Ready? Philippians 1:21-24; John 11:25-26 (Wednesday Night Reflection)
This past Sunday has turned a former humorous sermon illustration into a worship nightmare. The sermon illustration went something like this: a gunslinger walked into a worship service and pulled out his six-shooter and said, “Anyone not prepared to meet God today needs to leave.” With that declaration, about half the congregation left. The gunslinger then sat down and declared to the pastor that he could continue on since only the faithful remained. The humor in that is gone and the image is all too real now in light of Sunday’s massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas where more than than 26 of our brothers and sisters in Christ went went from praising the Name of Jesus to finding themselves fully embraced in His arms.
And while that happened over 1,300 miles away from here, it still touches our lives. The loss of life breaks our hearts. The reality of evil stirs emotions from within us. It calls for a response from us. The question is, my brothers and sisters, how will we respond? How will the loss of all those lives affect us?
We could choose to let it cause us to become fearful. There are some who see, hear, or read of the shooting in church and their first instinct is that it is not even safe to go to church; thoughts of abandoning gathering with others for worship crosses their minds. Then, if they decide to come to church, the creek of every board, the opening of every door, causes them to cringe and slowly turn their heads in fear to investigate the sound.
The thing is, my friends, in a sense, we are spoiled. We are used to driving our cars and trucks or walking to church and being able to openly worship God without any thought of danger. However, for many of our brothers and sisters, maybe even a majority of our brothers and sisters outside of this country, the threat of torture and death for worshipping Christ is real each and every week. They gather with others for hours worshipping and praising God understanding that at any moment their government or others might break into their service and kill every one of them…or arrest them, torture them and/or sentence them to death. Yet they gather for worship regardless of the danger. The same was true for many of our brothers and sisters in the early church under the rule of the Roman Empire when Nero, Domitian, and others were in charge. Worshipping Christ ran the risk of being nailed to a cross, being burned as a streetlight, or being food for lions. Yet those early Christians kept on worshipping… otherwise we would not be worshipping tonight. So not coming to worship…well, that’s not a faithful option. Christ calls us together…and if we stop, “as is the habit of some,”[i] then we ignore the Word of God, and evil wins.
I’ve encountered other fearful responses as well. I’ve read stories and heard of brothers and sisters deciding that they needed to post armed guards or patrols outside of their churches during worship or insure that members who have carry permits come packing. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not making this a sermon about gun control. We live in a nation where it is the constitutional right for a person who chooses to, to have a gun. Those who enjoy deer, duck, rabbit, or wild turkey, especially this time of year, need them on hand. Yet the thought of armed worship, something about that doesn’t sit right as we worship the One who told Peter to put away his sword…something about it doesn’t feel invitational to those who are not already part of the congregation.
I’m not suggesting we stick our head in the sand and can pretend like nothing happened. Something did happen. 26 of our brothers and sisters were killed…another 20 were wounded…and another lost soul that Christ died for did it. There are simple, practical safety issues that we and other churches can take to minimize surprises, though there is no 100% plan, even the armed guard or weaponized congregation plan, that is a guarantee that nothing like that could ever happen here.
However, there is a sure fire preparation that every one of us need to make. It is the only definite guaranteed preparation. The biggest part of this preparation is confessional. It is confessing that we are really not afraid of a gunman…we’re really not afraid of a terrorist. What we are really afraid of, is dying. We don’t want to die. We don’t want those we love to die. Why? Because we’re not ready…we’re afraid they’re not ready. Am I suggesting that we should all want to die or want our loved ones to die? By no means…God didn’t give us our lives in order that we might wish them away. They are a precious gift to be cherished and to be used…to be lived…to be lived in faith, not in fear.
So how are we to view them, then? We are to find ourselves having the same struggle that Paul himself had as he wrote the church in Philippi:
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.[ii]
What is Paul saying? Paul is openly declaring that he is good either way. Living or dying, to him both are a blessing…living is Christ, dying is gain. Paul says, “if I get to live, then I get to serve Christ each and every day, there is no more blessed way of living that to live for Christ. Dying, on the other hand, if I die, I get to find myself resting in the very arms of my Savior, and it can’t get any better than that…Living for Jesus or resting with Jesus.” Paul says, “I’d rather be resting with Jesus, but I know that there is work for me to continue to do here because others are not ready…others are not at the point of being ready to rest with Jesus…so I am glad to remain.”
Our best preparation for an event like Texas is getting to the point that Paul found himself…realizing that he is good either way. It is asking God to strengthen us, to prepare us, in the same way that we pray within our service of death and resurrection…perhaps praying it so many times over the last twenty-two years is what has brought me to the point of being like Paul. In the service, contained within one of the prayers, is this petition:
“Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.”[iii]
How do we get there? How do we get to the point of being ready? It is simply trusting Jesus…it is getting what Mary and Martha had such a hard time understanding outside the tomb of their loved one, Lazarus. It is hearing the Word of God and acting on it by trusting Jesus when He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”[iv] Jesus asks, “Do you believe this?”
If we do, if we truly do, then no matter what happens, here or anywhere, we are ready!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.