The stoic philosophers would famously use the phrase memento mori which translated into English says, “Remember that you die.” This was not some sort of bleak and somber outlook on living but a rallying cry to make the most of the time and energy you have. It is a reminder that we are mortal, that we will one day die is a freeing gift. It allows us to let go of things we cannot change, to instead focus on things we can, and to appreciate what we have and who we have in our lives. To remember our death is to simplify our lives. Amid everything coming at us these days, viruses and elections and uncertainty and fear, would some simplicity, some clear and calm focus not be a blessing?
I know this may sound a bit depressing, but I do not think we spend nearly enough time thinking about death. In fact, when the specter of death is unavoidable, like it is with our current situation, where we get constant up-dates about the spread of a disease and the rolling figures of the death rates, we are unequipped to handle it. We have not been thinking about it, we have not been saying memento mori, so we do not know how to process the data. The only reaction we have to the whole situation is fear. We follow the prescribed remedy to avoid death at all costs. We become afraid of the unknown, afraid of other people, afraid for our parents, our children, and ourselves. Suffering and death rise before us as the great evil of this planet. Everything leading toward them ought to be avoided. Everything that makes death less likely can and should be done. There is no discussion, no further thoughts about it all only reaction driven by fear.
But fear does not have to be the only reaction to death. In fact, there can be a lot of things, important things, death teaches us. The other day in Bible Study I offered up the idea that the people we perhaps should hear more from these days would be hospice workers. If you ever had the experience of having someone you love to be cared for through their final days by the hospice caregivers, you know what incredible people they are. These are people who, because of their given vocation, have no chance to forget the reality of death. It is there before them each day. I wonder what advice they would offer us as a nation, what words of wisdom would they speak? You see, I have had the honor of being there more than a few times in those final moments of someone’s life. It is sad, there are tears to be sure, heartache and grief abound, but every time I find there is something I learn, something I gain in those moments. And it does not come from my theological training or my philosophical reflections on death and the grave. No, the lessons I learn almost always come from the one dying or from the spouse holding their hand or the children learning to say goodbye. The thing is, through the tears and heartache the thing I learn the most is about hope.
We find this hope played out in a powerful scene in the Revelation of Jesus Christ to Saint John. There in the terrifying description of the torments of the earth, the image of the four horsemen come riding onto the scene spreading war and conquest and economic destruction and even death itself. As earthquakes and calamities spread across the land and the final judgment is ready to fall an angel of the Lord rises with the sun and says, “Stop! Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servant of our God” (Revelation 7:3). He pauses the destruction and holds in his hand a seal by which he would mark the children of God, mark them so they might endure through the tribulation.
John hears the exact number of those who are to be marked by God: 144,000 from every tribe of the sons of Israel. He hears them listed out, 12,000 from 12 tribes, 144,000 in all. I had a great old professor at the seminary who used to say, “When the Lord does a 12, He is doing the Church and when He does the Church, He does a 12.” The 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostle are a mark of the one, Holy, Christian, and Apostolic Church. In fact, later in Revelation when we are given the description of the New Jerusalem, it has 12 foundations and on them are the names of the 12 apostles and there are 12 gates of pearl on which the 12 tribes of Israel are inscribed. So, it should come as no shock that this 12 times 12,000 number is symbolic when John turns around to see. He does not say he sees 144,000 but a multitude so numerous no one could count it. It is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham that his offspring would be more numerous than the stars in the sky.
There they are standing around the throne of God. They gather in worship and sing out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” The question is then asked, “Who are these? Who are these robed in white and where did they come from?” Why, these are those who have been sealed. These are those who bear the mark of Christ, those who have been declared worthy of eternal life. Because they were sealed, because they bear His mark they passed through the tribulation. They arrived here in the presence of God right through the tears and heartache, right through the fear and calamity of our age. Here there is peace and security. Their white robes are not made white by their own washing, by their own efforts, by their own attempts to clean themselves. No, they are made white through the blood of the Lamb. He who sealed them, He who called them His own has cleansed them and covered them in His righteousness.
Listen to the wonders they now possess. He says, “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17). Everything that marks our world with fear and trepidation, hunger and thirst, tears and death will be removed. To be sealed by God is to be sealed in hope, hope that does not ignore the realities of suffering and heartache of loss and grief but hope that holds to the promises of God right through it all. It is this I learn time and again by the saint of God when they are greeted by death.
They have hope; real, firm, unshakable hope. Hope that rests not in what they have done but in what Christ alone has done for them. Hope that a global pandemic or a turbulent election or even death itself is not the end for them. And the lesson we are all to learn from the saints who have gone before us is that this same hope has sealed you. This same gift is possessed by you. For you are the baptized, the holy ones. You have had your clothes washed in the blood of the Lamb. You have been given this day all the blessings of the Almighty. His life, suffering, and death are yours. Your sin and shame and failure are now His. This means those pearly gates will open wide for you, that those you have loved and lost, those you grieve over and long to hold again will rejoice alongside you in the presence of the Lamb.
Remember, you will die, but death will not be the end. Remember, you will raise up on the last day, you will gather with all your brothers and sisters in Christ and you will be victorious for victory has already been secured through the Lamb. You have been baptized in the cross and empty tomb of your Lord. This life is not all there is for you. Eternal death has already been beaten. You are sealed in hope. So, lift your heads and stand firm in the promises of your Lord. Let us join with those who have gone before us saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!” (Revelation 7:12)