the Spirit of God would be present and knowable, bringing light.
Such glimpses of hope however were rare. In general, for those ancient Jews, death was the bleak end of the line. Consequently, the word “death” became an enduring symbol for all that cut people off from light and love.
It was a widely, strongly held view, one that Paul knew would resonate in people’s hearing and capture the imagination of many when he to declared that all people were like dead men walking. No exceptions. Both the self righteous and the self-ashamed were agents of evil, slaves to the darkness, the walking dead. They were already cut off from the ultimate sources of light and love. All souls were corrupted and blinded by evil. They were “dead in their trespasses.” They were already as good as in Sheol, the dark world of desolation.
Paul’s take on the matter would have seemed a rather grim reality in his day. But in our day it would not be well received. People today would find such a pessimistic outlook hard to accept; it would seem excessive and not likely to impress. Thinking themselves worldly wise and sophisticated, if they were to hear themselves described by Paul as “dead men walking” they would quickly reject the notion, saying, “Come on, we’re not so bad as all that; in fact, we’re better than a lot!”
Paul was writing to the church at Ephesus, a congregation which he had founded. Ephesus – located in what is now Turkey – was very a cosmopolitan city in Paul’s day, filled with people who would have seen themselves as either intellectually wise or religiously enlightened. But from Paul’s viewpoint, what they had without Christ was nothing but darkness. They were separated from the one true source of light and love. They were, quite simply, walking dead.
Paul’s message may have been a word to the dead, but it was gospel nevertheless, good news to those who needed to hear it. Paul would have agreed with the words of Jesus we read this morning from John’s Gospel:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
For the gospel writer John, if we are without the Spirit of God and the healing grace our Christ Jesus, then we are already in the state of those who are “perishing.” We’re already as good as gone. We’ve had it. The walking dead.
Moreover these walking dead are everywhere around us:
- Whether wining and dining at the best restaurants or having a burger at a fast food place,
- whether enjoying expensive overseas trips or a weekend camping out,
- whether buying larger houses or building cabins at the lake,
- whether wearing the latest fashions or grabbing a bargain from K Mart,
all are dead.
- Whether attending rock concerts or the symphony,
- whether getting high on drugs and partying all night or having a quiet evening at home watching TV or playing cards,
- whether driving a luxury car or an old beater, all are dead.
- whether practising meditation or working out at the gym,
- whether applying make-up to hide one’s wrinkles or having a surgical make-over,
- whether trying out exotic religions or proudly presenting your atheism like a gold medal on your chest, all are dead.
For Paul, all this frantic rushing around, trying squeeze every drop of life out of daily existence is just an illusion, the delusions of the dying, the pathetic antics of the doomed, those destined for death. Unless we are enlightened with the light of God, enlivened with the life of God, liberated with the love of God, transformed with the beauty of God, we are merely existing rather than really living. Without exploring the spiritual level of life, we have not started to really live.
This notion wasn’t something dreamed up by the apostles Paul and John. It was the message Jesus taught and lived, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” The spirit must be nourished if we are really to live. And it is only in giving away our present level of life, or “losing it” as Jesus said, that we “find” the true and abundant life He has promised, the life that for which we were intended from the beginning of creation.
“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that flows from the mouth of God.” A stern warning to “the walking dead” from the lips of the most alive person who ever graced this planet. All that Paul held most dear, stemmed from Jesus of Nazareth: “God, who is always rich in mercy, draws from the immense love he has for us.
Even though we were dead in our sins, we become alive with Christ. It is by the gift of grace that we are rescued and healed. We are raised up from death with Christ, and given a seat in the heavenly family beside him. Throughout the coming ages we will be shown the immeasurable riches of God’s grace poured out among us in Jesus Christ.”
Notice that emphasis on grace. It is a key note in Paul’s letters. Our redemption is offered at no charge. It is free. Grace is that uninhibited, unlimited, outpouring of saving love made available to all who accept the gift of God.
It’s not without its price, however. The price was the cross that Christ bore for the sins of the world and His resurrection brought that rescuing light and abundant life freely given by God to whoever throws themselves on God’s mercy.
To those who are dead, that is what God offers: life, abundant and free, here and now. Why is it, do you think, that so many people find it so hard to let go and let God be God to them? Is it our pride, that original sin of the devil? Is it our selfishness, the desire to live with the illusion that we are all self-made people? It’s a puzzle, but also a great tragedy.
But to those of us – and any others willing to dare – who, without any condition, let go and trust God’s free grace in Christ, then we become the ultimate success story. We shake off the weight of death and rise up with Christ and begin to live, thoroughly, abundantly.
And what’s more, Paul tells us that the best is yet to come: Throughout the coming ages we will be shown the immeasurable riches of God’s grace poured out among us in Jesus Christ.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.