Thursday, November 05, 2015

Don't be afraid!

[This was shared during All Saints' Sunday worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on November 1, 2015.]

John 11:32-44
Back 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.

And 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. A few years back, 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.”
None of us may like it, but the truth is that we all have a rendezvous with death, some at tragically early ages, others much later. 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.

By the Gospel of John’s telling, these reluctant disciples had already seen Jesus perform six major miracles, six major signs of His Lordship and 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 make similar accusations against God when someone we care about has died or when bad things happen to us or those we care about. “Where is God?” we may wonder. “How could God let this happen?”

But it’s interesting to see that in the course of events at Bethany, John reports several times that the mourners weren’t the only ones who were upset. Jesus was upset too. At one point, He even began to weep. God in the flesh wept with those who wept. He still does.

Many times, I have puzzled over exactly why Jesus wept. 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 believe, you will see the glory of God?” He asks in John 11:40, with what must have been bewildered frustration. Were Jesus’ followers so stymied by death that they couldn’t see that the God Who made life and had demonstrated His power over life, death, and sin, was among them at that very moment?

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...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 [when he had briefly died during an earlier surgery]. I’m not anxious at all because I know that no matter what happens it’ll be okay.’”

When, through the crucified and resurrected 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. He was gravely ill, though 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. He was always on fire for Christ. 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 and could barely walk, but the fire had not gone out. 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." A few months later, he died, just forty-two years old.

But what a forty-two years! At the NALC Convocation in Dallas a few months ago, a person who served an internship under one of my classmates brought up Pastor Schein. “I see how he impacted all of you for Jesus,” she told me. “He would be so proud of you all.”

I tell you unashamedly that when she said that, right there in the lobby outside the meeting area, with people coming and going, I began to cry, not out of grief or frustration, but out of gratitude to God for a saint of God who brought me closer to Jesus. 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 by Jesus from death back to the once mournful, now astonished villagers of Bethany. “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus called to the dead man (John 11:43).

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 Botox injections to fool themselves and the world that the rendezvous with death can be avoided. Lazarus knew that, in returning, he would have to go through death again. Did Lazarus hesitate to return?

Maybe not. Because Lazarus knew that deeper reality we talked about 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. He knew that for the believer in Christ, beyond the gates of death is a perfect life with God, with no suffering, no death, no tears.

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 besides a rendezvous with death, we also have a rendezvous with life 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. Their examples of faithfulness to Jesus, especially the departed saints who, like the young people who recently lost their lives in Washington State after a lunatic gunmen asked them if they believed in Jesus, inspire us.

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.

If there is a single message we can learn from Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead and His own resurrection, it’s this: Don’t be afraid!

The Lord Who has conquered our sin and our death allows us to say, “Yes, we have a rendezvous with death. But because we believe and submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over our lives, we also have a rendezvous with life!”

We can live with the confidence that God intends to turn all our mourning into dancing. We’re promised a banquet of grace that lasts for all eternity.

And knowing that, we too can laugh! 

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