Fear of the Last Enemy

1 Corinthians 15:50-58; John 11:17-27

In the series “Unafraid”

Before we started this series, we sent out email invitations asking for people to complete an online poll fear.  Thank you for the great responses – we had an almost 50% response rate.  Today we look at three related topics that appeared five times in the top 12 responses on a question listing some possible worries, fears and concerns; about 20% of responses to an open-ended question mentioned these issues as well.

Our message title today comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.  In chapter 15, writing about the Resurrection, he identifies the last enemy as Death.  Today we look at a trio of related topics:  growing old, getting sick, and dying.

A few years ago the American Association of Retired People (AARP) put together a video in which they asked Millennials (people in the 20s and early 30s) what old looks like.  When asked what age they consider old, they named the 40s and 50s.  In a way, I’m not surprised.  I can remember as a child thinking that someone who was 25 or 30 was old (after all, 25 years is a quarter of a century).

In the video, they asked the Millennials to demonstrate things like how an old person looks walking across the street, doing a pushup, or texting on their cell phone. They stooped over, taking small steps. One of them even mimicked opening a flip phone to text; others included squinting and adjusting glasses to see.  Next, they introduced them to people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, and they shared things they do well.  The young people were surprised at how active these so-called “old people” were. When asked after the encounter what age was old, the Millennials responses increased to 80s, 90s and over 100! [1]

A Nielsen survey asked people about their sense of wellbeing, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch team developed a graph to show wellbeing in relation to age.  At what age do you think people are happiest? (Get responses) Look at the graph. The highest sense of wellbeing was reported by people in their 70s and 80s.

Much of the fear of growing old is related to losing a sense of purpose in our lives. That lack of a sense of purpose leads us to be afraid and anxious, but when we understand our purpose, we are less likely to be fearful.  You see, God has a purpose for all our lives.  A popular Bible verse comes from the book of Jeremiah, chapter 29, verse 11, which says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  We experience wellbeing and fulfillment at any age when we surrender to God.  When we live out God’s purposes in our lives, there’s not much room left for fear and worry.

Think about this.  In the Bible, there’s no word for retirement.  We are never too old (and never too young) to serve God.  Noah was ancient when God appointed him to build the ark and put animals on it.  Abraham and Sarah were in their 90s and 100s when God gave them a son to be the beginning of a great nation that would bear witness to God in the world.  Moses was 80 when God called him to lead the Israelites to freedom, and Joshua was 80 when he took over from Moses to lead them into the Promised Land. David was still planning to build the Temple and writing psalms into his 70s. Elijah was probably a senior citizen when God called him. Zechariah and Elizabeth were past childbearing age when their son who would be known as John the Baptist was born. Simeon was an old man and Anna had been widowed for 84 years when they met the infant Messiah Jesus and his parents in the Temple and told others.

What do we learn from these examples?  God often chooses and uses seniors to do great work, which means that often our greatest endeavors in life occur past retirement age.

Speaking through the prophet Joel, God said, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters will prophesy, your elderly shall dream dreams, and your young shall see visions” (Joel 2:28).  God promises to fill us with the Holy Spirit and give us dreams. Those who aren’t yet “old” need to listen to the dreams of the elders, and elders should hear the visions of the young. We need each another. God has a purpose for all of us and that purpose can enliven all our lives, even into our “growing old” years.

Fears around health and sickness are related to fears of aging.  In our poll, sickness was the second most-frequent fear.  As we’ve talked before, our brain has a built-in early warning system that pays attention to threats in the environment so we can respond to protect ourselves.  It also listens to our bodies and the way we feel.  But our imaginations also work and sometimes this results in fear.

I was interested to learn that the idea of annual physicals was an innovation in the 1920s.  Prior to that, people usually only went to the doctor when they felt ill. Today we get our physicals; our doctor orders lab work; they ask all kinds of questions designed to screen for various conditions. Sometimes these tests and questions are reassuring, but other times, our imagination goes wild with them.  It doesn’t help that pharmaceutical companies spend about $6 billion annually to market their drugs direct to consumers – $3.73 billion on TV ads in 2018.[2]  You’ve seen the ads – more than half a million of them aired in 2018.[3]  They usually feature happy, active people who have some condition but taking this certain drug makes their lives perfect. It’s all great until they name the side-effects, something like, “Don’t take this drug if you breathe air. This drug has been known to cause hair loss, weight gain, and death. Talk to your doctor about if this drug is right for you.”  In addition, we can now search the Internet for symptoms we’re having and find out what terrible conditions we might have. It’s all enough to make a person worry and call their doctor to diagnose an illness or to get a certain treatment.

Worry has a negative impact on our lives.  Worry has been described as grabbing a future possibility and bringing it into the present.  It is imagining a negative future that may never happen, moving a potential terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in the future to today.  Jesus said, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? …  So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt 6:27, 34).

One practice that can help us with worry and fear is known as mindfulness.  Worry steals our joy and freedom in the present, but mindfulness helps us stop and be more aware of and present in this moment.  Paying attention to our breathing helps us become more mindful.  When we are anxious, we tend to breathe more rapidly and shallowly.  So a technique like “breathing in the box” can help us.  This is actually a technique that Navy SEALs learn so they can do their jobs well.  Here’s how it works.  Start by breathing in for a four count; hold it for a four count; breathe out for a four count; and then hold that for a four count.  Let’s practice that once. (practice)  Breathing in the box or a similar breath technique helps us slow down and become anchored in the moment.

A related spiritual practice is known as breath prayer.  It is praying a short prayer that is as long as a breath.  It might be a prayer like, “Lord, you are my shepherd”, “Help me not be afraid”, “Hold me, Jesus”, or “God, give me strength.”  Sometimes when I use a breath prayer, I say it quietly to myself; other times, I pray it in my mind in rhythm with my breathing.  Let’s try it, using the simple prayer, “Jesus, thank you for loving me.”  (Practice)

Practices around our breathing help us refocus and pay attention to what’s happening around us and in us right now.  It enables us to see God in us, in people around us, and in the moment.

Death is another fear we face.  Our brain is wired to help us avoid doing anything that might cause us to die.  Sometimes that wiring might make us overly cautious and prevent us from engaging in new experiences, but ultimately, it is a gift to help us preserve our lives.

And yet, every one of us will finally face the end of our physical lives – that moment when our hearts stop and we breathe our final breath. Our fear of death often encompasses a wider range of worries and questions:  Will my loved ones be OK without me? Have I taken care of all my arrangements? Will anyone miss or remember me when I’m gone?  Will death be slow and painful, or will it happen quickly?  Will I be able to say goodbye to my family and friends?  What will it be like after death?  Will I go to heaven or hell?

When we think about what the Bible tells us about death, is it really to be feared?  In this life, we try to learn and experience all we can, to seek to know God through Jesus Christ, to surrender our lives to God and live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. But when this life ends, Jesus tells us, “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me.  My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too.” (John 14:1-3 CEB)

Death is not the end. How do we know?  At 3:00 pm on a Friday long ago, Jesus hanging on the cross said, “It is finished.”  He breathed his last breath, bowed his head and died.  He was dead and buried, and on the morning of the third day, he was raised to life.  Thinking about Christ’s Resurrection, the Apostle Paul declares that “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54b).

Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.”  When his friend Lazarus had died, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).  The Bible doesn’t tell us a lot about the details of heaven; when it does, the descriptions used are intended to communicate that it is better than the best thing you can imagine in this world.  The writer of the book of Revelation reassures that God dwells with us and wipes away our tears in a place where there is no more death, mourning, crying or pain (Revelation 21:3-4).

It has been said that what one believes about death changes everything about this life.  When we believe Jesus, we don’t have to be afraid of death. We can find courage to live every day to its abundance and fullness. We can grieve as people with hope. We can know that God is holding us even as we approach our own death.  We can trust God – trusting doesn’t just mean believing, it means counting on it.  Trust God who is in living in our present, who in our old age might just be starting to use us, and when life is over, is only getting started on life forever.

As we go to prayer, I invite you to pray each line after me.

O God, I trust you.  I trust in your unfailing love. I trust in your forgiveness and grace.  I trust that you have conquered death, that you have prepared a place for me, that in my death I will be with you. Help me live unafraid; help me live with courage and hope. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] “Millennials Show Us What ‘Old’ Looks Like,” AARP, 04/08/2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYdNjrUs4NM.

[2] Katherine Ellen Foley, “Big Pharma spent an additional $9.8 billion on marketing in the past 20 years. It worked.” Quartz, 01/09/2019.  https://qz.com/1517909/big-pharma-spent-an-additional-9-8-billion-on-marketing-in-the-past-20-years-it-worked/. Accessed 02/09/2019.

Beth Snyder Bulik, “In another record year for pharma TV ads, spending soars to $3.7B in 2018,” FiercePharma, 01/02/2019. https://www.fiercepharma.com/marketing/another-record-year-for-pharma-tv-ads-spending-tops-3-7-billion-2018. Accessed 02/09/2019.

[3] Jacob Bell, “Pharma advertising in 2018: TV, midterms and speciality drugs,” Biopharma Dive, 09/26/2018.  https://www.biopharmadive.com/news/pharma-ad-dtc-marketing-2018-spend-TV-congress/533319/.  Accessed 02/09/2019.

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