Death in scripture has more than one face. It isn’t only God’s righteous judgment on sin (Romans 1:32) it’s also closely associated with sin which Paul says is death’s sting (1 Corinthians 15:56) and so death is seen as an enemy of life with God (15:26, 54-55). Biological death is more than the loss of physical life; it’s a sign of something more terrifying; it’s a sign of humanity’s moral and spiritual estrangement from God. The teeming million that are put away out of our sight, the terminal wards and the mass graves in far-flung countries all scream forth the presence and power of sin in the human family.
Is there any saving of us? With these harsh realities ceaselessly battering our senses is it any wonder whole nations and tribes are locked into nothing more than making it through another day? But there is a Savior! And the hope He gives is not born out of any mere sunny optimism. It is the living hope offered by someone who knows the world as it truly is and has overcome it. Saying no to its seduction and sadness, saying no to its squalor and narrowness, saying no to death and despair He comes alive from the dead to say, “I can save you!”
I love the way He took it on himself to save the unsaveable and to heal the unhealable. When expert opinion, buttressed by rolling centuries of human failure, was certain that we were a lost cause He came, rolled up His sleeves and went to work. And I think what pleases me is that He did much of His costly healing and saving work while we were oblivious to it.
(Patiently wrestle a wee bit with the Scottish wording what follows.) In Maclaren’s novel Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush, Lord Kilspindie’s famous London doctor looked in on Saunders and said he couldn’t live more than three or four hours, much less through the night. Saunders’s wife Bell was beside herself and while waiting for local doctor MacLure she sobbed her heart out to Drumsheugh, a close family friend. When the old man arrived he confirmed the big city doctor’s word that the man was terribly ill and under threat of death. Bell was sure she already saw the shadow of death that never lifts lying plainly on the man she adored and needed; but after examining the man he had known since childhood, MacLure insisted, “It’s hoverin, Bell, but it hesna fallen.”
“Do you think, Willum, he has a chance?” whispered Drumsheugh. “That he has, at ony rate, and it’ll no’ be your blame or mine if he hesna mair,” growled the old man, taking off his coat and rolling up his sleeves. And with the London doctor’s viewpoint in mind, he said, “It’s maybe presumptuous o’ me tae differ frae him, and it wudna be verra respectfu’ o’ Saunders tae live aifter this opeenion.”
Drumsheugh later said it made his blood race all the way to his fingertips to see old MacLure’s bracing himself for the battle. “For a’ saw noo there was tae to be a stand-up fight atween him an’ deith for Saunders.”
The distraught and worn-out wife was sent to bed and he and Drumsheugh prepared for a no-holds barred brawl with the intruder. The fever raged and the disease attacked but MacLure dabbed and bathed, massaged and prayed, thumped and turned his patient, listened intently and then quietly barked out orders to Drumsheugh to get or do this or that. Through the long night, promising nothing but giving no quarter, MacLure, with iron face, fought for the life of a man who knew nothing of all that was being done to and for him. A bundle of jerking skin and bones that rasped with every tortured breath he took, was lifted and laid back down by a big old doctor who was as gentle as a woman with a baby; often on his knees as he worked beside the low cot on which Saunders lay.
Weary himself from the heat and tension of it all and hearing the old man say they were holding their own, Drumsheugh went into the darkness of the surrounding fields for a breath of fresh air while MacLure continued his ceaseless vigil for every sound or change in temperature or appearance. It was the hour before daybreak and he could just make out the forms of the sleeping cattle. Sitting down he could hear the gurgling talk of the distant stream as it made its way over the stones. An owl hooted, startling him and reminding him of a childhood fright when he ran home to his mother; now a long time dead. He looked at the shadow of his own dark, cold house on the hill, a place with no loved one in it and then back to Saunder’s lighted house where love was sleeping in hope and where love was fighting in earnest self-giving for the life of the man. Lonely himself and weary with the wrestle, an indescribable sadness came over him; how futile and mysterious this life was.
But in the middle of all this weariness he sensed a subtle change in the night, and the air around him seemed to tremble as if somebody had whispered. He lifted his head eastward and the grey of a cloud slowly reddened before his watching eyes. The sun wasn’t yet on the horizon but it was on its way; and the cattle stirred, rose and stretched, a blackbird uninvited, burst into the first song of the morning and as Drumsheugh crossed Saunder’s doorstep the sun was just showing itself above a peak of the Grampians.
The look on the doctor’s face said things were going well for the sick man. MacLure said, “it’s oer sune to say mair, but a’m houpin’ for the best.” Drumsheugh leaned back in a chair to rest and before he dozed off he saw the old man sitting erect in his chair, a clenched fist resting on the bed and eyes bright with the vision of triumph in them. He awoke with a start to find the room flooded with sunshine and all evidence of the night’s battle gone. The doctor was leaning over the bed, talking to Saunders, and giving him a sip of milk and telling him to go asleep again. The patient went into a deep, healthy slumber.
The old man put on his vest and jacket and went out into the sunlit air and Drumsheugh followed him without a word. Out they went through the dewy garden, past Saunders’s corn that was ready for the scythe and into an open field. Suddenly the doctor dragged off his coat and threw it west; his vest went east and he began shaking and jumping. As he danced in unrestrained delight he was shouting. “Saunders wesn’ to live throught tha nicht, but he’s livin’ this meenut, an’ like to live…it’ll be a graund waukenin’ for Bell; she ‘ill no’ be a weedow yet, nor the bairnies fatherless.”
And then, as though Drumsheugh’s look was rebuking him, he said, “there’s nae use glowerin at me, Drumsheugh, for a body’s daft at a time like this, an a’ canna contain masel’, and a’m no’ gaiein’ tae try.” It was then that his friend realized the old man was attempting the Highland fling. Later, talking to his friends about the whole matter, Drumsheugh confessed, “A’ hevna shaken ma ain legs for thirty years, but a’ confess tae a turn masel’…the thought o’ Bell an’ the news that wes watin’ her got the better o’ me.”
And so the two friends, shaped by their age and a community’s reserve in expressing itself, threw off the restraints of custom and in the face of a glorious triumph danced and laughed their way home on a glorious morning.
The word spread throughout Drumtochty and nothing else was talked about when the glen was gathered outside the church that following Sunday morning. Just at that time they saw the doctor approaching on his horse. If only it wasn’t Sunday; what a cheer they would send up. As the old man got nearer the pent up feelings grew stronger. If only it wasn’t “the Sabbath”. As he came up to the crowd up went a cheer of “Hurrah!” and “Hurrah again!” and a hat was seen waving on the other side of the church wall. It was the minister’s—of all people! The doctor’s horse couldn’t bear it and carried him off in a canter while the conservative Drumtochty glen regained its decorum. But not without a lingering satisfaction.
Isn’t that a great story? But the biblical Story goes way beyond that. The Dragon Slayer offers more than simple life from the dead or the continuation of life as we now experience it, he offers resurrection life. The destruction of death promised in 1 Corinthians 15:25-26 is a complete obliteration of death by the introduction of glorious and deathless life! Adam and the risen, glorified Christ (“the last Adam”) are not just two individuals; they represent two modes of living. Those merely united to Adam experience only “soul” life in a “natural” (soul) body but those who are united to the living Christ now live life that is life beyond sin, life that exists not because of “breath” or any other “natural” power source. And on day they will fully experience that resurrection life as their representative now fully experiences it. Their bodies will undergo a transformation and be made like his own glorious body (Philippians 3:20-21 and Romans 8:10-11).
The guarantee of our glorious resurrection is the Christ! He is the “first-fruits” (1 Corinthians 15:23), which says that the whole harvest is on the way. In the Old Testament the first- fruits represents the whole crop or the whole flock (in the case of sheep, for example). In offering the best of the first ones to arrive, the worshiper confesses that the whole belongs to God and by offering that portion the whole is dedicated to God. Representation is a central element in this as it is in all other offerings. (A tithe confesses all their prosperity belongs to and comes from God; a day confesses the same about all days, etc.)
It’s while reflecting on things like these that the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper really come home to us. Willam Willimon from Duke preached a grand lesson he called Don’t Forget Your Baptism in which he connected these vital gospel truths to the ordinance. Nevill Clark from Oxford in his Interpreting the Resurrection offers this, “It is in baptism that the Resurrection reality is ever and anew proclaimed. Here the Easter event is made contemporary and visible. Here the earth trembles, and the stone is rolled away, as the power of the new age moves decisively forward in the work of re-creation. For the baptized man has put on Christ, has been re-clothed in his risen life, has been drawn on across the chasm and given the freedom of the new world.” (I confess that when I was being baptized into the Christ I didn’t see it in such a glorious way. Praise God for his inexpressible grace and mercy and generosity!)
And the church (the body of Christ) lives only in the power of the resurrection. His resurrection was the beginning of the “New creation” (compare 2 Corinthians 5:17) and his final coming will be the consummation of it. So on each new “Lord’s day when we eat the bread and drink the wine (as “one loaf” and “one body” –1 Corinthians 10:16-17) we become announcers (not whispers or mutterers) of the Lord’s death “until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
O precious Lord Jesus who heard that we were sick unto death and refused to believe that we were beyond healing; who labored and sweated over us with such self-denying as no mortal has ever known and who, when we were returned safe and sound from the clutches of death by your own selfless work, rejoiced and were glad beyond our knowing because we were rescued. Thank you for doing for us things we didn’t know you were doing and doing them without waiting for us to ask your help. For all this and more we are thankful beyond our ability to tell, though we know we are not thankful enough. Take our sinner’s gratitude and let it be only an acknowledgement of and not the repayment for what we owe you. Thank you for wrestling in the dark with the baleful and brutal intruder so that we wouldn’t sink without trace and thank you that you find us precious enough to rejoice over. And because of who you are and what you have done, because you feel about us as you do, we commit ourselves to your service and your keeping with full assurance and gladness of heart. And how pleased we are to know that the day is coming when that resurrection life you now experience and keep in trust for us will be our own actual experience and we will serve you eternally and better then than now. Amen.