Maybe some of you have seen the classic film, "A Man Called Peter", about the real-life minister Dr. Peter Marshall who rose from humble immigrant roots to become Chaplain to the U.S. Senate. The following is a transcription from that film of the famous sermon he delivered to the Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy on Sunday, December 7, 1941, just a few hours before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was announced on the radio.
James, Fourth chapter, 14th verse: "For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away."
What a queer thing for James to say. It's a strange statement to find in the New Testament, is it not? Is he being cynical? Is he joking? Well, hardly. If you look at the context in which this statement appears you will see that James is speaking to those who make great assumptions as to the future with never a thought of the contingency of life itself. He's addressing himself to those who never think of God and who act and live as though they had a mortgage on time, those who give no thought to the fact that they may never see tomorrow, those who act as though they had a long lease on life, as though they had immunity somehow, as though that cold and clammy hand of the dread messenger would never touch their hearts. Yet, death inevitably comes - to the king in his palace, the beggar by the roadside, the animal in his hole.
But what is death? Is it to be blown out like a candle in the wind? Is it a shivering void in which there is nothing that lives? Is it a cold space into which we are launched to be evaporated or to disappear? Are we to believe that a half-mad eternal humorist tossed the worlds aloft and left their destiny to chance? That a man's life is the development of a nameless vagrancy? That a hole in the ground six feet deep is his final heritage? There are a thousand insane things easier to believe than these. How can we believe that human personality will not survive when one who went into the grave and beyond came back to say, "Whosoever believeth in me shall not perish but have eternal life."
In a home of which I know, a little boy, the only son, was ill of an incurable disease. Month after month, the mother had tenderly read to him, nursed him, and played with him, hoping to keep him from realizing the dreadful finality of the doctor's diagnosis. But as the weeks went by and he grew no better the little fellow gradually began to understand the meaning of the term "death," and he too knew that soon he was to die. One day, the mother had been reading to him the stirring tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, and of that last glorious battle in which so many fair knights met their death.
As she closed the book the boy lay silent for a moment then asked the question that had been weighing on his childish heart, "Mother, what is it like to die? Mother, does it hurt?"
Quick tears sprang to her eye, and she fled into the kitchen supposedly to tend to something on the stove. She knew it was a question of deep significance. She knew it must be answered. She leaned for an instant against the kitchen door and breathed a hurried prayer that the Lord would not let her break down in front of the boy, that He would tell her what to say. And the Lord did tell her. Immediately she knew how to explain it to him.
"Kenneth," she said, as she returned to his room, "you remember how when you were a little boy you would play so hard all day that when night came you were too tired even to undress and would tumble into your mother's bed and fall asleep?
"In the morning, much to your surprise you would wake up and find yourself in your own room in your own bed. You were there because someone had loved you and taken care of you. Your daddy had come with big strong arms and carried you to your own room.
"Kenneth, death is like that. We just wake up one morning to find ourselves in the other room, our own room where we belong, because the Lord Jesus had loved us."
The lad's shining, trusting face looking up into hers told her there would be no more fear, only love and trust in his little heart as he went to meet the Father in heaven. He never questioned again. And several weeks later, he fell asleep just as she had said. That is what death is like.
Yet, in the life beyond the question inevitably comes, "With what body do we move?" Certainly not with such a body as ours is today. Not with rickets or a clubfoot. Not with twisted spine or withered arm. Not with calloused hands or wrinkled brow. Not with a heart filled with the broken glass of vanquished dreams. Not with the drunkard's thirst like the fires of hell, nor the sensualist's lust like gnawing worms. Not with the bitter memories of a son's crime or a daughter's shame. Not with the scar across the throat that the maniac's frenzy made.
No! Not with these do we make our entrance upon that larger stage. We rise, not clothed again in dying clay, not garbed once more with the faded garments of mortal flesh, but with the shining mercy of God.
If the Bible is true and Christ has not deceived us, there awaits beyond the curtain a life that will never end, a life of beauty and peace and love. A life of reunion with loved ones who, like ourselves, have trusted in the very presence of God. There shall be no more pain, no more sorrow, nor tears, nor parting, nor death anymore. Age shall not weary nor the years condemn. We shall enter into that for which we were created. It shall be the journey's end for the heart and all its hopes. It shall be the end of the rainbow for the child-explorers of God. We have His promise for that.
Let us pray.
Our fathers' God, to Thee who are the author of our liberty and under whom we have our freedom, we say our prayer. Make us ever mindful that we are the heirs of a great heritage, and the trustees of priceless things, lest we forget the price that was paid for them or the cost that may yet have to be met to keep them. Make us strong, O God, in conviction, with the insight of our perilous times, and in the courage for our testing. Amen.