Saturday, May 20, 2017

How Christ Overcomes the Fear of Death (With Jesus on the Road to Samarra)

A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market one day, but the servant soon returned, trembling with fear. “Master,” he said, “I met Death in the crowd, disguised as an old woman. She made a threatening gesture, and I ran. Please lend me your horse, and I will flee to Samarra to avoid my fate. Death won’t find me there.” The merchant lent him the horse, and the servant raced north, away from Baghdad. Then the merchant walked to the market, found the old woman, and demanded to know why she made the threatening gesture. Death replied, “I wasn’t threatening your servant but was only surprised to see him here. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”*

It’s true that all of us have a date with death, and that inevitability hangs over our heads. Fearing death becomes “lifelong slavery,” the Bible says. Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

But Jesus, in His own death and resurrection, frees us from this fear. Last time I listed five reasons we fear death, and in this post I’d like to consider the first two.

1. We fear death because we fear the unknown.

The unknown is fearful. If you thought you were soon going to have to travel to a strange place, totally foreign to you, with no way to prepare and no hope of returning to your familiar life, it would be stressful, even terrifying.  Death is assumed to be the great Unknown since, as people often say, “Nobody’s ever come back to tell us about it.”

Well, Jesus Christ died and He did come back to tell us about it. His Resurrection means death is not “the great unknown.”

But let's be careful to report what Jesus actually told us about what happens after death. Jesus taught that after death is either heaven or hell. He warned about hell and said, "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)

But for those who follow Him, He promised not the unknown, but a place He Himself would prepare for His followers. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:2-3)

The place He’s talking about is a place where we will be loved and will love. Where we can learn and grow and serve. Where we will know God and be known by Him, for the first time unhindered by our sins and mistakes and brokenness.

We don’t have to be afraid of the unknown, because our Savior has gone ahead of us to get everything ready, and it’s a place we’re going to love.

2. We fear death because we fear loss of control.

Think of the instant terror if your brakes fail on the freeway or the sudden shock if you lose your footing on an icy sidewalk. Losing control is fearful. But even if those things never happen to you, losing control is a gradual reality for all of us the longer we live.

You see your body aging, your strength or stamina or mental acuity declining. At some point you can’t deny you’re weaker, slower, balder, fatter, more forgetful. And when you get really sick, all of this is just accelerated. You lose control of the things you took for granted. Death is the ultimate in loss of control.

But the antidote for this fear is trust. Just as a little child eventually settles down at night because she knows her dad and mom are there, if we know Someone who loves us is taking care of us and will be with us, trust and peace replace panic.

Jesus’ Resurrection gives us trust that He has walked where we will all walk. He conquered death and He’ll help us when our time comes. We can trust Him.

Jesus told us He is the Good Shepherd. And He compared His followers to His sheep. Sheep probably have many fine qualifies, but being in control is not one of them. They depend upon their shepherd to take care of them. Our Shepherd says, My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28)

Jesus’ words echo his ancestor David’s, 1000 years before, in Psalm 23. The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want. The psalm speaks about how the Lord cares for us in life and walks with us in death. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. We’re not abandoned at death. Jesus walks with us, a path He has already trod, and guides us all the way home. So we can say, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Next time we’ll consider the Fear of Separation from Loved Ones Forever, and Fear of The End of Earthly Joys and Pleasures.

*This is an ancient story, retold by W. Somerset Maugham in 1933 as “The Appointment in Samarra.”