This 85 year old couple, having been married almost 60 years, had died in a car accident. They had been in good health the last ten years mainly due to her interest in health food, and exercise. When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion which was decked out with a beautiful kitchen and master bath suite and Jacuzzi. As they “oohed and aahed” the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost. “It’s free,” Peter replied, “this is Heaven.” Next they went out back to survey the championship golf course that the home backed up to. They would have golfing privileges everyday and each week the course changed to a new one representing the great golf courses on earth. The old man asked, “What are the green fees?” Peter’s reply, “This is heaven, you play for free.” Next they went to the club house and saw the lavish buffet lunch with the cuisines of the world laid out. “How much to eat?” asked the old man. “Don’t you understand yet? This is heaven, it is free,” Peter replied with some exasperation. “Well, where are the low fat and low cholesterol tables?” the old man asked timidly. Peter lectured, “That’s the best part, you can eat as much as you like of whatever you like and you never get fat and you never get sick. This is Heaven.” With that the old man went into a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping on it, and shrieking wildly. Peter and his wife both tried to calm him down, asking him what was wrong. The old man looked at his wife and said, “This is all your fault. If it weren’t for your blasted bran muffins and uncountable laps around the mall, I could have been here ten years ago!”
So, how are all those New Year’s resolutions working out for you? Mine seems to be getting more difficult, because instead of losing weight, I’ve already gained an extra few pounds!
Of the top five resolutions, you will almost always find: eating healthier, quit smoking, and getting healthier. I suppose we all want to look better and live healthier, but I would also suggest to you that behind all of these efforts is one single fear. The fear of death. But I’ve got news for you, you can run a hundred miles a day, but you will not outrun death. It will catch you. (Thank you Fr. John for depressing us all this morning! Not my intent, though.)
In the opening chapters of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Brocklehurst comes to collect Jane from her aunt and uncle’s home and take her to a school for girls. Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, has described Jane to Mr. Brocklehurst as a child with a “tendency for deceit.”
Mr. Brocklehurst, a rather unpleasant man says to Jane, “No sight so sad as that of a naughty child, especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”
“They go to hell,” was Jane’s ready and orthodox answer.
“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”
“A pit full of fire.”
“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”
“What must you do to avoid it?”
Jane deliberated a moment: her answer, when it did come was objectionable: “I must keep in good health and not die.”
I must keep in good health and not die. Even though it is inevitable, like jane, we would like to avoid it, but what Benjamin Franklin said is true, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Therefore, somewhere in our minds, we accept the inevitability of death and then begin to console ourselves by saying things like, “Dying is just a part of living” and “Death is natural.” But what if I told you that these are just lies? What if I told you that you were not created to die?
Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” God did not create death. You were not created to die. It was through our sin that death came into the world. We say with Jane Eyre, “I must keep in good health and not die,” and then make our resolutions to lose weight, quit smoking and all the rest in an attempt to avoid death, because death is not natural. Dying is the most un-natural thing we will ever do, so we fight against it. We may accept it and be reconciled to the fact that it will happen, but every cell of our bodies will reject death’s claim over our lives. And fortunately for us, so does God. God has rejected death’s claim over you and through Christ has restored what was taken through sin.
Again, to the Romans, Paul wrote, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
That ancient serpent holds out his sinful fruit to each of us, and just as Adam and Eve took and ate, so do we. The moment that fateful fruit touches our lips we are dead, but God in His infinite goodness extends to us the one thing that can overcome this sting of death. He extends to us His Son, and through our baptism we are united to Jesus in His death and into His resurrection. Therefore, for us, death is not an end or a destination, it is only something we pass through.
Hear again the words we read earlier that the Lord spoke through the Prophet Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Jesus’ baptism shows us how we might follow him, and his death provides a way for us to pass through the waters and the fire without being overwhelmed or consumed. One of the great theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God.”
Luke wrote in our Gospel, Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” As we rise from the waters of our own baptism, the voice of God is also heard: “You are my son, my daughter, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Your only real death occurs here—in the waters of baptism—but you do not remain, for through the One born in a manger, the One who was worshipped by shepherds and kings, the one who conquered death once and for all, raises you to new life, consecrating you as sons and daughters of God Most High.
Let us pray: Father in Heaven, when the Spirit came down upon Jesus at His Baptism in the Jordan, You revealed Him as Your own Beloved Son. Keep us, Your children, born of water and the Spirit, faithful to our calling. May we, who share in Your Life as Your children through Baptism, follow in Christ’s path of service to all people. Let us become one in His Sacrifice and hear His Word with faith. May we live as Your children, following the example of Jesus. Amen.