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Better Than Life


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 63:1-8

New Testament Reading: Luke 14:25-26

This is All Saints Day, the Sunday set aside on the Church calendar to commemorate the great heroes and heroines of the faith, those who not only said they followed Jesus Christ but also did follow him. They backed up their profession with their actions. Perhaps they made no verbal profession but confessed Christ clearly with their lives -- and more to the point for my homily this morning: with their deaths

This sermon was suggested to me by Wayne Bond as a result of our Sunday School study of the Book of Daniel. We read the stories of Daniel being cast into the lions' den and of his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego being consigned to the fiery furnace -- and surviving! The three confessors make a forthright statement that their God is able to deliver them, but that their faith in him is not predicated on any assurance that he will! Here is an important distinction that we often miss because of the outcome of the story. They do get supernaturally delivered (as does Daniel). So we read it and say, "That's God for you! He comes over the hill to rescue the righteous just in time!" Like the cavalry in a John Wayne movie. Like Superman whenever Jimmy Olsen presses the button on his signal watch. But Shadrach and company were careful to point out that they didn't adhere to the Hebrew God because one of the fringe benefits was miraculous escapes! No, though it was fully possible that their prayer might be heard, they believed in him whether he delivered them or not! Because in either case he was the Living God! His rescues had nothing to do with that one way or the other! He might rescue them or he might not! Either way he remained the living God. A God who, unlike idols, is inscrutable to mortals.

And here was Wayne's question, as I understood it. Why does the story only show rescues? Why not martyrdoms? And why does God not come to the aid of his faithful ones all the time? It would almost make more sense for him never to rescue anybody! Because if he does it at all, why wouldn't he want to every time? To this I have two answers. First, God is not a machine and lacks the predictability of a machine. The belief in his providence is an existential confession of faith, not a scientific theory about the world. In science, a theory about nature has value only insofar as it allows us to predict events on the basis of it. For instance, the theory of natural selection set forth by Darwin and Wallace, if true, should enable us to predict that when environmental conditions change drastically, only animals with traits that happen to fit the new environment will survive and flourish. If this is never observed to happen, then something's wrong with the theory. In fact we do see it happen. But if we hold the theory that God will always rescue the righteous, we have, I hate to say it, a bad theory that miserably fails to predict what will happen. This "theory" was tested and disconfirmed many centuries ago. You may read the research report on it in the Book of Job if you are interested. Faith in the providence of God does not mean that nice guys finish first. Rather it means, if I may quote that research report, "Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not receive evil? The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." It is an attitude toward what comes. As Paul says, it is the resolution to have sorrow that leads to life and to repentance, not that which leads to death.

My second answer is a literary one. The Book of Daniel is not really trying to inculcate the deluded belief that God will always rescue. No, if you read to the end of the book, it is apparent that he is writing for the encouragement of the faithful Jews dying under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. He promises them final vindication in that Day that God raises the martyrs to life eternal. I believe that the deliverances of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego are symbolic depictions of the end-time resurrection. To be thrown into the lions' pit and the furnace symbolize burial in a tomb, consignment to the forces of death. Rescue from these living tombs is the only way the writer can present the promise of resurrection in narrative form.

For myself, I would not answer Wayne's question with the doctrine of a resurrection at the end of history. I am not so bold in belief. I would point rather to the resurrection faith of the Gospel of John. "I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live... I tell you the truth, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live." I believe the resurrection that Christ brings, the resurrection that is a living reality and not the cold comfort of a mere doctrine, is the rebirth to a life full of meaning.

And though I do not aim to be the first in line to receive the martyr's crown, I do believe that this resurrection of meaning is more in evidence, more clearly displayed, in the fate of the martyr, the one God does not rescue, than anywhere else! You see, the death of most of us is simply a cutting off, a running out of gas before we have reached our destination  For most lives, death is an interruption of a sentence. We never hear the punch-line, perhaps because the speaker himself didn't know it yet! The lives of most are unfinished manuscripts. But the lives of the martyrs, those who die for their faith or their principles, which is the same thing, their lives have come to their logical conclusion. Viewing their deaths you see the meaning of their lives. The life led to the death in such a way as to make sense of the life, just as a story makes full sense only once you reach the ending. The martyr for Christ has died for Christ because he lived for Christ. There was no discontinuity, as in the case of a death-bed conversion. No, there is a flowing continuity, even though the life of the saint, the martyr, the hero, seems to have been cruelly cut off. Where can I trace any continuity? Precisely in the fact that they had come to live their lives for something that was more important than their lives! And one day it finally came time to decide either to forfeit life in favor of faith, or to trade faith for life. To the martyr there is no real choice, or rather the choice has long ago been made. And that is the secret of sainthood. To live one's life for something ­more important­ than one's life, whether or not the moment to sacrifice the one to the other ever comes. If you so live, and the day comes, you will be ready. Even if your sentence gets cut off, and does not end with the proper punctuation, the drift of your statement will have become sufficiently clear long since. I hope there is something more important to you than your life. The Psalmist said, "Thy loving-kindness is better than life!" Jesus said that no one who did not hold his own life as worthless by contrast was worthy to follow him. What is worth more to you than your life? 

Your answer will reveal much. It will not reveal whether you have courage. I am not asking whether in the event you would have the courage of William Tyndale, of Martin Luther King, or of Thomas More. I just want to know what you think you ought to do in that situation. That will tell us what your life is about. Whatever you see as more important than your life certainly should have a lot to do with the direction of your life, with your priorities. I mean, if a thing is theoretically important enough to die for, certainly it is important enough to live for!

There are some obvious items on the list. Of course you would die for your spouse or your children. In a second. You would most likely die to defend your country, or the principle of a free society. Would you die for your faith? For the name of Jesus Christ? Or when it came down to that, would you suddenly get very sophisticated and decide that you needn't be tied down to any religious confession in particular? That it's good enough to be religious in general?

Would you die to preserve the Bible if there should come a day when, as the Emperor Diocletian's troops did, a government tries to destroy all Christian books? Would you die to protect the Mona Lisa from a vandal? I would not, but an artist might well die for the Mona Lisa. And I would praise him for it, though I would not see it as my calling. I have occasionally wondered if I would die to protect the last surviving copy of Strauss's The Life of Jesus Critically Examined or Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition. They are monuments of Biblical scholarship, and to lose them would set back the understanding of the Bible. Would I? I don't know. All I know is that if I knew someone else had died to keep them available to me, I would be eternally grateful. I don't know what I would do, what I would die for. Simon Peter certainly didn't know what he would do when the crunch came, though he thought he did. But if I could decide what I think I ought to do if such a day should come, then at least I'd have an idea of what my life, now half-over, is about.




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