Saturday, March 08, 2008

Life and Death Situations

John 11:1-45

We can try to put it off for as long as possible, but death is part of life. We all have a terminal illness – even if it takes decades to manifest itself. Although there are two things in life that are inevitable – death and taxes – we don’t like dealing with either of them.

One of the reasons we don’t like to deal with death is that it means saying goodbye, and we don’t like to say goodbye. It"s as novelist George Eliot says: "Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love." I realize this isn’t a very happy way to start a sermon, but John’s story is about life and death.
Like the earlier stories in John there are words with double meanings and there are also revelatory statements. Last week we heard Jesus say, "I’m the light of the world." This week we hear another statement, and whether or not he made the statements himself, the statements reveal how the early church, especially John’s community viewed Jesus.
In John 11 we meet Lazarus. He’s the brother of the more famous Mary and Martha, and while he appears only here, it would seem as if he’s a close friend of Jesus. His death makes an impression on him, and causes him to grieve. At the beginning of the story we read that Mary and Martha send word that their beloved brother is sick, hoping Jesus will come and heal him. To their dismay, Jesus delays his visit and Lazarus dies. Only then, when he knows that Lazarus is good and dead, does Jesus go up to Bethany – to wake Lazarus up.
Thomas makes an interesting comment here – he says: "Yeah, let’s go and die too" (that’s a paraphrase). In Thomas’s comments we see signs of the confrontation that is on the horizon.
This story is about life and death, and as is true elsewhere in John, there are physical and spiritual dimensions to the story. On the human side of things, we see the grief and the fear that is present in death. The disciples know that in going south they face the possibility of death, while Mary and Martha face the prospect of being alone, without support. In that culture women depended on the men, and now their protector and their supporter was gone. So, its no surprise that they were upset with Jesus.

But what about us and our sense of death. Millie’s recent death is a reminder of how difficult it is to say goodbye. And the older you get the more aware you become of the possibilities of death. I don’t think about it much, but in turning 50 the other day, I realized that I could be well past the halfway point in my life – unless I live to be 100. When I look back fifteen years, I see a person aged 35. I had a young son and armed with a Ph.D. I was looking for that elusive first teaching position. Although I wasn’t getting any younger, the future was bright. Looking forward fifteen years, what I see is retirement. I might even be a grandfather by then. When you look at life that way, you realize that time is rather short. I realize that many of you think I’m a young whippersnapper, but it’s a matter of perspective.
My generation – the Baby Boomers - - will do everything we can to put off the inevitable. And while it’s likely we’ll live longer than previous generations, death is still real. Of course, we’ll go out kicking and screaming. As Woody Allen is alleged to have said on his fortieth birthday:

I shall gain immortality not through my work but by not dying.1

In her conversation with Jesus, Martha is focused on the present, physical situation. But Jesus wants to take her beyond the physical to the spiritual. And in another of those self-revelatory statements Jesus says:

I am the Resurrection and the Life.

You look forward to the resurrection, and I am it – if only you’ll believe, if you’ll trust your life to my care. In me death loses its sting because it no longer has power over you. Then Jesus says to Martha: "Do you believe this?" Then in tones reminiscent of Peter and Thomas, Martha declares her faith, confessing Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and the one who is coming into the world. I believe Lord, I believe.
That is the climax of the story, though we read on to watch as Jesus, moved by the two sisters’ grief, goes to the tomb, begins to weep, and asks that the stone be rolled away. Then Jesus calls into the tomb:

Lazarus Come Out!

In response, Lazarus comes forth, and Jesus asks that the people unbind him.

This story, which appears no where else, comes just before the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday. If you’ve ever watched The Greatest Story Ever Told, that 1960s movie version of Jesus’ life, the news of Lazarus’ resurrection goes out into the cities and towns, accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus. One event leads to the other, and so we can see why some in Jerusalem and in Caesarea could be nervous when a man rides into the city on a donkey, with the crowd shouting hosanna.

What is the message of the story of Lazarus? I don't think that it promises us deliverance from physical death. Instead it points us further onto that other resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus. The raising of Lazarus has its value, but our hope lies not in it, but in that of Jesus. It is the spiritual not the physical that has preeminence.

Death is very real, but in the grand scheme of things, when we look at things with spiritual eyes, we discover that death has lost its sting, and so we don’t have to fear it. We don’t have to chase after it, because life on this planet has great value. But it’s not the ultimate thing. There is sadness in death, because we must say goodbye. But in the promise of the resurrection, we find hope to sustain us. Jesus says to Martha: "Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (Jn. 11:25-26).
In the end, not even death can separate us from the love of God! Whatever the loss, as deep and great as it might be, today is a day of resurrection. It is a day of new beginnings! So, let us rejoice!
1. Quoted in Larry Platt and Roger Branch, Resources for Ministry in Death and Dying, (Nashville: Broadman, 1988), 38-39.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 9, 2008

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