Death Has Been Swallowed Up in Victory

You may have problems in your life or you may be sailing along care-free and content.  But there is one major factor about life that you and I will have to deal with sooner or later, death.  Thankfully, today’s Easter message from 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 reads like a headline, “Death has been Swallowed up in Victory.”  April 21, 2019. 

“I have to confess that I was worried.  Ever since some members of Chloe’s household brought the report, I have had a hard time sleeping.  The struggles you are going through, the issues you are wrestling with, the mistakes you made, your weaknesses that flared up have all made my mind spin like a top and my heart ache.  And what could I do? I’ve had you in my prayers when I wake and when I go to sleep, and why would I not since I spent a year and a half in your midst in Corinth as your spiritual father?  But these reports, a laundry list! You’re playing favorites regarding preachers. You’ve brushed aside a case of public sin as though it’s no big deal. You’re running to court to sue fellow members over trivial matters and giving Christianity a bad name.  Some of you are playing fast and loose with your marriage commitments. Some of you are behaving like sex-starved animals. You have trampled on the sensitivity of those who are weak in faith. You thought more about money than ministry. Some of you act as though gender distinction does not matter.  You treated the Lord’s Supper as though it were Happy Hour. You’re bragging about your abilities and gifts and losing sight of the great gift of faith. ‘Love your neighbor’ has all been ignored, and your worship services have deteriorated into shouting matches.

“But what bothers me most is the report that the ‘intelligentsia,’ the so called brainiacs, have made an alliance with media makers and combined to undercut what counts the most, your certainty about the existence of the true God and his desire to pull you into the sphere of his love.  So, I, Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God … am writing this letter to you, the church of God in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:1-2).  I will help you sort through and sort out the troubling issues you are dealing with, but as a capstone I am going to lay out the one glorious truth that you can announce to atheists, agnostics, and skeptics who make fun of you, pooh-pooh what you believe, and try to humiliate you, treating you as a bunch of armpit-scratching, mono-syllabic baboons.  Here it is: ‘death has been swallowed up in victory.’

Death’s destruction is done

Air is such a simple thing.  We live in it. We breathe it.  And when it moves, we generally enjoy it.  A gentle breeze on a warm summer day rustles the leaves on the trees and shuffles fluffy clouds across the sky.  There’s not much to it. It’s hard to imagine that air can be destructive. But talk to a meteorologist, and he or she can explain all the factors that can cause air to be destructive.  It’s not so much air itself that’s the troublemaker, but the other factors like moisture in the air, air pressure, temperature changes, jet streams. When all the conditions are just right, or maybe I should say all wrong, the air we breathe can be whipped into a whirling funnel that can flatten homes, uproot trees, and lift an eighteen-wheeler off of I-94 and toss it into the Miller Park parking lot.

Some people consider death to be no more of a threat than a slight breeze.  A while ago, I had an occasion to ask someone, “What will happen to you when you die?”  The person just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’ll be six feet under pushing up daisies.”  If that’s all there was to death, I guess it wouldn’t be so bad. We would just stop inhaling the atmosphere, and that would be it.  But there’s more to it than that. The apostle helps us recognize the other factors that crank death up and turn it into a destructive force.  “The sting of death is sin.”  If you die with sin on your account, you have to pay for it.  And the payment for sin is not an extra charge on your VISA account.  The payment is an eternity of suffering. Just as a stinger makes a bee dangerous, so sin is the stinger that makes death dangerous and destructive.

The apostle then uncovers another factor which cranks up death to make it destructive.  It’s what makes sin pop out. The power of sin is the law.  God’s holy law is a brilliant searchlight that exposes all our faults and mistakes.  It’s a powerful MRI machine that reveals all the hidden dirt in our hearts and minds.  It’s the accusing finger that points to you and me individually and says, “Sinner!” Just as factors in the climate turn a harmless breeze into a tornado, so God’s law exposes sin and turns death into a destructive force, desiring to snag every human being for eternal doom.

By now there are a few people here who are thinking, “Why does he have to talk about sin and death?  It’s Easter for crying out loud! Why can’t he talk about nice things like soldiers reunited with family and humanitarian aid and hope-springs-eternal stories and cute stuff like bunnies and Easter baskets and egg hunts and nice clothes and family feasts?  I may have problems in my life, and some of them may be my own fault, but I didn’t get all dressed up on Easter to hear about yucky stuff like sin and death.” If that’s what you are thinking, then I have this to say in reply, “Get a grip!” Unless you and I clearly grasp the seamier side of life and come to grips with our own personal sin, Easter will make no sense and will be a waste of our time.  I can only tell you what God says. We are going to have to hurt first before we can appreciate God’s miraculous healing. Oh, the destruction death can bring! Only a miracle could stop the destruction.

God worked just such a miracle!  On the first Good Friday our Substitute, Jesus, died and paid the penalty for all of our sins, a penalty we should be paying.  The Bible tells us, “The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purifies us from every sin” (1 John 1:7).  That’s why Paul shouts out, “Where, O death, is your sting?” He knew the answer, and I hope you do, too.  The sting of death is gone because sins have been washed away in the flood of Jesus’ blood.  When we die, we won’t be loaded with the burden of all our sins. Jesus took them all away. When we die, we won’t have to start paying for our sin with eternal suffering.  Jesus did that suffering. Instead, when we die, we will experience the full joy of eternal life. Death is no longer a jailer, locking us in hell. It is a gatekeeper, ushering us into heaven.  Jesus stopped death’s destructive force just like he calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  It reads like a headline, Death has been swallowed up in victory!”  Death’s destruction is done.

Death’s damage is undone

At three-twenty in the afternoon on Palm Sunday, 1965, a tornado dropped to the ground west of Jefferson, Wisconsin, and charged northeast.  It chewed through the farmland and forests of Jefferson County, then crossed Highway Sixteen, snatched two cars, heading west toward Watertown, and flung them through the air, leaving them as crumpled masses of metal, crushing the three people inside.  We heard about it on the news at my Grandma’s house. When all was clear, we headed out toward Ixonia to check on acquaintances. The damage was unbelievable. It’s one thing to see a tornado’s destruction. It’s another thing to clean up the damage. That takes a huge effort, a huge of amount of time and money.

It was one thing for Jesus to stop death’s destructive power so we won’t go to hell.  It’s another thing for him to undo the damages which sin and death bring to our bodies.  Young people might laugh at this, but each day we show signs of growing older and getting closer to the grave.  How long will you live? Maybe eighty or ninety years. The first twenty-five or thirty you are looking forward to getting older.  But after, not so much. We can work out faithfully at a health club, apply all the right creams and lotions, purchase a new set of clothes to look our Easter best, but every day we add a few more wrinkles, a few more gray hairs.  Bones get more brittle. Joints become stiff. Eyes grow dim. Hearing fades. Then, one day we will be wearing our Sunday best while lying in a coffin. Our flesh will start to decay, and our bones will crumble back to dust. Oh, the damage death can bring!  Only a miracle could undo the damage.

God worked just such a miracle!  On that first Easter morning our Savior Jesus did the impossible.  He came back to life. He rose triumphantly from the grave. The crown of thorns was gone.  The bruises were gone. The bleeding flesh had been restored. Death’s damage had been undone.  Where, O death, is your victory? Death has no victory.  Jesus rose as our conqueror and has also given us the wonderful promise, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).  Here on earth our bodies may grow old and deteriorate.  When we die, our bodies will be buried and decompose. But on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus will raise and restore our bodies to rejoin our souls.  The Bible doesn’t give us all the details about what our exalted bodies will be like, but that’s not important. It is enough to know that we have Jesus’ promise to undo the damages of sin and death.  Even if we are still living when the last trumpet sounds to signal the end of this world on Judgment Day, that will be a glorious, clarion call to unbounded joy. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – 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. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality … Thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  It reads like a headline, “Death has been swallowed up in victory!”  Death’s damage has been undone.

You may have Corinthian-like problems in your life, so intense that they are tearing your heart and life apart, or you may be sailing along through life care-free and content.  But there is one major factor about life that you and I will have to deal with sooner or later, death. Easter’s message of the risen Lord is the game changer. It changes the playing field for the culture in which we live with its incessant drumbeat that anything and everything is to be tolerated except Christian values and truth.  Skeptics can rant and rave, make fun, or blow it off if they want, but they have to face reality and verified history when they come up against the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why would Jesus’ followers stick with their account of Easter when all it got them was pain and persecution? Why pin all their hope on the resurrection of our Lord?  Because that’s the guarantee that God has done something about death. Jesus swallowed it up in his victory. The famous Lutheran theologian, C.F.W. Walther, had it right in a hymn he wrote:

Oh, where is your sting, death?  We fear you no more;

Christ rose, and now open is fair Eden’s door.

For all our transgressions his blood does atone;

Redeemed and forgiven, we now are his own. (CW 143:4)

  Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI  on April 21, 2019