William T. Turner was captain of the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in May, 1915. He was one of the few officers saved (obituary note from Montreal Gazette, 6/24/33). The Atlantic writes in an article that Turner was “relieving captain” of SS Ivernia when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat on New Year’s Day, 1917, and he once again survived (James Gould, 5/7/15). Turner was a man renowned for heroics and not a coward, which makes a captain surviving the sinking of two ships all the more incredible. But in 1933, after three, bed-ridden months, Turner succumbed to intestinal cancer. A few years ago, I wrote about Roy Sullivan, the park ranger who had survived seven lightning strikes. What an incredible tale of survival, but Sullivan insured his own mortality when he committed suicide in 1983. The man was incredible, but not invincible.
Jeanne Louise Calment is thought to be the world’s longest living person in modern times. She was born in 1875 in France, met Vincent Van Gogh as a young teenager, but eventually died in a nursing home in 1997, 122 years old! She took up fencing at 85, rode a bicycle until she was 100, ate two pounds of chocolate each week and quit smoking at 119. Back in the antediluvian period, in a purer world closer to creation, several lived over 900 years. In each case, however, Scripture punctuates their earthly existence by saying, “…and he died” (Genesis 5:5).
I have been involved in so many funerals as a preacher, from the first I assisted with Gary Hampton in Gainesville, Alabama, in 1992, until as recently as a couple of weeks ago. What strikes me as much as anything, whether in preparation for it visiting with the family or during slide shows during the service, is watching the progression of life unfolded in photos. Usually they are arranged chronologically, so that the fresh faces of the babies become the look of vitality found in children and young adults gives way to the robust strength of early to middle adulthood. Signs of aging subtly appear as the photos fade in and out, the added pounds or gray hairs or the advent of wrinkles. Pictures eventually show frailty and signs of physical deterioration. Then, one in attendance simply needs to gaze at the casket, if present, to see that this once fresh, new physical life does not go on forever.
The writer of Hebrews speaks in hopeful, positive terms to Christians as he proclaims the superiority and potency of Jesus, our great High Priest. At the cross, He offered His own life to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (9:26). Having a human body, Jesus was destined for death “inasmuch as it appointed for men to die once…” (9:27). Death is unavoidable, but it does not have to be unhinging. Death is followed by judgment, but that day can be the day of salvation realized and eager anticipation (9:28). What happens on the other side of death depends on what we do with Jesus on this side of it. Whatever we decide, we will make the appointment Turner, Sullivan, Calment, Adam and billions of others have already made. We must decide if we will meet it prepared.