The last thing everyone does is the last thing most of us want to do.
The poet Emily Dickinson famously wrote:
“Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.”
Most of us would rather not “stop for Death.” We don’t even slow down. We don’t think about death, we don’t talk about it and we don’t much prepare for it. And so Death will always stop for us. Usually when we least expect the visit.
We’ll step into the carriage and we’ll be chaperoned by Immortality out of this world. Ready or not, we’ll “put away” our labor, and our leisure too.
Dickinson expressed but one of countless interpretations of this great universal event. Thomas H. Johnson called Death “one of the great characters of literature.” Shortly after his beloved son Quentin died in World War I, Theodore Roosevelt said that “life and death are part of the same great adventure.”
I’ve always liked that view.
The following year, TR passed away quietly in his sleep. Vice President Marshall commented that “death had to catch him sleeping. If he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”
One man who waged a long and courageous fight against death was the iconic high-tech inventor and entrepreneur Steve Jobs. Jobs, who abandoned Christianity in his youth and became a Buddhist, lost his battle with cancer at the age of 56.
He said concerning death:
“Death is very likely the single best invention of life. Almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure: these things just fall away in the face of death.”
Every cemetery, in its quiet solemnity, reminds us that death is the great equalizer.
The Bible describes death as an appointment: “It is appointed to men once to die” (Hebrews 9:27, KJV).
Death isn’t just a definitive, transformative event – it’s a scheduled one.
The last thing Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson was that he would beat the cancer that had ravaged him. But even Steve Jobs wasn’t strong enough, wealthy enough, resourceful enough or smart enough to reschedule his appointment with eternity. The great business leader, like all before him, had to put away his labor, and his leisure too.
The Bible pulls no punches about the great matters of life and death. And its wisdom is the wisdom of God.
“Lord,” the psalmist writes, “remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered – how fleeting my life is…My entire lifetime is just a moment to you; at best, each of us is but a breath.” David adds perspective to all our plans and hopes; our dreams and schemes:
“We are merely moving shadows, and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.” [Psalm 39: 5-6, NLT].
Steve Jobs was right: “these things just fall away in the face of death.”
The biblical metaphors of life and death speak of brevity and certainty. The Bible teaches us to value life as a precious but fleeting gift. The scriptures don’t dodge death, or minimize it; they confront it.
For the person who has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ, all fear of death has been removed. This spiritual reality has enormous implications. When Christ rose from the dead, his resurrection changed everything forever.
Jesus defanged and defeated death. Alluding to the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 25:8), the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, taunted death:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (I Corinthians 15:54-55, KJV).
Then Paul tells us the massive eternal difference it all makes:
“But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 57, NLT).
We stand at every grave triumphant.
For the Christian, “life and death are part of the same great adventure.”
In death, we will be more alive than ever before.
Instead of being a fearsome “grim reaper”, Death is now a kindly and civil escort who will guide us to a new and glorious life of which this life, for all its beauty and joy, is but the momentary prelude. We’ll be happy to “put away” our labor, and our leisure too.
We’re going home.
We cannot postpone the appointment. Instead, we’ll welcome it.
In the face of the sober truth of mortality, David rhetorically asked:
“And so, Lord, where do I put my hope? My only hope is in you.” [Psalm 39: 7, NLT].
It is more than enough.
We need not fear the summons. Heaven will be opened before us.
Afraid? I can hardly wait! I’m going to hop into that carriage.
It’s the difference Christ makes.