Monday, April 18, 2011

momento mori

this is a draft of my lesson for this wednesday. feedback encouraged.

ok, guys. so in two days, we celebrate what’s called Good Friday, the anniversary of the death of the Son of God. and sometimes i think we rush past the bad side of the good news. we rush past the dark and the evil to the beautiful and pleasant, so tonight i want to pause and reflect. that’s why we’ve come to the cemetery. i want you guys to take a look around, silently, and think. you might think about the ages of the people, young and old, who are buried here. you might think of their lives, theirs stories. what did the hope and long for? what were their goals, and did they ever achieve them? what did they want out of life, and did they get it? how did they die, and with whom? we’ll meet back at the front gate in twenty minutes.

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i hope that your time and your thoughts here tonight were helpful. there are two reasons i wanted us to come out here tonight. one is the fact that this is the result of our disobedience and rebellion against God. the curse of death rests upon this world because of our sin, our wrongdoing, our treasuring things more highly than our Creator and becoming slaves to those idols. as you look around the tombstones, you’ll see people who lived to old age, and those who died in infancy. the fact is, that because of their sin, every day between their birth date and their death date was the sheer grace of God, giving life onto ill-deserving sinners. the only thing that stops death from having the final say is Jesus’ own death, which He suffered so that all who trust in Him wouldn’t be ruled by death. we’ll talk more about that next week.

as i wondered around the graveyard a few days ago, looking at the tombstones and preparing for this lesson, i found a young man’s grave. his name was joseph g. doner, and he lived to be 23 years, 8 months, and 5 days old. i made sure to remember that, because i will be that old this june, on the day before my first anniversary. i wonder about who he was, what he wanted, what he dreamed of. did he have a job, and did he have people depending on him? did he have any plans: to have a family, to own a business, to move, to go on a trip, to see family? did he have a girl he wanted to marry and grow old with? was he much different from me?

the reason i wanted us to come out here is that death is a reality that, should Jesus tarry, we will all face someday. and most of us, because of the time and place we live in, don’t expect to face it anytime soon, at least not personally. most of us can reasonably expect to live for many years, getting gray hair and wrinkles and the whole nine yards. but in this cemetery there are dozens of infants who didn’t see their first birthday. there are several children who were younger than some of you when they breathed their last breath. joseph was but a few months older than me, and i doubt he expected to die at his age. but we are mortal. we are susceptible to all sorts of things, from bacteria and cancer to earthquake and hurricane. from murder to car accidents to war, our lives could end before we expect in any number of ways.

i don’t say this to frighten you. i don’t want you to go around being paranoid or living in a bubble-suit or a bunker, not that it would save you in the end. and though i’ve set it up rather well to speak of eternity in hell or the new earth, that’s not my purpose tonight either. heaven isn’t a place for those who are merely afraid of hell anyway. i don’t mean to cause you to despair or go around moping and downtrodden, and i hope not to suck the beauty out of this life, because though all that is here will eventually fade, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t good and delightful and praiseworthy.

what i do hope you gain from tonight is perspective. what i hope you understand is that things in this life will eventually fade. all of our stuff – cars, tvs, games, furniture, makeup, trophies, etc. – all of it will be in a dump one day. in the end, no one will really care what the score of the soccer or volleyball game was. few will remember who was prom queen, or what club you were in, or who got what part in the play. what school you went to, or what job you had, or how much money was in your bank account, will ultimately be rather meaningless.

there was a custom in ancient rome, that whenever a general or an emperor would return victoriously from battle, and there was a parade with soldiers and a band and admirers and such, that in the general’s chariot would be a lowly slave. and that slave would every-so-often whisper into the general’s ear the phrase “memento mori,” which means, “remember, you are mortal, you will die.” this was done to remind him that the splendor of that day would at some point fade, and the glory of his victory would not shine forever, and though he had won the day, there would come another day which he would not survive.

what is the point of remembering this? what is the reason to keep these things in perspective? my hope is that by doing so, we would not waste our lives. i know the struggle all too well myself to let your days slip by in meaningless triviality, whether that be video games or television or books or sports or shallow friendships, whatever it may be. it’s especially easy at your age, or even mine, when we expect to have so much time ahead of us that wasting an hour here or a day there doesn’t seem that important. with that mindset, it’s all too easy to look back and wonder where all the time went, to wake up one day and realize that you’ve wasted it.

if you don’t want to take my word for it, read through the book of Ecclesiastes. the whole thing is written is about how life can be spent in all sorts of ways, pursuing all sorts of things which seem good, but ultimately are vain, empty, meaningless. the book ends like this:

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ESV)

a more modern poet puts it like this: “only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” and that is my hope for you. that you would see Jesus as the imperishable treasure, that you would set your heart and your hope and your identity in Him, and out of that you would work and play and sleep and eat and do all things so that your joy in Him may increase and His glory, the display of His perfections, would be seen in your life. that we would, as Jesus says, “not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” i wish i had time to unpack that more for you guys, and honestly i wish i knew how to do this better myself. but i want to strive with you guys in this, to have an eternal perspective, and not to waste this life. to that end, i have these little wooden tombstones for you. they have a cross engraved on one side, and that phrase “memento mori,” to help us to remember, and to live in light of our mortality.

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