Tenth Sunday After Pentecost August 13-14, 2022
“Two-Faced” Psalm 116
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Is death a blessing or a curse? Does it provide the worst memory or the most pleasant remembrance? In our psalm for today, Psalm 116, we hear, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (Verse 15) But, then also in God’s Word we read, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (I Corinthians 15:26) Friend or foe?
I know that death is God’s curse on mankind. Look at what pain it causes. Death robs us, it steals from us, it deprives us. Consider the sorrow and tears that it brings into our life. Our closest and our dearest, those that we have received joy upon joy from, and with, are gone. Those that we respect and admire, who have brought us the greatest care and compassion, die. Oh, how I hate death. I can understand why the Bible calls death an enemy. It is no friend of mine.
A week ago, Henry and Chris Peepgrass, members of this congregation, shared with me some terrible news. Their neighbor’s son, Jacoby Kramp, was told that he only has a few months to live. He has brain cancer. He is only 13 years old. Jacoby, and all his brothers and sisters, came to our preschool. He is a boy with the greatest smile, loves to wear his Chicago Cubs gear, and his life will be over too early. Death is an enemy.
Death was never God’s design for us. Early in the book of Genesis God gave this word to Adam and Eve, “You may surely eat of any tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) God was saying, “Don’t cross over that line.” “Don’t fall in love with darkness and evil.” “Just trust me.”
But they didn’t trust God. They crossed over that line. And they died. In their relationship with Him they died. When God came looking for them, they ran away. They were ashamed. They didn’t want to see them. And they became mortal. Their life now had spiritual death and physical death. God would tell Mr. Adam and Mrs. Eve, “From dust to came and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) Elsewhere God would say of sin’s consequence, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)
But I guess death has another face to it. Right here, God had a psalmist say these words, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” How can that be? How can it be that death, a curse to us and our most beloved, be God’s blessing? Have you had to watch another person decline? They get smaller, skinnier, weaker, sicker, the longer they live. The days are no longer full of laughter, but they are hard and long. Our prayer for that spouse, that child, that parent or friend when they arrive at those days is that God in His mercy would take them from earth to heaven. Johann Sebastian Bach, who witnessed and experienced much death among family and friends, gave us the piece, “Come, Sweet Death; Come, Blessed Rest.”
I guess a believer in Jesus is “two-faced” about how we look at death. “Two-faced” not in the sense of being a liar or being deceptive, but more in this definition, “A person who is two-faced acts one way in certain situations and then in a contrary manner in others.” Death is an enemy to all of us. It robs and steals and takes a part of our soul every time it takes another from us. But death is the beginning of what God has in store for us. In the first 9 verses of this psalm we read, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his eye to me, I will call on him as long as I live. The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, save me!’ The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. The Lord protects the simplehearted; when I was in great need, he saved me. Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you. For you, O Lord, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
I have no other reason to speak about death being blessed, or to hum Bach’s “Come, Sweet Death, or to preach on those words, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints”, unless there is a true answer to death and mortality. In America we try to sugarcoat death. We say that people just “pass away”. I’ve had many grieving families ask if I can make the funeral happy, not sad. We seem to have a hard time with the pain that death brings. But there is an answer to death. There is a reason that death is precious in God’s sight.
The reason? Jesus really died. He didn’t just “pass away”. “Crucified. Dead. Buried” And, “On the third day He rose again from the dead.” Death for Jesus had two faces. One that robbed Him; one that He defeated. Death has two faces for you and for your friends and relatives, for all who find trust in Jesus. In Paul’s words we hear, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 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.” (I Thessalonians 4:13-14) Jesus spoke about the face of death like this, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
Did you know that Jesus, when He celebrated the Last Supper, sang a song with His disciples? Matthew 26:30 says, “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” On the Mount of Olives He prayed, “Not my will, but Father, your will be done.” There He was arrested. The next day Jesus was crucified. They sang a hymn before all that happened. Do you know which one they sang? I’ll give you one guess. This one. Psalm 116. The Passover Psalms are Psalm 115-118 – those four made up a hymn that was sung at Passover.
They sang the hymn during the meal, at the fourth cup they would raise that night, which was called the “Cup of Salvation”. It was at that time when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. “Take and eat – this is my body which is given for you.” “Take and drink, this is the blood of the new covenant shed for the forgiveness of sins.” It truly was, and is, a cup of salvation. Jesus and His followers would have sung these words from Psalm 116 that night, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.” They would have sung, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” They would have prayed this prayer as well, speaking a thanksgiving to God who, “brought us from bondage to freedom, from sorrow to gladness, from mourning to Festival-day, and from darkness to light.” (Mishna, Pesachim 10:5)
The second face of death for Jesus would be beautiful and lovely for Him, and for us, because of His death and resurrection. In the resurrection chapter, I Corinthians 15, death is mocked due to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, “The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 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.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:53-57)
The life we are going to live when we are done on earth is precious and perfect. Paul would say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” We can’t even imagine how precious those days will be. Isaiah, with some great imagery says, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.’” (Isaiah 25:6-9)
Death has two faces. One face is ugly; the other is beautiful. One is ours through the infection of sin; the other is a gift to us through the healing of Jesus. We have to live with the first face and we are given the second face, the joy of passing from death to life through the work of Jesus. Trust Jesus – may your heart find security in Him. God’s word is ever true – Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. Amen.