Summary: It may seem strange to embrace death. But John could do so as he learned of fellow believers being killed, because he had a vision of the risen Christ as lord of life and death and even as lord of all human history.
Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC July 27, 1986
The picture is indelibly etched on my memory, I'm sure because at the time the incident seemed so bizarre, so peculiar. The scene was an elementary school talent show; all of us had been groomed and polished and persuaded that we had some talent or another to display before our parents and our fellow students. Some children sang, others danced; one did a chalk drawing under ultraviolet light, a drawing which, when you held it one way, looked like George Washington, but if you turned it upside down, it looked like Abraham Lincoln. I never did figure that one out!
Some children dutifully plunked their way through the standard pieces every kid learning piano has to go through, pieces with inspired titles like Little Drummer Boy’s Song or Dance of the Little Flowers. As for me, would you guess it? I did a recitation. It was alleged that my talent was speaking. Is that or is that not a premonition? I did a recitation of a poem of sorts in which I had to do a very bad fake Italian accent and orate about something called "The Greata Game of Baseaball". Today I suspect it would be considered an ethnic slur, but in 1949 we hadn't learned about that yet.
All went well during the talent show until a precocious ten-year-old came out, dressed in a shortie choir robe, pushing a little portable organ ahead of him. I knew this kid, he and I went to the same church, and I knew that he was an extraordinary musical talent. So I and the others waited to see what Carl would perform on this miniature church organ. Now mind you, everything else up to this point had been upbeat, fun, full of laughter. Everything had been carefree and positive, and that's a part of the reason, I guess, we all got such a shock when this ten-year-old cherub in a choir robe announced, I will now play Johann Sebastian Bach's chorale prelude, “Come Sweet Death!”
“Come Sweet Death” How bizarre that seemed!. How utterly weird that anybody should speak of death as sweet, how utterly absurd that anyone should invite death to come. And how incomprehensible that a ten-year old could find any reason at all to select a piece with so morbid a title as his contribution to our evening of talent and fun and laughter. Well, as I remember, some laughed nervously, others just said, “What? What in the world does he mean by that?” And all went home pondering a phrase I suspect not one of them had ever included in his or her vocabulary before that night: “Come Sweet Death”
And, to some little extent at least, all went home pondering a theme that most of us try to avoid as long as we can, the theme of death. Most went home that night with a sober side amidst all the fun they had had, because the unwelcome enemy, the great destroyer, had been mentioned, and not only had it been mentioned, but the music had even suggested that someone might not fear death, but might embrace it, might call for it, might want it. Strange, strange indeed! Come, sweet death.
Today as the last of my series of messages on fear I want to think with you for a little while on the issue surrounding the fear of death. We've spent our other three Sundays this month working on fear as a theme of our everyday existence. We affirmed that fear is the enemy of the liberty, the freedom God wants to give us. And we said that our calling then was to have faith in a God who wants the best for us. Then we saw how fear leads us sometimes to break our integrity, how fear may lead us down the path of trying to save our skins at the expense of our integrity, and again we learned that we can trust God, we can trust God with the truth. Then last week we reflected through the life of Job on what it is to fear fear, we thought about the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that goes to work on us sometimes, and how Satan finds us vulnerable at that point at which we do not trust God with all that we are, good, bad, and indifferent. In all these messages there has been an underlying motif, and I hope you've caught it, I hope you heard it as I tried to underscore it again just now: trust God. Trust God. Exercise faith, believe and know that the living God who made you is able to keep you, is able to deliver you beyond all your fears. That has been in simplest terms the message I've tried to bring each week, and guess what, that's the message for today too.