April 6, 2014

My Brother Would Not Have Died

Passage: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
Service Type:

Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 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.’

No one wants to talk about death at the dinner table, at a soccer game, or at a party, says Lizzy Miles, a social worker from Columbus, Ohio. But sometimes people need to talk about the "taboo" topic, but when they do, there's usually no one to listen. Ms. Miles has responded by helping to launch a number of "Death Cafes." What is a "Death Café"? According to the organization's website, "At Death Cafes people come together in a relaxed and safe setting to discuss death, drink tea, and eat delicious cake.” The objective of Death Cafe is 'To increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.'" Death Cafes were initiated in 2004 by a Swiss sociologist. In 2011, they started popping up in England before arriving in the U.S. So far these small, informal gatherings to drink tea and talk about death have been held in various cities across the U.S. and Canada. The Toronto Death Café meets at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery visitation centre.

I do understand the felt need that has given rise to these Death Cafés. It would be a vast understatement to say, generally speaking, that talk of death is muted among us. I serve on the board of Evergreen Hospice—an organization dedicated to helping people and their families cope with life threatening illnesses. Even there among staff conversation about death isn’t easy. And I wonder about the objective that Death café has articulated; does awareness that you are going to die—confronting that fact—necessarily lead people to want “to make the most of their (finite) lives?”

Maybe I simply think too much like a preacher; I also start to wonder what does it mean to make the most of my life? Making the most of things may not necessarily equate to the best of things. And then what—my tombstone says “he made the most of things?” Death seems to make a mockery of all such “most” things.

In March of 2013 the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died of a massive heart attack. General Jose Ornella was with Chavez in his last moments when he inaudibly mouthed his final words. Ornella said, "He couldn't speak but he said it with his lips ... 'I don't want to die. Please don't let me die,' because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country." Whatever we may think of Chavez as a leader if, as General Ornella said, he didn’t want to die because he loved his country, death doesn’t care about all those whys. Death is unkind to all these aspirations and seems to make them count for nothing. I am reminded of a line from Psalm 103 that seems to express the way death makes everything seem so empty.
As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103:15-16)

In one of her short stories the writer Annie Dillard has a scene in which a family is sadly gathered at a grave to commit a loved one’s body to the earth. At one point the minister intones the familiar words from I Corinthians 15, “Where, O Death, is thy sting?” Upon hearing that, one of the family members looks up. He scans the sorrowful faces of his family and looks at the row upon row of headstones that fill up the cemetery in whose midst they were even then standing. And then he thinks to himself, “Where, O Death, is thy sting? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked!”

It’s just about everywhere. Indeed it is. Nothing makes headlines like lots of deaths. You never open the newspaper’s Obituary column and find it empty. The sting of death: it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.

What would Jesus say to us? In our gospel reading today we read of his visit to the wake of a friend; he has come to see Mary and Martha because their brother Lazarus has died. What will he say to them? It is a good place to conduct our inquiry.

1. First a little aside about Jesus waiting two days after he gets the news of Lazarus’ illness before he heads to Bethany. The story reveals that by the time he got to Bethany Lazarus had been dead four days. It took a day for the messenger to reach him, he waited two days, and then a day to travel to Bethany; by the time the message got to Jesus Lazarus was dead and Jesus is already aware of this as he told his disciples plainly—“Lazarus is dead.”

SO what did Jesus mean when he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” It certainly looks to us as if it “lead to death”—Lazarus was dead after all. If Jesus knows that Lazarus is dead he didn’t mean that Lazarus would recover from the illness; that somehow the illness wasn’t life threatening. What Jesus says is that this illness wasn’t for death but for God’s glory. Lazarus’ illness isn’t for death’s triumph but would be an occasion for God’s glory (God revealing who he is), so that the Son of God (Jesus) may be glorified through it.

Clearly, Jesus has in mind to rescue Lazarus—but more on that in a moment.

2. Jesus arrives at the wake and Martha comes out to greet him. According to the text the first words out of her mouth are, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When he meets Mary she says the same, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What do you hear in their voices? Is it pain? Anger? Frustration? Trust? Perhaps some combination of them.

We can understand anger and frustration. Who among us, in such a place, has not wondered if but briefly why God couldn’t have fixed things before they got out of hand. Like the question that some of the rest of the people who had come to console these sisters asked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Even as we read this story we wonder the same—is Jesus just grandstanding as if to say, “You want me to prevent death—I’ll go one better, watch this!” But we know that our Lord never performs miracles for his own benefit. This is precisely what he refused to do when the tempter invited him to turn stones into bread and to throw himself off a pinnacle so when he wasn’t hurt, but rescued by angels before he hit the ground, people would be attracted to him as a wonder worker.

I don’t think that either sister is angry with Jesus or that they are complaining that Jesus ought to have been there earlier. It is evident from the story that they both love and adore Jesus. It would appear that they are both confident that had Jesus been able to be there when Lazarus was ill Jesus could and would have healed him. I point out to you that they both said the identical thing when they first see Jesus—a sentence they have said to one another on more than one occasion. This is an expression of their faith in him—had you been able to be here we know that things would have turned out differently. In the midst of their great loss they are glad to see Jesus; they are comforted by his presence.

Please take note that Jesus does show up—he does not avoid the difficult moments of his people.

3. One the most astonishing things ever said at a funeral gathering is said by Jesus to Martha—and we Christians have been reading at the graveside ever since. Here is what Jesus wants us to know about death and dying; “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.”

Imagine yourself at the funeral visitation for a loved one. People are streaming in offering you their heartfelt condolences and someone comes by looks you in the eye and says what Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life … everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” I doubt you would find that very comforting. You would want to quickly greet the next person in line. Yet Martha finds herself loved and comforted. The point I raise to you is the point the gospel makes—the One uttering the sentence makes all the difference.

4. When Jesus said “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” he meant that they would never be lost to God. This is precisely what the raising of Lazarus demonstrated—in death the person Lazarus is not somehow lost to God. We need to sspend a few moments thinking about the raising of Lazarus back to life because this is a different thing than the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

So, let us be sure to understand something that most people overlook: the resuscitation of Lazarus (that is, a corpse reanimated) is not the same as the resurrection of Jesus. The resuscitation of Lazarus (the mere reanimation of his remains) is a sign, but only a sign, of the truth that Jesus Christ has rendered Lazarus alive unto God eternally.

This talk about resuscitation (or reanimation) versus resurrection may seem confusing. In the interest of clarity please bear with me a while longer. We must always remember that the one thing John, like the other gospel-writers, does not want to do is portray Jesus as a mere wonder-worker, a magician, a tricky circus-performer. Wonder-workers abounded in the ancient world. Each religious group had stories to tell of its larger-than-life figures who performed wonders. Each group thrust its own forward: "Come and see our wonder-worker, since ours is better than yours, and therefore our cult or group or conventicle is more important, more worthy than yours". P.T. Barnum, the turn-of-the-century circus magnate, made millions bringing people into the big tent to see oddities, freaks, bizarre occurrences, and outright bamboozlers.

We must not lump Jesus in with such stuff. Let us also remember that tricksterism was the very thing Jesus resisted in his wilderness temptations just because he knew that tricksterism is evil; it is deceitful entertainment followed by heartbreak; it brings no one at all to faith in the Son of God. Let us also remember that Jesus capped his mighty deeds with the stern command, "Don't tell anyone about it. Don't utter so much as a peep"—for the last thing Jesus wants is a crowd of shallow sideshow gawkers clamouring for yet ever more dazzling entertainment. The one thing our Lord himself will not permit us to make of the story of the raising of Lazarus is that the event is a sensational spectacle which draws a crowd and makes people more gullible for what Jesus is going to say later.

As a matter of fact the crown of the Lazarus incident, the interpretative key to the incident, is not the resuscitation of Lazarus; it is the truth that Jesus Christ himself is resurrection and life. He, the Son of God, lifts up the spiritually dead before the Father so that they come alive unto God. Declares the master himself, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." The last nine words sum up the message of John's gospel: "whoever lives and believes in me shall never die". Never die? Literally never die? Of course not. "Never die" means never be lost to God, never be dead unto God, never be inert before God, never become a spiritual casualty. "Never die" here means to live eternally before God through that liveliness which God lends us out of his own eternal liveliness. While the resuscitation of Lazarus is certainly miracle, it isn't the miracle of the entire incident. The miracle is that mighty deed of Jesus Christ whereby he vivifies the spiritually moribund and animates the spiritually inert and invigorates the spiritually flaccid. The resuscitation of Lazarus is the sign of this greater miracle.

The gospel is life just because it is the effectual self-declaration and self-bestowal of Him who is resurrection and life. Every Christian funeral service repeats the words of Jesus, "Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." Our Lord means exactly what he says. To live in the Son is to be reconciled to the Father; to be reconciled to the Father is to be bound to him in a bond whose truth, intimacy, intensity must finally remain a wordless wonder. And to live here is to be fixed so firmly in the heart of God that our coming physical death and biological dissolution are but a momentary irritant and inconvenience.

5. The actor Tim Allen's father died when Allen was 11 years old; the victim of a car accident with a drunk driver. Allen still claims that his father's death "changed everything forever." In a 2012 interview he said, “Part of me still doesn't trust that everything will work out all right. I knew my father was dead, but I was never satisfied with why he was dead. I wanted answers that minute from God. "Do you think this is funny? Do you think this is necessary?" And I've had a tumultuous relationship with my creator ever since.”

Nothing will ever make the senseless understandable. I invite you to consider two more things that, according to this gospel story, Jesus wants us to hear. The first is Jesus resolute opposition to death. He never makes nice with it; never says it’s ok; never says the God has better things for Lazarus to do—Jesus opposes death. Jesus come to defeat death. Jesus indicates that this instance with Lazarus was “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” When we see Jesus’ glory we see revealed something of the fullness of who he is. He comes to Bethany to deal with death in spite of the great personal danger from Jewish leaders. He weeps when he sees Mary weeping—Jesus hates what death does to people and knows the personal loss experienced.

The second thing we note is that in the face of death Jesus invites us to believe in him. “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?” At the conclusion of this story we are told that “many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” In other words, he offers us himself whom to believe is life eternal.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Our Lord’s word to the grieving is life and light. “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?”