Great Achievements in the Face of Death
            In 1885, Ulysses S. Grant wrote his memoirs. Although he had a stellar military career in the Civil War, and had served two terms as president of the United States, Grant was flat broke–and dying of cancer. He faced the grim prospect of leaving his family behind with no resources to support them. But Mark Twain had made Grant a generous offer for his memoirs–enough money to provide for his family after his death. So the dying Grant worked feverishly on his memoirs–and finished them only a few days before he departed this life. His love for his family motivated him, in the face of death, to persevere in writing down his remembrances.
            In 1933, Jimmie Rodgers–celebrated as “the Father of Country Music”, “the Singing Brakeman”, and “the Mississippi Blue Yodeler”–made his last recordings in a New York city studio. Rodgers was dying of tuberculosis–“consumption”, as it was better known in those days–and wanted to wax just a few more titles before he was gone. In a week’s time, he recorded a dozen songs–many of them among his very finest. So sick was he that, between takes, he had to lie down on a cot in the studio to refresh his energy. Rodgers’ last sides were completed on May 24–and on May 26, he succumbed to what he called “that old TB”. Like Grant, he was determined to achieve something significant in the face of death.
            In 1977, actor John Cazale began filming “The Deer Hunter”. Cazale was already famous as Al Pacino’s partner in “Dog Day Afternoon”, and as Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather”. But he knew that “The Deer Hunter” would be something very special–a deeply touching portrait of friendship and patriotism in working class America. The movie would also give him a chance to act with his fiancee, Meryl Streep. But shortly after filming began, Cazale was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. He resolved to persevere in making the film, however. The shooting schedule was rearranged so that all Cazale’s scenes were filmed first. He finished all his scenes, but died before the movie was released. Again–someone determined to complete a task in the face of death.
            A few years ago, a beloved member of our congregation, a personal friend of mine, succumbed to neck cancer (I still wear his wristband). In the months before his death, he lost a massive amount of weight, until he was a shadow of himself. And yet–he continued working. He wanted to earn as much money as he could for his family’s sake. One of the qualifications for his job was the ability to carry 100 pounds up five flights of steps. He was tested periodically on this ability. I remember him going to the gym every day and exercising vigorously in preparation for the test. Even though his body was being consumed by a dreadful disease, he managed to pass the test–and continued working until two weeks before he died.
            These four people left behind some great legacies: the finest American military memoir, a treasury of wonderful music, a great film (my all-time personal favorite, in fact), and an inspiring act of devotion to work and duty. These achievements were all accomplished in the face of death.
            And inevitably, when I think of these four examples of devotion and achievement at death’s very door, I think about Jesus. Because Jesus accomplished something wondrous in the face of death. He redeemed the world from the power of sin. He offered a full and complete sacrifice for the sin of the world. Through His death on the cross, He left us the most powerful legacy of all: forgiveness of sins and new life with God.
            The four people I mentioned were all motivated, in one way or another, by love–love of a family, a fiancee, an art, a job. Their love enabled them to persevere and achieve even in the face of death. And so it was with Jesus. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ). It was love that “kept Him going”, that enabled Him to endure horrific pains of body, mind and soul. “For the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). That joy, I am confident, was the thought of you and me redeemed, forgiven, welcomed into God’s family. A gospel song declares, “When He was on the cross, you were on his mind”. And another contemporary Christian song declares, “He would rather die than live without you.” In Peter Pan, it is the “happy thought” that allows one to fly. And for Jesus, you and I are His “happy thought”. The thought of us poor condemned sinners being cleansed, forgiven and freed–that’s what made the pain of the cross worthwhile for Jesus.
            “It is finished,” (John 19:30) He cried out on the Holy Cross. I think of Grant writing the final sentence of his memoirs, Jimmie Rodgers making his last record, John Cazale finishing his final scene in “The Deer Hunter”, my friend completing his last day at work...any of them could have said, “It is finished.” And those words would not mean, “I’m done for! I’m kaput! It’s all over now.” Rather, they would mean: I’ve done what I set out to do. And so it is with Jesus. His great cry of “It is finished!” is a cry of achievement, of triumph, of accomplishment. He did what He set out to do–die for our sins.
            We could probably think of many other examples of people who achieved something special in the face of death–a soldier who did his duty though grievously wounded, a mother who cared for her children while gripped by an illness. Let every one of those examples remind us of the One who loved us, who took our sins upon Himself, and in the face of death accomplished...our salvation.
            God loves you and so do I!

Vol. 82 - No. 4
APRIL 2011


Dec 26 Sermon <------ click to listen to Sermon