April 21, 2019

Dealing with a Death Threat
Hebrews 2:14-15

Imagine leaving church today and finding a note taped to the windshield of your car. The note looks sinister. In crude, bold letters you read, “I’VE GOT YOU ON MY LIST, AND SOON YOU WILL DIE.”

At first, your blood runs cold; but then you realize somebody is probably playing a practical joke. You look around, just waiting for somebody to jump out and say, “I bet we really scared you, didn’t we?” But there’s nobody there. No on-lookers, no laughter, no joke. Soon, you begin to realize that the note is a bonafide death threat.

As you drive home, you find yourself constantly looking in the rear-view mirror to see if someone is following you. When you get home, you look all around your house before opening the door. Even as you turn the key in the lock, you do so with the utmost caution, fearful that any sudden move might be your last.

Yes, the threat of death is a powerful thing; and it always gets our attention.

Like it or not, all of us face a death threat. We seldom pay much attention to it when we’re younger, but the older we get, the more real it becomes. Granted, it usually doesn’t come in the form of some ominous note taped to the windshield of our car. Sometimes, our death threat is delivered by a beloved physician. Sometimes it comes when we see a story on the evening news and realize, “Hey! That could have been me.” Sometimes we feel the threat of death when we’re anxiously awaiting the results of some medical test. Sometimes the death threat comes in the utterance of a single word, a word like cancer, heart attack or stroke.

Have you noticed that, toward the end of each year, the Tennessee Department of Transportation uses a death threat to warn us about our driving? You’ve seen their signs stretched across the interstate, haven’t you? “Tennessee Highway Fatalities for 2013 – 912; Highway Fatalities so far in 2014 – 869.” It’s almost like saying, “Death hasn’t reached its goal for this year yet, so you better drive carefully or you could be next!”

Let me ask you a question. How do you deal with your death threats? How do you keep your sense of peace and joy when you know that, sooner or later, you will be next on death’s hit list?

I don’t know about you, but I deal with my death threat by remembering Easter. You see, Easter was God’s way of taking the threat out of our death-threat.

That’s what the writer is saying in today’s test. Listen, as I read Hebrews 2:14-15.

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who, all their lives, were held in slavery by their fear of death.

In this passage, the writer describes death as someone who has taken us hostage and made us his slave. And how has he kept us enslaved? He’s done so by shackling us with fear, the fear of dying.

Death’s power has always come in the form of fear, the fear of what we cannot see. Before Christ, no one could see what was on the other side of death, so death held us captive with the fear of the unknown.

But then Easter Sunday came and Jesus showed us that death was nothing to be feared. By taking on a human form - like ours - and by dying a human death – like ours - Jesus showed us what to expect out of death.

And what could we expect on the other side of death? We could expect life. That’s right; Jesus showed us that new life awaited us on the other side of death.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that because Jesus defeated death, we can defeat death. Because he had life after death, we, too, can expect the same. Because death could not hold him in the grave, death cannot hold us in the grave, either. Yes, when Christ rose from the grave he put death in a whole new perspective, in a manageable perspective. No longer do we have to fear death, because Jesus proved to us that life was waiting, just on the other side of death.

Some of you are acquainted with John Claypool. Claypool was a pastor who lost his daughter to cancer when she was only twelve. One night, as he struggled with his grief, God gave him a new picture of death. As he was praying, God revealed to Claypool that death was, in many ways, just like birth.

“Think about it,” said Claypool. “Before you were born, you existed in a world where everything seems perfect; in your mother’s womb you were protected and loved. You were warm and well-fed and since it was the only life you knew, you had no desire to leave it.

Then one day the crisis comes. Suddenly, without warning, you are pushed out of your comfortable, secure world into a world that is new, strange and unfamiliar.

At first, that new world seemed frightening, but soon you realize the new world gave you the opportunity to be so much more than you could be in your pre-natal existence. In the new world you could do things you couldn’t even dream about in the womb world. Soon, you understood that womb-life wasn’t meant to be forever, that womb-life was only a prelude to the fuller life ahead. And, even if given the chance, you would never want to return to your previous existence in the confines of the womb.

Death is much like that. During our days here on earth, we become comfortable with our familiar existence. We feel safe and secure in the womb of this world. But then the crisis comes. Like being born we are forced out of our secure, familiar world into enter into a strange, new world, a world called eternal life. At first, the transition may seem threatening, but soon we realize that death actually set us free, free to be all God intended us to be. Soon, we understood that earth-life wasn’t meant to be forever, that earth-life was only a prelude to the fuller life ahead. And, even if given the chance, we would never return to our limited, earthly existence.

Yes, Easter is a time for celebration because Jesus took away the death threat; proving - once and for all - that death is not the end of living, that death is simply our birthday into God’s next stage of life.

But there is another thing that causes death to be a threat. Death is a threat because we tend to view death as an end to our precious relationships. We don’t want to die because we don’t want to be away from the ones we love. We don’t want our loved ones to die because, in our minds, we view death as an end to that loving relationship. But again, let’s look at the example of Jesus. When Jesus died, it was not the end of precious relationship. Jesus showed us, by his own death and resurrection, that relationships continue - even after death.

I’m sure, when the disciples saw Jesus die on the cross they thought to themselves, “Well, I guess this ends our relationship with him. No more talks along the road. No more laughing at wedding feasts. No more intriguing sermons in the synagogues. No more intimate times of sharing around the bread and the wine. Jesus is dead and we’ll never see him again.”

Imagine their surprise when three days later they heard Jesus speak. Imagine their elation when Jesus called them back from fishing to share the breakfast he had prepared on the beach. Imagine how invigorated they became when the one they loved touched them again, walked with them again and talked with them again.

Maybe it was Peter, James or John, who stood up at the sea side breakfast and said, “Hey, guys. We thought death was a pretty bad thing, but now that Jesus has come back from the grave, death just ain’t as bad as it seemed.”

Yes, Jesus took the threat out of death, because he showed that death does not end our relationships. So if you’re a mother or a father or grandparent who has lost the child you love, don’t let death keep you under its threat, because one day you will be with that child again. And dear grieving widow or widower, don’t let death keep you under its threat, for one day you, too, will see that spouse who has gone on before. And, if today, you are facing your impending death, don’t let the threat of death engulf you in despair, because when you cross over on the other side, you’ll be greeted by those who’ve been waiting to welcome you into the God’s glorious surprise.

No wonder the Apostle Paul could stare death straight in the face and chide, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Yes, Paul could chide death because Paul knew the Easter story. Paul knew that when Jesus rose from the grave, Death lost its threat.

So let’s return to the story with which I began. There you are leaving church today and you find a note taped to the windshield of your car. In crude bold letters the note says, “YOU ARE ON MY LIST AND SOON YOU WILL DIE.”

You look around the parking lot, hoping that someone is playing a practical joke. But nobody’s there. No on-lookers, no laughter, no joke.

But wait a minute. Out from the east side of the parking lot you see the glowing white figure of a man walking toward you. Just the sight of him seems to give you peace. And as the man stands next to you, you look into his eyes and immediately you know - this is the risen Christ.

“What’s in your hand?” he asks in a voice of compassionate love.

“I’m not really sure,” you say, as you hand him the note. “I think it’s a death threat. It says soon I will die.”
Carefully, Jesus reads the note and then starts laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” you ask in disbelief. “Somebody’s out to get me!”

“Oh, don’t be afraid,” replies Christ. “Old Man Death’s been trying to scare people for thousands of years, but death is no big deal. You see, I ought to know. I’ve been there - done that - and lived to tell the story.”

Then before you realize what’s happening, Jesus rips up the note and sticks the shreds in his pocket. “There,” he says. “That should take care of that. And should old Death start bothering you again, I suggest you take a trip with me to see an empty tomb. Cause I’ve been there, done that, and lived to tell the story.”

And as I walked back toward my car, for some reason, I couldn’t get the words to that old hymn out of my mind:

Death cannot keep his prey, Jesus, my Savior?
He tore the bars away, Jesus, my Lord.
Up from the grave he arose. With a mighty triumph o’er His foes.
He arose a victor from the dark domain
And he lives forever with His saints to reign. (Sing it with me)
He arose. He arose. Hallelujah, Christ arose.

Yes, this is Easter, the day when we remember that death could not keep his prey, because Jesus Christ arose, and when he did, he took the threat out of all our death-threats. Why, because he's been there, done that and lived to tell the story.