From “Sudden Death,” a sermon by John Keble
Therefore be ye also ready; for in such an hour
as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh.
It is very difficult to persuade persons to consider how very liable we all are at all times to sudden death. For notwithstanding anything that may be urged on this subject and the frequent instances of it that occur among us, yet no person will be induced to believe that he himself is liable to it so as to live under a practical sense of such a consideration, but each person will, notwithstanding, persuade himself that it will not be so in his case.
He does not see why he should not live as long as others, who are older than himself and, therefore, he persuades himself that he shall. And however many there are who die around us of all ages, yet there are also many who continue to live and some of them older than ourselves.
And if we are induced at any time seriously to reflect on this very frail and uncertain condition of our lives, yet every day that is added to our lives takes away more and more of this apprehension so that if anyone feels strongly his liability to and the nearness of death today, he is the more callous tomorrow because it does not come to him. For until death does really come, it will always appear long in coming; but whenever it does come, it will seem doubtless quick and sudden, beyond all conception.
For these reasons it might be thought by some, that it is not so advisable to warn people of the danger of sudden death so much as to take them at their own imaginations and to remind them that if they live to threescore and ten years, as they think they shall, yet even then that the time is exceedingly short to prepare for those great and awful changes which are approaching. That even seventy years are as nothing when compared to eternity and that the longest life, when a man comes to look back upon it on his death-bed, appears indeed exceeding short.
Now in all this there is much truth but yet is it not the case that Holy Scripture takes pains, as it were, to set before us, not only the vanity and the shortness of the life of man, even at the longest, and the little value of things temporal compared with things eternal, but also the uncertainty of life, and the frequent suddenness of death? For instance, in the “Old Testament,” the many examples of the sudden vengeance of God overtaking the wicked, as in the case of Sodom and in the “New Testament”, in the account of the rich man who was building new barns when it was said to him, “Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee” and in the parable of the unprofitable fig tree, where the Lord of the vineyard came three years seeking fruit and found none, when it was said, “Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?” And for one year more the Dresser of the vineyard interceded, saying, “Lord, let it alone this year also.” For which of us can tell whether this may not have taken place respecting ourselves, that for us God has so diligently watched until now and that his word has already gone forth, “Cut it down”?
But above all things, is this suddenness of death set before us in the warnings which are so repeatedly given us, respecting the Day of Judgment and our Lord’s coming. For although all these are spoken of the Day of Judgment, we cannot but suppose that they are in some degree spoken of our own deaths
To everyone, it is said, and perhaps in the case of everyone, it is fulfilled, “Behold, I come quickly and my reward is with me, to give to every man as his work shall be.”
We cannot doubt but that to all it is said, “Take ye heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is,” and “Watch ye therefore for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning, lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you, I say unto all, watch.”
And are not all these words, in which our Lod’s coming is described, applicable to death: ” Take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch ye, therefore, and pray always!”
For we must remember that where the tree falls, there it must lie and, therefore, wherever death overtakes a person, there, judgment finds him, so that in this sense, even if in no other, it is in the days of the Son of Man as it was in the days of Noah.
And not only does Holy Scripture thus press upon us the great necessity of being always ready, as knowing not any day or night, that we may not hear the sound of the Archangel’s trumpet and see “the judgment set, and the books opened,” but moreover, there is no fact which our experience does more fully assure us of than this, that death is constantly overtaking one or other amongst us and that too, very often, suddenly, those who have eaten and drank and talked and lived among us and who humanly speaking had no cause to expect so great a change more than ourselves, yet on whom the book of life has forever closed and an unchangeable eternity has already opened; persons who but the other day had the same pursuits, the same feelings, the same hopes and fears and earthly expectations and projects, as ourselves? Nor can we give any reason why we should not be now where they are and they instead speaking of us, as we now do of them. Not one of us can tell how soon others may not thus have to speak of us. But however this may be, of one thing, I think, we may be assured, that, whether we die soon or late, yet death will overtake us before we expect it and he that looks out for it, and expects it daily, will find that he is much nearer the truth than he who does not. So that in whichever way we take it, it must be allowed that the veil or curtain which is drawn between us and the eternal judgment is so thin that any day of our lives we may find ourselves on the other side of it; the door shut the time of trial forever gone and past eternal unchangeable ages begun.
Now this being the case, there is no use whatever in our turning our minds away to other things in order to forget it, for it remains quite as true, whether we think of it or not. The sun is in the sky all the same though we might force ourselves to believe it was not, and that it was night. There is nothing in the world more easy than to do this, we have only to engage our thoughts as soon as we depart from church or from the grave of a friend, with some little trifles which are sure to present themselves before us (or, rather I should say, to be presented to us by the evil spirit who is ever on the watch) and we shall soon forget all about it. But as there is nothing more easy, so there is nothing more foolish than this, for we must think of the great realities sooner or later and the less we do think of them now, the more we shall have to be sorry for at our death and through a long eternity. The end is unavoidable you may look around you to the world you may look above or below yet nevertheless it is ever straight before you and every day and every hour nearer and nearer, and you must at last look it in the face and see death and judgment standing before you not to be avoided nor evaded, turn yourself away, this way or that to any objects you like, think of it or not you must be one day nearer to it every day you live.
If therefore the serious and timely consideration of these things is so necessary for everyone who has to die, what is the reason why we are each of us so determined, as it were, to put it aside and in fact take all the means in our power to drive it away when any moment of our lives we may be overtaken by the reality of that from the very thoughts of which we shrink and turn away?
The reason in great measure is, because we consider such contemplations as unpleasant and, therefore, are ever ready to get away from them. But why should they be so unpleasant; indeed, so gloomy and terrible? It is we ourselves that make them so in a great measure. These frequent intimations and warnings respecting our speedy and sudden and certain death are doubtless given to us by our Heavenly Father out of his great mercy and love to us and all his gracious and kind dealings with us. Even though they be warnings and cautions yet ought to be made by us in some sense a matter of comfort and encouragement. Not unpleasant duties which we would turn away from, but thoughts that we would embrace and cherish as coming from him.
Now the state of the case is this; we are here placed in circumstances of considerable hazard and danger on account of the various temptations which surround us. These temptations are of a nature far greater and more manifold than anything we could have supposed, were it not for what the Bible informs us respecting them. Such being our condition, thus encompassed with manifold temptations, the Almighty has of great mercy supplied us with everything that can work upon our love and our fears, as assistances and support to our weakness. And among these, the uncertainty of our own death and the suddenness of those around us is one. Indeed all temporal calamities and sorrows, although they may be considered as awful warnings to work on our fears, but yet are they all mixed with mercy and are no less than his blessings and encouragements, the sign of God’s fatherly anxiety and tenderness for us.
For this uncertainty of our lives may be made a great blessing to us, if we would consider it as we ought in all reason to do. The power of things seen and present is very great, and when we fancy that we may live thirty or forty years, this power is greatly increased; it seems to put the great and unseen eternity with all its awful realities at a distance. But when we are brought to reflect that in a few days or hours it may be all over with us as far as this world is concerned, that the objects which we now think so important will then appear quite as trifling as the circumstances of a dream when we awake, that by this time next week or tomorrow, we may be in the actual presence of God and of Jesus Christ in a way beyond all conception at present; this is a very moving thought. It is enough to still and set at rest every feeling of unkindness to others, of discontent in ourselves. It is enough to bring us to our Heavenly Father with all that awe and dependence with which we ought to think of him at all times, and to make us very zealous in doing his work.
I do not know any consideration which, if duly cherished, would have such an impression upon our hearts, and tend more to make us what we should be. We ought to rise with this thought every morning and retire to rest with this thought every night, that in twelve hours we may be in the presence of our Judge and the door closed.