Good News: How do we grieve? Death is real but not final.
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
How many text messages or voice messages can you send someone without sounding too desperate? Last year 95% of text messages were opened within three minutes of getting them. In our age of instant communication when someone leaves their phone for a couple hours, or dare I say days…they can return to a huge number of messages—because people get nervous. They start out normal, “Hey need to talk, when do you have time?” Then they get a little more urgent, “This is pretty important call plz” with an appropriate emoji of course. Finally they get to the point of screaming in all caps, “DO I NEED TO CALL THE POLICE? ARE YOU OK?” Of course with more urgent matters if I am worried about someone’s health I might call them back quite a few times and then drive over to their place just to check on them. It was a couple of years ago when someone’s family member who lived out of state called the church to see if we would drive to their loved ones house and do a wellness check. When I talked to the person she was fine. Her hearing aid battery had gone out and she couldn’t hear the phone. However I wonder, what if Mary and Martha had gotten a smart phone. How many texts and calls would Jesus have had? Here they sent the message when Lazarus was only sick and Jesus doesn’t show up until he has been in the grave for 4 days! So, a couple of hundred messages more?
The text today is often called the raising of Lazarus which of course is a good name for it because the main point of this story is about a man named Lazarus who dies, but by Jesus command leaves his grave and lives again. However when you look at it closer the only time that Lazarus actually appears in the story is verse 44. This entire story centers around Lazarus without him ever appearing in it. Most of the story happens because of Lazarus but not to Lazarus. After all he is dead for a majority of it. Most of the people in the story are Lazarus’ loved ones—Mary, Martha, Jesus and the disciples. While it is Lazarus’ resurrection, the point of the story seems to be going to those grieving. The action happens to those who love and miss Lazarus.
Now I hate to point this out because we did read 44 verses, but we didn’t quite read the entire story, this story continues, while many of those who saw the resurrection believe in Jesus, others went to tell the Pharisees what happened. When the Pharisees hear it they tell themselves that if this continues all the Jews will believe in him. If they believe in him the Romans will come and destroy their nation. So the Pharisees start to plot Jesus’ death. For it is better that one man should die rather than the nation being destroyed. In other words it is this miracle, the raising of Lazarus that finally pushes the Pharisees into seeking his death. We may ask if someone could take on the power of death itself, they might be able to take on the power of Rome, but the Pharisees at this point decide that no matter how powerful Jesus is, Rome is stronger and will destroy them if they don’t get rid of him. So they take the side of Rome (and death) against Jesus.
Think about that. If Jesus had gotten there earlier it would have just been a normal healing and the Pharisees would probably not have targeted him (yet anyway). Instead, it seems Jesus delays his visit to Lazarus because it is time for him to die and he wants to make a final point about death.
That point is: death is real but not final. Hear that again because it is important, death is real, but it is not final. Did you hear both Mary and Martha say, “Lord had you been here Lazarus would not have died.” So they know that Jesus has great power in this world. He can cast our demons and he can heal illness. If he had been around Lazarus would have died, but both of them carry this assumption and view that once someone has died, it is the end. In this world there is nothing as powerful that it can withstand or overcome death. So while both believe in Jesus, both have this underlying belief and knowledge of the power of death. So they mourn Lazarus and lament Jesus’ late arrival, they both understand that what is done is done.
Indeed do we not similarly understand death? Death is real. There will come a time when you are not. When your place in this world is gone and all the connections that you have are broken. There will be a time when you are no longer part of this world. At every funeral, and every time we hear of a classmate or co-worker who has died we remember this and it causes us to shake with fear. I mean none of us woke up this morning one day further from our deaths. We all march steadily towards that time and this frightens us because the power of death is real.
I told you the story was more about the people around Lazarus right? Think about how all of them feel and react to this power of death that they see. The disciples first try to run from death by convincing Jesus to stay away, but then they defiantly throw up their fists and declare, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him!” Some of us when we are confronted by the power of death, decide what we are going to do is just not think about it. We bury ourselves in work or in details of life. We end up being so busy that we cannot think about death by the end of the day, there is just too much minutia to think about. However others of us stand to fight—we declare—tomorrow I am going to start that diet and exercise! I am going to be so healthy I will live till 115! We become defiant in the face of death. So those are two options but we have many more. Some of us are like Mary; Mary just cries. The thought and power of death just causes her to weep openly—because it is painful. We do that too at times. We just think about the loved ones we have lost, and realize that we too will die and we just cry. Martha is engaged in the past and what could have been done differently. Martha would have left most of the messages on Jesus’ phone—if she had one. She is in the past and what could have happened. We spend time in the past too when the future is uncertain and we are confronted with the power of death.
Jesus offers up a new way of looking at death, and that is that it is not final, not just in the future of heaven, but in the present. Right now, because we know that death will not win we can start to live differently. Right now we can be filled with hope and joy, even in the face of death. Does not mean it is wrong to be sad? No. Of course not; but that sadness can have this seed of hope in it that changes everything. This knowledge that death is not the end means we can plan on reunions and make plans even after the curtain of death. If you have never thought about what you will say to your loved ones when you see them again you should, because death is not the end. If you have not thought about what your unborn grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be like, you can start to ponder that, because Lord willing in the resurrection you will be able to meet them! Death is real, but through Christ we have life beyond it, which means as painful as it may be, and even though it may cause tears, death will pass away and the life in Christ will endure forever. So during this time of Lent as we think about the pain and suffering of Christ, we remember what endures is hope and life. Amen.