“Finding Life in Death” Revelation 21:1-6
Rev. Sean Weston John 11:32-44
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
November 4, 2015
“Jesus began to weep.”
Jesus knew that he was going to raise his from Lazarus from the dead. He knew that he would get to see him again, in the next few minutes. That’s more than any of us ever get when confronted with the death of a loved one. Still, Jesus wept.
Before the events of today’s story, Jesus had taught, healed, overturned tables, argued with authorities, defended a woman about to be stoned for adultery. Authorities had already attempted to arrest and stone him once. Then Jesus heard from Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus was sick.
When he heard of Lazarus’s illness, Jesus chose to wait two days before traveling to him. Jesus had to show something so important that he chose not to run to Lazarus’s side. He allowed death to have its way with his dear friend, as he would later allow death to have its way with his own self.
After those two days Jesus was ready to go and see Lazarus, who had since died. The disciples weren’t thrilled about this travel because Jesus had just escaped an attempt on his life. But Jesus and the disciples went anyways.
When they got there, they learned Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Martha met him, saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She was angry. Grieving. Jesus assured her, saying “your brother will rise again….I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Now we’re to the place in the story Tom started reading this morning.
Mary went out to see Jesus. Those who had been consoling her followed, believing she was going to the tomb to weep. Instead, she met Jesus, and in front of those people she fell at Jesus’ feet and said what Martha had said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
This is real stuff: Anger and sadness bound together. Anger even at God.
Then everyone began to weep, including Jesus. As Jesus wept, those gathered were amazed at his love for Lazarus. But some questioned Jesus, saying if he had healed all those other people, couldn’t he have prevented Lazarus from dying? Nobody understood why Jesus had let Lazarus to die.
Then Jesus did something nobody would have expected. He came to the tomb, and said “take away the stone.” Martha didn’t want to. “Do you know how terribly it stinks in there?” Below her question is a deeper one: why would we want to see once more that Lazarus is dead? Why would we want to remind ourselves of what happens to our bodies? But Jesus responded, essentially, “trust me.” The stone was rolled away, Jesus prayed to God, and cried out, “Lazarus, come out!” And out came Lazarus. Jesus then invited the whole community present to help restore Lazarus, to unbind his face and feed, to set him free to live again.
This story is about the stench of death. The literal smell of a dead body. It is about falling to the ground and weeping, it’s about people coming by the house to bring food and console those in grief. It is about anger towards God and one another and towards everything. It is about the terrible, terrible sting that death brings to we who are still living. Jesus could not escape this grief, even knowing that he was to raise Lazarus. And yet – this story is also about hope. It is a story that points us towards something glorious: the power of God over death, God’s promise that death does not have the final word, even as we know that Lazarus would not live forever. This is the last sign that Jesus performs in John’s gospel, a demonstration of God’s power before Jesus went to his own death in Jerusalem.
Jesus knew that death is a doorway to something greater. He taught that dying for a friend is the highest form of love. He himself knew that his death was part of completing his purpose on earth. Christian faith has always proclaimed God’s victory over death, begun in Jesus and to be completed at the end of the age.
Yet much of the culture around death in our society harmful. We badly need a healthier view. We hesitate to even say plainly that someone has died. Our healthcare system is invested in prolonging people’s lives even when death would be far more merciful than continued treatment. But we can’t avoid death: we are confronted with our own mortality at every turn: with obituaries in the newspaper, cemeteries along the road, pictures of dead family members in our homes. Those of us who are older lose family and friends to death regularly. People of all ages have relatives nearing the end of their life, forcing us to confront that we too will die. Many of us, when we are near to our own death, struggle to even admit this to ourselves, perhaps hoping that it will somehow be easier if we ignore it.
Yet, death is not something we can ignore, try as we might. Presbyterian pastor Guy Delaney, in a funeral homily for a person who had committed suicide, says this: “deep within us, as far away from our consciousness as denial can keep it, is a profound yearning for death. Many things in life awaken a longing for death in each of us.” Research bears this out: most people have thoughts of death from time to time. Death is complicated, it is unbearably difficult, and it binds us all together. To ignore death is to give it a power over us that it does not deserve.
The first step in developing a healthy Christian view of death is to break the silence. To acknowledge death, in all its forms. To speak of our complicated feelings towards it, to speak of the power it has over us all. To speak of death openly is to take the first step towards limiting its power.
Then we turn to Christian tradition, to stories like today’s story of Jesus raising Lazarus, to build a hope deep within us. A hope that can look death in the eye and trust in the promise of resurrection, a power far greater than death.
Resurrection is one of the articles of Christian faith that I struggle with most. Throughout the history of the church and perhaps in this room I’m not alone. Yet, alongside the saints of every place and time, I choose to place my hope in this Jesus, this Jesus who raised Lazarus. I echo the words of Peter, who when Jesus asked the disciples if they wanted to leave him, said “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” I place my hope in Jesus simply because I must.
Today is All Saints Day. In the Protestant tradition to which this church belongs, this is a time where we remember people in all places and times who have died, and especially those from a local congregation. I don’t believe you have to be Christian to be a saint. You just have to be human and do your best to love and help other humans. Certainly those killed at the Tree of Life synagogue are saints, and certainly we ought to remember them today. God’s love has no bounds.
All Saints Day is a time of mourning, because we revisit the reality of death and its sting. And it is a time of celebration, reminded us that we are bound together with the glorious Communion of Saints, which the catechism of the Episcopal Church calls “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together by Christ in sacrament, prayer, and praise.” As we share in the sacrament of communion today, we do so alongside all the saints in heaven and earth. We are surrounded, Hebrews says, by a great cloud of witnesses. They join us in our worship here on earth; we join them in their worship in heaven. They are with us.
To be Christian is to look at death face-to-face and to stand firm, proclaiming with hope the mystery of our faith. Paul, who would later be executed for his faith, says it this way in Romans, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” We proclaim the hope that when our bodies are returned to the earth, we are united with our Lord. We proclaim with hope that Christ will return to right every wrong, to fully establish the Kingdom of God on earth, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
Death does not now, not ever, have the last word. Life does. Amen.
 Carol Noren, In Times of Crisis and Sorrow (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).