Holy Trinity Lamorbey
29th August 2004
Two Certainties – and Two Others
Benjamin Franklin, the great American statesman of the 18th Century said that the only two certainties in life are Death and Taxes.
He was wrong. A third certainty with which we are all familiar is Change. But there are four Certainties. Three, Death, Taxes and Change, happen to everyone; and a fourth known only to Christians. About Taxes we shall not be concerned this morning; but about the other three..
Let’s begin with Change. There’s a proverb which runs: ‘Growing old is inevitable; growing up is optional’. This saying enables us to understand that there are two different kinds of Change:
Changes which will happen to us whether we like it or not, and
Changes over which we can exercise a certain amount of control (for example, in our behaviour and beliefs) .
Now although we can do nothing to prevent changes of the first kind, we can prepare ourselves for them to happen. And nowhere is this more important than in the matter of our Death. It’s inevitable, and judging by appearances, a number of us, myself included, will have to face it in less than twenty years. So anything we can do the better to prepare ourselves for it will be an effort well rewarded in the foreseeable future.
Being entirely practical, one thing we can all do, whatever our age or health, is to make our Will. If you’ve ever had to deal with the affairs of someone who has died without making a Will you will know the serious problems and quite unnecessary bad-feelings which can result. It’s been truly said that ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s relations’; but where there isn’t a Will there are invariably disgruntled and unhappy relations, which in the aftermath of a bereavement is something we’d all like to avoid.
It doesn’t matter whether you die rich or poor: if you have personal belongings, however trivial, which you would like one particular person to inherit, then for goodness sake put it down in writing. Even if you are entirely indifferent as to who inherits what, then record down in writing, and you will avoid your posterity saying "Oh, but Uncle Jim promised me I could have his grandfather clock".
Remember, all our worldly goods are, in fact, on loan from God. Whilst we live we may enjoy them. His gift of free-will enables us to do whatever we like with them; but He will hold us responsible for what we do, or fail to do, with them – and that includes their eventual dispersal amongst those who survive us.
So whatever you decided to do as a result of what you hear this morning, let one of your resolutions be to make, or check and if need be, update, your Last Will and Testament.
Now let’s turn to the question of preparing ourselves (as opposed to our goods and chattels) for death.
Let’s begin with that oft-heard cliché, ‘I’m not interested in Life after Death’.
All the evidence suggests that people who say this aren’t telling the truth. Ordinary people today are intensely interested in everything surrounding Death and its aftermath – witness their fascination with films and plays and books which concern post-death experiences, the sort of things people say at funerals and write on condolence-cards, and the curiosity which surrounds the spectacle of dead bodies or the number of people killed in some accident.
But there’s something even more important than whether they are telling the truth when they claim not to be interested in life after death. The question we should put to everyone who says that is, "Whose Life and Death are you talking about, your own or someone else’s?
It might conceivably be right, even ‘unselfish’ to say this of oneself: for example someone like a fireman, whose duty it may to risk his own life to save someone else’s. It’s not in part of his job to pause and consider whether he believes in the Resurrection. But to say ‘I’m not interested in life after death’ to someone else who is themselves facing death would be reprehensible. Can you imagine yourself standing by the deathbed of someone you love and saying to them ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen to you now and frankly I’m not interested’? What sort of love would that be?
The fact is that we all have an interest in what happens to us after we die. That’s entirely different from refusing to take an interest – failing to think seriously about it and taking sensible steps to prepare ourselves (or others) to face it. The former is a fact; the latter is a choice. Like the difference noted earlier between growing old and growing up, having an interest in death is inevitable, taking an interest in it is optional.
For Christians the approach to the fact of Death is quite straightforward. It’s summed-up in those words which we heard earlier from the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever’ or, in the words of a well-known hymn: ‘Faint not nor fear, his arms are near/He changeth not and thou art dear’. Christ is in fact the Fourth and Final Certainty for those who believe in him. Taxes, Death and Change are things which embrace us. On the Cross and in his Resurrection, Jesus Christ extends his arms for us to respond by embracing him. A one-way hug is no hug at all!
If, in the words of St John, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ and if God the Father demonstrated his Sovereignty over everything, including Death, by raising Jesus from the dead, is it in the least bit likely that he will allow us, with all our imperfections, to face extinction? Is it not far more likely that the process of perfecting us, begun at our baptism will be continued beyond the grave: that, in the words of St Paul ‘He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ ‘?
Let me conclude by quoting some words by John Ebdon, author, broadcaster and former Director of the London Planetarium and a house communicant and regular member of St Peter’s Bushey Heath. He’s still alive, but has inoperable cancer of the jaw. So he knows he has but a short time to live. This is what he says in a recently published article of which I have brought some copies to give to anyone who would like to read it.
"‘So,’ [my surgeon] concluded, ‘all we can do is to monitor you monthly and to ensure that the pain is kept at bay.’ He took off his glasses, replaced them in his breast pocket and looked benignly at me. ‘See you in four weeks time,’ he said. We rose, gravely shook hands and together with my wife I left the clinic and walked to the car beginning to digest the news en route. ‘Ah well,’ I said as I squeezed her hand, ‘in the words of the old negro spiritual it seems that I ain't got long to stay here’, and I switched on the ignition.
"At the end of the ensuing month, which for the most part was pain free thanks to the expertise of the palliative care specialist, I revisited the clinic for a progress report. It was as I had expected. The cancer had grown, leaving me aware that my life's expectancy should be measured in months rather than years. ‘So be it,’ I said to myself. ‘Amen.’
"Now I drink even more deeply from the cup of life, not rueing that it may soon be taken from my lips but rejoicing that it was offered to me in the first place by my Creator. I have seen the coming of springtime when the clean, green unused colours of that season broke the sleeping earth with the flowering of the daffodils turning their golden trumpets towards the equinoctial before giving way to the first blooming of the roses. I have taken in the sweet smell of newly mown grass and the scents of the Mexican mock orange and the honeysuckle and daily give thanks to God for allowing me to witness these miracles of birth and above all for giving me the inestimable love of Mary, my wife, who has comforted, cosseted, cajoled and nursed me through these times of trial and that of my family. In short, I am the most fortunate of men and I never cease to count my blessings.
"The veteran actor AE Matthews, who, when he was in his nineties, was asked how he spent his day, was reported as saying: ‘Well, I wake up, have my breakfast, read the newspapers and, if I’m not in the obituary column, I get up.’ I go farther than that. From sunrise to its setting I extract to the full whatever the day has to offer, be it the pattern of rain on my conservatory roof or the heat of the sun through its panes.
"Whilst the act of dying itself leaves me with some misgivings, death itself holds no fears for me. When all is said and done, I shall merely move into another room in the Lord's mansion.
So may God grant us, together with John Ebdon, a holy and peaceful death when our time comes. Amen.
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