What If Death Were Victorious?
A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 15:51-57
Sunday, April 12, 2014 – Easter 2B
It looked like there was no way out. The villain had not only captured the damsel in distress, but now he had captured the hero too. And it seemed like there was no chance for escape. There was no visible out. But then, suddenly, with a quick wit and with great determination, the hero thought of a solution. And the tables suddenly turn. Though the villain seemed to be the victor, in the end, the hero won. The villain had met his match.
You see it the movies all the time, don't you? The enemy looks like he's just about to kill the good guy. He's so powerful and strong and the hero looks so weak and defeated, you're almost ready to give up hope. And if it were real life, you probably would. But you know it's a movie and that most movies have a happy ending.
Well, I once read that every story is really just an echo of the one story: The story of God's redemption of his fallen creation, the story that we are all a part of. Of course, we are the damsel in distress in need of rescue from the enemy. And the enemy, which is far more power than than flesh and blood, is often personified as the Grim Reaper is Death. And he seems so powerful, cutting down so many he almost has a perfect score. Even the hero, Jesus, was subject to Death.
You can imagine how the disciples felt on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. All hope was lost. But of course, we, who live on this side of Easter know the rest of the story. We know how the tables suddenly turned. Though the villain, Death, seemed to be the victor, in the end, our Hero, Jesus, won. And he not only won, but he totally destroyed Death. The villain has met his match.
This is our Easter joy: That thought at times Death seems the victor, finally Death meets the Victor—the real Victor—and he sees his own defeat. Our text for this second Sunday after Easter is taken again from 1 Corinthians 15. This week we look at verses51-57…
51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." 55 "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
I. Death Seems the Victor
Death sure looks like a powerful opponent, doesn't he? He looks so ferocious that he seems impossible to defeat.
Death has destroyed the mightiest of kings and emperors. It has broken into every home and has taken its toll of every human family. It has robbed every one of its victims of all his earthly possessions. It has filled this world with futile tears and helpless groans. It has snatched away for all eternity the hour of repentance that could have saved the godless, and it has inflicted pain on even the greatest of God's saints. Except for Enoch and Elijah, death has won every contest with life. There is no masking its ugliness nor wishing away its awesome power.
Death is truly a force to be reckoned with. And despite all his little victories over disease and mortal injury, man still has no sword to slay and no shield to ward off this cruel and hungry monster.
And you know what makes the monster so powerful. It's his sting. A scorpion without his stinger may still pinch and hurt, but it's the stinger that really inflicts the damage. The same is true of hornets, wasps, and bees, of certain fish and sea creatures, of the snake and his fangs. The sharp, pointy sting gives the power and makes it deadly.
"The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law."
The Greek word here for sin is hamartia. And it literally means to "miss the target." Now, I just recently received a hunting bow and some field arrows. And I bought a bow for the boys too. So for a while now Josiah and I have been trying to pull our bows back a dozen times each day to build up strength before we go practice on a target in the yard.
But the other night I had a dream. And it was very vivid. I rarely remember my dreams. But in this one I was shooting arrows at the target in the back yard. But I kept missing. And not just once, but multiple times when I missed the target I hit a school kid playing outside at recess, running behind my target. (Maybe I have some suppressed frustration still from subbing for Mr. Holper. I don't know.) J
But it was one of those dreams where I woke up in a sweat and was very relieved to realize it all been just a dream.
But, sadly, missing the target isn't just a bad dream when it comes to God! I miss the mark of his law all the time. I fail to show love to my own family all the time. I try. I pull back with good intentions, but my arrow pierces them as I lose my patience. I miss the mark of living healthy. I want to make better choices and good decisions, but my laziness gets the best of me. I aim for the target of being the best pastor I can be, but when I let that arrow loose, I know I miss the mark. And the penalty for missing is huge.
If I were to actually shoot a student at recess, I would rightly deserve the death penalty. It wouldn't matter if it were an accident. It wouldn't matter if I promised that I would never do it again. It wouldn't matter if it was a one time offense and I hit the target every other time but that once. It would still be murder. And I would still deserve the death penalty.
And since I do miss the target with God, I deserve death. It doesn't matter if I had good intentions. It doesn't matter if it was just once or twice. It doesn't matter if I almost hit the target most of the time. I still sinned. And for one sin, I deserve God's death penalty. I deserve hell.
And so I will die. Everyone will (unless Jesus returns first). Everyone has (but Enoch and Elijah). Death sure seems to be the victor. Can you imagine what if Death were victorious? It would mean eternal damnation for every one of us.
But to one foe Death must yield. The King of kings has vanquished the king of terrors. Our Savior "has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (2 Timothy 1:10)
II. Death Meets the Victor
"Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"
When Death looks like it cannot be defeated, our hero enters the scene. And with no help from us, while we just sat on the sidelines watching, he did battle with the hungry monster. He lived his life by the law, robbing sin of its power over him. And since he had no sin, Death could not sting him. But what seemed to be a horrible turn of events, Death's stinger stung him.
Like large wooden stingers, the thorns stung his brow. Like wrought iron stingers, the nails didn't just prick, but pierced through his hands, his feet. Like a giant stinger at the end of a pole, the spear stung his side so hard it split him open. And it looked like Death had dealt his victor blow.
Ah, but Death seemed like the victor. Now Death met the real Victor. And Jesus triumphed over death when he burst out of his tomb and rose from the dead. Death could not hold him. Death wasn't powerful enough. Death lost.
And now, Death, has lost us too.
Yes, we will still die someday unless Jesus returns first. But Death has already lost. It can't really hurt us.
You see, the sting of death is sin. But our sin has been removed. And Death's stinger is like a bees. It cannot live without it. A bee, unlike a hornet or wasp, can only sting once. When the barbed stinger sticks its victim, the stinger is torn from the bee's body and kills the bee. Jesus took the sting out of death when he took our sin away. That's why he submitted to Death for a while to take the sting of God's punishment on himself so we will never have to. Now Death is dying. It still wins daily battles, but it's lost the war. And it's lost us. We know that we can lay our heads on our pillows at night in peace. For if I should die before I wake, I know the Lord my soul will take. Death will not mean my defeat, but my victory!
And I did nothing to earn it, nothing to help Jesus win, I just receive all the blessings of what he did for me. Paul didn't write, "Thanks be to God! He helps us win the victory." No! He wrote, "Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"
What if Death were victorious? Shudder at the thought. But you know that Death only seems the victor. The real Victor is Christ. Christ is the victor over death! Christ has indeed been raised from the dead! And one day soon, Christ will raise us from the dead! Christ will give us new, glorified bodies! Christ will swallow up Death and it will be no more!
And it will all happen in an instant. In the Greek the word is atomo. We get our English word "atom" from it. Our glorification will happen in a spot of time so small that it cannot be cut any shorter. And our glorified bodies will be perfect! They won't just be immortal—that they cannot die ever again. But they will be imperishable—they can't perish or spoil, grow old, or get hurt. They will be perfect bodies that will be subject neither to Death nor the effects of Death.
And so we can taunt Death! We know who the real victor is! "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"
And we live in this bold confidence that Death loses and we, through Christ, win! Permit me to read one more verse beyond our text. Verse 58 reads, "Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
So give yourselves, saints, to the work of the Lord! That means not waiting to be asked to serve your Savior, but eagerly looking for ways to spend your time, your dollars, yourself for this winning team. And you know that no matter what you spend, you can't lose! Take all I have. Take my life! I still win! Death has lost. So I labor for the Lord, knowing it's not in vain. And so do you.
During the days Communism in Russia Easter Sunrise Services were replaced with Sunrise Communist Rallies. At one such meeting 10,000 gathered. At the close of the meeting, the Communist leader asked if anyone else would like to speak. A teenage boy took the stage. And as he did, he was warned, "You must speak only the truth or you will be shot." Of course, the "truth" he meant was a denial of Christianity and applause for Communism. Everyone stared at the young man who was now flanked by soldiers with rifles pointed at his head.
He was silent for a moment, then took a deep breath and shouted into the microphone, "Christ is risen!" And as the crack of the rifles rang out, so did 10,000 voices shouting their reply, "He is risen indeed!"
For that young teenager, Death had lost its sting. He knew who the real Victor was. So he gladly spent his life. And it was not in vain. 10,000 others got the encouragement they needed to shout their conviction: Christ is risen indeed!
You too can spend all you have knowing that Death is not the victor. He only seems the victor. But Death meets the Victor—the real Victor—in Jesus. And you know that sided with him, the victory is yours too. "Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" In his name, dear friends, amen!