Hope in the Face of Death

Here is my sermon from this morning on the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11:17-44 and Paul’s words about Jesus’ return in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. I hope it encourages you.

Here is the text of the sermon, if you’d prefer to read it:

It was filmmaker Woody Allen who once famously said: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Much truth is spoken in jest. And of course the truth is that human beings have a 100% mortality rate. We all face the reality of death, both our own and that of our loved ones. With respect to our own death, we will be there when it happens.

Yet many choose not to face this reality or give it any consideration. Death means loss which means grief and pain. None of us wants to deal with this stuff if we have the option. People have a lot of fears and anxieties around death. And understandably so.

And yet our story from John’s Gospel—the story of the death and the raising of Lazarus—confronts us with this reality. How do we handle death and dying, even the mere specter of it? When we experience this most profound loss, how do we grieve? And what does it mean to live with the hope that death is not the end?

“Lord, if you had been here . . .”

You may not have realized when we were reading the passage from John’s Gospel that right before where we started we’re told that Jesus delayed his trip to Bethany. He knew Lazarus was deathly ill. He knew he could heal Lazarus. But he didn’t. He waited. In fact, he waited for Lazarus to die.

And when Jesus finally arrives at Bethany, he is met by Lazarus’s two sisters, first by Martha and then by Mary. Both of them utter the same words when they first see Jesus: Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.

Think of those words: Lord, if you had been here. How often have we or someone we know prayed or thought very similar words? When someone we love dearly is very sick and perhaps even dying, don’t most of us want God to reverse the situation?

Because, you see, Martha and Mary knew Jesus had the power to heal. Even if they couldn’t fathom how, they knew that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. Jesus could have prevented his death. Why didn’t he?

It’s because he had something else in mind. Before going to Bethany, Jesus told his disciples: This sickness will not end in death but is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. And then a little later he says: Lazarus has died. I’m glad for you that I wasn’t there so that you may believe.

Jesus wanted them to know that not only did he have power over sickness but that he had power over death.

Indeed, when Martha is talking with Jesus she says: I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you. Her beloved brother has died. She knows Jesus could have stopped it. But then she seems to suggest that she thinks perhaps Jesus can still do something.

And then Jesus says to her Your brother will rise again. And she replies: I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Martha believes that death isn’t the ultimate end.

And now we get to the theological heart of the story. It’s here that we see one of Jesus’ most well-known “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John: I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. And then he asks her: Do you believe this?

So what is Jesus claiming here? What is he saying? Jesus is explicitly connecting any hope of eternal life, of a life beyond death, to his very person. If there is hope of resurrection, of life beyond our physical death in this world, it is through him. It is because of who he is. Not only is there resurrection, but Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  He is the one who can give us life beyond death.

And this is why Jesus waited for Lazarus to die. Not because he was uncaring. Not because he didn’t want Lazarus to get better. Not because he was insensitive to the grief of Mary and Martha. And not because he isn’t ever going to heal someone of an illness. But because he wanted to demonstrate something infinitely more profound, more important, and more earth-shattering: that because of him, death no longer has a hold on us. That when we are united to Christ in faith, we can be confident of our resurrection.

Having hope in the face of death means trusting that Jesus has power over death.

“Lazarus, come out!”

Now some of the others who were ask: Couldn’t he who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying? Their words very much echo the words of Martha and Mary.

Here’s the thing: Jesus isn’t so much interested in postponing death by healing people as he is in eliminating death as a reality altogether. And that’s what’s going on in the story of Lazarus.

And so Jesus asks to be taken to the tomb and to have the stone removed. At this point Lazarus has been dead for four days. There is no doubt as to his condition. Martha even points out that removing the stone will mean noticing the stench of death in the tomb.

Still, Jesus insists. And he says to her: Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?

Sometimes it’s one thing to believe in something abstractly. I believe that I will experience a bodily resurrection in the future. I can’t, however, even begin to imagine what such an experience is going to be like. It seems afar off and far removed from my present everyday experience.

Martha speaks of the resurrection at the last day. She speaks of something in the future. But Jesus wants to give her, her sister Mary, his disciples, and anyone else who is present a taste of what’s in store, a glimpse into the power and glory of God now.

The stone is removed. And Jesus, standing before the open tomb, lifts his face to heaven and prays: Father, I thank you that you heard me. I know that you always hear me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this so that they may believe you sent me.

In other words, Jesus wants us to believe in him so that we can have hope in the face of death. This is the reason he waited for Lazarus to die: to demonstrate his power over death.

And look what he does. We’re told that he shouted with a loud voice. He speaks with authority. He speaks knowing what’s going to happen. He speaks with power. Jesus’ words make things happen.

And here Jesus is also foreshadowing what will happen on the last day. Remember how Paul describes Christ’s return? For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout. And what does he shout? Lazarus, come out! And what happens? The dead man came out. He who was dead was now alive again. Jesus tells them: Unwrap him and let him go.

And while Lazarus wasn’t raised to eternal life at this time, his coming back to life was a sign of what Jesus would one day for all who believe in him. And one day he will shout these same words except with our names. He will look squarely at my grave and shout, “Derek, come out!” And he will do the same with you (and you and you . . .).

Having hope in the face of death means trusting that Christ will one day reverse our death, raise us from the grave, and usher us into his kingdom.

“Jesus wept”

And, you see, this is why what Paul says in our passage from 1 Thessalonians is so important for us as Christians today. Paul was speaking to Christians who were wondering what was going to happen to their fellow Christians who died before Jesus’ return. He wanted to assure them that Christ would raise the dead upon his return and that those who believed in the Lord would be with him forever.

This is why, therefore, he says: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.

Notice that he assumes Christians still grieve. We still experience sorrow and sadness when someone we love dies. Loss is painful even for the believer. At the same time, we do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.

Consider Jesus himself in this story. Did he not know from the outset what the conclusion was going to be? He had waited for Lazarus to die because he knew he was going to raise him from death. And yet it’s in this story that we have the shortest verse in all of the Bible. Do you know what it is? Jesus wept.

Jesus, who was going to summon Lazarus from the tomb, wept. Jesus, God in flesh and blood, cried. He shared in Martha and Mary’s grief. Lazarus was also his friend. And no doubt Jesus wept because suffering, grief, and death are all enemy invaders in God’s good creation. Jesus felt the weight of all of this.

I think this is important. Because when we find ourselves grieving, God shares our grief. We have a Savior who understands grief. Who has experienced it. In Jesus, God identifies with us when we grieve. And when we find ourselves dealing with the pain of loss, Jesus promises to be right there with us.

Having hope in the face of death means having a Savior who is with us when we grieve and who promises that our grief is not the end of the story.

In our passage from 1 Thessalonians, after he speaks about Jesus’ return and resurrection, Paul says this: Therefore encourage one another with these words.

One of the ways in which we experience the presence of Jesus in times of grief is through the comforting presence of other believers. Romans 12:15 tells us to weep with those who weep, knowing that one day all weeping will come to an end. We don’t always know what to say or when to say it. But through our loving and supportive presence we both embody the hope we have in Christ and perhaps open up the door speak of our hope with gentleness and grace. So, yes, we most certainly grieve, but we do so with hope.

Conclusion

Here’s the thing: hope is not wishful thinking. It’s not crossing our fingers and hoping that we and our loved ones go to a “better place” when we die. I’ve officiated funerals where family members have said something along the lines of “I hope so and so is in a better place.” And, frankly, it can be awkward, especially if I didn’t know the deceased. More to the point, the kind of hope they’re expressing is much more a wishful thinking. This is not Christian hope.

The Christian hope is the firm conviction that because Jesus is the resurrection and the life that death is not the end we can live forever with God in his kingdom. But only with Jesus can we have this hope. Apart from Christ, there is no hope of eternal life.

This means, by the way, that what we believe about Jesus and our relationship with Jesus is the most important thing about us. And what our loved ones, neighbours, coworkers, and classmates believe about Jesus is also what’s most important about them.

I remember early on in my ministry in Nerepis having the privilege of leading a woman to Christ on her deathbed when visiting her in the hospital. We should be having those conversations long before then, not least because we don’t always have the opportunity to speak to someone on their deathbed. Such conversations need to be bathed in prayer. At our weekly prayer meeting, Allen almost always reminds us to pray for our unsaved loved ones.

We need to pray—and to pray sincerely, earnestly, and perhaps sometimes even with tears—for loved ones we know who do not yet have Christ as their hope. Because death is a guarantee; eternal life in the presence of God is not.

And so having hope in the face of death always means sharing our hope with those who do not have it. This hope is Christ. It is Christ that we are called to share with others. It is Christ we cling to in our times of grief. It is Christ we share when comforting others in their grief. Because it is Christ who has defeated death. Because it is Christ who, as the psalmist says, reveals the path of life and in whose presence is the fullness of joy.

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