Death. Does the thought fill you with dread or apprehension? Does it scare you? Is it just a bit too morbid to think about? Would you rather not think about it at all? What is your attitude regarding death? Last night I watched the movie Gravity, and Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, who is drifting in space, happens across a radio frequency with “Aningaaq,” someone in another country on Earth. Although she can’t understand him, nor can he understand her, this is the only human contact she has, and so she confides in him that she is going to die. She says, “I know we’re all gonna die. Everybody knows that. But I’m going to die today. Funny that…you know, to know. But the thing is, that I’m still scared. Really scared. Nobody will mourn for me. No one will pray for my soul. Will you mourn for me? Will you say a prayer for me? Or is it too late? I’d say one for myself but I’ve never prayed in my life. Nobody ever taught me how…”
Bad theology aside, Dr Stone has some poignant questions there, and I think many people would echo her thoughts at the prospect of staring death in the face. How would you react if you knew you were going to die today? When your final hour does come, how will you face death? Dear one, Jesus did know when and how He would die, and we can learn a lot from His example. Just yesterday we celebrated Palm Sunday, and amidst all the joy and excitement of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cross looms large. I absolutely love the words of “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty,” verses 2 and 5: “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die.”
You see, that’s why He was entering Jerusalem in the first place. He was going there to die. For you. For me. For everyone. So what thoughts were on Jesus’ mind as He died? We’ve already looked at five of His words from the cross, so let’s continue with the sixth word: “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” Now that’s a way to die. Jesus is quoting Scripture, this time from Psalm 31:5. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather take the calm assurance Jesus exhibits here than be wrestling with the questions Dr. Stone raises as she faces death.
Think about what Jesus is saying here—He is committing Himself to the Father’s care. And while it may sound grim to some, we actually mirror that attitude with a fair amount of frequency in our own lives as Christians. Every time we sing the Nunc Dimittus after communion, we are committing ourselves to God’s care and asking for His peace: “Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace; Your word has been fulfilled.” The Nunc Dimittus is even in our funeral service at the end. (Really—check it out in a Lutheran Service Book, page 281.) Or think of the service of Compline, an evening service. The responsory is an exact quote of Psalm 31:5: “Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”
Think about an old nighttime prayer you may have learned as a child: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray The Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” (Or the alternate ending, “Let angels guard me through the night, until I wake in morning light.”) Even Luther’s Evening Prayer commends us to God’s care: “For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things.” You see, dear Christian, all our lives we make a habit of commending ourselves to God’s loving care, so that when death comes, we need not fear it. We know we can depart this earthly life with confidence and in peace, for we have been living under God’s faithful care all along. In a sense, then, all our lives we are practicing for death, for we commend ourselves to God’s care both in life and death.
Dear one, if you are in Christ, death has no power over you. Yes, we will all die an earthly death, but that is not the end. Jesus commits His spirit to the Father. When your final hour comes you can do the same. Your spirit belongs to the Lord. Because Jesus defeated death for you, death for a Christian is no more frightening than falling asleep. Memorize Luther’s Evening Prayer to say each night before you go to bed. Pray the words of the antiphon from the Nunc Dimittus from Compline each night: “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace.” And one day, when your own death draws near, commit yourself to your Savior’s care, and fall asleep in Jesus.