Life And Death

Today is the beginning of Advent. Advent is the time when we need to remember not only Jesus' first coming to Bethlehem as a baby. We also need to remember his second coming at the end of history when "he will come again to judge the living and the dead." And in Advent we are to remember the four last things; death, judgment, heaven and hell. Are you concerned with that final judgement day? The bible is so clear:

man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment (Heb 9.27).

The ultimate statistic is that one out of one dies. In the year 2097 we can assume that none of us will be here (on this earth, as it now is). Are you ready for the end, or your end, when that happens? Many people try to avoid thinking about death and judgment. I wonder how many of those holiday makers in Luxor, in Egypt, thought about death before they went away. But the good news of Advent is that you do not have to fear death. Jesus came that first Christmas, and ...

has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim 1.10).

Heb 2:14 says that he came to ...

share in [our] humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil.

Jesus is the Lord of life and death. That is our theme for this morning. It is right at the heart of the Christian good news. Jesus said:

"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies" (John 11.25).

That is the answer to the problem of death and to facing the reality of judgment. Some people are almost neurotic day and night thinking about death - that they might have a sudden collapse or be in a terrible car crash like Princess Diana, or nearer home, like John Gray who the week before last was in Hungary on a humanitarian trip and saw two colleagues killed outright. He miraculously was unscathed. Yes, those are dreadful realities. And you need to be ready for death every day - but not by being neurotic. You will die when God wants you to - no sooner and no later. Christians are not to be morbid. They are to rejoice in the Lord. They are to enjoy life to the full. But you can only do that if you believe in Jesus Christ and so are ready for death, whenever that happens. Let me repeat those words of Jesus:

"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies" (John 11.25).

Now that is the context for our passage this morning, Matthew 9.18-34 - belief in Jesus. And my headings are, first, THE NEEDS; secondly, THE LORD OF LIFE AND DEATH; and thirdly, THE RESPONSES. First, THE NEEDS And the question is this: who can believe in Jesus Christ? The answer is simple: anyone and everyone. People of every kind can and do have faith in Christ. I was at Oxford the week before last in the University Church. And the question was put to me, in the light of all the current debates in the Church of England, "is the gospel good news for the homosexual?" The answer, of course, is "yes". The gospel is good news for all. True, there must be repentance. God's grace is not cheap. So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6.9-11:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders {10} nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. {11} And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Not only the homosexual offender but the adulterer, people involved in other forms of sexual immorality, the thief, the greedy, the alcoholic, and those involved in fraud - all can be forgiven. Such people were in the church in Corinth. But they were not in the church and celebrating their homosexuality, their adultery, their thefts, their alcoholism, or their fraud. No! They were washed, they were sanctified, they were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. They turned to Christ and away from their sin. They sought forgiveness of their sin, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Who needs to do that this morning? Perhaps you have come in this morning and you are like some of those people in Corinth. And you want forgiveness and new life. That is what Christ offers. He came that first Advent to die on the cross, to bear your guilt in your place, so that you can be free. Why not turn to him this morning? And this passage, Matthew 9.18-34, shows that there were all sorts of people, with all sorts of needs who turned to Jesus. The good news of the gospel is good news for all. Verse 18 says:

a ruler came and knelt before him.

Here was someone at the top of the tree - an establishment figure. And this ruler said to Jesus:

"my daughter has just died."

If the ruler was middle-aged, his daughter was a young person. The gospel is good news for all ages. Verse 20 says:

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak.

Here was "a" woman - just "any" woman. She has no name. She was not at the top of the tree. She was a humble, ordinary sort of person. Verse 27 says:

two blind men followed him, calling out, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!"

Verse 32 says:

a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus.

Do you think your situation is too difficult to bring to Jesus? Do you think you are too old, or not old enough, or too well-known or too little known for Jesus Christ? Jesus meets every kind of need, of every kind of person. Whoever you are, whatever background you have, Christ alone can meet your needs for this life and for all eternity. That is the message of Advent. He came to give you forgiveness and new life now, and hope for all eternity. That brings us to our second heading this morning for ... ... secondly, Jesus Christ is THE LORD OF LIFE AND DEATH Look at verses 23-25:

When Jesus entered the ruler's house and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd, {24} he said, "Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep." But they laughed at him. {25} After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up.

Do you believe that? It is very hard not to. This incident has been recorded in all three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). And Mark's Gospel was written as near to the actual events as the time I have been here in Jesmond. I can remember very clearly events from the year before I came. There is no way this tradition of the raising of the girl could have survived in the Christian community if it had been made up. Too many of the disciples and other believers from that time would have been around and would have denied it. No, this is awesome. The girl was really dead. The ruler had said, "my daughter has just died." But death to Jesus is like sleep to us. In Christ's presence death has to flee. "When Jesus confronts death," says Don Carson, "death is the loser." Jesus restores life where there is death. Death is dreadful. There is a finality about a dead body. There is decay. There is no breath. There is no warmth. All is hopeless. You've seen those pictures of bodies in the concentration camp at Belsen. You've seen bodies in Rwanda. You've seen some of your own loved ones dead. So Jesus goes into a situation of death - into the room of a dead girl. When there is someone young it seems even more tragic and more hopeless. And what does he do? He brings back life. There is now breath and warmth and hope. Nor is this paralleled with some of those freak cases you read about, where someone is in a mortuary and starts to grunt and revive. There you have no real death. No! This is real death and the giving back of real life. Who can do that? Only the Lord of life and death; the one who created life in the first place; and the one who says (Matthew 28.18) "all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me." Your problems may be hard. Your situation may be difficult. But as you believe in Jesus who has all authority on heaven and earth, you have nothing to fear. True, he doesn't necessarily solve your problems in the way you want and when you want. But he will do what is best. There is no one formula for his working. In this passage problems were solved in so many different ways. The ruler had to wait. His solution came over a period of time. Verse 19 tells us that Jesus first had to make a journey:

Jesus got up and went with him.

Then he had to eject the mourners. The raising of his daughter did not immediately follow the ruler's request. By contrast the woman with the bleeding was instantly cured. Verse 22:

the woman was healed from that moment.

And that woman was healed without a touch from Jesus. But the blind men were touched. Verse 29:

then he touched their eyes.

And the man who was mute was exorcised. Jesus worked in all kinds of ways. He still does. You cannot dictate to God when or how to answer your prayers. But if you trust him he will answer them, in his time, in his way, for your good and for his glory. Finally, THE RESPONSES What were the responses to Jesus that you have got here in these verses? Did everyone believe in him? No! There are five responses altogether. And these five are still the responses people have to Jesus in 1997. First, there is vicious opposition. Verse 34:

the Pharisees said, "It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons."

Jesus Christ - the bringer of good news - was being opposed viciously by people within the religious community. You still find opposition to the gospel from within the religious community. Secondly, there is mockery. Verse 24 tells us the mourners "laughed" at Jesus. People still mock Jesus and his followers. On Friday night I watched Hetty Wainthropp Investigates on TV. The culprit was a nasty character called Lenny. His family was portrayed as "Christian". That meant a caricature of an inadequate father and mother who were depressive and couldn't come to the door because they were praying! That was disgraceful. The script writers would never have dared made it a Muslim family. At the time of Wesley and Whitfield in the 18th century, the then Bishop of Durham said Christianity was "a principal subject of mirth and ridicule." Things were no different in the mythical "good old days". So don't be surprised when you are mocked for being a Christian today. Thirdly, there was amazement. Look at verse 33b:

The crowd was amazed and said, "Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel."

Many people are amazed at the Christian faith. They are amazed at its culture, its educational achievements and its medical achievements. They are amazed when someone like Mother Theresa does good work among the destitute in India. But as Paul told the Jews at Psidian Antioch, you can "wonder and perish" (Acts 13.41). You can witness wonderful things and even miracles and still not believe in Jesus Christ. Amazement is not faith. Fourthly, however, there was faith - true faith. You say, "what is faith? Is it all of a piece?" No! The faith that matters is faith in Christ alone. But how that works out is different from person to person. There was that woman who (verse 21) ...

... said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed."

This is weak faith. It is superstitious faith. Her theology was probably non-existent; but she saw that Jesus was a Saviour and could meet her needs. Weak faith will not give you great assurance of heaven; but so long as it is faith in Jesus, it will join you to him, and you will receive his saving power, forgiveness and new life by his Spirit. The key is not great faith in the Saviour, but faith in a great Saviour. Then there were the two blind men. These were unlikely characters to have faith in Christ. They couldn't see Jesus miracles. Like us, they could only hear what others told them. And being blind they were no doubt poor. At the second Advent, when Jesus comes again and there is that final judgment, there will undoubtedly be unlikely characters who are acquitted and accepted. There will be poor simple people like the woman and the blind men who are forgiven. But rich, tertiary educated Pharisees and religious leaders will be found wanting. Jesus says later in Matthew's Gospel, 20.16:

"the last will be first, and the first will be last."

So, opposition, mockery, amazement, and then true faith. The fifth response is misguided enthusiasm. Jesus said to the blind men when they were healed, verse 30:

"See that no one knows about this." {31} But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region.

Jesus knew how people can so misunderstand the miraculous. They did in his day. They do today. The miracles are pointers - not ends in themselves. The gospel is not just about solving the problems of this life. Oh! It does do that. It helps us to live as God intended. But this life is short. The supreme messianic work of Jesus was not performing miracles for this life. It was giving life for all eternity, through the cross of Calvary where sin is forgiven, and through the Holy Spirit who brings new birth. In John's Gospel, after Jesus healed a man at the pool of Bethesda, in chapter 5, we read he said this, verses 20 and 21:

[The Father] will show him [the Son] even greater things than these [miracles]. {21} For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.

And the life that is given is eternal life. This is a "greater thing" than the miracle at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus goes on (John 5. 24):

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.

Have you crossed over from death to life? That is the vital question to be answered at Advent. I must conclude. This passage from Matthew teaches that Jesus meets the needs of everyone - rich or poor, young or old, the important or the humble. And he is the Lord of life and death. So your problems can never be too great for him. But there is no automatic right response to Jesus. There can be vicious opposition; mockery; and an amazement that can mean nothing. The true and wise response is faith in Jesus Christ. It may be very weak, and ill informed faith. But remember you need not so much great faith in the Saviour as faith in a great Saviour. Sadly, sometimes believers can be over-enthusiastic. Praise God for miracles, but don't be side-tracked by them. Rather, keep in mind the awesome realities of the four last things - death, judgment, heaven and hell. And, then, remember that Jesus alone is the conqueror of death; the judge who forgives; the one on the throne of heaven; and the rescuer from hell.

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