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Our house of four is down to three with the death of my father-in-law on Nov. 18. He was an old man, full of years, and ready to meet the Lord he had served all his life. Death was just a doorway—on our side of it, a bed in a tiny upstairs room with lotions and oral care sponge swabs on the nightstand; on the other side of it, “innumerable angels in festal gathering” and “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-23) and the face of God:
“As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (Psalm 17:15).
Meanwhile back at the ranch, the topical Bible Rolodex in my mind began recalling words of Jesus: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.” What on earth?
A little context please. Jesus is “going along the road” and has three encounters with would-be followers. The first is a volunteer: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus, rather than lunging at the rare offer, taps the brakes: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests. But the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:57-58).
In the second case Jesus is the initiator: “Follow me.” The addressee is amenable but eminently reasonable: He needs to bury his father first. His father is probably not dying, mind you, else Reasonable Man would be home already. But, well, his father is getting on in years and surely hasn’t much time—maybe 10, 20 years tops. Let me make sure Dad is comfortable in that last season and I’ll get back to you, Lord. This is where Jesus makes that most rude of statements: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer would not have balked. He used the technique himself. The German pastor and martyr of the Third Reich told one of his students (Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas) that every sermon needs a “jolt of heresy”—not meaning actual heresy, to be sure, but some fresh way of putting truth that startles. Jesus was the master here. And what better time than when the subject of death comes up naturally in conversation to make a necessary point.
Point being, we live and move among the walking dead. While some churches have lost the appetite for mentioning hell, Jesus talked about hell more than anyone in the Bible, and more than He talked about heaven. Soon He will “be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on all those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). Yes, this will happen.
Someone in your family, on your street, doing your dry cleaning, repairing your car, is sleepwalking toward that precipice.
And someone in your family, on your street, doing your dry cleaning, repairing your car, is sleepwalking toward that precipice, yet there is always something more important at the moment than alerting them. If it’s not a funeral, it’s a wedding. If it’s not a wedding, it’s a birthday. If it’s not a birthday, it’s a Christian conference highlighting the plight of second-generation Koreans (such as I just attended). All First World problems by comparison.
I met a man with a car ministry to missionaries in Belize who shared his story. While in Bible school, he and two fellow students had made a solemn mutual pledge to serve the Lord full time upon their graduation. Fearing God, the car guy kept his pledge, notwithstanding the initial challenge of impecuniousness. The other two, both Reasonable Men, came up with grand schemes to make a ton of money first, so as to have more to offer God when the time came. Postponing obedience, both never got around to honoring their commitments, and came to a chillingly bad end.
Which brings us to the last of the rude sayings of Jesus on that same day on the road, to a third would-be disciple: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).