LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–If the Lord is your shepherd and you are his sheep, you have nothing to fear in life or in death, James Merritt said at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Oct. 10.
“If you walk with God through life, God will walk with you through death,” said Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church, Snellville, Ga. “Therefore in life or in death, there should be no fear.”
Merritt’s sermon opened Southern Seminary’s second annual Heritage Week — a series of special events celebrating nearly 150 years of ministerial training at Southern Baptists’ flagship seminary. Keynote speakers for the week were Merritt, Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Annuity Board President O.S. Hawkins.
Having no fear in life or death, Merritt said, is difficult because the emotion is one of the most dominant and debilitating known to the human race.
“Fear is unbelievably powerful,” said Merritt, a two-time graduate of Southern Seminary. “Fear penetrates the heart. It poisons the spirit. It paralyzes the soul.”
Yet some fear is not unfounded nor unhealthy. When faced with inevitable death and judgment, a fallen and sinful human race should fear God.
“Jesus said in the Gospels, ‘Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell,'” Merritt said. “I am amazed at people who don’t even have enough spiritual sense to fear death and to fear judgment and to fear God.”
Christians, though, are able to forget and forsake their fear — even the fear of unknown and unquiet of death.
“Death is not a question of whether. It is a question of when,” Merritt said. “But what I came to tell you this morning is some of us don’t have to fear death. My friends, without God, you had better fear death. But with God, you ought to wear a T-shirt every day that says, ‘No fear.'”
Preaching from Psalm 23, Merritt explained that Christians should not fear death’s power and that they can have assurance of God’s presence and protection in the “valley of the shadow of death.”
The Psalm, written by David, alludes to a valley actually known by David as a shepherd boy. Deep, dark and dangerous, the hollow presented a foreboding throughway for the young soon-to-be king.
Merritt said a key word in the verse is “through.”
“He [David] knows the valley is not a dead-end street,” he said. “You know what a valley is? A valley is a tunnel that is open at both ends. … You’re in that valley right now. You entered the valley when you were born. You exited the valley when you die.”
Christian’s may not only take comfort in the death’s destination but also in its impotence. The name of the valley betrays it as bearing only the “shadow” of death.
“A shadow is an image without any substance,” Merritt said. “You see, if you are a child of God, let me give you some great news this morning. You don’t face death. You face death’s shadow.
“Because of the cross of Calvary, death is just a shadow of its former self.”
And in this shadowy valley, Christians claim the comfort in God’s assurance of his presence and protection.
“David knew that sheep never go through valleys alone,” Merritt said. “The shepherd is always there.”
In order to have a shadow, light must be present, he said. Thus, when Christians stroll though death’s doorway, they will be guided by the gleam of God’s glory.
“When you come to that time in your life and you know you’re going to die, … turn your back on the shadow and look at the light, because when you do, the shadow falls behind you and the light goes before you.”
Merritt illustrated this comfort by relating his own assurance after his father’s death two years ago. The night his father lost his bout with cancer, Merritt left the hospital with the doctor’s pledge that his father would live for several more days. But his father passed away sooner than expected, and Merritt could not return to the hospital in time.
“I used to struggle with the fact that my dad died alone, and I used to struggle with guilt that I was not there when my dad died,” Merritt said. “But God said to me, ‘James, your dad didn’t die alone.’
“May I tell you something. No child of God in history has ever died alone.”
This fact of God’s presence and protection, Merritt said, brings tremendous assurance, and therefore for Christians death should evoke no fear.
“Our great shepherd has led untold numbers of sheep through the valley of the shadow of death,” Merritt said. “He has never lost one.”