Rev. Benjamin C. Squires, Redeemer Lutheran Church, Manitowoc, WI
“Dead By Thirty-Three”
First Sunday in Lent (B)
Saturday, March 4, and Sunday, March 5, 2006
This past Monday was my birthday. I turned 33. For about six years I’ve been thinking about this sermon, the sermon around my 33rd birthday, because around six years ago is when I first heard the song “Glory” by David Wilcox. Wilcox is a singer/songwriter, a folk singer who also happens to be a Christian. His song “Glory” contemplates what it means to wake up on your 33rd birthday knowing that this is the age that Jesus Christ was when He was crucified and rose again. I want you to hear the first verse and chorus of the song.
Well, I'd be dead by thirty-three
That was my best guess
But hey, here I am this morning
singing "happy birthday to me"
as I clean up all this mess
because I'm still left alive
In the big boring middle
of my long book of life
after the twist has been told
If you don't die in glory
at the age of Christ
then your story is just getting old
Wilcox is saying that he felt like he was going to be dead by thirty-three, dead at the age of Christ. However, he wakes up on his 33rd birthday, and he’s still there. Yet, he feels like his life is boring, like it’s all down hill from here. He always figured if he didn’t die in glory at the age of Christ, if he didn’t go out in a blaze of glory changing the world by the time he was 33, well, I guess, Wilcox figured his life was just going to get old.
Six years ago when I heard this song, I thought it was an honest thought—if I don’t accomplish something incredible by the time I’m thirty-three, then I suppose life will just be about growing old instead about trying to change the world. You look at everything Christ accomplished with His time on Earth, and you think, “If I haven’t done anything like that by the time I’m 33, then maybe I’ll never accomplish anything.”
In fact, you look at the ministry of Christ, and it only lasted a little over three years. We know from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus began preaching when He was around 30 years old. Today’s Gospel reading is how Mark tells about the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ He said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’”
Three years later, Jesus has preached this message all over Israel, He has created a huge following, has healed people, cast out demons, raised the dead, and forgiven sins. Three years later, Jesus has a group of dedicated disciples who will carry on His ministry, who become the leaders of the Church which is still here today. Three years later, Jesus accomplishes the will of the Father: He dies on the cross to take the punishment for the sins of the whole world and then rises again to conquer death on behalf of everyone. Jesus was 33 years old, spent 3 years in public ministry, and just look at what He accomplished. WWJD, what would Jesus do? A lot in a short time in a short life on earth. Now that I’m 33, I’m asking myself, “What would Jesus do? A lot more than I’ve done with my time on earth.”
If you’re 33 or older, you probably know what I’m talking about, you’ve probably asked yourself those questions. You’ve wondered if you’ve really accomplished very much with your life. You’ve wondered if you’ve done very much for God, and if you’ve had thoughts like that, you’ve more than likely gotten a little down about your age. Here we are spending more time on Earth than Jesus did, and we can’t seem to do very much with our lives.
If you’re not 33 yet, maybe it just seems like such a long way off that you’re confident that you’ll do more with your life before you get to be as old as that Pastor Squires guy.
By the way, it’s nice that many of you refer to me as the young pastor, but the youth know the truth: I’m old. Just this last week in the 8th Grade Confirmation Class, I referred to being confirmed in 1988. The students looked at me with big, shocked eyes. 1988??? (You see, that’s four years before they were born).
So those of you who aren’t 33 yet, maybe you’re thinking you’ll be able to accomplish a lot more than the rest of us by the time you’re 33. And I hope that God will do great things through you, great things for proclaiming the good news of Jesus. But just in case you don’t, I want you to listen as I try to find peace and comfort for me and for the rest of the old people around here. Because there’s many of us in here who are 33 or older, and if we listen to those words of David Wilcox’s song, maybe we’re feeling like he’s right: If we didn’t “die in glory at the age of Christ, then [our] story is just getting old.”
So maybe you’re thinking that we shouldn’t listen to David Wilcox’s song because it’s depressing. You remember that I said Wilcox is a Christian, but his lyrics kind of make it should like he’s going to just leave us feeling guilty for not doing enough with our lives. We’ve asked ourselves “what would Jesus do,” and we’ve seen how we don’t measure up.
And I would agree with you that Wilcox’s song wouldn’t be very helpful if that’s where the song ended. We won’t take the time to listen to the whole song, but Wilcox often has a twist in his songs. He starts with that very honest question: should I have done more with my life now that I’m 33? He starts with the question, and then points us back to the truth—the hope of Christ.
This song about “being dead by thirty-three” ends with a little twist on the chorus. Wilcox changes the words and sings:
If you don't die in glory
at the age of Christ
then your story is still coming true
He brings us to this conclusion after walking with us through our questions and fears. We may feel like our lives are all down hill from 33. We may feel like we haven’t accomplished enough in our first 33 years, so what could God do with us now? We may feel like this, but then Wilcox brings us to the truth: “If you don’t die in glory at the age of Christ, then your story is still coming true.” Your life story isn’t over, and it’s not getting old. God will still use you.
If you didn’t die when you were 33, which would include everyone in here who is 33 or older, then it means that God is continuing to use you.
As much as we might ask ourselves “what would Jesus do,” we’ve got to remember that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the perfect, holy, righteous One, true man and true God. To accomplish what he did—by age 33 or 103—is impossible for us.
Secondly, even if you died when you were 33, there’s not some 33 club that you get to join, a club of God’s favorite Christians. In fact, while there’s been a lot of famous people who died when they were 33, the ones I found weren’t all that great when it came to serving Jesus. Alexander the Great conquered the world and then died at 33. Sam Cooke sang his heart out but then died due to his addictions. Chris Farley the comedian and actor died of a drug overdose at age 33—at the same age and in the same way as his hero, John Belushi. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was 33 when he was executed. Just because you die when you’re 33 doesn’t mean you’re a great servant of God.
And really what we learn from today’s Gospel reading is more about the succession of God’s leaders. In fact, Mark doesn’t mention the age of Jesus—or of John the Baptist who would’ve been the same age. Mark doesn’t talk about age, but instead, we see that John the Baptist prepared the way. Then when John was arrested, Jesus begins to preach. There’s the succession, the way the ministry is handed down, the way God continues the ministry.
If we jump ahead to the end of the ministry of Jesus on Earth, we see that it isn’t age that matters. No, Jesus is focused on sending out His disciples to preach the Word of God. The disciples were all different ages—John the disciple was very young when he started, but lived to be the oldest, probably dying when he was around 100 years old. Certainly we wouldn’t say that John the disciple died without honor because he lived longer than Jesus.
No matter how old someone is when they die, the point is that God continues His ministry through us. Just like we saw in last week’s Old Testament reading that Pastor Miller talked about in his sermon: Elijah the prophet was going to be taken away by God, and so God made sure that Elisha would continue the ministry. It’s about succession, someone to come after you and continue what you’ve done to share the Gospel with the world.
In that case, then, thinking about David Wilcox’s song should catch everyone’s attention. There’s not a magic age when you can start being a servant of God; He can use you whether you’re 3 or 13 or 33 or 63 or 93. There’s also not a magic age when you stop being a servant of God; He will use you when you’re 3 and 13 and 33 and 63 and 93.
However, since none of us know when we will die, we also look for ways to develop others to take our place. Just like John the Baptist knew that his ministry would end and Jesus would continue it, just like Jesus was constantly telling His disciples that they would have to carry on without Him, so too, we must build up and encourage the people in our lives, helping them to see that they may have to carry on the ministry without us.
We do that in our congregation—bringing younger people into leadership roles, learning from the older ones. Older adults—you’re ministry is not over, then, you see, because you’ve got to make sure that the succession is in place, that there will be people to continue what you’ve started.
We do that by giving our people chances to learn how to teach Sunday School, how to make decisions in the congregation, how to play a part in bringing people to Church and telling them about Jesus. Young people, you can’t just think that someday you’ll be in charge, but for now, you can just ignore what’s going on. God will use you right now.
That’s a whole other way to look at what David Wilcox says at the end of his song: your story is still coming true. You see, maybe that’s not just about what happens in your lifetime. God is using you now to share His Word, but that story, the story of how God shared His Good News with others through you, that will continue even after you die.
God’s Word came to you through others—maybe some of those people have died—but their impact continues because you’re still here sharing God’s Word. So when you die, people who heard about Jesus from you will continue to share the Word. As we look back at the generations in the Church, the generations of faithful Christians, we see that Wilcox is helping us to see what God really can do with our lives—“your story is still coming true.”
So really, I guess I’m OK that I didn’t die on my 33rd birthday. It doesn’t mean that I have to sit around now thinking that I’ll just start getting old, gathering dust, and not contributing much to God’s mission. Instead, being alive today means that God still has more to do through me. You being alive today means that God still has more to do through you. Our stories are still coming true.
So really it’s not important at all whether we’re dead at the age of Christ. The only thing that matters is that Christ was dead at the age of Christ—and even then, it doesn’t matter what age He was. Whether Jesus was 33 or 53 or 73, what matters is that He died. He died on that cross in our place. He allowed Himself to die when really He is eternal. He died on that cross to take our punishment. He was dead by thirty-three, but the age doesn’t matter. It only matters that He was dead.
And His story didn’t get old after that, His story didn’t stop getting told. Instead, His story is still coming true. He died in our place, and then rose again on Easter morning—the day that we’ll celebrate at the end of this season of Lent. Christ rose again so that we too can live again after the grave. It doesn’t matter how old Jesus was when He rose again; it only matters that He rose again and will raise us from the dead.
What Jesus accomplished when He was 33 is still coming true, because He continues to offer forgiveness, life, and salvation to all who believe. His story is still coming true, and it is coming true through you.
"Glory" by David Wilcox
© 1997 Gizz Da Baboo (SESAC) and Michelle Ma Soeur (SESAC), a division of Soroka Music Ltd.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
From the CD, TURNING POINT, by David Wilcox.