Sunday, June 30, 2024

A Cry for Relief

We left off last week with the stunning destiny of Enoch, who so walked with God that, rather than have him die like the rest, God simply took him where death couldn't reach him (Genesis 5:21-24). But Enoch left behind him a family, including his son and heir Methuselah. Though some ancient Jews thought Methuselah's name meant something cool like “death is being dismissed,”1 these days it looks more likely that it means something closer to “man of the spear,” as though he were a great war hero.2 Why he'd be named such a thing, if so, is hardly clear, but the thing we all know about Methuselah is that, whether it's literal or figurative, he's got the biggest number listed for his years. He falls short of that fabled benchmark of a thousand by just thirty-one.3

Our focus, though, is the next step of the genealogy, Methuselah's son Lamech. If we're keeping up in our close reading of this chapter beside the one before it, we'll remember that name. Cain also had a descendant named Lamech. That these two chapters give us two men named Lamech – a name carried by nobody in the Bible or in the outside world other than these two guys – is hardly a coincidence; it means something. Scripture's asking us to have them stand next to each other, to look at them together.

In Cain's family, Lamech was the seventh from Adam; but in Seth's family, Lamech is the seventh from Enosh, the guy whose name means the same as Adam's. The first Lamech shows us the blossoming of Adam's Genesis 3 humanity; the other Lamech is the full flower of Enosh's kind of humanity, born to call on the name of the LORD (Genesis 4:26). In either genealogy, the Lamechs are the only two who've anything to say.4 Cain's Lamech utters a structurally majestic seven-plus-seven-word poem focused centrally on his own name and actions: it's all about the Lamech show (Genesis 4:23-24). This other Lamech utters a shorter ten-word line empty of every name but one: the name of the LORD (Genesis 5:29).5 Those words show Cain's Lamech being totally absorbed in power, boasting, and revenge, while Seth's Lamech is all about prayer, humility, and rescue.6 The old Lamech was a perfect life-taker; but this new Lamech will raise a total life-saver.7

The Lamech in Cain's family is obsessed with elevating God's defense of Cain into a pretext for insane overkill: he's so much better at vice than Cain, he'll avenge harm done to himself not just sevenfold but seventy-sevenfold (Genesis 4:24). Lamech advances 7 to 77. But this new Lamech – did you catch how long he lives? “All the days of Lamech were 777 years” (Genesis 5:31), the next step in the progression.8 Even though this Lamech has the fewest years of anybody in his line (besides Enoch),9 his living thus achieves a whole order of perfection beyond even Cain's Lamech's killing! Cain's line stops dead with an eighth generation from Adam, Lamech's children who excel in culture. But this new Lamech is a ninth generation from Adam, living on past everything named in Cain's legacy. And the reason is so this Lamech's son can be the tenth generation in the list.10 An old Jewish writer linked them allegorically to Israel's Day of Atonement, which began on the evening of the ninth day of the month and sternly freed Israel from work to fast and pray (Leviticus 23:27-32).11

The point of the Day of Atonement, between the scapegoat and the sacrifice, was to relieve Israel of the buildup of sins, which ritually had been caught in the tabernacle like a filter that needed changed (Leviticus 16:16-19). The high priest would lay the heavy burden of Israel's many sins onto the scapegoat, which carried them off into the desert as though returning the burdens to their source (Leviticus 16:20-22). But Lamech didn't know about any of that yet. He lived and died too soon. Yet Lamech certainly knew something about heavy burdens.

Lamech confesses that the world he knows isn't the world he wants. (Is the world you know the world you wish it were?) Unlike the first Lamech, this one doesn't propose to conquer the world with his violent hands. Instead, this one confesses his hands can't fix the world. It all goes back two chapters to the judgment of his ancestor (Genesis 3:17-19).12 There, the LORD says to Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you!” (Genesis 3:17). That is, for Adam and his wrong, the ground – the 'adamah, in Hebrew – will bear the brunt. The source of Adam's very existence is under divine threat; it's “subjected to futility,” it's stunted and out of shape (Romans 8:20). Now, even after Adam is at last dead and gone, Lamech admits he's an heir to that same “ground that the LORD has cursed” (Genesis 5:29).

That curse turns simple work into sweaty, exhausting labor, that “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:19). Rather than things coming easy, rather than things being joyful, Lamech's got no whistle while he works, no more than Adam did. Work is hard. Work is rough. Work is taxing. Work wears him out, does a number on his mind and body. Work makes him stiff. It takes everything he's got. But he's got no other choice if he wants to eat. The desperate need of his belly and the bellies of those depending on him force him on, force him to be a slave of dirt, so that his blood, sweat, and tears are the price by which he ransoms life day by day.

And for what? Part of that curse meant that the ground's productivity wouldn't be what Adam had expected, and won't be what Lamech expects. Sometimes, rather than exactly what he meant to grow, rather than everything he poured his sweat into producing, “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (Genesis 3:18). Thistles are one thing – weeds in the field, taking up resources and using them for something humanly useless, hardly helpful when we're counting on something nourishing but instead are consigned to “eat the herb of the field” (Genesis 3:18). Thorns are worse still – they prick, they hurt, they make us bleed as we scratch the dirt. They resist our dominion over creation, they're rebels, signs of the earth's anger with us. Lamech has felt them with his own hands. No wonder “in hardship you shall eat of it” (Genesis 3:17). And Lamech echoes that in his complaint about “our work and the hardship of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). There we have the third and last time that word for 'pain,' 'toil,' 'hardship,' shows up in the whole Old Testament; both the others were spoken to Adam and to Eve (Genesis 3:16-17).13 And this hardship, God says, is given to Adam “all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17), after which “you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). That's the culmination of the curse: after all, we are the ground, we're the dirt we till, we're the same base stuff skewed out of sorts, this matter out of sync with its Master and Maker.14

So that's what Lamech is concerned about: “our work and the painful toil of our hands because of the ground which the LORD has cursed” (Genesis 5:29). He lives amidst the burden of “hard labor and pain from which there seems to be no relief.”15 In this hard-scrabble life desperate for subsistence out of an uncooperative earth, Lamech is caught in a world that puts every pressure on him to be all work and no play, to see nothing of life beyond digging and planting, laboring and toiling for an uncertain harvest that too often disappoints, barely able to summon the strength to pursue anything human, anything beyond what the day's drudgery entails. One later Jewish paraphrase of Lamech's complaint puts it as “our work which does not succeed and the toil of our hands.”16 Lamech looks at his works, the things he's sought to accomplish, and he sees a litany of failures; his days are littered with crushed dreams and aborted attempts, with disappointing turns and roads regretfully not taken, with investments that never paid off, and with endeavors that backfired and did nothing but get him dirty.

That sentiment isn't just for poor farmers; it's for all of us, isn't it? Where one early Christian reader lamented here “the condition of distress and difficulty affecting the earth,”17 a commentary in our days just glosses it as “the hard and painful work of living.”18 Doesn't that sum it up? Oh, we talk about the way we've got to tough it out, etc., etc., but that doesn't change the reality. Living is harder than it was meant to be at first. Living is complicated and stressful and uncertain. It takes a lot out of us just to get through some days. It disappoints us with thistles. It pricks us with thorns. It dangles what we desire out of reach, and demands our sweaty efforts to get by. It bores us and saps our savor. Things we try don't always work out; sometimes they just make things worse. No wonder an earlier Jewish book paraphrases the subject of Lamech's complaint as “my grief and all of my labor and the land which the LORD has cursed.”19 That's a new word here: 'grief.' Life isn't just hand-scratching, it's heart-burdening and heart-breaking. Because we live in a world cursed on our account, a world of infected blessings, we're exposed to trial and tribulation, to anxiety and fear, to shame and sorrow, to difficulties and distresses, to pains and perils, to the vicious cycle of laboriousness and laziness and listlessness.

Lamech, for one, finds it hard to cope with the hard work of living. But rather than imitate his namesake in fool's game of mastering life by his fist, he lifts his dirty, thorn-pricked hands to heaven. He cries out for relief, not for himself alone but for the entire human race. He looks, he says, for “relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). 'Relief,' 'comfort,' 'consolation' – throughout the Bible, it often refers to verbal comfort in the face of anxiety or grief. When Joseph's brothers were scared by the loss of their late father's protection, Joseph “comforted them and spoke kindly to them,” reassuring them that they were safe with him (Genesis 50:21). When the Ammonite king's father died, “David sent by his servants to console him concerning his father,” heralding sympathetic solidarity in his grief (2 Samuel 10:2). Maybe Lamech's asking God for a word to help him feel safe, to lift his fallen spirits.

That would be good; that might be necessary. But it's often not enough (Isaiah 22:4). So relief can also be practical, some action taken to ameliorate or soothe a hurt. Job declares, “My bed will comfort me” (Job 7:13) – not by talking, but by being soft and inviting and giving him sleep, a refuge from his many woes. God describes a wounded child as “one whom his mother comforts,” not just by shushing him and telling him he's okay, but by holding him, kissing his boo-boo, bandaging his wound (Isaiah 66:13). In this way, Lamech cries out for a little “easing of the onerous, irksome, anxiety-producing, agonizing labor” by which he bought his days of life,20 a taste of “immediate consolation” in the midst of his daily grind.21

But better still, relief can also mean something that doesn't just lighten the load but takes away the burden. The prophets celebrated in advance that “the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (Isaiah 52:9), “he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden” (Isaiah 51:3). When exiles come home again, God calls that “comforting them and giving them gladness for sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13). Lamech seems to want more than just a lighter load on the cursed earth; he wants the curse lifted away, relieved by being removed altogether.22 Lamech is looking in hope for someone to come “reset the proper order of the world which was lost” in the days of his ancestor Adam.23 Lamech is crying out for relief from the curse itself.

And for whatever reason, he takes that hope and he invests it in his newborn son, expecting him to redeem what Lamech's hands have suffered and done: “This one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands from the ground which the LORD has cursed” (Genesis 5:29). One Jewish reader glossed Lamech's hope as saying that this son was born “to bring joy to the earth from all its destruction.”24 Why all these hopes pinned on this little boy? Some have wondered if this boy was the first born after the death of Adam, meaning maybe Lamech hoped that, with the original sinner now reunited with the dust, this boy might inherit an earth beyond Adam's curse.25 Others guessed that, in light of Enoch being taken by God somewhere beyond the reach of death, Lamech could easily make “a pious mistake” in supposing that “that happy day of fulfillment of the promise was near at hand” and that this child was the redeemer.26 Some Jewish traditions imagined that Lamech's son was so unusual at birth – “whiter than snow and redder than a rose..., and when he opened his eyes, his house shone like the sun..., and he opened his mouth and praised the Lord of Eternity” – that Lamech panicked and ran to Methuselah to seek Enoch's reassurances that the boy was truly his son and was just destined for something very special.27 But the early Christians found Lamech to be “a prophet” of “this radiant and most wonderful hope,”28 attesting to “the good God's unspeakable love.”29

And so, as a prophetic prayer, Lamech raises his son with “the hopes of humanity resting on his shoulders.”30 He names that son 'Noah,' a name that comes, not from the Hebrew word for 'relief' that Lamech used already, but from a different but similar-sounding root meaning 'rest,'31 a curious fact long recognized.32 So far in Genesis, we've seen this verb just once, when God took Adam and 'rested' him, settled him, in the garden (Genesis 2:15). Later, Moses promises Israel that when they enter their garden of the promised land, “the LORD your God will give you rest from your enemies all around, so that you live in safety” (Deuteronomy 12:10; cf. Joshua 21:44). Some have thought Lamech was looking for deliverance from the evil society around him.33

But Moses also reminds Israel that the Ten Commandments already commanded that every seventh day, on the sabbath, “your servant may rest as well as you” (Deuteronomy 5:14) – so Lamech, seventh from Enosh, hopes his son Noah, tenth from Adam, will be a sign of that commanded sabbath rest from our labors, the regular rhythm of relief Lamech doesn't yet see or enjoy.34 The other way the Old Testament talks about rest is in escaping out of an oppressive situation. In the “affliction and hard servitude” of the exile, Judah “finds no resting place” (Lamentations 1:3), but the prophet promises a future day when “the LORD has given you rest from your agony and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve” (Isaiah 14:3). Lamech is “seeking rest from the hardship of mankind,” yearning to be set free from the pains that eat away his days and nights – a rest that will ultimately mean being free from his 'affliction and hard servitude' under the curse.35

His cry is our cry! We want to live in peace and safety, we want to take a break from our labors, we want to be set free from slavery! Isn't that what everyone should want? Isn't it disturbing how wrapped up we as a culture are in our work, that it's infected our souls so much that it's where we seek our identity, where we take our name and our purpose, where we invest our sweat and tears? Isn't it sad how we treat ourselves and others like machines to produce and consume, produce and consume, all while worrying about the dangers of life and trying in vain to insulate ourselves from the inevitable? Don't we want rest, not from work as such but from agony and turmoil and hard service? I know I do. But everywhere in the Bible, rest isn't just from this or from that; it's always “rest for worship and obedience.”36 No wonder God describes his temple as his “resting place” (Psalm 132:14) and says it can only be built by “a man of rest” (1 Chronicles 22:9).

In giving voice to his and our heart-cry for relief and rest that will free him to worship, and in openly naming before the LORD his expectation that God hasn't meant the curse to be forever, Lamech becomes “a man of hope and anticipation for a better future.”37 And he invests those hopes in Noah.

How could Noah bring Lamech's better future to the world? Some later Jewish rabbis gave the guess that Noah invented a plough, which could harness animal strength to alleviate the burdens of farming by hand.38 Some suggested Noah brought rest in the sense that all human works stopped during the flood,39 or that death in the flood was a kind of rest for the people of his generation,40 or that Noah gained 'rest' in being preserved from moral corruption.41 Others looked after the flood, at him bringing relief through the offering he made with its soothing aroma (Genesis 8:21),42 or at his invention of a relaxing glass of wine to enjoy after the day's work (Genesis 9:20),43 or simply at the fact that in Noah a new and better humanity could inherit God's blessing.44

But early Christians observed that “what Lamech his father says is not appropriate to the ancient Noah.”45 After all, even if Noah did every one of those things, we're still toiling and sweating and dying among the thistles and the thorns. In fact, a different form of the same verb Lamech uses for 'relief' will show up ironically nine verses later to talk about God's regret in having made us at all (Genesis 6:6), turning Lamech's hopes on their head.46 Noah brings, at best, “a temporary restoration of rest from the curse,” not its lasting solution.47 One Jewish tradition observed that Lamech was really asking for someone to “console us from our evil deeds and from the robbery of our hands.”48 Early Christians agreed: Lamech was seeing a son “to rid us from evil,” from all the troubles multiplied in the world by our own hands' “efforts and evil behavior.”49 Noah can't do that. He can point you down, but not carry you down, the ancient path to “find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).

The hope Lamech invested in his son Noah has to be handed down, generation by generation, until it comes to someone who can carry what Noah can't.50 That calls for an ultimate Son of Noah – greater than Shem, Ham, or Japheth (Genesis 5:32), greater than Lamech, greater than Noah. One commentary observes that Noah, “while not achieving his father's highest aspirations, keeps alive the hope of a final deliverer.”51 Such a hope, such a call, can only be fulfilled by “the Spiritual Noah” who was to come out of the first Noah's line, “who is Jesus Christ.”52 Noah was born as “a type of Christ,” a shadow of the One who'd be his substance, the real Noah.53

When it comes to the burdens of sin that have lain heavy on us from before our birth, “there is no doubt that the charges brought against the transgression committed in Adam have been remitted in Christ.”54 As one medieval monk put it, “the relief or consolation with which this True Noah – namely, the Son of God – consoles us is the remission of sins that he grants to us.”55 Like the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, he carries our burdens of sin and guilt and curse into the desert of death.56 “Christ redeemed us from the curse... by becoming a curse for us... so that in Christ Jesus, the blessing... might come... through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14).

And he invites us – us, who work and work and never seem to get anywhere; us who carry heavy burdens on our backs and in our hearts; us, who sweat for the bread of this world, who gnaw at the thistles of frustration, who scratch ourselves bloody on the thistles of pain and misfortune; us, who have calloused hands and blistered souls – yes, he invites us: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He echoes the words of the wise Jewish poet: “Come to me, you who are uneducated..., put your neck under the yoke [of wisdom]... See with your eyes that I have toiled a little and have found for myself a great deal of relief.”57 That's what Jesus wants for us! He offers to teach us this new way of living, this divine wisdom and saving truth: “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). He's the gentle ruler, he's the caring and compassionate teacher, he's the Savior who won't snuff out our candle that's fading to dark in its weakness (Matthew 12:20).

What happens if we humble ourselves at this Master's feet? What happens if we turn to work in his field, pulling his light and uncomplicated yoke of mercy? What if we trade our heart-breaking burdens, our burnout burdens, for his buoyant burden of heart-bursting joy (Matthew 11:30)? What if we trade our toils in the cursed earth for the cross that lifts us up from earth on itself? What if our thorns become the sufferings that sanctify and glorify? Then “you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29) – which not Noah but Christ can give.58 In simple trust and obedience, Christ summons us from our sorrows and worries, our fears and frustrations, and makes us “rest from the works of iniquity.”59 “Christ, then, has become our righteousness and rest.”60

Not only does this Savior give us personal forgiveness, not only does he secure humanity's forgiveness, but he came to “bring about the restoration of the world,” for which “the curse must be removed.”61 And in offering up his life for his creation, Christ already has begun “delivering the earth from the ancient curse,” such that early Christians marveled that “through him God the Father restores all things to their pristine state.”62 Where those in hell “have no rest, day or night,” the “call for the endurance of the saints” is that those in heaven “rest from their labors, for their deeds” – the deeds of hands redeemed – “follow them” (Revelation 14:11-13). And when “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven” to make all things new, it will mean “relief to you who are afflicted” (2 Thessalonians 1:7). Therefore, as one early Christian teacher said, when you read this passage, look to Jesus Christ, and “you will find him to be the One who has truly given rest to men and has freed the earth from the curse with which the Lord God cursed it..., this Spiritual Noah who has given rest to men and has taken away the sin of the world.”63 Thanks be to God for this hope of rest, “the comfort of the saints!”64 Amen.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

The One God Took

If you were with us last Sunday, we began to tackle one of everyone's favorite parts of the Bible: a genealogy. Specifically, Genesis chapter 5 is the family line through Seth that connects Adam to Noah. But even though it gets pretty repetitive, we got some understanding by comparing it to a list Sumerians kept of cities and kings they said were before the flood. We appreciated, by contrast, that Genesis 5 doesn't celebrate kings but focuses on people as husbands and dads. But this litany of life also hammers home, time and again, the inevitability of death – Adam dies, Seth dies, Enosh dies, and so on – as “death reigned from Adam to Moses” (Romans 5:14).

Except... there's one weird paragraph in the genealogy that breaks the mold. I warned you last Sunday that we have a troublemaker on our hands! So who is this Enoch fellow? At first, he seems to follow all the rules, fit all the formulas. He, like the rest, is somebody's son, entering the picture when fathered by Jared (Genesis 5:18). He's got brothers and sisters (Genesis 5:19), he gets married, he has sons and daughters (Genesis 5:21-22). All pretty normal. But if you can count even on your fingers, you know to pay attention to him. Starting with Adam as #1, Enoch is placed as the seventh in line – and you know how the Bible likes that number!

There are three things about Enoch that break the mold. We expect we'll read that, after he fathered his heir, he lived such-and-so-many years; instead, we read that “Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah 300 years” (Genesis 5:22). Those words crop up out of nowhere! Whatever it means, it's different than living an ordinary life this side of Eden's gates. Second, we're used to everybody in this genealogy living between 890 and 1000 years, but Enoch's number is way off. “All the days of Enoch were 365 years” (Genesis 5:23). If these numbers are all symbolic, that one should be a symbol we understand. What pops into your head, even today, when you hear the number '365'? It was a year, wasn't it? But what kind of year? What defines that year of 365 days? It's the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun; it's a solar year. Which isn't the kind of year that Israel recognized with their mainstream calendar; it's never 365 days from one Passover to the next. This is... odd.

But then, third, we expect to read, after adding up Enoch's days to just 365 years, that 'he died.' It's been the promised pattern – after all, death reigns over humanity, it's a universal law. Given that Enoch's life has been so much shorter than the rest, if it ends in his death we'll judge him as low in honor.1 But Enoch was different: he didn't just live, he walked with God – and so, even here where we expect his death, “Enoch walked with God.” So, rather than die, Enoch suddenly disappears. “He was not,” Genesis says. Nobody could find him, no matter where on earth they looked! Why? Genesis responds cryptically that “God took him” (Genesis 5:24). The last time in Genesis God 'took' anybody, it was back when “the LORD God took the human being and put him in the garden of Eden” (Genesis 2:15).2 So early Christians accepted that this verse here means that “God transported him,” Enoch, “to paradise,”3 whether this meant the Garden of Eden on earth,4 or some paradise in heaven.5 As for the details, “we should not pry into secrets but be grateful for what is written.”6

To appreciate what Genesis wants to tell us about this Enoch fellow, it invites us to make three comparisons, the first of which takes us outside the Bible. Remember that this whole genealogy is in dialogue with the Sumerian list of kings before the flood. That list usually reserved its seventh spot for a man named Enmedurana, also known as Enmeduranki.7 His name means something like 'Lord of the Cosmic Ordinances of the Bond between Heaven and Earth.' The standard length of his reign was 21,000 years, but actually different editions of the king list give him anywhere from 4,000 to 72,000 years.8 He ruled from Zimbir, a northern Sumerian city sacred to Utu, the Sumerian god of justice and of the sun. (No wonder Enoch's linked to the solar year.9) The Babylonians had a tradition where this sun-god and the storm-god summoned Enmeduranki into the assembly of the gods, put him on a golden throne, and taught him secret mysteries to reveal when he returned to his city.10 But where Enmedurana visits his gods, Enoch walks always with the only true God. Finally, the Babylonians paired Enmedurana with a wise counselor, Utuabzu, who – according to their lore – “ascended into heaven.”11

So Genesis is in dialogue here with the Sumerians and Babylonians. But it's also in dialogue with itself. In this genealogy, we've got to keep Cain's family in our peripheral vision. It's not for nothing that this descendant of Seth is named Enoch when Cain had a son also named Enoch (Genesis 4:17)! Like Enmedurana in Zimbir, the Enoch in Cain's family is absorbed in the city of this world. That's why Cain's son has that name, which can mean 'dedication,' like laying a cornerstone for a building project. But it can also mean 'initiated one,'12 for this Enoch goes beyond the other and gives his attention to spiritual things.13 He answers his Cainite namesake that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). And so instead of an urban frenzy, this Enoch is set apart from the other one by his “exceptional piety and devotion to God.”14

As seventh in Seth's line from Adam, Enoch represents the fullness of Seth's way to be human, just as Lamech, the seventh in Cain's line from Adam, represents the fullness of Cain's way to be human. Where one blossoms in brutality, the other blooms in peace.15 Lamech clings tightly to defense of his earthly life and goods by any deadly means necessary. But Enoch, because he trusts God completely, is so unconcerned with these things that he freely gives them away; and so God snatches him away from Lamech's world without tasting death.16

Enoch shows us that, while “death may reign from Adam to Moses” (Romans 5:14), God doesn't take that as a final word. Enoch, born in original sin like the rest of us, may pay the wages of sin eventually, but that payday is deferred indefinitely for a special purpose.17 Early Christians concluded that “God took Enoch away to himself... to make known to Death that its power is not forever over all children of Adam.”18 He serves advance notice to Death itself that Christ is on the way! Enoch's sign “suggests the resurrection that was to come.”19

And if we want to know why it was that Enoch was chosen to step outside the “vicious cycle of sin and death,”20 look no further than the double declaration that “Enoch walked with God” (Genesis 5:22, 24). We've turned that expression into something of a cliché, I'm afraid. But it's actually quite radical. Walking with God was how Adam and Eve were meant to live in the Garden, but after they taste sin, they do the exact opposite thing: they hide from God, avoiding fellowship with him. Enoch picks up, somehow, on the sort of relationship with God that the Garden was about. Different commentators describe Enoch's 'walk' as an “ongoing companionship of life” between himself and God,21 as a “supernatural, intimate fellowship with God,”22 or even as “a habitual, consistent, and constant relationship with God... each moment of each day.”23

The prophet Amos asks, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to meet?” (Amos 3:3). The answer is no. Enoch walking with God is no accident, but a daily intention of his pious devotion. He chooses to go with God where God is going, he chooses to submit his decisions to God and be responsive to God, he chooses a life that is consistently about more than the life of this world. As one medieval monk put it, Enoch “followed the will and commandments of God in everything..., God tarrying in him and possessing and ruling his heart.”24 That's what it means to walk with God, and not aimlessly or away from God. And, as one old bishop observed, “it was for no short period that he followed this virtuous way,” but for the fullness of his life to the end.25 We are, then, far too flippant about the phrase 'walk with God.' We use it much too loosely. It's a rare and precious gift, this walking with God. And yet we are meant, we are called, to walk with him, to allow God to be our ongoing companion each day, to have fellowship with him undisturbed by even lighter sins, to cultivate an observance of his will and a relationship with God through his Spirit poured out to us beyond what Enoch knew.

What's remarkable about Enoch's walk with God, moreover, is that Enoch didn't have to withdraw from his life in order to do it. Enoch walked with God while married to his wife. Enoch walked with God while changing Methuselah's diapers. Enoch walked with God while doing whatever he did to put food on the family table for a growing number of sons and daughters. In the words of one reader, Enoch proved “capable of achieving the highest moral perfection while remaining intimately concerned with the world around him.”26 Enoch proves that eternity isn't only for a spiritual elite in the sense of ascetics who strive to distance themselves from worldly life to live like angels on the earth – as much praise as Jesus has for those who become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12), and as much as Paul worries that “the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:33-34). To prove that you can walk with God outside a monastery, Enoch “was temperate and begot children.”27 Enoch shows us, in the words of one great bishop, that “as long as we are on our guard, neither marriage nor bringing up children nor anything else will be able to stand in the way of our being pleasing to God.”28

And Enoch did this – early Christians made a big deal out of this observation – long before the commandments and covenants given through Moses or Abraham or even Noah. Therefore, Enoch was “able to please God without the burden of the law.”29 How? The New Testament answer is that “by faith... he was commended as having pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5). His reverent obedience, his mature worship – they all stemmed from the fact that Enoch had a fullness of faith.30 Before any of the revelations given through Moses, Enoch had the faith that God exists and rewards those who seek him, and by that faith Enoch was able to walk closely with God (Hebrews 11:6). So, again as a medieval monk put it, by faith Enoch “performed the life and discipline of those who, in the faith of the Lord's passion, await the joy of eternal salvation, denying themselves and bearing their cross daily..., walking with the Lord and directing their course toward the entrance to Paradise.”31 Enoch shows us a lived faith amidst of everyday life, faith that yields “a long obedience in the same direction,” as they say.32

By our standards, Genesis gives Enoch a long, long obedience indeed – over three centuries. But by the lights of Genesis 5, Enoch disappears as practically a young man in his prime. But even at his departure, that doesn't mean Enoch was done living, or that he didn't have a future ahead of him. Your vocation may be bigger than your days. Early Christians remarked that Enoch is “preserved until now as a witness of God's just judgment.”33 And not only that, but in the Bible's last book, there's a mysterious passage where God will “grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth..., and when they have finished their testimony, the Beast that rises from the abyss will make war on them and conquer them and kill them..., but after the three and a half days, a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet..., and they went up to heaven in a cloud” (Revelation 11:3-12). Already by the third century, some wondered if Enoch and Elijah might be those witnesses.34 Christians came to wait for Enoch to “return with Elijah for the conversion of this age.”35 Though his 365 years were done, they believed Enoch still had work to do in God's plan – and though heaven is resting in God from earthly labors, our calling is bigger than our days, too.

Enoch receives so few lines in the Bible, and yet when it comes to this cryptic passage of Genesis that gives us so much wisdom, Martin Luther thought these words “should be written in letters of gold and be impressed most deeply on the heart.”36 Ancient Jews certainly thought so, because of the earliest Jewish books we have outside the Old Testament, many of them are books about Enoch. People were fascinated by this mysterious guy in Genesis 5, they knew there had to be more to the story, and they weren't satisfied to have Enoch vanish without a trace or legacy left behind.37 If Moses had his books, they were sure there ought to be “books of Enoch the Righteous.”38 So some Jews began to write them themselves.

Out of the crucible of exile in Babylon, and then through a flood of Greek culture courtesy of Alexander the Great, ancient Jews were dazzled with a wealth of new ideas.39 After Alexander the Great died in Babylon in June of 323 BC, Judah became frontier territory during decades of civil war between his generals fighting over pieces of his empire; they seemed to stride the earth like giants.40 In that context, Jews turned to the perplexing passage where “the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were good, and they took for themselves wives, whichever they chose” (Genesis 6:2), and so “the Nephilim were on earth in those days..., when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man, and they bore children to them” (Genesis 6:4). They came up with a story – and I'm not saying the Bible teaches this – about a group of 200 angels called Watchers (cf. Daniel 4:17) who came down to earth during the days of Enoch's father 'Jared,' whose name means 'descent'; one of them, Shemihazah, led the others in swearing an oath at Mount Hermon (north of Galilee) to marry human women and have children, despite knowing this would be a sin.41 These women proceeded to give birth to giants, whose fleshly human bodies could barely handle the spiritual immensity of having angels for fathers, leading to intense hunger, cannibalism, drinking blood – nasty stuff.42

In this Book of the Watchers, when God gives orders to his chief angels to execute judgment on the Watchers and their violent giant children,43 both of which have become unclean through their behavior, God's angels task Enoch, the 'scribe of righteousness,' with announcing to them their judgment.44 The fallen Watchers beg Enoch to be their go-between with God, and to present their pleas for mercy,45 but after he prays for them, Enoch dreams he enters God's heavenly palace and hears the bad news that the Watchers' sins are unforgivable and that when the giants die, because they're half-angel and half-man, their spirits will roam the earth as unclean 'evil spirits,' continuing to trouble and lead humanity astray until the day of judgment.46 

Around this tale are added an introduction, which is quoted in the New Testament (Jude 14-15),47 and then Enoch's angel-guided tour of creation.48 The last stretch of this tour sums up another early Enoch book, the Book of the Luminaries, where instead of the sun-god Utu/Shamash teaching Enmeduranki from the 'tablet of the gods,' Enoch is taught Babylonian astronomy from the 'tablets of heaven' by an angel named Uriel, 'God is my light.'49 This book fiercely argues for use a 364-day solar calendar; following any other calendar, it suggests, is a sin.50

Living under contentious but stable Greek rule, Jews kept writing books starring Enoch.51 One, the Dream Visions of Enoch, consists of two dreams Enoch had during his younger days before he got married, which now he decides to share before he leaves earth.52 One of those visions includes a story called the Animal Apocalypse, which retells the entire history of the Old Testament using animals, dubbing God as 'Lord of the Sheep.'53 The other book, the Epistle of Enoch, is set up as Enoch's last words to his family.54

But after these books, another was written in Mary Magdalene's hometown in Galilee while Jesus was growing up less than thirty miles away in Nazareth: the Parables of Enoch.55 In it, Enoch relays messages about the final judgment from three 'parable' visions. In the first one, he sees that God, the 'Lord of Spirits,' has entrusted his secrets to a Chosen One who will vindicate all those who live righteously in the face of oppression.56 In the second vision, Enoch learns that the Chosen One is also known as the Son of Man, who has been known by God since before the stars were made and who is destined to rule an everlasting kingdom while seated on God's own throne.57 In the third vision, Enoch sees that this Chosen One, this Son of Man, is the one who will judge humanity.58 And the kings of the earth “will fall on their faces in his presence, and they will worship and set their hope on that Son of Man, and they will... petition for mercy from him,” but time's up.59 At the very end of the book, there's a great twist: God emerges from his fiery house, Enoch says, “and all my flesh melted, and my spirit was transformed,” and God announces to Enoch face-to-face: “You are that Son of Man!”60

Are these books Scripture? Again, no, no they are not. But because these ideas were floating around Galilee at the time, they help us understand Jesus. In the Book of the Watchers, God tells Michael to “bind [the Watchers] for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth until the day of their judgment..., then they will be led away to the fiery abyss.” When Luke traces Jesus' family back to Adam, guess how many generations Jesus is after Enoch? You guessed it: Luke counts seventy (Luke 3:23-37)! And if the Watchers mixed heaven and earth with unnatural bonds of sexual defilement, Jesus unites heaven and earth supernaturally by being born of a virgin.61

In his ministry, where so many of his neighbors put their hopes in a heavenly Enoch and his revelations, Jesus declared that “no one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). He makes clear that Enoch isn't that promised Son of Man; Jesus himself is the Son of Man. He reveals his identity to his disciples with Mount Hermon in the background (Matthew 16:13-17).62 His appearance on earth opens a window for mercy to those who repent, because if he's got authority to judge, he's got authority on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2:10).63 And where Enoch held out hope for the righteous to one day feast beside the Son of Man,64 even while admitting that “no human is righteous before the Lord,”65 Jesus invites even sinners to eat at his table here and now (Luke 7:34). Jesus travels the land, overpowering the monstrously strong unclean spirits (Mark 5:1-13),66 and teaching in parables that share many themes with some of the Parables of Enoch.67 He has the authority to “reveal the eternal mysteries that are in heaven,”68 and none is greater than the gospel “kept secret for long ages but now disclosed... to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:25-26).

Jesus emphasized the perplexing idea that the Son of Man, this glorious chosen figure, had come to earth to suffer with the outcasts (Mark 8:31). And that's exactly what Jesus does: after betrayed by a disciple who ought to wish he'd never been born (Mark 14:21),69 Jesus carries his cross to Calvary; he dies beneath the mockery of the 'bulls of Bashan' (Psalm 22:12; cf. Matthew 27:39-44). But he rises from the dead in life more immortal than Enoch's, and the Apostle Peter adds that in the spirit he “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,” the ones who disobeyed God before the flood – that is, the Watchers (1 Peter 3:19).70 If Enoch was sent to warn of God's preliminary judgment, Jesus goes to proclaim that he's accomplished God's victory at last!

Where Enoch was at best assumed into heaven, 'taken' by God, Jesus ascends through his own power and choice which perfectly harmonize with God's will. Enoch may have been taken God-knows-where, but, although he portrays these greater things as a sign of them, even Enoch hasn't yet “received what was promised, since God has provided something better for us, that apart from us [Enoch] should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).71 On that day, Jesus will be the Son of Man seated on “the throne of his glory” (Matthew 19:28; 25:31), sending those who rejected him into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), but welcoming his sheep to his side in “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).72 “Formerly you were worn out by evils and tribulations,” he might say, “but now you will shine like the luminaries of heaven..., and the portals of heaven will be opened for you.”73 On that day, we will know what it means to confess Jesus Christ as our Lord, the Son of Man, the one to whom Enoch in faith pointed all along! For not Enoch the taken, but Christ the Taker, is Lord! “Blessed will be all who listen” to his words, for “that they may lean on him and not fall,” and so “they will be saved.”74 “Our Lord is faithful in all his deeds and his judgment and his justice.”75 “All who dwell on the earth will... worship before him!”76 Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

And He Died

This morning, our journey through Genesis reaches a new benchmark, a new division, called “the book of the generations of Adam” (Genesis 5:1), which is set apart from the two divisions that came before it, the account of God's creating (Genesis 1:1–2:3) and “the generations of the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 2:4–4:26). As we closed out what heaven and earth begat, we read through the seven generations of Cain, seeing a humanity building ever higher in culture yet spiraling ever deeper in darkness (Genesis 4:16-24). Only the other week, when we read about a new son of Adam and Eve named Seth, and then his son Enosh, did we regain a glimmer of hope, relieved that Cain's isn't the only way to be human (Genesis 4:25-26). But that short note merely sets the stage for us to explore this hopeful alternative, generation after generation (Genesis 5:1-32).

Before anything else, we're reminded of what we were made to be: the image and likeness of God, bearing the blessing of the Most High, fruitfully multiplying throughout the face of the earth, bringing Eden to the ends of the world (Genesis 5:1-2). But what are we now, on the other side of snakes and sins and curses, of sacrifice and slaughter and a city? Well, Adam is still the image of God, despite two chapters of chaos and ruin.1 But as he sires the son who's going to carry this legacy onward, Adam “fathered in his likeness, after his image, and called his name Seth” (Genesis 5:3). Seth is after Adam's image, he's in Adam's likeness, which is indirectly the image of God but filtered through what Adam has done. This is a likeness distorted by Adam's deviation. Seth – and, by implication, the line that follows him – is “a mixture of the regal image of God and the flawed image of Adam,” as one source puts it.2 But despite that mixture, the legacy and blessing of Eden haven't gone away.

Starting in this line, we're treated to a whole chapter of genealogy, tracing ten generations bridging Adam on the one end and Noah on the other, though we're stopping short today. And, look, the patterns are pretty formulaic; nearly every paragraph here sounds like each of the others, swapping out some names and numbers.3 I'd bet that a bunch of us get bored and zone out when we hit these chapters of our Bible. They seem like stuffing, filler, mere connective tissue, the gristle we wish we could cut out to leave only the meat. Chewy it might be, but I'd like to suggest it's worth it this time to gnaw our way through this chapter and see if there's any juice here.

The first three names are already familiar to us: Adam, Seth, Enosh (Genesis 5:3-6). Like we heard two weeks ago, where Cain's son Enoch lent his name and labors to a city called after his name, Seth's son Enosh calls on the Lord's name and becomes a new Adam, focused on being as humbly human as he can be.4 And if Enosh is a new Adam, it only makes sense for him to name his son Kenan, which in Hebrew is spelled almost the same as Cain or Tubal-Cain.5 For that matter, most of the names that follow are eerily similar to names we've heard before in the family of Cain.6 Cain's got a Mehuya'el, so Seth's got a Mahalal'el, “praising God.”7 Cain's got an Irad, so Seth's got a Yered, “to descend.”8 And while both have an Enoch – we'll puzzle that out next week – if Cain's got a Metusha'el, Seth's got a Metushelach.9 We're forced to keep comparing Seth's family with Cain's.10

But before we keep hopping forward in time, it's worth looking side to side. Because each of these men doesn't just have a successor; he's got a broad brood. In every generation, starting with Adam, we're told that “he had other sons and daughters” (Genesis 5:4) – another point of contrast with Cain, where nothing of the sort comes up. In one Jewish tradition, after Seth, Adam and Eve have ten other children;11 another Jewish tradition names an extra “twelve sons and eight daughters”;12 and still another proclaimed that “Adam produced thirty sons and thirty daughters.”13 The point here is that in Seth's line, the image of God – however mixed with the likeness of Adam – is being fruitful, multiplying just as it was meant to in Eden.14 One old bishop once said that “there is an Adam, for we are from him, we being his race according to succession, and we see him through the multitude of people in succession.”15 Whenever you look in somebody's eyes, Adam and Eve peek out at you.

As precious a truth as that is, there's another feature of this chapter that ought to grab your attention. Consider that “when Seth had lived 105 years, he fathered Enosh; Seth lived after he fathered Enosh 807 years, and had other sons and daughters; thus all the days of Seth were 912 years” (Genesis 5:6-8). Do those numbers strike you as ordinary? Do you run into many 900-year-olds when you visit the local nursing home? I doubt it.  So this seems rather... odd.

But the Bible's not alone here. In the Sumerian world, the closest thing we find to this is a list of kings who reigned before the flood.16 Eventually, these pre-flood kings would get paired with pre-flood culture-bringers who had similar-sounding names, just like the elect Sethites pair with culture-bringing Cainites with similar-sounding names.17 But this list of pre-flood kings starts with Alalim, who ruled for 28,800 years; then Alaljar took over for the next 36,000 years.18 The other pre-flood kings are like that, with the shortest ruling only 18,600 years.19 One scholar quipped that by these standards, “Methuselah would not even rate as a spring chicken!”20 Side-by-side with these Sumerian fantasies, doesn't Genesis suddenly sound a lot more... reasonable?21

The Sumerians understandably needed to compensate for the gap between how little they knew about before the flood with how much living there was to do, so they gave outsized credit to the few names they had.22 But where the Sumerians revered these ancestors as virtual gods on earth, Genesis douses them with a dose of “much-needed realism” by toning everything back down.23 In the humbler figures of the Bible, the ancestors before the flood each “approach a millennium but... never attain it.”24 Jewish tradition thought that was significant, with one writer saying Adam “lacked seventy years from one thousand years, for a thousand years are like one day in the testimony of heaven, and therefore it was written concerning the tree of knowledge, 'In the day you eat of it, you will die'; therefore he did not complete the years of this day, because he died in it.”25

Modest though they might've been in Sumer, by our standards these are still big numbers. By Israel's standards, too, since the psalmist thinks eighty years is a pretty impressive lifespan (Psalm 90:10) and since only three kings of Judah (David, Uzziah, and Manasseh) even made it past sixty, with most dying in their forties or fifties. Numbers like these would've been impressive, mysterious, otherworldly, suggesting both God's great blessing and also the great distance between pre-flood antiquity and our own day.26 What do we do with those numbers?

Up to a couple centuries before Jesus, people didn't keep track of time as a continuous thing,27 and genealogies in the ancient world were less about tracking history than about using symbolism to make a point.28 Even now, there are cultures where people don't know their actual ages, because they don't count such things as we do.29 The numbers in the Sumerian king lists all interested the Sumerians mathematically, multiples of sixties and sixty-times-sixties, since they used the base-60 number system we still use in clocks.30 The numbers in the Bible don't feel totally natural either. You'll notice that each set of years, before or after the kid is born, is a set of sixty-year units plus a set of sixty-month units, sometimes with an extra seven years thrown in.31

But when the Sumerians listed impressive people before the flood, of course they were kings in cities – who else would be worth our attention, after all?32 But Genesis 5 doesn't worry about kings and cities; leave that to Cain's folks.33 To be the image of God is royalty enough, and you don't have to sit on a throne to be it. Genesis has no interest in how Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, and Jared paid the bills. There's only one role that matters during their lives. And it's that they're dads. Extraordinary dads in a mysterious world, but dads all the same, raising their image-of-God kids in the love of God. Often today, the importance of a father is demeaned, despite its proven importance in a child's life. We readily think our importance is found outside the home, in what we do in the world, the impact we make on big life. But the greatness of people like Mahalalel isn't in inventing things or ruling cities or or achieving big goals or going on grand adventures. It's just enough that people like Mahalalel have sons and daughters who will carry the image of God and the blessing of life forward one more step beyond them.34 That's it. That's what's called for in life, naturally speaking. To be remembered as a dad is plenty. Martin Luther, for one, thought that Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, and Jared were “the most outstanding heroes this world has ever produced.”35 All because they were such faithful, righteous fathers.

On the Last Day,” Luther said, “we shall behold and admire their grandeur.”36 But this genealogy of grandeur also brings us what one commentator dubbed “the first obituary in human history.”37 “All the days that Adam lived were 930 years – and he died” (Genesis 5:5). The day came when the lips that tasted forbidden fruit could no longer describe the garden of God. The limbs that toiled at the curse-hard soil grew cold. “You are dust,” God told him, “and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). One early Christian pictured the Lord saying to Adam: “I am consigning you to death, and the maggot and the worm will eat your body.”38 Harsh, but true. Then this first obituary is echoed, generation after generation, by an “inescapable repetition” thundering forth “like a drumbeat.”39 Every step of the way in this genealogy, “the shadow of death looms over the names.”40 That chorus, “and he died” – just one word in Hebrew – is the literal last word on Adam, the last word on Seth, the last word on Enosh and Kenan and Mahalalel and Jared.41 The big numbers scattered all over the page only highlight the yawning chasm between the longest lives we can imagine and the eternity of God.42

Notwithstanding the guy we'll read about next Sunday, it remains true, as the Apostle says, that “death reigned from Adam to Moses,” because from Adam “death spread to all humans” (Romans 5:12-14). From Adam on, the psalmist says, “no man can... live forever and never see the Pit” (Psalm 49:7-8). For “from the time of the first human being right down to the end of the world, it has been laid down that all must die at one time or another.”43 This chapter hammers home the inevitability of death woven inseparably into this litany of life.

The Bible says that “the living know that they will die” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). But we like to pretend we don't and won't. Modern Americans are severely allergic to thinking seriously and personally about the end. It's a pretty infamous fact about us: we are deeply out of touch with our mortality.44 Even in the modern church, caught up in that cultural stream, we have a tendency to avoid it as much as possible. We have lots of learn from early and medieval Christians, to whom “the salvation of a person consists entirely in the preparation for death.”45

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these are questions the church should be asking you today. Every one of us here is well acquainted with the deaths of friends and family members, some of them pretty recently. Many of us are at an age of approaching “the day when the keepers of the house tremble... and the grinders cease..., before the silver cord is snapped... and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:3-7). And any of us, at any age, could die before we gather again next Sunday. James reminds us: “You don't know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Death is inevitable – and that's a personal message to each of us.

The question earlier Christians asked, in light of death's inevitability, was: “What kind of death do you want? What matters most when you're dying? What does it mean to die well?” Modern Americans might answer that a good death is a comfortable death, free of pain; or an accompanied death, surrounded by loved ones; or an orderly death that doesn't make too much of a mess or inconvenience people; or a dignified death that lets us keep our self-image. In Canada and Europe, increasingly this idea is taken even further to mean a scheduled, chosen, and effortless death by what they call 'medical assistance in dying,' even for the perfectly healthy.

For Christians, dying well has usually been seen very differently. The psalmist said, and Christ echoed him: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:14-15).46 In the sixth century, one elderly bishop grew so weak that “he no longer had the strength to spit upon the ground,” yet “he always had in everything a holy liberty... and died in perfect sanctity.”47 Two centuries earlier, one son remembered his dad in his late nineties, “in pain often every day, sometimes hourly,” feverish and ulcerated, unable to eat, barely able to drink, “breathing shortly and with difficulty, not even perceiving those present.”48 But the son asks, “why should it be surprising that holy men suffer ills, either for the purification of some small stain, or for proving their virtue or testing their philosophy, or for the instruction of the weaker, who learn from their example to be brave instead of faint-hearted in misfortune?”49

When ancient Jews imagined what it was like in Adam's last days, they pictured him in the pains of the dying process, groaning deeply, announcing his “deep grief,” and asking his family to pray for him.50 Death naturally grieves and frightens the human mind as well as body. It's okay to be scared in the face of it. It approaches as a threat to everything we know, everything we want, most especially to keep loving and being loved.51

Amidst that natural unease, though, early and medieval Christians were keenly aware that the final hours of life in the body are also the devil's last chance to tempt you. So they expected – and were right to expect – that your dying hours might well entail “a fierce spiritual battle,”52 a “hand-to-hand combat..., a fight to the finish with everything at stake.”53 You might be tempted with doubt and disbelief, wondering if there really is a God and an afterlife, or if this won't just be the abyss.54 You might be tempted with despair in the face of your regrets and sins, thinking there's no more chance for God to save you.55 Or on the other side, you might be tempted with presumption, figuring that God's boundless love leaves no room for judgment and that yesterday's grace is today's guarantee.56 You might be tempted to lose patience with the suffering, to rail at how unfair this all is, or to be tied up by old bitterness.57 Or you might be tempted to cling in your heart to all the things you just aren't ready to give up, looking back with longing at the life you leave.58 Can we die well despite the desperate devil?

Yes. And the first thing we can do is be honest. Like Adam, acknowledge the pain. Like Adam, acknowledge the grief. But remember, as the Apostle says, that “death spread to all humans because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Uncomfortable doesn't mean unfair. By all means, if palliative care can lighten the load, let it. But we need to be patient with what God calls us to – with the pain, with the grief, with the goodbyes to family and friends and everything else we had spent our lives pretending mattered so much. It means humbling ourselves as our dignity, our strength, our independence, our pride, our identity, and ultimately our life are all stripped away.59 As Erasmus put it, “we must ascend the cross naked with our Lord, far from all earthly desires...”60

Then, when we face death, it's natural and right for us to look back over our lives, our history. It's instinct, the proverbial life flashing before the eyes. But as we're being honest, the history we review is hardly perfect. And we know, as we approach that hour, that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Jews imagined Adam saying to Eve on his deathbed: “We do not know how we will meet the One who made us, whether he will be angry with us or turn around to show us mercy.”61 In the face of death, one of the most important things we can do is repent of what we've done – to be sorry for those sins and, confessing them to God, to seek his mercy, trusting he's always more eager to forgive than we are to ask it.62

But in equal measure, a good death is one of releasing old grievances. Just as Jesus prayed forgiveness for those who were actively mocking and crucifying him, to die well calls for freely extending forgiveness to those whose deeds burdened you.63 To share Christ's cross in death – which is the only way to die in Christ – is to imitate his forgiveness, remembering he himself said that “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). Don't die with a heart weighed down. Let go. The good news, as you look over your life of joys and pains, of rights and wrongs both done and received, is that a Christian can never die alone. A Christian dies as a member of the Body of Christ, part of a grand communion with a history centered on the cross of Jesus.64 It isn't just your life that can flash before your eyes; it's Christ's.

We know, too, that “without faith, it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Jesus tells us this is the crucial factor that makes death not deadly: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Against the devil's temptation to doubt, a good death means putting faith in Jesus, believing his good news of salvation, leaning in trust on his grace. “The most effective solace of all,” it's been said, “is never to move the eyes of faith from Christ, who gave himself completely for us, whom we have as our advocate before God.”65 That's why medieval Christians recited the Creed and Scripture around the beds of the dying, to remind them what they believe, to help them zero in on that bedrock truth that's deeper than the cracks of death.66

Likewise, against the devil's temptation to despair, a good death calls for hope in the promises of the God “who gives life to the dead” and even now is “able to do what had had promised” (Romans 4:17-22). “We hope for what we do not see” (Romans 8:25), and nowhere is that more needful and relevant than the hour of death. Death asks us to face its dark silence with a determined hope and courageous love for the God who beckons us to an unfamiliar home on the other side of the sightless canyon.67 “Fixed there [on Christ's cross] by three nails – faith, hope, and love – let us persevere unshakeably, fighting Satan to the end with all our strength until he is conquered and we pass over into eternal rest through the protection and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”68

As we fight that good fight to our last, our weapon is our worship. One of our most detailed early portrayals of a natural Christian death is a fourth-century woman named Macrina. Her brother, an eyewitness, tells us how, even while “fever was consuming her vital force,” she unflinchingly turned her thoughts to “contemplation of higher things.”69 And “the nearer she approached her exodus, the more clearly she discerned the beauty of the Bridegroom and the more eagerly she hastened to the One for whom she longed.” She had her bed turned to face east, the direction of worship, and “spoke from then on to God in prayer, making appeal with her hands.”70 Once her voice was gone, she mouthed a song of thanksgiving and then “brought to a close both her prayer and her life.”71 Of another woman it was said that “her death took on the semblance of a sacred ceremony.”72 Other great Christians died after receiving communion,73 or while meditating on what was being sung in church.74

To die well, like the saints of old, means accepting our dying for Jesus' sake and asking him to use them for good, to sanctify you and to bless others. Dying well means becoming a priest offering the sum total of your living and dying to God on the cross of Christ.75 But since we can rarely tell when we'll die, the only wise life is to practice for death.76 As they say: “Die before you die so you don't die when you die.” “For none of us lives to himself,” adds the Apostle, “and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's” (Romans 14:7-8). Live like that, and when the time comes (and come it will), you almost can't help but die well.77

The Apostle equally says that “what you sow does not come to life unless it dies, and what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel” (1 Corinthians 15:36-37). St. Augustine urges that “those righteous people of old who pleased God during the earliest periods of the human race,” the people we read about in Genesis 5, “will attain the resurrection of eternal life... precisely because they will be restored to life in Christ.”78 And we share the same promise: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive!” (1 Corinthians 15:22). 'And-he-died' isn't the final word after all. Jesus Christ – “the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38) – is the First Word before every genealogy, the Last Word beyond every obituary, the Infinite Word bigger than every number, the True Word above every doubt, the Word of Love to catch us in the deathly chasm! Amen.