Tuesday, April 4, 2017

What Does God Think of Death?

John 11:1-45

What does God think of death? It is clear from Holy Scripture that death is not part of God’s ultimate plan for his creation. Scripture depicts death as an enemy with which God struggles and is in conflict, a malicious weed that he must pluck from his garden. When it speaks of the New Heavens and the New Earth, the goal of God’s creation project—the world as it will be when God finally has his way—it says, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things will have passed away.”

Our lesson from the Gospel of John is helpful in giving us a  theology of death. It tells the story of a man named Lazarus, who has taken seriously ill. Jesus was a close friend of Lazarus and his sister Martha and Mary as well. He was often a guest in their home, and appears to have genuine affection for them, which is why it is so perplexing that he reacts the way that he does. Even after hearing about Lazarus’ grave illness, he remains where he is.  He tells the messengers, “This illness does not lead to death.”

One explanation of Jesus’ behavior would be that he was simply tragically mistaken. Perhaps he did not realize the severity of the situation. I don’t think that is the case. He seems to be acting with deliberate intention. He waits a couple of days until Lazarus is dead. Did Jesus want Lazarus to die? Of course, not, he loved him. Did he directly cause his death?  No, but he did allow it. He did not intervene when he could have. He knew that he was going to raise him to life which is why he said, “this illness does not end in death.” He allows it in order that “the Son of Man might be glorified through it.”

The first thing I want to say about what this passage teaches us about death is that, although God is not the direct cause and creator of death, he allows it in order that his purposes might be achieved through it. God does not delight in death. He intends to destroy it once and for all, and yet, penultimately this very enemy is the servant of God.  How so?

First, death can be the executor of judgment. The scriptures say, the wages of sin is death. The presence of death lets us know that all is not right with the world. The scriptures also speak continually of death as setting a limit on the human sinfulness. How would humans—sinful as we are—behave without those limitations?
Secondly, death has a necessary and vital role in the God’s creation. Death is the bedrock of the food chain. Other creatures grow and develop because others die. Forests grow tall and strong because other life forms decay and fertilize the ground. Even your ability to hear and see this sermon is dependent on the ongoing death of millions of perfectly healthy cells in your body. And yet all these arguments for the utility and the necessity of death does not change the fact that the presence of death in creation is also a source of continual pain, sorrow, and suffering for us. It is still an enemy.

Finally, Just as God uses death as the generator and preserver of life in natural world, so also God uses death as the means through which he gives us eternal life. More on that later, but at the moment let it suffice to say that God uses Lazarus’ death to demonstrate the fact that Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life.

The next thing I want to say about what this passage teaches us about death is that God is grieved with us over the pain and sorrow that death brings. When Jesus finally arrives on the scene Martha and Mary are happy to see him, but they are also confused, and a bit angry. The first thing they say to him is, “Lord if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died.”

 Jesus consoles Martha by telling her, “Your brother will rise again.”  Even though Martha does not understand what he is about to do, she believes that Lazarus really will rise again on the last day, but she is still grieved.

Sometimes we try to be super spiritual and resist grief by saying that our loved ones are in a better place or that they will rise again. All of this is true, but grief at times like this is still appropriate
. We grieve, just as Martha did, not because we are without hope in the resurrection, but rather because it is hard to say goodbye to those we love. Grief is not unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. When Jesus was brought to the grave of his friend Lazarus, he too wept. In doing so, he sanctified our own grief over the death of those we love.

Jesus wept even knowing that Lazarus would rise from the dead. His grief was in recognition that all is not yet right with the world, the presence of death continues to mar God’s good creation.  The gospel of John tells us that he was “deeply moved and troubled.” Our English translations just do not get at the heart of what the text actually says though. The word John uses actually means to snort like a bull ready to charge. Some have suggested a better way to translate what Jesus is feeling is to say he was angry in spirit and deeply agitated. He was mad! Mad at death!

Jesus stares death down and says, “I’m coming for you!” And as if to say to death, “you have no power over me,” he calls out “Lazarus, come out!” and the man who had been dead four days walks out alive.

This brings us to the final point I want to make about what this passage teaches us about death; Jesus has power over death. He is the resurrection and the life. He demonstrates his authority over death by raising Lazarus from the tomb.  However, this was only the sneak preview. It is sort of like the trash talk before the big match. Although Lazarus is raised from the dead, he will still die again. The final battle will be fought on the cross at Calvary

God allows death for his own purposes, but he doesn’t stand far off as we suffer its effect. He isn’t afraid to take his own medicine. In Christ, God suffers and dies with us.  Ironically it is through Jesus’ own death on the cross that the power of death is broken. In going down to death and rising again, Jesus breaks its bonds and sets us free. Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?

Death is an enemy but it is a defeated enemy. We need not fear its power. We wait in expectation for its final destruction and the resurrection of the dead. Perhaps no one expresses this more eloquently than the Anglican priest and poet, John Donne. I want to end by reading one of his sonnets. 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.