SERMON: Surprised by Death, by James Van Tholen

(James Van Tholen, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church in Rochester, New York, was stricken in 1998, at the age of 33, with a virulent and incurable form of cancer.  By October 1999, after bouts of chemotherapy, he was able to return to the pulpit.  This is the sermon that he preached upon his return.)

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners God died for us.  (Romans 5:6, 8)

This is a strange day — for all of us.  Most of you know that today marks my return to this pulpit after seven months of dealing with an aggressive and deadly form of cancer.  Now, with the cancer vacationing for a little while, I am back.  And of course, I’m glad to be back.  But I can’t help feeling how strange this day is — especially because I want to ignore my absence, and I want to pretend everybody has forgotten the reason for it.

But we can’t do that.  We can’t ignore what has happened.  We can rise above it; we can live through it; but we can’t ignore it.  If we ignore the threat of death as too terrible to talk about, then the threat wins.  Then we are overwhelmed by it, and our faith doesn’t apply to it.  And if that happens, we lose hope.

We want to worship God in this church, and for our worship to be real, it doesn’t have to be fun, and it doesn’t have to be guilt-ridden.  But it does have to be honest, and it does have to hope in God.  We have to be honest about a world of violence and pain, a world that scorns faith and smashes hope and rebuts love.  We have to be honest about the world, and honest about the difficulties of faith within it.  And then we still have to hope in God.

So let me start with the honesty.  The truth is that for seven months I have been scared.  Not of the cancer, not really.  Not even of death.  Dying is another matter — how long it will take and how it will go.  Dying scares me.  But when I say that I have been scared, I don’t mean that my thoughts have centered on dying.  My real fear has centered somewhere else.  Strange as it may sound, I have been scared of meeting God.

How could this be so?  How could I have believed in the God of grace and still have dreaded to meet him?  Why did I stand in this pulpit and preach grace to you over and over, and then, when I myself needed the grace to much, why did I discover fear where the grace should have been?

I think I know the answer now.  As the wonderful preacher John Timmer has taught me over the years, the answer is that grace is a scandal.  Grace is hard to believe.  Grace goes against the grain.  The gospel of grace says that there is nothing I can do to get right with God, but that God has made himself right with me through Jesus’s bloody death.  And that is a scandalous thing to believe.

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