The Sanctity of Life - Deuteronomy 5:17

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 24th June 2001.

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At the time it was published in 1948, Shirley Jackson's ‘The Lottery’, created a storm of outraged moral protest. It is a story set in a small town somewhere in rural America. Here the townsfolk gather for some sort of ritual obviously critical for the well-being of the crops.At the centre of everyone’s thoughts is ‘The Lottery’. The story gradually builds up to a stunning climax when it becomes clear just what the lottery is for- deciding on a human sacrifice. Tessie Hutchinson, wife, mother and neighbour chooses the slip of paper containing the dreaded black spot. Instantly she finds herself isolated in the center of a cleared space and even her little son Davey has pebbles in his hand ready to stone her to death.‘It isn't fair!’ she screams. But nothing can stop the ritual.The story ends with a sickening thud and the words ‘and then they were upon her.’

From the late 1940’s throughout the 50’s and 60’s the story had been the subject of discussion amongst American High school students.The story was so well told, the moral so powerful and the ritual so shocking, that it invariably engaged the student’s sense of right and wrong. That is until now.

One night Kay Haugaard was leading a class discussion on ‘The Lottery’ in which she registered no moral response at all amongst her students-nothing. ‘The end was neat!’,said one woman.’It was alright. It wasn’t that great’, said another.’They just do it’ one argued,’Its their ritual’-as if to say-what is there to get so upset about? One woman in the class, a stylish woman in her forties who normally wrote passionately about saving whales and the rain forest, couldnt summon up even a modicum of concern for the sacrificed victim.Haugaard reported her disturbing findings in The Chronicle of Higher Education and concluded: ‘No-one in the whole class of more than twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice.'

Well, you may say, it is only a story and perhaps with the increasing number of violent images which people are subject to on the TV and Cinema screens,it is not surprising that this story appears tame in comparison and elicits little emotional response.

Well, here is a true story about a newborn baby called ‘Baby Garcia’ which took place in a major hospital in LA. This is the way the nurse involved, Jennifer related the events: ‘One night a nurse on my shift came up to me and said 'Jennifer,you need to see the Garcia baby' There was something suspicious about the way she said it,though...She led me to a room the nurses used for their breaks.Women were smoking and drinking coffee,their feet up on the stainless steel counter.There,lying on the metal,was the naked body of a newborn baby. 'What is the baby doing here on this counter?' I asked timidly. 'That’s a premeie born at 19 weeks'she said 'We dont do anything to save them unless they are 20 weeks.' I noticed the chest fluttering rapidly. I picked him up for a closer look. 'This baby is alive!' I exclaimed.I thought they hadn’t noticed. Then I learned the horrible truth.The nurses knew, and it didn’t matter.They had presented the baby to its mother as a dead, premature child.Then they took him and tossed him on the cold,steel counter in the lunch room.I did the one thing I could think of. I held him in his last moments so he’d at least have some warmth and love before he died.Just then one of the nurses -a large harsh woman-burst into the room. 'Jennifer,what are you doing with that baby?'she yelled. 'He’s still alive... ' I pleaded. 'He’s still alive because you are holding him'she said.Grabbing him by the back with one hand,she snatched him from me,opened one of the stainless steel cabinets,and pulled out a specimen container with formaldehyde in it. She tossed the baby in and snapped the lid on it.It was over in an instant.’ Jennifer went on to say ' To them this child wasn’t human.In seven more days he would have qualified,but at 19 weeks he was just trash.'

Welcome to our ‘ brave new world.’ Such stories could be multiplied.I tell them not in order to shock gratuitously but in order to alert us to the kind of world we have been busy creating for ourselves- a world in which God has been declared dead -of no significance, where absolutes of right and wrong have been swept away only to be replaced by spurious ‘feeling’ and ‘what- works- for -me’ morality, and in which human life has inevitably become very cheap.Ours has become the throw away society, perhaps now Christians are just beginning to realise how much is being thrown away.Whereas ,say 40 years ago, more or less everyone in this country would have cited the 6th commandment with ease and conviction ‘You shall not kill’. Now we can only subscribe to the eleventh commandment ‘You shall not judge’

And that is the commandment that is being communicated with remarkable power.You see, the family has been the traditional transmitter of values.And to a large extent it still is.But of course there is now an additional member of the family,sitting in the corner of every home, which for hours a day is purveying values in a way far more subtle,attractive and convincing a manner than any father or mother ever could-the TV. So how should we view one of the great challenges of the next decade-Euthanasia-mercy killing? Eastenders has shown us the way.Last summer this popular soap had one of its most ‘religious’ characters- Dot Cotton assisting terminally ill friend Ethel Skinner with her own demise.In last weeks Radio Times the executive producer John Yorke had this to say about that episode: ‘We agonised over whether we should go with that one.I had serious doubts.Then somone said. ‘Look, this is a love story between Dot and Ethel.’And that was it.We treated it that way and it worked.It was abot how far you would go for your friend.’ That was the message,-the ethic.If you love someone and they are terminally ill,you will be a partner in euthanasia.No arguments, no consideration of the long term effect on society-just a powerful drama hitting the emotions and by-passing the mind.And if we are going to withstand the flow of the world into increased violence,infanticide and euthanasia, we must be able to offer more than platitudes -we must be able to offer a well thought out alternative which we seek to live out.

Well, it was into a world like ours that the commandment ‘You shall not murder’,which is the right rendering of the Hebrew word (ratsach), was delivered. It too was a world which treated life as cheap-hence the gruesome tale in Exodus 1 of the Pharaoh ordering all the Jewish baby boys to be thrown into the Nile to be drowned-infanticide.This was a world of human sacrifice with Cannanite babies being thrown into the fire to appease the god Moloch.So why did this vagabond rabble which had the audacity to call itself a nation, believe that all forms of unlawful killing of human beings was morally reprehensible? What made them think that they were right and all the other nations were wrong? It was because of three beliefs which underlie the sixth commandment.

First,the belief that life is a gift. We live in the age of human rights,although if there is no God and no transcendent source of values it is very difficult to see upon what basis an appeal to ‘rights’ can be made.But Christians have always defended the notion of rights, not because we have decided to give ourselves some-like the MP’s voting themselves a payrise-but because God himself underwrites our value.Just over the page in chapter 4:32 we read these words ‘Ask now about the former days,long before your time,from the day God created man on the earth.’ God was not obliged to create us, he did so as an expression of his nature,his grace.Back in Genesis 2:7 it is God who forms man from the dust of the earth and breathes into man’ the breath of life’.Unlike the bringing about of the rest of creation we see a special intimacy here,the imparting of something God-like to man-he breathes into Adam the gift of life.Human beings are declared to be made in ‘his image’ which is why murder is considered to be a particularly horrific crime. Not only is it a crime which is irreversible- (in theory at least if you steal something it can be returned, if you lie,you can then tell the truth,but if you kill,you cannot bring back the dead);but also attacking the image bearer is tantamount to attacking the one whose image we bear- God.

Think of it like this: You have a photograph of yourself taken at a moment which was very precious to you-perhaps when at school or a wedding .It is unique, irreplaceable, it evokes some of the most precious memories for you.Now imagine someone coming along and taking that photograph.It doesn’t mean much to them,so they spit on it,desecrate it,tear it up and throw it away.How would you feel? Its only an ‘image’ -but it is still important.Multiply that by infinity and then you will have some idea of how God feels when one of his image bearers is callously disposed of. Back in Genesis 9, this is the reason given why God insitituted capital punishment-9:6 ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man,by man shall his blood be shed;for in the image of God,God has made man.’ In the words of one writer Paul Ramsey, to take away an innocent life is ‘to throw the gift of life back in the face of the Giver’-and he’s right.

The second belief which underlies this commandment is that life is on loan.This thought is focused for us in that well known saying from the book of Job often quoted at funeral services: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall depart.The LORD gives and the LORD takes away, blessed be the name of the LORD- Yahweh (Job 1:21).Now,these commandments begin by reminding the people who it is they are dealing with-he is the LORD-the I AM-the one who is dependent upon no one,but upon whom everyone else totally depends .He is sovereign and as such life is not only a gift which he chooses to give or withdraw as he wills,but life is on loan. It is not our absolute possession to do with as we see fit,but a gift to be treasured as God has decreed.

Several years ago there was a play which was later made into a film entitled ‘Whose Life is it Anyway?’ It was the story of a highly intelligent individual who, in the prime of his life, was involved in a motor accident which left him completely paralysed,save for some slight head movement.The whole drama revolved around this question.If life is our personal,private possession,then as with any personal, private possession the individual has the right to dispose of it as he or she chooses.Well, this man no longer wished to live and he wanted help to end his miserable existence.It was a very powerful film and you can guess in which direction it went.But this view that it is all a matter of personal choice is too individualistic by far.These commandments are given to a community,to enable that community to function in the most wholesome way possible-reflecting the full life which God freely gives.Apart from the Bible’s answer to the question: ‘Whose Life is it anyway?’ being, ‘it is God’s’ so it is not for us to do with as we please- there are more far reaching implications to consider.When you think about it, even when it comes to the disposal of our own possessions we cannot simply do with them what we wish- for example have property exchanged for money in order to spend it on hate literature- because the effects of our actions on the wider community has to be assessed. So if euthanasia were to be legalised- and the dividing line between volunatry and involunatry euthansaia can be a grey one as events in Holland have shown-what effect do you think that might have on the trust necessary for the doctor-patient relationship? Imagine it. There you are in an old people’s residence. That nice young doctor comes to see you and offers you a pill.It is yellow today, not the normal pink colour. What thoughts would go through your mind? Will it not be something like: ‘Will this cure me or kill me?’ Trust is then replaced with suspicion.

Then what of the effect on the medical profession itself? The traditional motivation for doctors and nurses has been to strive in order to save lives.What becomes of that if they are legally required to take lives?How loving is that for them? Will it foster those traits of compassion and care which we instinctively look for in what are after all called the ‘caring’ professions or will it result in a hardening and the sort of callousness displayed by those nurses in that Los Angeles hospital? We are whole beings- we cannot function in Jekyll and Hyde mode- steeling ourselves up to end life here in one part of the hospital and save life there in another section- something will give way in the end and surely we know enough about human nature to know what that will be- that spark of humanity. No, life is on loan and we are called to be its good stewards.

You do realise don’t you that in pre-war Germany there was a permissive attitude towards euthanasia? There was an effort to eliminate the mentally and physically defective from the population,led by Dr Karl Brandt,whose programme put to death 275,000. In the light of the revelations at the Nuremberg trials, the BMA in 1947 issued a statement which could well be reissued today: ‘The doctors who were guilty of these crimes against humanity lacked both the moral and professional conscience that is to be expected of members of this honourable profession..The spirit of the Hippocratic oath cannot change and must be reaffirmed by the profession.It enjoins..the duty of caring,the greatest crime being co-operation in t destruction of life by murder,suicide and abortion.’ The hardening of the conscience has to begin somewhere-when society gives permission.

The third belief which runs throughout Scripture is the life is to be redeemed. Death is seen as an intrusion into God’s good world brought about by sin.Life is seen as a great blessing. Certainly this is more than physical-biological life, it is the spiritual life of a restored relationship with the one who has made us and for whom we were made.And this is the redeemed community of Israel here-the one who at the end of the book is told that they will receiving blessings of life if they keep that relationship with God faithful, and the judgment of ‘death’ if the don’t- which takes the form of being driven out of the land of blessing as Adam was driven out of Eden. But ultimately what God has in view for his people the blessings of a restored physical body,a renewed spiritual orientation. So when we seek to save life and care for the sick and infirmed, we are in a way reflecting God’s own character and in a partial way showing what it means to ‘redeem’. Conversely when we treat life lightly, even for what we might think are the best of motives, we actually reflect the character of God’s enemy-the devil whom Jesus calls a ‘murderer from the beginning.’

You see, as God’s people Israel was to be different from the surrounding nations, for in their communal life they were to set forth the life of God- the life of peace-shalom, wholeness.This meant that human life wasto be treated with the greatest respect.It may also account for the fact that while abortion was practised in the 1st century,it was not practised amongst Jews nor later, Christians-that would have been seen as a contravention of the sixth commandment.But of course, Israel failed to be that light, to show God’s righteous rule.And where Israel failed, the true Israel-Jesus succeeded.

Paul in Colossians 1 speaks of Jesus as ‘the image of the invisible God’.So what do we see in him? He is the great restorer,the one who is gentle, who will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick.He is the one who took some of the most vulnerable members of society-infants and children and lifted them up into his arms.Here is the true model for Christian care then.But even here life is not seen as an absolute to be preserved at all costs in all situations- for he willingly gave his life- not selfishly to avoid suffering-but positively embracing suffering so that others might live- tasting death in our place on the cross.Self- sacrifice is not the same as suicide or euthanasia.

Is the commandment ‘You shall not murder’ applicable today.The obvious answer is yes,for the drive towards getting rid of unwanted lives increases as each year passes by given that we have no real reasons for valuing a human being. Christians can point the world to an alternative-the only alternative which will save us from our continued descent into barbarism.

Towards the end of his life, the great evangelical thinker,Dr Francis Schaeffer devoted himself to a project entitled ‘Whatever happened to the human race?’ in which he sought to encourage Christians to stem the drift towards more abortion, infanticide and euthanasia.He ends his book with these words: ‘Future generations will look back,and many will either scoff or believe in Christ on the basis of whether we Christians of today took a sacrificial stand in our various walks of life on these overwhelmingly important issues.If we do not take a stand here and now,we certainly cannot lay any claim to being salt and light in our generation.We are neither preserving moral values and the dignity of the individual nor showing compassion for our fellow human being..will future generations look back and remember that at least there was one group who stood consistently,whatever the price, for the value of the individual,thus passing on some hope to future generations?Or are we as Christians going to be wept along with the trends-our own moral values becoming increasingly befuddled,our own apathy reflecting the apathy of the world around us,our own inactivity sharing the inertia of the masses around us, our own leadership becoming soft?’ What are we to do? After all, the commandment is clear ‘You shall not murder’.

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