The Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost October 19, 2008

INI

Better Than a Birthday!

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Scripture Readings

Deuteronomy 10:12-22
Luke 18:18-27

Hymns

342, 323, 766 [TLH alt. 448], 598

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing...At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. Also I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen!

In Christ Jesus, our Savior, Protector, and Guide through this temporary life, dear fellow Christians:

Chances are, today is much like dozens of other days you have experienced in life. Often one day is virtually indistinguishable from the one before or after. But then there is that handful of days which are so remarkable that we remember them for a lifetime. For example, there is a day eagerly anticipated for months. The days are marked off on the calendar. Doctors’ appointments are scheduled. The nursery is painted and decorated. A cradle or crib is set up. Gifts of toys, blankets, and clothes are set aside. When the day finally comes, everything else is forgotten in a rushed trip to the hospital. A few hours later, family and friends welcome a new baby. It’s exciting to see a child for the first time and to imagine what the future holds in store for him. His life stretches out filled with potential and possibilities. There are not many days more memorable than someone’s birthday. Each year the anniversary is celebrated with gifts and cake.

What could be better than a birthday? What about Christmas Day or a graduation or wedding? As far as I know, there is only one day which Scripture speaks of as better than a birthday. In Ecclesiastes 7:1 we read this cryptic proverb: “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth(NIV).

It’s hard to comprehend how that can be, isn’t it? The two days seem to be on extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. We connect birthdays with joy, life, and hope, while death brings fear. The death of loved ones opens deep, gaping wounds of raw grief in the heart. When we think of our own death, there is the natural fear of leaving people we know and the only home we have ever experienced. It is not surprising then that people avoid talking or even thinking about death until they absolutely have to. It is just too depressing and frightening. A death better than a birthday? Who would ever believe that? The Apostle Paul did and in our text he explains why.

I.

Paul knew his death was imminent. His 30 years of preaching Christ had come to a close in a Roman prison, and everything pointed to his execution. He compared his life to the pouring out of a cup of wine at the base of an altar at the conclusion of an animal sacrifice. His death would be a final thank-offering to the Lord. He saw himself like a soldier taking up his tent or a sailor untying the mooring lines of a boat before a voyage.

He did not take death lightly. He knew what it is all about. “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned(Romans 5:12 NIV). “The wages of sin is death(Romans 6:23). It is the humbling proof that in spite of all the progress and achievements people point to, death still comes to all. The life celebrated at a birthday will one day come to an end.

Still, Paul’s words to Timothy are upbeat and confident. He doesn’t sound like a man about to lose everything of value, including his life. Rather, he was like an athlete about to triumphantly cross the finish line of a marathon with arms held high. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith![v.7] Paul was not boasting. He looked back with awe at how the Holy Spirit had preserved him in the faith so that he had not lost his trust in Jesus for forgiveness and life. He had held onto the truth that he was justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ apart from any of his own deeds.

Paul trusted in Christ for his own salvation, and he found purpose to life in preaching it to others. He gave his all to running the course the Lord laid out for him. Much of it was uphill. He wrote: “Five times I received from the Jews the 40 lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked…I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches(2 Corinthians 11:24ff. NIV). The Lord had seen him through all of these things and now the finish line was in sight. His death day was better than his birthday, for now the dangers and difficulties would be over.

On our death day it won’t matter what our net worth is, how large our home, or how many attend our funeral. What will make our death day better than a birthday is finishing the race strong in faith. We can’t bring it about. We trust the Lord to accomplish it. But recall how He does it. The Spirit chooses to work through the Means of Grace—the Gospel of Christ in Word and sacraments. So fortify yourself with that Word. Remember how Jesus ran the race ahead of us and fought the good fight for us all with His holy life and His suffering and death on the cross.

Make every moment of life count by dedicating yourself to the Lord above all. That is a life well-lived. Paul urges: “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God...Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind(Romans 12:1-2). When you trip and stumble into sin along the way, go to the Lord in repentance. Count on Him to put you back on your feet. Give your all to the race. Push yourself in serving the Lord. Hold onto the faith. Then one day you too will cross the finish line in victory and find that your death day is better than your birthday.

II.

Unlike a birthday celebration, death can be a very lonely time. It was for Paul. At his preliminary hearing when opportunity was given for individuals to step forward as character witnesses to testify to his innocence and show their support, no one was there. “All forsook me,” Paul said. [v.16] Yet even then he had reason for joy. “The Lord stood with me and strengthened me.[v.17] The One who had bled and died for Paul’s sins was beside him continually to give him all the support he needed. The Lord protected him from danger so that he could finish his work of preaching to the Gentiles. Afterwards, when execution came for Paul, Jesus was still there to reassure him.

Death can be a lonely time. It may come slowly with weeks or months in a hospital bed or nursing home. Meanwhile, life goes on for others. Family members have jobs and obligations to attend to. Friends may hesitate to visit not knowing what to say. Satan will try to take full advantage of those hours to attack with all kinds of fears and doubts: “God has deserted you. He is punishing you for past sins. He is being unfair to let you suffer.” The Devil would like to make death worse than our worst nightmare.

But then remember, Jesus doesn’t leave us to face death alone. He will be there to hold your hand. Even when family members and the pastor are not present, Jesus will be there to deliver you from every evil work. You can trust Him for strength to fight off the Devil’s temptations. His angels will make sure nothing happens apart from His saving will. It is not so frightening when we know that Jesus has been through death already, and He will lead us safely through too. We can say with David:“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me(Psalm 23:4).

Always be ready to bring that comfort to others. Spend time with the dying. Read Scripture to them. Pray with them. Be honest in talking about death, but especially point them to the Lord’s loving promises. Read, study, and memorize those promises yourself—words such as those Jesus spoke to Martha:“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die(John 11:25 NIV). Think of Job’s confident words: “I know that my Redeemer lives!…with my own eyes I shall see Him(Job 19:25f NIV).

When you pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil,” trust that God will do it. He will see you through every difficulty. He will preserve your life for as many days as He has already determined, and then He will lead you safely through death to Himself. The psalmist puts it so well. In addressing God he says, “I am always with You; You hold me by my right hand. You guide me with Your counsel, and afterward You will take me into glory…My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever(Psalm 73:24, 26 NIV).

III.

Execution by beheading was the verdict eventually imposed upon Paul. As far as the Roman government and Paul’s enemies were concerned, that was the end of the matter. Paul, however, saw his death from a far different perspective. It was not the end and final blow to his life and goals at all. This was the culmination of everything he had been looking forward to ever since Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus. He was anticipating that great day when Jesus would return and bestow on him the crown of righteousness.

Are you looking forward to Judgment Day? For the unbeliever everything connected with it is shrouded in dark and threatening uncertainty. He doesn’t want to admit that it is going to happen, and yet deep down he knows he will have to give an account to God. But for Paul, for us, and for every other child of God there is nothing to be worried about. There will be no panic or crisis, for the crisis was taken care of for us long ago at the cross. We already know the verdict. Jesus will place on each of our heads the golden crown which proclaims that we are perfectly righteous and holy. We can be sure of it, because it has nothing to do with anything we have accomplished. Jesus has done it all. “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God(2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). We can be sure of hearing Jesus say, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father. Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world(Matthew 25:34 NIV). The best is yet to come, for in the kingdom of glory there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, only unending joy. “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us(Romans 8:18 NIV).

Did you choose the day of your birth? Did you worry about whether you would be born in 1928 or 1998? Of course not. The Lord decided all of that long before we were ever conceived. So, too, the day of our death is in the Lord’s capable hands. Whether it is sooner or later, whether it comes suddenly by means of a car accident, heart attack, or stroke; or whether it comes gradually through the general wear and tear of time on our bodies, we do not have to dread it. Even though death is the wages of sin, Jesus has taken away its sting and power. He defeated it for us, and has given us the victory. He transforms death into the blessed finish of a long, hard race. He promises to be right there with us all the way, and to give us the crown He won for us all. He has wonderfully done the impossible, and made our death day better than a birthday! “To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen![v.18]

And thus I live in God contented
And die without a thought of fear;
My soul has to God’s plans consented,
For through His Son my faith is clear.
My God, for Jesus’ sake I pray
Thy peace may bless my dying day.

[TLH 598:11]

—Pastor Michael M. Eichstadt


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