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An Appointment We Cannot Miss




The Bible says we have an appointment we cannot miss – it’s an appointment with death.


John Donne (1572 - 1631) was an English writer, poet, and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In one of his essays he wrote, “I am involved in mankind; and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This now famous line suggests that we will all die: the bell will toll for each one of us. In years gone by, it was the custom to ring a church’s bell at a funeral indicating someone’s death. But Donne wanted us to know that the phrase is a memento mori, a reminder that death's bell will toll for all of us one day.


Unfortunately, death is unavoidable, unless you are living as a Christian at the time of Christ’s return (see 1Thess.4:16-17). In that case, you will be changed instantaneously and be ushered into heaven. Otherwise, Hebrews 9:27 reads, “Each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment.” If that sounds somber and serious, it is meant to be. Death will come to all of us whether we are Christians or not.


In John Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, we find one of the best depictions of death. As Christian is coming to the end of his journey and approaching the Celestial City, he and Hopeful come to a river symbolizing death. At this point they are informed, “You must pass through this River or else you cannot arrive at the gate of the Celestial City.” As they enter the waters, Christian panics, and yells, “[the] billows go over my head, all his waves go over me. . . the sorrows of death have totally compassed me, so that I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.”


John Bunyan depicted this scenario because he knew how difficult it was for people to think about death. Carl Trueman has said, “We are born to die. Death is inevitable, which is why each of us finds it so terrifying.”[1] It’s not surprising then that death is referred to as the “last enemy to be destroyed”. (See: 1 Cor. 15:26).


The great literary genius, C.S. Lewis, was no stranger to the horrors of death. He witnessed death all around him as a soldier in WWI. He was in England during the terrible days of the German Blitz during WWII. And on a personal level, Lewis observed the deaths of people he loved – his mother at age 10, and his wife of four years, Joy Davidson.


Lewis believed that most of us live our lives oblivious to the reality of death. After serving in WWI, Lewis proposed in his book, The Weight of Glory, that war, in all its horrors, can be a great blessing to humanity because it makes death a reality that we all must confront. As outrageous as Lewis’ observation might seem, he thought that it was only during the horrors of war that we can clearly see what type of universe we live in and be forced to reckon with our mortality.


Lewis might be right; and for those living through the horrors of the Ukrainian war at this moment, they would no doubt agree with him. But I think there are a good many other things that can make us come to terms with our mortality and death, such as a terminal illness, the loss of a loved one, or just the sheer brevity of life in general. It’s amazing how fast the years go by. Such a thought caused James the Apostle to declare, “Your life is like the morning fog — it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.” (James 4:14 NLT)


The problem with so many people today is that they live their lives in a disillusioned state. They know better, but still act and live as though earth is their permanent home. They believe that satisfaction for the soul is only found in worldly happiness.


While he was an atheist, C.S. Lewis saw death as an inescapable end. Therefore, life was a gloomy and pessimistic existence for him. The thought of death made life something to be dreaded and feared. When he became a Christian, his entire worldview changed, including his understanding of death. The reality of Christ’s resurrection changed everything for Lewis. It caused him to enjoy growing old, as he wrote to a friend, “Yes, autumn is the best of the seasons; and I am not sure that old age isn’t the best part of life.”[2]


If you have ever read The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, then you will realize that Lewis had a longing for heaven. In his final book, The Last Battle, he describes heaven as only the beginning of the real story: “All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover of the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever and in which every chapter is better than the one before.”[3]


Most of us might find it easy to talk about death and heaven when it remains a distant reality. But as death draws near, our faith is truly tested. In the case of Lewis, his faith never wavered. Several years before his death, he wrote in a letter to a Christian friend who was dying, these words of comfort:


Can you not see death as a friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? … Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? … There are better things ahead than any we leave behind … Don’t you think our Lord says to you, ‘Peace child, peace. Relax. Let go. Underneath are the everlasting arms…[4]


Lewis, himself, suffered from very poor health for the last two years of his life. He knew that his own death was imminent, and yet he greeted it with cheerfulness and peace. At one point he said:


If we really believe what we say we believe – if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a "wandering to find home", why should we not look forward to the arrival. There are, aren't there, only three things we can do about death: to desire it, to fear it, or to ignore it. The third alternative, which is the one the modern world calls "healthy" is surely the most uneasy and precarious of all.[5]


Two weeks before he died, Lewis had lunch with Richard Ladborough a friend and faculty colleague. Ladborough realized that this would probably be the last time they would be together. He made this observation: “I somehow felt it was the last time we should meet and when he escorted me, with his usual courtesy, to the door, I think he felt so too. Never was a man better prepared.”[6]


This is a picture of a man who was truly liberated from the fear of death. Lewis had clearly entrusted his eternal wellbeing to a living Savior, the One who “abolished death and brought immortality to all who would trust him.


But long before Lewis faced death, the Apostle Paul had to reckon with his own impending death as well. Like Lewis, Paul faced life and death with a strong faith. Listen to what he says in Philippians 1:22, “For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ.”


Paul wanted his life to bring honor to Christ whether alive or dead. If he remained alive, he wanted to do more fruitful work for Christ. For Paul, there would be no coasting his way into heaven. No resting on the laurels of his miraculous conversion or his many achievements. Paul was saying these things from a dirty Roman prison. He wasn’t having any regrets about his lot in life or his decision to follow Christ. He wanted to do even more fruitful work for Jesus if he got out of prison.


But if Paul didn’t make it out of prison, he was okay with that. He could clearly say, “dying is even better”. How could he say this? He had lived for Jesus since his conversion, and he knew that as his life drew near to its end, he was heaven bound.

Unlike Paul, John Bunyan had a peaceful death, though he had earlier expected, like his gospel mentor, Martin Luther, a violent departure as a condemned prisoner. His last words clearly indicated the type of faith he had:


Weep not for me, but for yourselves. I go to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will, no doubt, through the mediation of his blessed Son, receive me, though a sinner; where I hope we ere long shall meet, to sing the new song, and remain everlastingly happy, world without end. Amen.[7]


John Bunyan’s character, Christian, struggled with death. But how wonderful it was that he had his friend, named Hopeful. Toward the end of Christian's journey to the Celestial City, he and Hopeful come to a river symbolizing death. As I mentioned earlier, they are informed, “You must pass through this River or else you cannot arrive at the gate of the city.” As they enter the waters, Christian is immediately overcome with panic but Hopeful exhorts him, “Be of good cheer, my brother, for I feel the bottom [of the river] and it is firm.” Hopeful attempted to keep Christian’s head above the water by encouraging him with Scripture. He reminded him that the gate of the Celestial City was nearby. “Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ makes you whole.”


Friends, death is not to be feared for those of us who love the Lord. Jesus has conquered death for each of us. He has given us a friend and helper in the person of the Holy Spirit; and like Hopeful was to Christian, the Holy Spirit is to us – escorting and encouraging us safely to the other side.


If you don’t have that hope today and the thought of hearing the bell toll for you is terribly unsettling, then let me point out to you how you can have a great assurance and hope when death comes for you. If you put your faith in Jesus Christ, he will forgive you of your sins and make you right in God’s sight. Then you will find this hope I refer to. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 5:1-5:


Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

I can't wait, how about you?

 

[1] Carl Trueman, Deaths Delayed. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/deaths-delayed [2] AZ Quotes, https://www.azquotes.com/quote/532764 [3] Clive Staples Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle (Collier Books, 1956), 173. [4] Devin Brown, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis, (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2013), 117. [5] C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady [6] Terry Glasby, The Life and Thought of C. S. Lewis, (Cumberland House, Nashville 1996), 68. [7] John Bunyan, Works, I, p. lxxiii.

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