George Burns once said, “Tennis is a game for young people. Until age
25, you can play singles. From there until age 35, you should play doubles. I
won’t tell you my age, but when I played, there were 28 people on the court,
just on my side of the net.” There is the jokingly asked question of how we
know we’re getting old. You know you’re getting old when you sit in a
rocking chair and you can’t get it going. You know you’re getting old when
dialing long distance wears you out; when your fortune teller offers to read
your face. And perhaps the best one: You know you’re getting older when
you try to straighten the wrinkles in your socks and find you aren’t wearing
Not that anyone here is old because old age, as we all know, is always
10 years older than what we are. But just so we could get some perspective
about age I wanted to bring up Methuselah, sure to make anyone feel fairly
young. Methuselah was old but was he really 969 years old when he died? If
you were someone who had to take the Bible literally, as we say, then I guess
you would be forced to say yes. But what does it take someone to insist this
number is the true number, as if it’s a fact, like 2+2=4? Not much if anything
because numbers don’t mean anything until they mean something. So why
were all those people so old when they finally perished from the earth? The
reason is because they were part of the golden age, the time before the
present age when things were so much better, as in when we say the good old
days, the great old days. It’s no coincidence the next story Genesis tells us is
just how terribly bad today is, starting Noah’s saga of the ark and the
salvation of one family because they were good enough—and then God
promising to do better with handling humanity’s terrible side.
None of us will last as long as Methuselah because the unwelcome
truth is like it or not all of us grow older—the fortunate ones, that is. We age.
Some enjoy joking about aging but growing old is something everyone at
least at a certain level dreads. Many people are willing to do a lot to avoid
aging. Cosmetic companies are multimillion dollar businesses telling people
how to do it. Exercise enthusiasts have sold hundreds of millions of dollars’
worth of books and equipment, showing people how to do it. Health food
manufacturers have built huge businesses producing special foods that
promise it. Genetic scientists are researching ways to prevent it. But aging
still happens and there’s no avoiding it.
There’s no way of avoiding it because there’s no way of avoiding the
sting at the end of the tail of aging, as even Methuselah found out. It’s that
other “little” issue that customarily arrives at the end that adds the insult to
the injury of aging. Before his death in 1981, American writer William
Saroyan telephoned the Associated Press this final, very Saroyan-like
observation: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an
exception would be made in my case. Now what?” These days, that would
make a great tweet.
Most people aren’t very good at accepting this. Very often, we refuse to
acknowledge a certain 800 lb. gorilla in the room, like we’re all playing
Harry Potter, where the archenemy, Voldemort, is (also) the one who mustn’t
be named, as if that’s going to deny him power. Of course this unnamed
villain is the one who drives the whole plot and is the reason Harry Potter is
even needed.
I hear Christians challenge other Christians with the thought: What if
you really believed in the resurrection? How would that change you? I think
that’s a great question. But I think there’s another great question, and it’s our
question this morning. What if you more fully accepted you were going to
die? How would that change you?
Floating around in us and perhaps even more so rooting us, we know
we’re going to pass away. But we cover it up with so much smoke and
mirrors that we’re left living in a hall of distortions. I mean look how we
even talk about death. Today, we say we are going “to pass.” We can’t even
say, “pass on” or “pass away.” Now it’s just “pass.” Does this mean we’re
like gall stones? Life is going to pass us, like a kidney stone. We should at
least be able to say the word. I mean it is the way things are.
Death is the greatest, incredibly negative fact of our lives that is the
least accepted and dealt with. It influences us and others more than we let on.
Our greatest fears arise from it. Our craziness, that is, so many bad decisions,
can be traced back to it. Pain caused by people that were caused by other
people that were caused by still other people, and so on and so on, come
from the source of not just the experience of death, but the fear of death, and
the lack of willingness to deal with it or our fear of it.
Look, when something so huge and important, and who can think of
something as important as our dying and our loved one’s dying, is not a topic
of discussion, isn’t raised up as something between people, is avoided and
ignored, swept under rugs, laughed off, and let to fester, grow, and become
whatever it wants to, yeah, some not such good things will come of it. So, I
want to let something come out right now; let some aspect of this gnarly and
immensely troubling fact of our existence breathe for a moment or two
among us right now, if you don’t mind.
The truth is, we’re stinking mad about it. That’s our true, number one
response to death. We’re indignant about having to die, about how a loved
one is gone for good. Death, from our viewpoint, is unmistakably and
unquestionably the horrible terrible no-good unfairness of our lives. Like all
things that strike us as unfair, we’re not happy about it. It’s not something we
say or admit. We usually go with “I’m not afraid of death,” if we say
anything at all.
But the truth is we should say something about it. Don’t be afraid to
bring it up, spouse to spouse, adult to adult, adult to child appropriately, and
child to adult/parent. It’s not going to kill anyone to talk about it! Things
could get said and heard that ought to be shared.
Someone may say, “Well, there’s nothing you can do about it, so stop
you’re complaining, pastor.” Yeah, well, just because there’s no way to
change the rules of this game doesn’t mean we aren’t deeply, passionately
distraught about it. We’re pretty good at ignoring things, and denial isn’t just
a river in you know where, but this doesn’t mean what we’re denying isn’t
impacting. Simply put, deep down we don’t accept our sentence. That needs
to get out in the open first.
You see, our minds can’t fathom someone being gone, as in not
existing any longer, when they were just here and so much a part of our lives.
The hole left never goes away nor does it get filled in by someone else or
time. Maybe the shape of the hole changes but that’s as good as we get.
There’s no spackle you can put in one’s mind and heart to fill in that hole.
Still, I know, one must get on with living. I get it. You do too. But
another truth is because of death, we get less than we wanted, less time, less
health. Fewer words or meaningful moments because things end and are
removed, or rather, people end and leave us, as we will, too. Now here’s the
thing about this truth: It can teach us to do more with less. Swallow this
bitter pill, but like most pills turn it into medicine. Be more potent with the
time you are and have. Use your limitedness to give you larger-ness. Cherish,
don’t waste; be more about quality and not quantity. Live while you are
At the end of his life, Moses is one hundred and twenty years old. He
can no longer be the leader of the Israelites because he can no longer do what
a leader needs to do. Joshua has already been appointed by Moses to succeed
him. His last act is to climb Mount Nebo. From there, the Lord shows him all
the land, north and south, east and west, all the way to the Western Sea, or
the Mediterranean Sea. This of course occurs in a vision because where he is
standing that’s impossible. What Moses sees is all the land that someday the
Israelites will live in and possess. And then comes the whammy: Moses shall
not cross over there himself. Moses in fact knew about this years before.
That was his destiny—to bring the Israelites to the Promised Land but not go
in himself.
The great Moses, the only one who saw God face to face, the one who
freed Israel from slavery, the one who taught the Israelites God’s
commandments, gave them the Lord’s instructions, and brought them safely
through the wilderness for forty years, bringing them to the edge of the
Promised Land, was himself never allowed to step onto that land.
Why? Scripture says it’s because Moses wasn’t 100% faithful, that he
sinned once or twice against God. But I gotta say, along with a whole bunch
of others, these aren’t much. There’s something else scripture is saying here
without shouting it out loud: Because this is such a glaring injustice done to
Moses, because this is such a robbery of what should have been given to him
(just one step into the Promised Land to taste what his efforts accomplished),
scripture has brought into focus how unfair our death, how unjust our
running into the limit of our existence, feels. We’re certain Moses should be
able to see his life fulfilled. All that sacrifice, hard work, doing good and
right and the best he could. He should be able to have it all tied up in a nice
red bow, nothing missing. Scripture however doesn’t do fairy tales. It sticks
to the truth and nothing but the truth, so help it God. In a life that was filled
with the most amazing events and experiences, Moses came to accept the
limit the Lord placed on him.
The final truth that our mortality tells us is that we’re not queens and
kings because we can’t be servants if we take ourselves to be more than we
are. Here’s the thing: by realizing there would be a valley he wouldn’t be
permitted to cross into, and wasn’t more than he was, Moses was freed to
focus on the mountain he had been given. Knowing he wouldn’t get it all,
meant he had to make the most of what was his. He did the most with what
he had.
Don’t ignore truths. Face the reality of your humanity and mortality.
Come down to the level of a servant of the Lord your God, the one who was
and is and who shall always be. Take your part in God’s story, and find in
this the peace and joy you seek. It’ll be like we’re standing on a mountain,
seeing the goodness of the Lord surrounding us and stretching out in front of
us, immeasurably beyond us, and yet knowing we played our part.
Can the church say amen?