April 2, 2017 –– 5th Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:12–14 / Psalm 130 / Romans 8:8–11 / John 11:1–45
The Other Side of Death
This past week my wife and I made a hurried trip to South Carolina and back. Libby’s father’s cancer of ten years ago recurred and “traveled”; he was starting chemo. Understandably, Libby wanted to see her daddy.
What happens to our faith when the hard things come (and they do!)? What happens when we struggle with the thought that God has not answered our prayers the way we hoped, or even assumed, he would. That is certainly what Martha thought when Jesus finally showed up four days after Lazarus was buried: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Martha did not lack faith. She told Jesus: But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.
Jesus affirms her basic faith: Your brother will rise.a
So Martha again shows her faith. And, using a word that is important to faithful Christians, Martha shows her orthodox faith: I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.
This was a growing realization in the Old Testament. Ezekiel’s prophecy is one of the early declarations of the hope God’s people have that extends beyond this world and life-as-we-now-know-it: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them….
That is a basic hope of Christian faith that we hold onto when death comes crashing into the inner boundary of our lives. We dare to believe that there is something good on the other side of death.
What is harder to understand is why such a horrible thing as death (and the pains associated with dying) are inescapable when contrasted with the even more basic confession that God is love (1John 4:8). Why does Love allow us to suffer? Why does Love make us wait?
In the context of God’s love, there are many opposites. One negative list is the “seven deadly sins” (pride, envy, anger, greed, lust, sloth, gluttony––all are perversions of true love). Ultimately, rejection of true love leads to death.
There has been a rejection of God’s love. Death has entered our world and affected everything. We get desensitized and make “peace” with all but the worst expressions of the brokenness that has corrupted the creation that God first called “very good.” A blend of “good” and “broken” are so intermingled that we have a very hard time discerning the two. In fact, we are often mostly clueless.
God tells us things we would never otherwise know through the Church and the Scriptures. So in his letter to the Romans, St Paul gives this insight. He uses two words that can refer to our physical existence, but he gives them two very different meanings. One is “flesh” (Greek, sarx) and the other is “body” (Greek, sōma). “Body” means what we all assume––this material substance that we see and feel; “flesh”, however, carries a negative connotation in Paul’s writings––the brokenness in our existence that dims our spiritual vision and pulls us away from God. Our physical bodies have been affected by “the flesh” and the result is decline and death.We learn to cope with the decline until it becomes critical, and then we panic and wail and grieve.
The brokenness in our existence is so deep and pervasive that we hardly comprehend all the implications. With our limited understanding, we want a quick and surface fix. So often our prayer is: “Lord, make this horrible thing right––right now!” Life doesn’t work that way, and facing what true healing means is the reason God allows suffering and subjects us to waiting.
If Jesus had met Martha’s expectation, he would have arrived in time to heal Lazarus before he died. Jesus had healed others; Lazarus would have been one more (v37). Instead, Jesus waited, and so provided compelling rationale for two huge things:
In this final major miracle-story in John’s Gospel, Jesus sets the stage for the ultimate show-down between life and death. The closing commentary tells us: Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him. This was a crisis that is explained in detail in the next section of the chapter:
….the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, "What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish." ….So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death.
So Jesus has set in motion the final stage of God’s plan to heal this world-of-death by his own death.
This is the Gospel: God’s love is bigger than death, which is proven in the power of Jesus to overcome death itself.
Ultimately, this is what Jesus himself has done. He was killed and came back from the dead. God’s love is bigger than death.
In this act of raising Lazarus––and waiting to do it, even though it caused Mary and Martha more distress––Jesus showed his power over death even before he himself went to the cross. Jesus did not merely heal a very sick man; he raised a man from the dead who had been in the grave for four days. There was no question of resuscitation. Lazarus was dead, and through the spoken word of Jesus Lazarus came back.
It has been noted that Jesus called Lazarus particularly by name; if he had merely said “Come out,” all the dead would have risen! A time is coming when Jesus will give that command. We all wait for it. In the meantime we may have to suffer. We may have to wait. Still it remains: Death does not have the last word. Our God is a God of life.