Monday, February 3, 2014

Death, The Last Defeat: In Memory of Teressa A. Richardson (June 28, 1956 -- Feb. 3, 2009)

“Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.

Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’

‘O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’

The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:50-58, NKJV).

Today at the Center for Theological Studies, I’d like to honor the woman that was my mother, a godly example, who showed me what a selfless, sacrificing, Christ-like life should be; a woman who still continues to touch and influence my life, five years to the day since the Lord took her from this life; a woman whose integrity was seen by all those around her who knew her, worked with her, attended church with her, and loved her. This woman, whose life is a testimony in and of itself, is my mother, Teressa Ann Alston Richardson.

I could not let the day pass without taking time to honor the godly mother the Lord placed into my life. Without mom’s influence, I can’t imagine what my life would be like, nor where I would have gone in these past 29 years. It was because my mother did the work of the Lord in raising me “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” that I am what I am in the Lord today. She took her parenting ministry seriously, and is an example for all of us in how we raise our children (whether in the present or in the future). Mom, I love you dearly and miss you constantly.

If she were here, she’d want the Word to be emphasized – so I won’t take another minute to commend her. Let’s get to what excited her most, the living, breathing, miracle-working Word of God.

If you read the context of 1 Corinthians 15, the issue at hand concerned the resurrection. There were some who were saying that there was no resurrection, which prompted the Apostle Paul’s question, “Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:12)

It seems that the gospel, preached among the Corinthians, was being denied by false doctrine. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to consider two positions: (1) that the Lord was not raised from the dead, and (2) that Christ was raised from the dead. He says, if you believe Christ was raised, but He didn’t really rise, then your faith is “worthless” or “in vain,” “useless.” In short, believing means little if Christ did not rise from the dead. Mere faith is not enough to make something true, unless it is already true in origin.

In verse 20, Paul testifies boldly that “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20-21).

Paul makes it clear here that the “Man” (capital “M,” referring to the man Christ Jesus) brought forth the resurrection. Remember the requirement: since the wage of sin is death (cf. Romans 6:23), man who committed the sin had to die. So, Christ was the solution: a man who could die for the sins of the world but could also return from the dead. He was the perfect choice, the perfect Lamb of God who was sacrified for the sins of the world (John 1:29).

The message is clear: Christ died for the sins of the world and rose for our justification, so that we could be justified by our faith in the work of Christ on the Cross. He wasn’t hanging there for Himself, but was “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5-6). He died for our sins. We owe a debt we can never repay. The least we can do is offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2).

Now, as Christ has died and was raised from the dead, so too will we – those who believe in the Lord, that is. Those who accept Christ as both Lord and Savior (not either/or, but both/and) will rise as Christ rose from the dead. However, we cannot enter heaven in our current, mortal state.

Mother could not enter heaven with her earthly body.

Why? Because it’s wracked with sin, and stained with ungodliness. If you don’t believe this to be true, ask yourself: why did Paul tell the Roman church “do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (Rom. 6:12)? And we, being sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, struggle with sin as did they, as did the men and women of Scripture, as did the earliest churches of the New Testament. Each person born of Adamite blood struggles with sin. “There is none righteous, no not one,” Paul states clearly (Romans 3:10).

So, how then, can we enter heaven? Paul states it clearly in 1 Corinthians 15:50ff: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” In order for us to inherit the kingdom, we have to put on not only faith, but immortality. And we can only get that by dying a mortal death.

I cringe whenever I read the Lord’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” These words haunt me in the strangest way, seeing that I, too, realize my mortality. Although I am 29 and feel as if I’m in the prime of my life, I too, fall under the Lord’s death sentence to humanity. It is something that, in light of my mother’s early death at 52 years old, is always at the forefront of my mind.

And yet, death is the last enemy to be defeated. Death is the last mountain we have to climb, the last river we have to swim, the last boundary we have to pass through, the last obstacle we have to encounter. Despite all of our blessings here, this present world is not our home; we are citizens of the Kingdom of God. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:35-36,

“But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’ Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies.” Interestingly enough, Jesus said similar words in John 12:24 (“unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain”). In order for us to put on immortality, we must drop this mortal flesh that is stained with sin.

It is in verse 51 that Paul says, “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” The word “sleep” here is a euphemism for the word “died,” so Paul is saying, in essence, that there will be many who will be alive when the Lord returns. Not all will die, but all who believe in the Lord (whether dead or alive) will put on immortality, an everlasting body that cannot hunger, thirst, tire, grow old, or die. I like the sound of this!

In verse 52, Paul says that this transformation will take place “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” As fast as you can blink, the change will take place. Notice that there will be trumpets at this grand event. Since Paul mentions “the last trumpet” here, we can be assured that there will likely be more than one trumpet to announce the Lord’s return to earth. The last trumpet, however, is Paul’s focus: when the last trumpet sounds, the dead in Christ (those who died believing in the Lord) will be transformed, and those of us living on the earth will be transformed, too. Verse 53 reiterates Paul’s point earlier that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.

In verses 54-57, we see Paul using theology to praise the Lord God, the one that “theo-logy” (the study of theos, God) is all about. After we are transformed and put on immortality, the words of the Old Testament will come to pass: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

Currently, death is all around us. Any day of the week, one can take a look at the news, read the paper, or read on the Internet and find death is all around us. It places uncertainty in our hearts; as much as we like to think of life as being forever, the deaths of others are subtle reminders that one day, death will come to us all. In the midst of this sadness, however, we have hope in Christ Jesus. Death may reign in our lives now, our loved ones may die and leave us brokenhearted, but death is the last enemy to defeat. As verse 26 tells us, “the last enemy that will be destroyed is death.”

Did you read that? Death is the LAST enemy to be destroyed. Christ set the victory in place at Calvary, and this will be realized in our lives on an individual basis when we breathe our last. What power can death have, what sting, when death is defeated? What victory can the grave boast of when, having died and entered into it, we are then raised to live eternally? In the final analysis, the grave, sin, and death, three enemies in our mortal lives, will be conquered forever. We’ve always believed as Christians that “death has no more dominion over us”, but how apparent will it be in the Resurrection?

Have you ever seen C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at the movies? I will never forget the last scene of it, in which Reepicheep asks Aslan whether or not he can enter his country. Aslan bids him permission, and Reepicheep (a fearless, warrior mouse, by the way) greets his friends before placing his sword in the sand to paddle to Aslan’s country. We all are like Reepicheep: as long as we’re in this world, we fight to survive, fight to defend and protect ourselves, to look out for our safety and protection. We fight against aging, medical conditions, medicine, doctors, bosses, companies, employment and unemployment, strained marriages, unhappy times in our marriages, and so on. It seems as if we fight all the time – and we get so consumed by the fight that we can’t believe it when the fight is over and we get to “cross over to Aslan’s Country,” that is, glory. Yet and still, the time comes when the Lord, who is faithful, grants His faithful ones eternal rest.

Yes, the last enemy to be defeated is death; and when it is, we will, like Reepicheep, put down our sword and cross over. Mother laid her sword down in the sand and crossed over to glory to study war no more. One day, that will be you. And one day, that will be me. While death is still a raging enemy, it won’t last forever.

If mother were here today, she’d leave you with this message: the next time you’re staring death in the face, be it over a loved one in the nursing home or a loved one given less than 6 months to live in the hospital with a deadly cancer diagnosis, look death in the face and say, “you’re the last enemy to be defeated, and you won’t reign forever.” Death will only last for a short time. These words have comforted me every day for the past five years since my mother died. She had to pass through Death’s tunnel, but it’s not forever. One day, when the Lord cracks the clouds, mom will be raised to immortality. And, whether I’m alive or asleep, I too, will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. Death wants us to focus on how they suffer here, but Death is only a tunnel to victory for the believer. May God bless you all.