In English class in high school, I came to love a poem written by Alan Seeger, a young man killed in battle during World War One less than a year after he penned it, I Have a Rendezvous with Death. One reason I liked the poem so much, I think, is that it was just dawning on my sixteen year old brain that all people--even me--have a rendezvous with death.
But we can go to absurd lengths to deny the reality of death and all the other realities that go with it: aging, deterioration, and sagging bodies. Three years ago, blogger and author Annie Gottlieb wrote about seeing a famous political campaign strategist on TV:
She's on CNN right now and she has had a really terrifying facelift, eyelift and Botox assault. She can hardly move her mouth, she can't smile at all…She looks like a particular fake alien face on the original Star Trek. It's a disaster! Hey, I feel bad about my neck too, but at least it's still my neck.That woman, as Annie Gottlieb describes her, is proof positive of the saying, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”
None of us may like it, but the truth is that we all have a rendezvous with death. That reality is acknowledged in today’s Gospel lesson.
But so is another reality, a deeper, more powerful reality.
In our lesson, Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies. In fact, earlier in chapter eleven of John’s Gospel, we see that Jesus knew that Lazarus was dead even before He told His disciples that they were setting off to Bethany, Lazarus’ hometown. The disciples hadn’t wanted to go there. That's because just a short time before, they had escaped their fellow Judeans with their lives, mobs bent on stoning Jesus and those with Him to death. Now, Jesus wanted to take them back into the jowls of death.
According to John’s Gospel, these reluctant disciples had already seen Jesus perform six major miracles, six major signs of Who He is, of His Lordship, of God’s Kingdom. They’d seen Jesus turn water into wine, heal a desperate father’s son, restore healthy legs to a crippled man, feed 5000 with a few scraps of bread and some fish, get the disciples to a safe shore while the boat in which they rode was swamped by a furious storm, and make a blind man see.
Those were all impressive miracles, the disciples must have thought. But Lazarus was dead. Dead is dead. Why should Jesus risk His neck and theirs to simply pay His respects? They didn’t know that Jesus had another miracle, another sign, He wanted them to see.
Our lesson finds the disciples, Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, and the people of Bethany all struggling to follow Jesus in the face of death, the greatest enemy any of us will ever face. In the bargain, they can’t help blaming Jesus. Three times in John, chapter 11, and twice in our lesson, they tell Jesus or each other, “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.”
We have similar thoughts when someone we care about has died. We may think, “If only I had gotten so-and-so to a doctor sooner...” Or, “If only I had known how much pain he was in...” Or, “If only I’d arrived five minutes sooner, I could have called the life squad..”
Some even think that if God was in heaven and all was right in the world, this person wouldn’t have died at all. They become angry or even disbelieving toward God.
But it’s interesting to see that in the course of events at Bethany, John reports several times that, not just the mourners, but Jesus was agitated. At one point, He even began to weep.
I have puzzled over why Jesus had such a reaction. After years of study and prayerful reflection, I’ve reached two conclusions. Part of Jesus’ reaction, I think, stems from grief for us. He hates to see us suffer, die, or grieve. This was never part of God’s plan for our lives. But until Jesus returns, we live in a world groaning under the burdens of death, decay, and sin. Jesus wept because His friend, Lazarus, and each one of His precious children, have a rendezvous with death.
But I think that there was another reason for Jesus’ tears. He was frustrated to the core of His being that the people around whom He had lived for several years, the disciples, Mary, Martha, and the people of Bethany, refused to get it. They refused to dare to believe in Him. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” He asks with bewildered frustration.
Were they so stymied by death that they couldn’t see that the God Who made life and was among them at that moment could overcome all our fear and dying to give us eternity with God?
Jesus didn’t begrudge them their grief. Grief is natural. But He was frustrated by their hopelessness. The follower of Jesus need never be hopeless!
Pastor Mike Foss tells the story of visiting a man about to undergo surgery. Says Foss:
Eyes sparkling, he laughed. I had met him at the hospital and, before any anesthetic had been administered, he and his wife and daughter gathered with me at his bed side. There I began to talk of his impending surgery. “It’s natural,” I said, “for you to be anxious.” And I didn’t get any further than that, because he laughed. It wasn’t a laugh of derision. Instead, it was the laughter of one who had no fear. As I stood there (at a loss for words) he grinned and said, “Pastor Mike, I’m not afraid. I already died once. I know what’s on the other side because I saw it…and I saw Jesus. I’m not anxious at all because I know that no matter what happens it’ll be okay.” Later, after his surgery, he told me his story of dying on the operating table and being brought back after a long time of great efforts by the surgical staff. He shared his story of traveling above the operating table and into a wonderful light where he met the Savior. He will die, this man of faith, but he has no fear of it.When, through Jesus Christ, you know what awaits you beyond the grave, you're not afraid.
In fact, you even give others encouragement. The seminary professor who most influenced me was Pastor Bruce Schein. He had come to Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus from Jerusalem. There, for twelve years, he served as pastor of a Lutheran congregation. Most of the members were Palestinians and his ministry was a constant life and death business. Then, during my second year at seminary, he came to teach. He was gravely ill, though only one of our classmates figured that out. Pastor Schein was so intent on glorifying Christ and preparing us for ministry that I didn't even notice the signs of his physical deterioration that I might otherwise have seen. A year after I graduated from seminary, he had surgery that lasted hours. I saw him sometime after that. He had lost so much weight, it was shocking. We talked for awhile. Then he told me that he had actually died during his surgery. "Mr. Daniels," he said, "I was in the throne room. I put in a good word for you."
Pastor Schein taught me that we need not fear death. That was precisely the lesson Lazarus learned that day in Bethany. Dead four days, his body emitting the stench of death, bound in the tight bands of cloth in which the dead in first-century Judea were always buried, Lazarus was called from death back to the once mournful, now astonished villagers of Bethany.
I’ve often wondered if Lazarus hesitated when he heard Jesus call, knowing that on returning, he would re-enter a life of death and decay, a place where people get facelifts and eyelifts and Botox injections in order to fool themselves and the world with the lie that we really don’t have a rendezvous with death. Lazarus knew that, in returning, he would have to go through death again. Knowing that, I might have hesitated to return.
But Lazarus knew that deeper reality I mentioned earlier, something C.S. Lewis called “the deeper magic.” Lazarus knew that all who entrust themselves to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, will live in God’s presence forever. And I’ll wager that when, any time after that, people tried to tell him how natural it was to be afraid, he laughed.
How can a follower of Jesus Christ really be afraid when she or he knows that beside a rendezvous with death, we also have a rendezvous with God that lasts forever?
How can we be afraid to use this life in full in reverencing God's Word, proclaiming Jesus' death and resurrection, repeating Jesus' call to repentance and renewal, and serving and sharing Christ with others?
This is All Saints’ Sunday. In part, it’s a time to remember the blessed dead who have lived and died believing in Jesus, the resurrection and the life, and who are now in His presence. Especially we remember those members of Saint Matthew who have died in the past twelve months--Priscilla Stevens, Joanne Magle, Zerna Stiverson, Elaine Meyers, Juanita Mowery, Luke Mowery and Pastor William Luoma.
But there’s more to All Saints’ weekend than remembering the blessed dead. A saint, according to the Bible, is nothing more than a forgiven sinner, someone who has turned from sin and let Jesus loose them from death.
Whether we’re saints on earth or saints in heaven, we all are spared separation from God. By God’s gracious acceptance of those who turn from sin and believe in Jesus, we belong to God forever.
The Lord Who has conquered our sin and our death allows us to say, “Yes, we have a rendezvous with death and through Christ, we also have a rendezvous with God!” And we can laugh!
In two weeks, we will be celebrating our annual Consecration Sunday. We’ll have a catered dinner on that day.
You and I will also be asked to estimate how we will use the gifts of time, talents, and treasure that God has given to us to advance the mission of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in 2010. This will help us plan for the year to come.
But, as you prayerfully do your estimating, I want to ask you to remember that we belong to a God Who calls the dead back to life and who gives all who follow Jesus a rendezvous with life that lasts forever.
Don’t be afraid!
Keep trusting Jesus Christ. He has eternity in His hands.
Remember that this congregation, its ministries, or buildings aren’t things we own or have to worry about. (Take care of, yes; worry about, no.) They belong to God; our job is to keep following, trusting in Him and His Word.
Let the God we know in Jesus Christ have you and let Him have Saint Matthew completely--mind, spirit, body, time, talents, treasures—so that together we can do the work all the saints are called to do, the work of living and sharing the Good News of our risen Savior Jesus!
[BY THE WAY: Here and here are links to two posts in which I deal with our penchant for denying death.]