I just recently saw an ad for pomegranate juice whose tag line was this: “Cheat Death.” Really? Is anybody ever going to cheat death? Yet our culture is savagely bent on worshipping at the altar of youth, trying somehow to find a way to short-circuit aging and cheat death in the end. Perhaps our greatest feat of denial is here with the reality of death. It seems that most of our lives are spent in one way or another trying to avoid, outrun, or outmaneuver death. But our navigational pattern hits a brick wall when we come to Jesus. To be with Him, to follow Him means to embrace death: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34).
What could He mean here?
To deny oneself is not self-hatred or self-annihilation, but shifting the gravitational center of our lives from our wills to God’s, abandoning ourselves to Him. The idea of self-denial is reinforced by the idea of a death march. To carry your cross was to carry the cross beam on your shoulders on the way to your execution by crucifixion. But the point of self-denial and self-execution is not death; the point is to do this so that we can follow Jesus. Amazingly, this is just what Jesus did his whole life, abandoning Himself to God’s will and taking up the cross beam to His death. And what happened after that? The resurrection. Somehow all of this is to be a part of our experience as we follow Him.
But how does this happen?
At every moment we choose to die, to surrender, to let go, we find something unexpected occurring: we find life. It is hidden, on the other side, only accessed through the portal of death. You let go of nursing a grudge, choosing forgiveness instead, and you find your heart lightened. You resist a path of temptation and feel something strong taking root inside. You choose to surrender your life's plans and find that the plans Jesus has are more satisfying anyway. Over and over again, we are asked to experience death, not as an end, but as a gateway into life.
Finally, if we have chosen this path, what we all must walk through with physical death will then be simply the final step in a life of dying to find real life. It is the final portal, the final crossing. If we have spent our lives experiencing the truth of Jesus’ words here, that final crossing won’t seem so abrupt or traumatic. It will become the last step in a journey we have been taking all along, a journey in which we have learned that the point is not to die, the point is to get to Jesus, to follow Him, to be with Him. Whatever we have to do to be by His side is worth it.
Recently I did a funeral for a 27-year-old former student who died of cancer. The father told me that in her last moment of life, she lifted her hand up into the air gracefully as if taking the hand of Jesus. For a moment, there was a strange and beautiful aura in the room. This is surely the work of the One who conquered through the cross. Only Jesus could take the ugliness and brutality of death and turn it into something holy. Only Jesus could take the worst symbol of torture ever invented and turn it into a symbol of hope. To embrace death is to meet Him there, and wherever He is, there is beauty and glory.
Where do you need to embrace death today to find Him? This Lenten season would be a great time to ponder that question.