About Death (A Sermon)

John 11:32-37

 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

 

About Death

God hates death.

The Bible says, death wasn’t in the original plan. Death IS an intruder. Every time we say goodbye to someone who dies it feels all wrong – because it is.

Death is the logical outworking of being separated from God. Our flesh is no longer eternal, and the day comes when what is alive in us, is separated from it. Paul writes that not just our bodies, but the whole creation groans with us, in its bondage to decay. Decay is where our flesh is headed, too, though we fight it with everything we’ve got and we’re able to do a pretty good job for a long time…still, until Jesus comes, physical death comes to each of us.

Our strong desire to fight it is why we always want to find out WHY  and HOW someone died – so we can figure out if what befell them could possibly befall us. We want to figure out if we can control or head off what happened to them, as though if we could at least control THAT, we could control aging and death itself. Though we know death is the way of all flesh, we are always looking for an “out” for ourselves.

Though we have become masterful at medicine, medicine  is not the same thing as “mechanics.” Doctors probably have an even better understanding than we do that there is something about life and survival that is mysterious. An autopsy can tell us what happened to our late friend’s body, but they couldn’t quite tell us before it happened.

Surgeons and oncologists worked hard to save [the child who has just died of cancer], but they could not keep the cancer from creeping into his brain, until his little brain could not keep his body alive anymore.

God hates death, but he knows better than all of us the bondage to decay, as Paul puts it, we are in. Jesus’ healings were not really the answer to that bondage, even though the people who came clamoring to him can be forgiven for thinking that they were.

Jesus himself is the answer.  That’s why He didn’t heal everyone and he didn’t stay on the earth forever to effect healings.  His healings were a sign of a much bigger project:  that he had come to overturn and reverse our bondage to decay.  He conquered death and broke the chains of aging, decline and death…or to our vulnerability to everything going wrong, and death.  And His resurrected humanity was the first of millions who will rise from the grave, made new, as he was, in ways that cannot be corrupted.  He is the firstborn from the dead…but we who follow him will know a life and a body without death.

 

Jesus said to Martha in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life.   Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.- do you believe this?”   That is really the question, isn’t it?

Martha said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  Jesus is the beginning of real life, eternal life, that cannot be undone by death.

casketWhen we talk about trusting God…When we talk about Jesus as Lord of our lives, we are talking about putting feet, day by day, to that belief. We are saying that we have glimpsed, or maybe been touched by, the Eternal God.  We have experienced the kind of love that made us. We are saying we are signing up with him, this Jesus who is moving toward rescuing the world and making all things new. We believe in Life, and in eternal life.  Remember us, Jesus, when you come into your kingdom!

 

But when we say Jesus is our Lord, there is more:  we are  giving him permission to overturn our plans. Though we have our hopes and dreams and have imagined a life for ourselves, we know                we are not God; he is.  And we say by faith, that we know he loves us more than anyone; his interruptions are for our good, even if we can’t see it at the time. Even if his interruption is in the very length of our lives

 

But here’s why we do trust him:   Jesus was so right when he said that when we try to hold onto our lives, we are going to lose them anyway. Until he comes again, we all die.  And though we work very hard at it and no doubt have succeeded in many ways in making the average lifespan longer, we never know in any individual life, just how long it will be – or how much notice we will get of its end.

James, Jesus’ brother, writes, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”

So, instead of grasping at our lives, Jesus says, if you turn your life over to him, if you give it up, so to speak, for his sake and for his purposes, you will find it.

You will find your real life.

You may still go to the city and do business there – but your life will be grounded in the eternal, and what you do wherever you go will be transformed by the life of the Spirit within.  Who knows what he might have planned for you there?

 

Yes, as we know, physical death will still come, and we will still battle with decay and the intrusion of illness.           But not only will we find life on the other side of death, our lives on this side of it, are enriched and make sense because we know about eternity.   Instead of working hard to make a name for ourselves in this life, acquiring things and building castles so that we will not be forgotten, we know we are living forever, in the presence of God.

So our question becomes, what will we bring him as the fruit of our lives, when we see him?

I’m very impressed with Jimmy Carter’s hope, that in his project to end the devastation of Guinea Worm in Africa, that the last guinea worm will die before he does. That’s a legacy.  But it is also a gift to his Lord, who loves life…and hates death.

 

That doesn’t solve our problem, though, when we are standing at the gravesite, or watching the last breaths of someone we love.  How much we want power and control on that day, or the ability to turn the clock back, or to touch someone and do miracles! There are so many ways we want to undo what we cannot even understand.

This helps me:  Jesus wept, the scriptures tell us, at the grave of Lazarus, even though he knew he had the power to undo death…even though he could do the miracle and turn the clock back!  Even though he knew he was about to do just that.

He wept, along with those who had no hope, who thought even he was constrained by what seemed like the finality of death.  Why?

Maybe out of sorrow for his friends Mary and Martha, and their great grief.

Maybe out of anguish for his friend Lazarus and his suffering.

Maybe – and I think this is it – out of solidarity with all of us who have wept and will weep at graves, until the day that someone is weeping at ours.

God hates death.  Jesus hated death.  And he hated that his friends Mary and Martha, for as much as they knew and trusted him, didn’t know that even death had to yield to him…and that though they loved him, they thought he had failed them.  If he had been there, he could have healed Lazarus.  But he wasn’t there, and now death had Lazarus – and Jesus had let them down.

When we think of [the little child who died], still enduring his treatments, living in the hospital, with his parents living there with him, succumbing so suddenly to a cancer that did not stop growing, we wonder if some things are too hard even for God…or if God has failed us.

Perhaps others are sinners, but a two-year-old?  Lord, we prayed, why didn’t you answer?

 

It is normal for us to feel that way, deep in our hurt.  Perhaps it is even why Jesus wept at that tomb…that even with all Mary and Martha had seen of him, they still thought death held the last card, over even him.

But the truth of the gospel is that death does not get the last word. No, his body failed.  [Our other friend’s] body failed.  They could no longer stay alive, not without miracles.

But what about their selves? This is what Jesus has been telling us. He is life.  He brings life.  God is love. And God loved them.

Remember what we are told in Revelation, in its typical symbolic language.  There is coming another kind of day, in another kind of world. And on that great day, Death itself gets punished!                Death is thrown into the lake of fire!  “O Death where is your sting,” indeed? We are meant to feel about that exactly as we do:  take that, death!     Because God hates death, we are allowed to hate it, too.

Because in the new world of Jesus’ making, there is no more death – or crying, or tears, or pain. Thanks be to our Lord and Savior, who conquered death and was raised to new life – that was just the beginning. This world of death and sorrow is ending; a new world begins, where life reigns, and fear has no more place.

These are the things that animate us as we follow Jesus. We are, as Paul writes in Colossians, already living forever. Though we love this world, and this life, as all we have ever known, let us remember that its amazing, creative Maker, has promised us a home in another place…and Jesus himself says he will come to take us there, at the right time, when this body is no longer useful for us.

Do you think [our friends] saw him themselves this week?

We still cry.  We still shake our heads in bewilderment.  We just can’t believe such people can be gone, so quickly. Jesus cries with us.  Just as he wept at Lazarus’s grave.  He doesn’t leave us alone.

 

So yes, death is a part of life on this earth, but it is not a normal nor natural thing.  It is an intruder, never really welcome except as it ends our suffering in a world in bondage to decay. We are allowed to hate it.   We are allowed to cry.

God does.

But death does not win.

Don’t be afraid.  Jesus has got this.  He asks us…do we believe it?