Life and Death

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This morning in our new series of sermons on Today's Concerns and the Bible our subject is LIFE AND DEATH.

Today there is the concern about life becoming a commodity. This past week we have been told that for £1,500 in Fairfax, Virginia, you can buy the sex of your child.

And there is the concern about the results of developments in reproductive technologies. Take the case of Mary Sue and Junior Lewis Davis. They desperately wanted a child. In December 1988 after seven previous attempts at in vitro fertilization (IVF) nine embryos were created. Two were then inserted into Mary's womb, while the remaining seven were frozen in liquid nitrogen. But once again the two embryos failed to implant. Two months later in February 1989, the Davises separated, and the husband, Lewis, filed for divorce. Mary, however, wanted to use the frozen embryos in another attempt to get pregnant. Her estranged husband wanted none of it. He said at the divorce trial that he would feel "raped of his reproductive rights" if the embryos were "inserted in Mary or any other donor". Mary violently disagreed: "It's not just his child, it's my child too. They've already been conceived. I feel it is my right to have my child." The judge said the best interests of the children must be paramount. And the best interests of the embryos would be served by their developing to maturity in Mary's body. But Lewis appealed and the decision was reversed, by which time Mary had remarried and no longer wanted the embryos. She suggested they be donated to another infertile couple. That, indeed, is the world we are living in.

And there are concerns not only about life, but also about death. There are concerns about the abortion industry. There are 200,000 conceived babies aborted annually in this country alone. John Powell's book, Abortion: The Silent Holocaust makes the point by having a chart of "war casualties" on which each cross represents 50,000 American combatants killed. The Korean and Vietnam wars had only one cross each. World War I had two and a half and World War II had eleven. But what he calls the "War on the Unborn" had 240 crosses, representing the 12 million legal American abortions up to the beginning of 1981. Those figures have now hugely increased. As John Stott, who was preaching here a week or two ago, says:

Any society which can tolerate these things, let alone legislate for them, has cease to be civilized.

And there are concerns about so called "euthanasia". Two years ago, after a trial that raised more questions than it answered, Dr David Moor, a local Newcastle doctor, was acquitted of murdering Mr Liddell. On Radio Newcastle he had said one thing; in court he said another. The case showed up the confusion that there is both among the public, in the courts, and with some doctors. Since then we have had Dr Shipman. No wonder matters of "Life and Death" are "Today's Concerns".

Well, to help with our thinking, I want us to turn to Luke 2 verses 25-35.

Now you may be saying, what can the early part of Luke's Gospel teach us about all these complicated issues. We live in such a different world. That is not true. The world of the 1st century was very similar. It was pluralistic - that is to say there were a number of different views about what is right and wrong. And attitudes to life and death were very liberal in the world of the Roman empire. Life was cheap; abortion and infanticide were common; and killing was easy. Take King Herod, the Roman appointed King of Judea at the time of Jesus' birth. This Herod - Herod the Great (not to be confused with the other Herods of the New Testament) - was a non-Jew, who was totally ruthless. He murdered his wife, his three sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle and many others, not to mention the babies of Bethlehem.

Contrast him and all that with this scene here in Luke's Gospel with Simeon, a faithful believer - a "righteous and devout" man (v 25).

Well, Jesus is being dedicated in the temple in Jerusalem as a first born son. And Simeon takes the baby Jesus "in his arms and praised God, saying (verses 29-30) ...

... 'Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.'"

And for the rest of our time this morning I simply want to take as headings some of Simeon's words: first, SOVEREIGN LORD; secondly, DISMISS YOUR SERVANT IN PEACE; and, thirdly, THIS CHILD IS DESTINED.


First, "SOVEREIGN LORD" (v 29)

These verses show you what Simeon assumed and believed. First, he believed that God is our master and creator - "sovereign" literally is "master". And we are his "servants". Secondly, he believed the world is in a mess; but our Sovereign Lord has "prepared" the baby in his arms for its "salvation" (v 30). Thirdly, there was "darkness" and "ignorance" in the Greco-Roman world - the world of the "Gentiles"; so the baby was "a light for revelation to the Gentiles". But in the world of the Jews the problem was an incomplete understanding of the reality of God ; so the baby was also "for glory to your people Israel" (v 32). Fourthly, what God had and was revealing was of universal significance. It was not just relative to some people and for some times. No! It is to be seen by "all people" (v31). Fifthly, not everyone will accept Christ - who he is, what he does and what he says. Verse 34, he will "cause the falling" of some and will "be a sign that will be spoken against". There will be conflict. Many will not like the way of Christ. And, sixthly, attitudes to Christ will reveal the true nature of men and women. Verse 35: "the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed."

Now measure those assumptions and beliefs against the assumptions and beliefs of many people today. You will see a great contradiction. The fundamental philosophy now is that God is irrelevant, pure chance has taken his place; sovereignty now is that of science; and decisions as to right and wrong rest entirely with personal choice.

Here is Jacques Monod, the biologist: "Chance alone is at the source of all creation in the biosphere."

Here is Gareth Jones. a professor of anatomy and ethics: "Science [now] aims not merely to describe the world, but to control it."

Here is the lawyer and philosopher Ronald Dworkin: "at the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

And the result? One result is that Peter Singer, the Professor of bioethics at Princeton, in his recent book Rethinking Life and Death, proclaims the end of the Christian view of the sanctity of human life:

"After ruling our thought and our decisions about life and death for two thousand years, the traditional Western ethic of the sanctity of human life has collapsed."

Not surprisingly he is advocating infanticide and other forms of killing. He is also saying you should not discriminate on the basis of species. And people are believing this. Dr Jim Howe, the consultant neurologist in the Tony Bland case, the young man injured during the Hillsborough disaster and who died by being deprived of food and water after a Law Lords' ruling - Dr Jim Howe says that a new born baby probably does not have value as a person, and then he says this:

"One of the things that irritates me about people who believe in the sanctity of life is that they don't extend that sanctity of life to higher primates and dolphins and so on ... They think that we have a God-given sanctity of life. Well, I don't believe in God so I don't see any divine imprint."

There you have it. There is a spiritual war on - a war of beliefs. On the one side is modern Baalism - a modern version of the religion of the Canaanites. If one thing is clear from the Old Testament it is that that religion was anathema to God. It was totally evil. On the other side is the Sovereign Lord and the Good News of Jesus Christ. Let's move on.


Secondly, "DISMISS YOUR SERVANT IN PEACE" (v 29).

Here is true euthanasia. "Euthanasia" literally means a "good death". When you get to an age like Simeon, it is right to pray for God to give you a "good death". But today "euthanasia" means a human person intentionally killing, by act or omission, another person whose life is thought not to be worth living. It is intentional killing. You must distinguished that from the withdrawal of life-sustaining medical treatment that is regarded as hopeless or burdensome. And also you must distinguish it from giving treatment that provides symptom-relief but that may have the unintended side-effect of shortening life - the principle of double effect. Christians who want to remain true to the bible argue that neither of these is "intentional killing". They are radically different from what the euthanasia lobby is wanting. So what is this lobby wanting and why are they wanting it? They are wanting all the world to become like Holland.

On the 10 April this year, the Dutch Senate voted to allow voluntary euthanasia. They were enshrining in law what has been going on for 20 years - namely, one in 25 deaths being caused be the active intervention of doctors and a 1000 deaths per year resulting from doctors giving drugs to end life without the explicit request of the patient. And this is Holland. What a change over 60 years!

For in 1941 the German Reich Commissar ordered Dutch doctors to be involved in the Nazi programmes of euthanasia, eugenic experimentation and non-therapeutic sterilization. All the doctors refused. When the Commissar threatened to take away their licenses, they promptly handed in their licenses. They would only work for the welfare of their patients. The Commissar then decided to make an example of 100 doctors by sending them to concentration camps. All to no avail. The doctors quietly took care of the widows and orphans of their condemned colleagues. During the entire Occupation, we are told, not one of the heroic doctors of Holland co-operated with the Nazis in euthanasia. Now Dutch doctors are the world's leading euthanasists. Such is the slippery slope. Doctors, be warned!

And what is the effect on Dutch doctors? One doctor spoke on Channel 4 about her first case of euthanasia: "I was very nervous, shaking all over ... I was sort of shocked. It all happened so quickly. You have to act as a doctor but as a human being you ... are very shocked yourself." And Holland is where we are sending Milosevic for War Crimes!

So that is what they want. But why do people want euthanasia? Well, there is the fear of pain; the fear of indignity; the fear of dependence; and the social pressures that make people feel no longer wanted. But the science of palliative medicine can help deal with pain. And the Gospel and the ethics of Christ can help in facing those other problems. I have not time to expand. Can I recommend, therefore, for every doctor, medical student and nurse (and any others) the book by John Wyatt, Matters of Life and Death - today's healthcare dilemmas in the light of Christian faith. John Wyatt is the Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics and a Consultant Neonatal Paediatrician at University College London. This is a must read.

So back to Simeon and a Christian's "good death". Simeon could face death with peace because he could say, "my eyes have seen your salvation". Jesus Christ alone can deliver from the fear of death. By his death, the writer to the Hebrews says (2.14-15), he destroyed "him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." What a contrast with the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle who said, "Now death is the most terrible of all things; for it is the end."

Are you ready for death? The bible says "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Heb 9.27). The only way to die "in peace" with God is through receiving his salvation prepared in Christ - the forgiveness of sin through the cross and the power to live a new life by the Holy Spirit. That brings us to the third of Simeon's words I want us to look at.


Thirdly, "THIS CHILD IS DESTINED"

In verses 34-35 Simeon said:

"This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

Let me just remind you of the bible's view on children and human life. The bible sees all children as God given including the baby Jesus. Children are not commodities or properties. And the bible teaches that all human life is sacred. In Genesis 9.6 there is that fundamental primeval law:

"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man."

So life is sacred because man, unlike the animals, is made "in the image of God". And human life is sacred in the womb. Psalm 139 tells us, verses 13-14:

you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

There is a mystery about life in the womb. But what God creates in the womb is not a blob of tissue, nor an animal, but a human person. From conception we now know that a unique genetic code is created. The First International Conference on Abortion declared in 1967:

"We can find no point in time between the union of sperm and egg and the birth of an infant at which point we can say that this is not a human life."

Luke uses the same Greek word (brephos) for the unborn John (1.41) as he does for the new-born baby Jesus (2.12). The incarnation - God the Son coming in the flesh - began not with the nativity but the conception. So we say in the Apostles' Creed, "He [Jesus Christ] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." And Jesus reveals not only true God but true Man. So the embryo is not potentially human but human with potential. That is why, of course, we must not experiment with or destroy the human embryo.

While Greeks and Romans recommended both infanticide and abortion, the early Christian writers of the 2nd century vigorously opposed abortion and infanticide as violations of the two great commandments - love God and love your neighbour. And Christians have done so since and in doing so changed the culture of the Western World. The pagan world defined and still defines a person by what they can achieve - in terms of mental or physical abilities. The bible defines people by what they are - made in the image of God.

And this passage teaches us the value of people at the extremes of life - of the young and the old. Here the two leading players are a very old man and a very tiny baby. And that baby shows us that while we are physical we are more than physical. We have at the same time a spiritual nature. So when you have reduced a human being to his or her genetic identity, that is at most only half the story. We also have an imprint and a destiny given by God. Psalm 139.16 says: "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." To discover that, the microscope is irrelevant.


I must conclude.

And I want to conclude with those final words to Mary in verse 35:

And a sword will pierce your own soul too.

Joseph is not being addressed here. Being woman and being a mother is not always easy. In the UK it is estimated that one in four of all women between 18 and 40 has had an abortion, up to one couple in seven is unable to have children without medical help, and about one child in twenty-five has a significant disability or congenital malformation. The modern world thinks that any means is legitimate to remove suffering. But the bible says "No!" Sometimes it seems there is no way out. Mary had to learn that - "a sword would pierce her own soul." For the supreme example was Jesus. He had to go the way of the cross. There was no alternative. Peter said, "don't". Jesus said, "Get behind me, Satan."

And following Jesus Christ today will mean saying "No!" to what is wrong, however alluring. But Christ then says, "my grace is sufficient for you."

We all fail. And some no doubt this morning have failed. Yet if we confess our sin, there is forgiveness - for all sins. But then remember that God's way is best.

A final story - a doctor once asked another doctor:

"About the termination of a pregnancy, I want your opinion. The father was syphilitic, the mother tuberculous. Of four children born, the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, and the fourth also tuberculous. What would you have done?"

"I would have ended the pregnancy" (was the rely).

"Then you would have murdered Beethoven."

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