Brent Merten

Living and Growing: The ugliness of death is made beautiful by Jesus

My wife and I recently took our grandkids camping at Eagle Beach. Of particular fascination to them (and our dog) were the scores of chum salmon in the Eagle River, making their way upstream to spawn. As impressive as it was to see all those large fish massed in one area, you couldn’t escape the reality of death. Many were already dead, either floating in the river or lying on the shore, slowly being devoured by seagulls and eagles. The rest were in various stages of dying in the shallow waters at low tide.

Whether it’s salmon dying in a river, game being harvested by hunters, or humans succumbing to the ravages of age, disease, or trauma, death is an inescapable reality. And it’s a reality that’s never really pretty. Sometimes it’s downright ugly.

But one death stands out as particularly ugly. The death of Jesus 2,000 years ago was the most ugly, horrific death that ever occurred. Crucifixion is arguably the most inhumane form of execution ever devised by man. With nails fastening them to splintery wood, the condemned would endure excruciating hours of unimaginable pain, not only from the nails, but ultimately, from the lack of oxygen, as they struggled to fill their lungs, until finally, they couldn’t.

But the death of the man who was labeled “King of the Jews” by a sign over his head was far more horrific than any other crucifixion. You see, not only did Jesus suffer the physical pain of death on a cross, he experienced what can be rightly described as hell itself. For when Jesus was nailed to the cross, the sins of the whole world were nailed there with him. And even though he is the eternal Son of God, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, yet at that moment, he became the worst sinner of all time. And the holy God cannot and will not tolerate sin nor sinners. Every time I read the words that Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” my blood runs cold.

But as horrifically brutal and ugly as Jesus’ death was, it was also the single most beautiful act of love ever carried out. Jesus died, not because of the jealousy of religious leaders or the spinelessness of a petty government official, but because he wanted to. He wanted to bear the guilt of the sins of the world. He wanted to pay the price your sins and my sins demanded. When Jesus died, our sins died too.

Jesus’ friends carried his limp and lifeless body to a nearby tomb, where they tenderly laid it on a cold slab and sealed the tomb with a heavy rock. But that’s not how this story ends! Two days later, his tomb was discovered empty. And over the course of the next 40 days, Jesus showed himself to be very much alive to his family and friends.

Our sins died with Jesus. They remain dead. But Jesus lives. And so do we. And so will we. Forever.

Death is sometimes referred to as part of the “circle of life.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Salmon live about five years or so, then return to the freshwater streams and rivers they started in to try to perpetuate life, but ultimately, to die. But anyone who has ever experienced losing a loved one to death will tell you that there’s nothing nice about death. It’s an ugly and painful reality.

But Jesus’ death was different. It was ugly. Yet it was beautiful. It was unimaginably agonizing. Yet it brings unspeakable peace. It was the result of sin. Yet it spells the end of guilt. Jesus’ death, then, changed death forever. And his resurrection defeated death forever. Death, while still ugly and painful, is not the end. Rather, for the believing child of God, it is the beginning of a beautiful, perfect eternity.

• Brent Merten is the pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Juneau, a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. “Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders. It appears every Saturday on the Juneau Empire’s Faith page.

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