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A Reality Greater Than Death

by MK in NC

based on John11:1-45

We come to the point finally to admit to ourselves that we must at last stand in the Lord’s presence and know that we are at last powerless. That we are not “like grass” that we are “grass” and we wither and we fade and we die. We sit with pain that we cannot overcome. Tragedy, sickness, despair, sadness. And we would like to believe that we have some control over our lives…but then a day passes and and we are reminded, perhaps suddenly, perhaps in a long slow drawn out illness that we are grass, and so are our loved ones…and so are our enemies. We are grass.

And perhaps behind a closed door, sitting in the home of Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary who was the one who washed Js. Feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, these three individuals who were so close to Jesus, who loved him with all they had, perhaps behind closed doors one evening he told them who he was. He told them that he was the Son of God, and that death was not natural. That the forces of death here on the earth were contrary to God’s creating, breathing, living power, and he wanted them to know that his gift to them was not only mercy and forgiveness, but life itself. And so we come to our story here of Martha, who is distraught about her brother.

I think the most distressing story I’ve heard lately is the death of Mr. Buchanan’ three year old daughter down at the nursery. That she fell out of the truck and back tires ran over her, that the two boys in the back witnessed it,, and that he drove with her on his lap out of the nursery. I can’t imagine anything more painful. I can’t imagine living with anything more painful, to carry the guilt, to see his wife look at him, to relive the events in his mind, to deal with all of the if only’s. I suspect that he will be fighting death for a very long time and he will need not only his own faith in Christ to carry him, but the faith of those who surround him to keep him from falling into the chasm.

The forces here that claim us, that drain the life from us, are those from which Jesus comes to save us. And we come to this faith from this central passage of Jesus and Martha. There’s been a funeral. The mourners have gathered to console Mary and Martha over the death of their brother. We’ve all been there. We know the shock. We know the grief that grips us by the heart. And the strage mixture of rage and helplessness. I don’t know who portrays in better than Sally Field in Steel Magnolias, when her friends come around carefully after Shelby’s funeral, when she finally, in that safety net of her friends, reaches down to the depth of her pain, “And she says, “I don’t even know what I’m doing. I just want to hit somebody.”

Family love is a love that runs deep, and Martha in this state hears that Jesus is approaching down the road, and she doesn’t even wait, she runs out to meet him and the look on her face is enough. They communicate it all through their eyes and finally she bursts out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s almost that same kind of thing we say to God when we say, “Why did you let this happen?” But Martha is with Jesus now, and in his presence she still has hope. And she continues, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” What is she saying? In her words, Martha is saying that she believes that Jesus has the power to stand between Lazarus’ life and the power of death. And not only that, Martha challenges the notion that death is a natural part of life. And she’s right; through Jesus’ life and ministry, Jesus has presented a reality greater than death. Death is not what should be.

All those things that drag us down, the sin that overwhelms us, the sin that weakens our bodies and overcomes our spirits, is not what should be. So her great confession is, “Jesus, I know Lazarus would not have died had you been here. But even now, I know you can change this.” Wow. We’re standing here with Martha on the very brink of our faith. As we do when our loved ones die. And the hope that Martha has comes from her belief in Jesus’ relationship with God. That God hears Js.’ Prayers, that God gives to Jesus what Jesus asks for, and that Jesus can make a difference, and wants to. This is where our belief lies. In tragedy, in the face of grief, Jesus is our hope. And Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And here is our very hope when Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” “Do you believe this?’ Your loved one will live again. The loved one you miss terribly now. Death is not the last word, for everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

Jesus has entered stage left. And when he enters, the resurrection enters. We believe in the Resurrection because of Jesus and that belief is tied to this promise he made to Martha. It’s tied to the fact that Jesus believed in his own resurrection, and that’s why his resurrection is so important for us. Jesus not only gives life to those who are with him now, Jesus gives us the power of life to overcome our struggle over death here—as we do struggle in our suffering, and tragedies, and depression, and the despair which tries to claim our lives.

At the end of Steel Magnolias, there’s a wonderful Easter scene with children running and it portrays even Sally Field as being rebirthed into life again. She has found her faith and is living. The labor pains of the friend is a sign of new life, as is the Easter bunny riding on the motorcycle, following his wife to the hospital. I hope the Buchana family find faith enough to live again. I had a wonderful experience at Duke with about 40 others from both conferences. If you can imagine the faith of young pastors, not yet embittered by the church, and the openness to Christ, and the life that was able to flow through us like light through vessels. The Holy Spirit was burst out all over the place. It was life and affirmation. And we were the church all gathered together getting drunk with the Spirit.

During a conversation about how we had experienced God in our lives, a friend said to me, “Aren’t you glad you met him?” I said, “Yeah, only he found me!” And I realized something imprtant for the church, it’s that we can choose darkness, and have. We can let darkness and death take over our lives, our church, even our time of worship. We can squelch the joy, we can choke out the life, we can ignore God and ignore each other. But Jesus has the last word, and Jesus is speaking. Jesus was our light when we were sitting in darkness. And Jesus is speaking and working even now. He is Life. He is the Resurrection. He is our Joy and our Hope. Do you believe this?


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Frank Schaefer, for JavaCasa Resources and the Desperate Preacher's Site, 1999