On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all people, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces…
Who wants to talk about death at Christmastime? Who indeed ... Isn’t this a, uh, happy time?
The words written above came from the Holy Spirit through the pen of Isaiah a very long time before Jesus was born at Bethlehem (about 700 B.C.), and while they don’t speak of our Savior’s birth in as many words, this short passage from Isaiah 25 certainly speaks of what the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, would accomplish. He would come to destroy death!
As I write these words, word has come of the death of two famous figures, one being better known than the other. Sen. John Glenn, an American hero of space travel and of public service died at age 95, and Greg Lake, an English entertainer, died at age 69. Now, Sen. Glenn passed away at a rich and full age, but Mr. Lake probably could have had more years of creative work ahead of him.
Truly astonishing is that we hear especially when entertainment figures die: “What is HAPPENING? Why do the great ones always die??” some souls lament. In particular, this is heard when several so-called “bigger-than-life” types pass from this life right around the same time period.
What is happening, dear friend, is this: People die. All people, sooner or later, die. As the poet William Grey put it, “paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
We can deny it, we can ignore it, we can shake our tiny fists at it, but none are exempt from death. We don’t really think or believe that public or entertainment figures are going to be excepted from dying, do we?
Perhaps we do. If we do, we’d be, um, dead wrong. Greg Lake was part of the generation that rather boldly glorified youth and condemned aging. “Never trust anyone over 30,” many of them stated. So what happens when one turns 31?
The problem, the scandal, the downright obscenity of death has been with this world for a very long time.
Where and when did it start? It was close to the beginning of time and the place was the Garden of Eden. Death came as punishment for disobedience to God, and it was meted out by him to our first parents, Adam and Eve.
The Lord God had warned them to avoid one thing only — eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — but they thought they knew better. And so death entered our world.
But the Lord who created Adam and Eve promised them that this wouldn’t be the final result of their rebellion.
First of all, in Genesis 3:15 he pledged that the head of Satan, the Father of lies, would be crushed in Eve’s descendant: Jesus. And in words given through Isaiah and so many other prophets, death would one day be conquered and eliminated. It’s important to understand the close connection between sin (rebellion against God) and death. Sin is the cause, and death is the result.
So as Joseph, step- or adoptive father of Jesus, wondered what to do about his soon-to-be-wife Mary, who was found to be pregnant (and not by him), an angel informed him that Mary “will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” That’s the same as what Isaiah wrote about in the verses above. If you save people from sin, you’ve saved them from death.
This is exactly what Jesus came to do. When he died on the cross, he exclaimed, “It is finished.” The work of ransoming us from Satan and his lies was complete. And that, fellow mortal, is what Christmas is all about.
That’s why Paul wrote the following words later on: “ ... Then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I Corinthians 15:54b-57
May the Lord of Life grant you a most blessed Advent, a very happy Christmas, and a right joyous Epiphany.
The Rev. BERNARD J. SCHEY is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Copperas Cove.