The War Against Death

1 Corinthians 15:54-56 “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Some of our 3rd grade boys know that I’m as geeky as they are. They’ve seen the various Marvel superhero movies. They asked me to talk about Avengers: Endgame which opens April 26. It is the most anticipated film of the year. Fans – our 3rd grade boys included – have been waiting a year since the events of Avengers: Infinity War.

If you haven’t seen Infinity War yet, here is my spoiler warning – at the end of the movie, half of the superheroes disappear into dust.

In Infinity War, Thanos, the mad tyrant, is wearing the Infinity Gauntlet. He snaps his fingers and half the people in the entire universe disintegrate into dust. Superheroes like Black Panther, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Winter Soldier, Peter Quill, Groot and Drax, and others turn into dust. … They are all gone.

End Game is all about the remaining superheroes like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain Marvel and Ant-Man going to war against Thanos. They team up to try to reverse the death of their friends. They are attempting to bring about a resurrection.

Easter is all about Jesus going to war against the mad tyrant of Death. He didn’t team up with anyone. It was him and him alone. It was a lonely battle. At the end of Good Friday, it appeared as if Death had won. Humanity had to wait until the third day to learn that Death had been reversed and Jesus was victorious.

Death is not a made-up comic book villain that can wipe out half the life on the earth. Death is a real tyrant that has claimed all but a handful of people over several millennia.

Although it is hard for us to imagine, there was a time when there was no Death. God had created everything in the universe with only his Word. He then created Adam out of dust and his wife, Eve, from Adam’s rib. God breathed life into the crown of his creation. There was no Death yet, for God looked at his creation and declared everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Some time after the universe was born in perfection, Death was born out of its imperfection. Even though we won’t find a birth certificate for Death, we know the exact moment it was conceived. “When the woman saw the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye … she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Genesis 3:6,7). Death drew its first breath when the living God pronounced its birth when he told Adam and Eve, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).

From that moment on, Death had the power to disintegrate people into dust.

Death’s first victims were whatever pets God killed to clothe his children with their pelts (Genesis 3:21).

Death did not stop with animals. Its first human trophy was Abel.

Death was not satisfied with one kill. It hungered for more. In the flood, Death came to all the living except for eight people and the land animals God had spared in the ark.

Death rained down on the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Death played with the plagues. It enjoyed the loud wailing from every Egyptian home with the plague on the firstborn. It relished the waters of the Red Sea washing over the drowned Egyptian horses and charioteers.

Death is no restrictor of persons, age, nationalities, positions or faiths. Death came to the home of the baby boys in Nazareth, John the Baptist in prison, King Ahab on the battlefield, the Israelites in the desert and the Canaanites in Jericho.

Death is very creative in how it captures its victims. It turned a woman into salt. It killed a giant with a stone between the eyes. It opened the earth to swallow rebels. It claimed those who were killed by a judge swinging a donkey’s jawbone.

Death does not snap its fingers and have half the world’s population disappear in a moment. It is much more subtle. It will take one here through cancer or a group of people with an accident or a multitude in a war.

Death is competent and capable. It is efficient and effective. It will eventually come to all creation.

Death’s record is impressive. It is not flawless, though.

While all humans drowned in the worldwide deluge, Noah and his family were kept safe and dry inside the ark.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego escaped from the fiery furnace without even the smell of smoke on them.

Jonah escaped the depths of the sea with the small of fish vomit on him.

Death reached for them but could not claim them.

Enoch didn’t die but walked with God.

Elijah didn’t die but was carried to heaven in a fiery chariot.

Death reached for them but had its hand slapped away.

Death captured Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter and the widow of Nain’s son. When Jesus showed up at their funerals, Death was forced to release them from its dark prison.

When Jesus yielded his spirit to Death on the cross, the earth shook and the rocks split. Many saints who were asleep in their tombs awoke and walked into the Holy City to be reunited with their families.

But Death was patient. Eventually, it reclaimed all those who had escaped its clutches the first time.

Death was waiting to claim its greatest Victim – Jesus Christ, the Lord of life.

Death and the Lord of life had met numerous times before. It was the Lord who closed Noah and his family into the ark to escape Death’s watery tomb (Genesis 7:16). It was the Lord who was in the fiery furnace with the three men protecting them from Death’s fiery touch (Daniel 3:25). It was the Lord who provided a great fish to swallow Jonah to emerge from the depths of Death’s Sheol (grave) (Jonah 1:17).

The Lord walked with Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and sent the fiery chariot to bring Elisha to heaven (2 Kings 2:11).

The Lord Jesus came to Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:38), Jairus’ daughter’s bed (Mark 5:40) and the widow of Nain’s son’s coffin (Luke 7:14).

The Lord of life was very familiar with Death. But as God, he could not be touched by Death. That all changed when the Lord of life took on human life and breath at his birth as a man. Now, for the first time in human history, Death could take down God!

Death tried to seize Jesus as an infant. King Herod had the baby boys of Bethlehem slaughtered. But the Lord escaped to Egypt.

Death tried to capture Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth. A Nazarene crowd tried throwing Jesus over a cliff. But the Lord walked right through the crowd.

Death tried to sneak up on Jesus with the evil intent of the Jewish religious leaders. The Pharisees and chief priests considered Jesus a threat, so they secretly planned to kill him. But Jesus walked among them safely because the religious leaders were afraid of the crowds.

Death tried and tried and tried. But it wasn’t until the Lord of life himself decided it was time to die that he allowed Death to claim its greatest prize. Death, along with its allies of Satan and his demons, rejoiced when the Roman soldiers killed Jesus with extreme efficiency.

On the afternoon of Good Friday, Death claimed its greatest Victim! It had won! The Lord of life was dead! God was buried in the tomb!

At least, that’s what Death thought.

The holy writers are very clear that Death did not kill Jesus. Jesus allowed himself to die.

Matthew reports that Jesus “gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). It wasn’t taken from him.

Luke reports that Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” before he breathed his last (Luke 23:46). Death did not grab Jesus’ spirit. He willingly gave it to his Father.

John reports that when sin was paid for and Satan’s head was crushed, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Death did not finish off Jesus. Jesus finished everything he was born to do. Then he allowed himself to die.

Death didn’t quite get it. It thought it had won. The devil and his demons threw a victory party in hell. Death was the celebrated guest of honor. Then an unwelcome intruder broke in. Jesus kicked down hell’s gate. He ended the party. He preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19). He made a public spectacle out of all of them. They all thought they had triumphed over Jesus at the cross. Jesus preached that he had triumphed over them by the cross (Colossians 2:15).

He was not a dead Jesus. He was not a damned Jesus. He was a living Jesus! He extended his hands to show them the wounds of his love. He showed them his pierced side to show them death had lost. He showed them his torn back and his scarred head to show them the marks of victory.

Satan knew. His head had been crushed. The serpent was defanged. The roaring lion was silenced. The red dragon was defeated by the slain Lamb.

Sin knew. It had lost its sting. The power of the law was trumped by the power of the gospel.

Death knew. Death had been swallowed up in victory. Death was no longer a one-way ticket to hell. It was turned into a sleep for Christians to wake into the pleasures of heaven.

All of hell knew. Now, the world needed to know. Jesus let all the world know when he burst from his three-day prison on Easter dawn.

Death still fights us. Death claimed Grandpa with a heart attack. But Grandpa is alive in heaven with Jesus. Death claimed your child through an accident. But your baptized child is alive with the Lord, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Death will claim everyone of us at some point. How comforting it is for us to know that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of one of his saints” (Psalm 116:15).

We will have to wait and see in Endgame how the Avengers defeat Thanos and reverse death. We don’t have to wait, though, with Jesus’ reversal of death. That happened two thousand years ago at the first Easter.

Death once taunted all of humanity. Now we taunt death with these words: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

“Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).

To those who are afraid of the enemy of Death, we remind them of the One who defeated Death by dying. He claimed victory over Death by rising from the dead. Now we comfort Christians while reminding Death: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”

Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.