Today we are commemorating All Saints Day, a day when we remember all the people who have gone before us into death; so it is fitting that in all our readings today, except the psalm, death and tears are part of the conversation.
So many of us can relate to Mary talking to Jesus in the Gospel reading, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When someone we love dies suddenly, we can plague ourselves with those “if” questions can’t we? “If we had taken him to the hospital sooner.” “If she had gone into rehab.” “If I had been there.” “If I had only stopped him from…” The “ifs” surrounding a loved one’s death can drive us crazy. We want to deny the fact that our loved one is actually dead, and we try to re-write the story by imagining other circumstances… “if.”
That is the picture that Isaiah paints of life on earth… we live under the shroud, the sheet of death.
I really like the honesty of today’s readings. There is no sugar coating of our reality, of what life on earth is currently like: there is a shroud that enfolds all peoples, a sheet that covers all nations. Recently, I’ve been watching too many British detective shows about solving murders, and whenever there is a body discovered, what happens to it? It is covered up by a sheet. That is the picture that Isaiah paints of life on earth… we live under the shroud, the sheet of death. Although we are alive now, death is inevitable, just waiting like a sheet to settle over us.
Death surrounds us. Maybe it is just a function of getting older, but I am more and more aware of the thousands of ways people experience death in their lives besides actual physical death. There is death when relationships that should be our source of safety and comfort fail, and we are left grappling with loneliness. There is death in our bodies as they are wracked in physical pain and suffering, or long debilitating illnesses. There is death, where ever control and power is used to abuse, harm, or kill others. There is death when because of fear we allow our differences to keep us from treating others as our equals.
And there are tears, the reading in Revelation talks about God wiping away tears from our eyes, and no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain. Death leaves those of us who remain alive in mourning, crying, in pain. There is a desolation that all the variations of death brings into our lives that sometimes makes it hard to go on living.
At this point, all of you are thinking, wow! I’m really glad I came to church today! It is so uplifting!
But, as I said before, I really appreciate the honesty of these Scriptures. If we do not take seriously the truth that we are surrounded by death, that we and everyone we love will certainly die, unless Jesus comes back first; then there are two alternatives that result in remarkably similar lifestyles. One alternative is to turn away from death and frenetically try to distract ourselves from its truth. These distractions can be accumulating as much wealth as possible, buying stuff to make ourselves feel good, using drugs or alcohol in excess, keeping crazy busy, using anything we can to anesthetize ourselves from feeling the sadness that death brings.
The other alternative is to accept death as the ultimate end of our existence which can lead to a nihilism that says there is no point to anything, or to an hedonism where we try to “make the most of the time”: accumulating as much wealth as possible, buying stuff… etc.
I believe that the Scripture readings today bring us a third, more truth — filled alternative as we respond to the death around us. And we find a key to that alternative way of living in our Gospel reading: when Mary experiences her brother Lazarus’ death, she turns to Jesus.
I love the way our Savior Jesus enters into Mary and Martha’s pain here. He is “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” He weeps. He doesn’t tell them not to feel that way. He doesn’t try to cover up their pain. Remember this, my friends, when we experience death in any of its forms, our Jesus joins us in our pain, he weeps with us at our loss. We don’t have to pretend we are feeling anything other than our pain, our mourning, our grief.
Jesus enters into his friends’ pain, in spite of knowing what is coming next: he is going to raise Lazarus from the grave.
I wonder if one of the reasons Jesus weeps here is that although he knows he will raise Lazarus from the dead, he also knows that death has not yet been defeated by his own death on the cross and resurrection from the grave. He knows that although Lazarus will once again sit at meals with his sisters, will speak to and love those who love him… he will also die again. When Jesus says, “take off the grave clothes and let him go,” he knows the time will come when Lazarus is again wrapped in a shroud. This resurrection for Lazarus is just delaying what will ultimately happen to him again.
But this is where your stories and my story are different from Lazarus’s story at this point in his life. I believe that where ever we face death in our lives, whether it is the physical death of ourselves or loved ones, or if it is one of the other forms of death that seem to be overwhelmingly impacting our lives and the lives of those around us… in each of those places, Jesus our Savior meets us and weeps with us and for us.
I wonder if one of the reasons Jesus weeps here is that although he knows he will raise Lazarus from the dead, he also knows that death has not yet been defeated by his own death on the cross and resurrection from the grave.
He doesn’t rush us through to tell us the end of the story, to tell us of the life that is coming… he meets us, and he weeps. This; death, was not God’s intent for his creation. So our God weeps with us because his heart is broken as our hearts are broken, and because we carry so much pain. There is something very holy about turning to Jesus, like Mary did, and asking him to be part of these heart-breaking places in our lives.
Jesus does not rush us through those moments, and just as Lazarus experienced life after death, you and I are also promised life after death. But unlike Lazarus, we live on the side of history where Jesus has died on the cross rising again from the grave and defeating death.
Regardless of how it seems to us right now, because of Jesus, the fate of the universe is bent in the direction of life. In Isaiah’s language, “he will swallow up death forever.” According to Revelation, there is a “new heaven and a new earth” in our future, and in this place God’s dwelling is “now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes, there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
The One who weeps with us, is the King who has defeated death, and who promises all things will be made right in his time. In those places in our lives where it feels that death is winning, King Jesus says, “No! Life is the end of your story, a place where death no longer exists.”
If we reject the narratives that say death is too scary to face, so we are just going to pretend it doesn’t exist, or that death is the end of our story so we might as well live without hope; and we accept the narrative that Jesus promises life, then we have incredible gifts that we can offer to others as they face death. We can come alive in new ways as a people who are confident that death is NOT the end of our stories.
Like our Savior, we can come alongside others and weep with them as they weep, and mourn with them as they mourn… not pushing them to move quickly past their sorrow. There is a holiness in these times, so let us allow them to find that Jesus’ Spirit meets them in these broken places.
And like our Savior, we can offer hope, because death is not the end of our stories or the story of our universe. No matter what circumstances may seem to indicate, when all around us it seems as if evil and death are triumphing, the truth is that life is the end of our story. Life with a God who personally loves us, lives with us, comforts us. So we can live in and offer hope to those around us who are struggling.
Also, if we truly believe that this life is making way for a “new heaven and a new earth” then like our Savior, our purpose in this life is to live in a way that signals and proclaims that new life. Our words to one another must be words of life that build up, encourage, point to the life that is to come. Our relationships with one another must be relationships based on the truth that before the throne of our King there is no superiority, no power, no control over another. There is equality and joy in the truth that all of us in our different ways reflect God to one another. Our life direction must be to continually seek to stand on the side of the Kingdom, on the side of justice, and of mercy, and of love.
In the devotional Ed and I use called Seeking God’s Face: Praying with the Bible through the Year, there was this prayer this week:
“Alpha and Omega, one way or another I will die. Help me to find the life that comes in dying to myself. What a waste to wait until the end of my living to begin to find your life. Let me come alive and experience your joy now, your life flowing into every kind of good. Amen.”
Then with the psalmist we can echo, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it… so lift up your heads… that the King of glory may come in.”
As we close our reflections this week, I’m wondering who God is prompting you to help live more towards life this coming week? How are you going to do that?
Listen to this sermon: