It was a normal Sunday at First Baptist Church in the small mid-western town of Maryville, Ill. The campus of the large church was beginning to hum with a full day of ministry activity. At the first of three worship services, just after 8am, Pastor Fred Winters had just begun his sermon. Ted Sedlacek, who was not a member of the church, walked down the aisle, pulled out a .45 caliber pistol and with three or four shots, murdered the pastor in front of his horrified congregation.
I’m a pastor, too, so that cut a little too close to home. I was shocked.
A little over a week later, movie and stage actress Natasha Richardson was taking a ski lesson on a beginner slope at a resort near Montreal, Canada. She took a spill, but observers said it didn’t appear to be a particularly hard fall. Natasha even laughed and joked with the medical personnel took her back to the hotel. Yet, within hours, she began experiencing severe headaches, lapsed into unconsciousness and within days, died of severe brain trauma.
She was an actress whose work I had appreciated for years. I was saddened.
Both the mid-western pastor and the globally known actress were in their mid-40’s. Both left stunned spouses and two children: 2 red-haired daughters for Winters and 2 sons for Richardson. Both were just going through the normal rhythm of an ordinary day.
And both ended up dead. That’s where it gets sobering.
Most days, I assume that I will still be around at the end of the day. Maybe that’s naïve. Maybe that’s self-protection. But it’s just the way it is.
I have no warrant for such an assumption. Neither do you. Death is coming to all of us—whether we think about it or not. It’s always a possibility that today could be my last day.
Now that can be a crushing reality. It’s a crushing reality if you think that this earthly life is all there is – and have no imagination for anything beyond the borders of human experience. It can also be a crushing reality if you’re just not ready to meet your Maker and answer for your life. The Bible is really clear on this: “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment….when God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Heb.9:27, Rom.2:16). The God who created us will evaluate our lives to see if they match what He had in mind. Every action, word, thought, attitude—nothing will escape His gaze.
Thinking about that moment can make a person get real quiet, real fast. I don’t know about you, but I know me. I know my actions, words, thoughts and attitudes don’t consistently match God’s. I don’t have a consistent record. I have been defective in living the life my Creator designed. And since even one mismatch between me and the Almighty can keep me out of heaven…. Like I said, it’s sobering.
Yet even in the face of the crushing reality of my certain death and judgment, there is bright hope. God is honestly holy with my failure, but also unquenchably merciful and kind. In His Son, Jesus, God provided a way for people like you and me to face our own death. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom.6:23) Jesus died to take the penalty for all the places where we did not measure up to the life our Creator designed. And He rose again that we might have life—and a hope beyond this earth. That’s the gospel—the good news that Jesus announced while standing in front of a tomb where He had just raised a dead guy to life: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
Jesus then asks the key question: Do you believe this? It is in believing this (more than with your head, but from the gut: trusting Jesus — His death for you and life) that the crushing reality of your own potential death can be lifted and replaced by the sweetness of hope.
And once that has been settled, the contemplation of your own death or of the end of earthly history can become something even more wonderful: a motivator to live a different sort of life. If I believe that my death could happen at any moment, unannounced by a doctor’s diagnosis or even by a report of stormy weather, and I know that my ultimate destiny is secure, how do I live? This is a pervasive theme of the New Testament:
+ Jesus said::”Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect “ (Luke 12:40)
+ “You are not in darkness for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of the day….encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1Thess. 5:4,5,11)
+ “…you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed…let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly…not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh.” (Rom. 13:11-14)
+ “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving each other earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another.” (1 Peter 4:7-10)
+ “Since everything will be destroyed, what sort of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives…being diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” (2 Peter 3:11,14)
We’re encouraged to wake up and be ready and live like this moment could be our last. How? I know the Tim McGraw song talks about hang-gliding and bull-riding and doing the things you always thought you wanted to do. That’s fine, and probably enriches life.
But hear a deeper call. If today’s your last day… encourage and build up somebody else. Be self-controlled and holy—don’t waste another second chasing momentary delights that don’t match God’s glory. Love others deeply—and express it to them. Be the open arms of Jesus that a needy person can run into. Serve others joyfully with the gifts God has given. Stop quarrelling and pursue peace through forgiveness. Be contented with Jesus…
And live, really live until your last breath comes and you step to the other side, where sober sadness gives way to certain joy –forever