Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas Victories over Death

Christmas for many is a time of hope, joy, peace, and love in celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace.  It is a time when Christians affirm their faith by considering again the humble advent of Jesus Christ whose virgin birth and sinless life enabled Him to become the perfect sacrifice for sin by taking the sinners’ place on Calvary’s cross. 

Christmas is also a time when many of us seek personal enjoyment on a “holiday” (holy day) through festivities and traditions.  But, sometimes we inadvertently leave no room for the lowly Jesus.  Still others may celebrate heartily while deliberately dismissing both the message and the gift of Eternal Life through the babe who came to restore fellowship between mankind and God (John 3:16).

Many who have experienced the joy of Christmas and the gift of Life have also encountered some of the most disturbing and depressing experiences during in the Christmas season.  What could be more disturbing and saddening at Christmas than the death of a beloved friend, spouse, child, or parent?   This is certainly not the kind of Christmas we anticipate.   But nevertheless, death can rear its ugly head.  Instead of excitedly counting the days until Christmas, the clock stops and we are frozen in silent awe while questions flood our minds. Has this really happened to us?   Why did he or she have to die?   What should we do?  To whom can we turn?  Who will understand and help us?   Does God even see our plight?   Does He even care?

Perhaps some of these questions have occurred to our friends, Gary and Julie Olin, in recent days.  As a former teacher, and then, a software specialist at Cedarville University, Gary’s life has influenced many over the years including the lives of my wife, Abby, and I.  In his “retirement” Gary was training to become a nurse.  But Gary has also been battling cancer in the past couple of years.  Only God knows all the ways in which he has reacted emotionally and spiritually to this great trial, but his testimony toward us has been a great encouragement.  He has faced the up’s and down’s of chemotherapy, a period of remission, and then the return of the cancer this summer with optimism, courage, and a vibrant testimony of faith and hope in God.  Gary and Julie have also been a loving and godly example for their children and grandchildren.  As brother and sister in Christ, they have embodied the Holy Spirit’s calling to believers to not merely look out for your own personal interests but also the interests of others (Philippians 2: 4).
On December 2, Gary Olin (1947-2011) went to be with the Lord; and today, his body was laid to rest.  Our thoughts and prayers have now turned to Julie, to their son Nathan and his family; and to their daughter Erika and her family.  The death of Gary has bought separation from a husband, father, and grandfather; and the sting of death that will cloud their Christmas.  We pray that the God of all comfort will comfort each of them. 

Thankfully, God can be our comfort in death for the very reason that Christ came at Christmas.  It is  because of His coming, birth, and death on the cross that we can have “Christmas comfort.”  The Messiah came to confront and defeat sin and death, the great enemies of mankind since the first temptation and Fall in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).  In fact, sin and death surrounded the conception and birth of Jesus as if to defeat and destroy the Deliverer. Recall the disbelief that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit before she married Joseph.  Her assumed fornication would have led to her death and that of the unborn Jesus by stoning were it not for God’s protection through faithful Joseph.  In addition, Herod’s soldiers would have brought death to the infant Jesus soon after his birth were it not for the angel’s warning to Joseph who led his family to safety in Egypt.   The Gospel of Matthew records that Jesus, …remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON" (Matt. 2:15).
Although the first Christmas was clouded in darkness and death, the Apostle John writes in John 1, 

The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it (v. 5).  He [Jesus] came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.  But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name… (v. 11-12).

As children of God by faith in the resurrection victory of Christ over sin and death, we need not fear death or how and when we will die…for we walk by faith, not by sight--we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:7-8).
Therefore, when death rears its head, even in the Christmas season, we have reason to stand firm in our faith.  There is a time for being alone; time to pour out our grief to our Heavenly Father.  But there is also a time for being with family and friends as the Olin’s have done.  The gathering which we call a “viewing” and a subsequent memorial service allows us to face the reality of death and then to literally look into the faces of the grieving and their comforters with eyes of faith, faces of hope, and words of encouragement.  Thus, we do not forsake our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:25).

Perhaps it could be said that death is like a wind blowing against glowing embers remaining from a fire; it can extinguish the weak, but will kindle the strong.  The life that has been fed (“fueled”) by the disciplines of Scripture reading, study, memorization, and application with the aim of running the race with our eyes upon Jesus (Hebrews 12: 1-3) can be ready to face the sting of death.   Not that we sail through the trial untouched by the deep sadness…but we draw upon the deep assurance of God’s love through an ongoing, disciplined walk with Him.

We grieve when death takes our loved ones, but not as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  Indeed, we are looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus…(Titus 2:13).   As C.S. Lewis so eloquently writes,

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.                          From:  “The Weight of Glory”, p. 43 (Harper, San Francisco).
All of this because God sent His Son, born of a humble Jewish girl in a lowly stable in the shadow of death on that first Christmas.   Because of His supernatural conception, sinless life, and resurrection from the dead, believers can exclaim, 

Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory? 
O death, where is your sting?   (1 Corinthians 15:54b-55)

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