November 4, 2018

BEYOND DEATH

BIBLE READINGS
John 11:32-44
Isaiah 25:6-9
 

REFLECTION

Losing my mother was one of the closest things to death I’ve ever experienced. I was on her bedside when she slipped away from this life. I was the last person that she saw. It felt as if half of my life went away with her on that day.

Friends, caring for a dying mother and dealing with her death created a cocktail of emotions within me. Apart from my fear of losing her and my eventual grief for her death, I was angry. First, I was angry at my family. I felt that they failed to give Mum proper care when she was sick. 

I was especially angry with my older brother. We had many heated arguments about many things. We argued about whether to care for Mum at home or to take her to hospital. We argued about which hospital to take or which doctor to see or what medications to give, etc.

But, most of all, I think I was angry with myself. I was angry because I didn’t spend more time with her. I was angry because I felt I should have been there to look after her. 

And that anger gave birth to a sense of guilt. I feel that I could have and should have done more to save her. If it had been Mum who was looking after me, she would have given and done anything to cure me. I feel as if I was an ungrateful son.

Yes, I feel like a failure. I feel that I have failed my mother in her time of greatest need.

And there is regret. I regret that my mother wasn’t able to attend my wedding. I regret that she couldn’t meet her grandson. 

Friends, I share my experience today to show to you that death can bring to us a cocktail of emotions. Grief is not the only emotion that we experience in the event of the death of our loved ones. Often, grief is an ‘umbrella’ word that we use to describe a myriad of emotions that we experience in time of loss. Yes, grief is often accompanied by other feelings.

But my experience was not unique. As a Minister, I’ve witnessed how different people experience a wide range of emotions when they grieve. It is thus common to be overwhelmed by different emotions when we come face to face with death.

We see this in Jesus and the people around him when his friend, Lazarus, died. First, we were greeted by Mary, Lazarus’ brother. Obviously, she was greatly disturbed and weeping when Jesus saw her. But she wasn’t only engulfed by grief. She greeted Jesus by saying, “If only you had come earlier, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

Now, we couldn’t hear the tone of her voice, but it sounds like she was angry at Jesus for not coming earlier. Or, perhaps, she was angry at herself for not telling Jesus earlier about her brother’s condition. Or, maybe, she simply regretted the unfortunate situation. She was just lamenting the fact that Jesus came after her brother died.

Jesus himself was very emotional. This was one of the few moments that we know that he cried.

But grief wasn’t the only emotion that Jesus experienced. We are told that he was “greatly disturbed” and “deeply moved.” In Greek, “greatly disturbed” may mean that he was angry. But the phrase can also mean the passion and pain that come from that anger. On the other hand, “deeply moved” relates to the action of stirring or disturbing a calm water. The phrase can thus be seen as mental and internal anguish that someone experiences. It can mean the feeling of being sickened and disturbed from the inside.[1] 

So, faced with friend’s death, Jesus was experiencing strong emotions that were hard for words to describe.

And the reason why he was experiencing such emotions was this: he loved Lazarus. Yes, love was the source of his grief and is ours. We don’t mourn what we do not love.

Whenever I conduct a funeral, I usually say that the pain that people experience is the honoring of their love. Love always carries the risk of the pain of parting. But not to love is never to have lived. 

Jesus took that risk by loving Lazarus, his friend. God’s only Son took that risk when he became human like us and loved like we love.

No, Jesus wasn’t immune from death because death too had an effect on him. Death broke his heart like it breaks ours. It stung him like it does us. 

But death did not have the final word. Yes, Jesus was affected by death, but it did not defeat him. He proved this by raising Lazarus from the dead. No, he did not raise Lazarus from the dead for his own pleasure or to impress people. In John’s Gospel, Jesus performed miracles not to wow other people. His miracles were signs that point to something important. Jesus raised Lazarus to show to those who were present there, and to us, that God’s love is stronger than death. Yes, death may break our heart and body, but it shall not defeat us.

This too is the message that we hear from Isaiah’s vision of the meal party in the fullness of time. In Isaiah’s vision, God is hosting a great party for all nations of the world. 

But there is something that is dreamlike in his vision. Isaiah saw a shroud hovering above the heads of the peoples who gather for the meal.

Now, people have different ideas about what is the meaning of the shroud. For me, the shroud means death. It reminds me of the shroud that covered dead people like Lazarus. It is like the “pall of doom” hanging above people’s head and in their mind.[2]

But, in Isaiah’s vision, God swallows up the shroud. In other words, God will swallow up death forever.

In other parts of the Bible, it was death who liked to swallow things up. The earth was often seen as the ground that opened up to receive the bodies of people who died. In the Old Testament, there is a story about the ground opening up to swallow all beings and things on it. Yes, in other parts of the Bible, death and swallowing up relate to one another.[3]

But here, in Isaiah’s vision, it was death who was being swallowed up by God. Death will have no control over the living anymore because it itself has been banished and destroyed by God.

Friends, we need to acknowledge death. We need to acknowledge its power. Yet, we need to have the courage to declare that God is beyond death; that the power of death cannot consume God; it is God who consumes death.

 

Death may have its grip on us, but God has His grip on death. Death is real, but God has taken away its sting.

This message is for us so that we can continue with our journey here in the land of the living. We should not worry about the shadow of death in our life. Nor should we worry about those who have gone before us. They have completed their journey and are now safe in God’s hands.

Our journey, on the other hand, is not complete yet. We are to continue living and doing the task that God has entrusted to each one of us.

Amen
Toby Keva

[1] Ginger Barfield, Commentary on John 11:32-44, on WorkingPreacher website (November 1, 2015).

[2] See Isaiah 25:6-8 – The Message.

[3] Anathea Portier-Young, Commentary on Isaiah 25:6-9, on WorkingPreacher website (November 1, 2015).