A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields,
November 27th 2022.
Remembering those who have died in the previous twelve months.
‘You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to awake from sleep.’ (13:11)
Some of you may know that I like visiting cemeteries. I know I’m not uniquely weird in that, because when I do so, I see others also wandering among the trees and between the gravestones.
Cemeteries can be places of natural beauty. If you keep going back to Preston Cemetery here in North Shields, for example, at successive moments in the year you find it colourfully carpeted in snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, and bluebells. And then, of course, there are the headstones, short biographies to read, sometimes telling sad tales, but also recounting lives of interest and worth.
Many of the older headstones express their message in Christian language – that the deceased is ‘with the Lord’, or (and much to the point this evening) that they have ‘fallen asleep.’
‘You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to awake from sleep,’ writes the Apostle Paul in his letter to Christians in Rome a couple of thousand years ago. It’s the moment for them to wake from sleep.
In the world of faith of two thousand years ago, the word, ‘sleep’ was used to speak symbolically about death. That might sound a little strange to you, but then today, when someone’s a heavy sleeper, we talk about them being ‘dead to the world,’ so we’re not a million miles away from Paul’s time, even if we’re a couple of millennia distant.
In one of Paul’s other letters, to the church in Ephesus, he quotes an ancient Christian hymn, obviously one that was part of the life of the church before he wrote: ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine upon you.’ (5:14) There’s even a version of it in Rejoice and Sing, to the tune, ‘Frere Jacques’, though we won’t be singing it tonight – not unless you all really, really want to!
I quite like that image of death as being asleep. It’s not because I want to downplay the reality of death, particularly in how it creates a line, or barrier, between those who have died and those of us who are still alive. The dead are not coming back, and this line or barrier is one that we only can cross or surmount by dying ourselves, which in turn will divide us from those we leave behind.
So why talk about death as ‘sleep’?
Because talking about death as ‘sleep’ reminds us to be hopeful, for death is not the ultimate and last thing. Instead, resurrection is the ultimate and last thing. Yes, today, death is a reality, but, as the Apostle Paul writes, ‘salvation is nearer to us now … the night is far gone, the day [of resurrection] is near.’ (13:11, 12) Now, we have to accept the reality of others’ deaths, and the realistic prospect of our own deaths. But tomorrow, whenever that special tomorrow comes, God will bring a new day when we also awaken to new life; awaken to resurrection.
We are hopeful, then, concerning both others and ourselves. At the same time, we who are here tonight have to carry on living in the here and now. So how should we go about doing that? Well, once again, Saint Paul has something to offer to us: ‘let us live honourably.’ (13:13)
First, he describes this honourable life in negative ways – in terms of things to avoid doing. (13:13) So revelling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarrelling, and jealousy are out, as far as living life today is concerned. Actually, that sounds like common sense, as far as good physical and mental health is concerned – the nation of Qatar, for example, has done worse things than ban alcohol from its football stadiums. Also, to live in such abandoned fashion is hardly any great tribute or memorial to those who were our guides in life before the time came when they died.
It’s not just a question ‘don’ts’, though. Despite what some might think or say, it never is, as far as Christian faith is concerned. Instead, as Paul goes on to say, living honourably is a positive thing,: ‘lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light,’ he advises. (13:12) (That’s familiar language to those of us who have been reading his Letter to the Ephesians together in recent weeks: ‘put on the whole armour of God.’ (6:10)) Then, in this letter to Rome, Paul goes further: ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (13:14)
In other words, at this time in our lives, live a life that takes on the teaching, values, and story of Jesus. Live lives that reflect what Jesus taught about how you should live your life in this world – his teaching and values. Also, live lives that reflect the life story of Jesus, who died and was then raised to life; his three-day ‘sleep’ of death in the grave being the precursor to his resurrection.
Yes, death hurts us here and now. It hurts because it divides us from those who have died. Perhaps, though, it might help to think of them as being asleep, not in an attempt to deny the reality of death, but to remind us of the equal reality of the coming day of resurrection. Concerning that day and hour, however, as those of us who were at our morning service heard, ‘no one knows’ the timing of it. (Matthew 24:36)
Until then, it’s up to us to live Christ-like, honourable lives; and to remain hopeful, both for others and for ourselves: ‘You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to awake from sleep.’ And may we, and those we remember tonight, all, in time, know that moment, awakening from the ‘sleep’ of death to resurrection life with our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.