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.

Faith, Fear, and the Illusion of Control

Fear. We’ve all felt it. We all know the experience of being afraid of something.

And especially over the last two years or so of the COVID pandemic and all the debates about the restrictions and guidelines and the vaccines and now the vaccine mandates or passports, people’s fears have surfaced in a variety of ways. It doesn’t help, I don’t think, that government and the media often seem to manipulate people’s fears to achieve political ends. As a result, there are people who are afraid of getting COVID and people who are afraid of getting one of the vaccines.

But there’s more than COVID that causes fear to rise up in us.

Some people are afraid because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to pay their rent and put food on the table.

Some people are afraid because they’ve just been told that they or someone they care about has cancer.

Some people are afraid of trusting someone again because they’ve only known unhealthy, broken relationships.

Some people are afraid because of climate change.

Some people are afraid because their preferred political party is not in power.

But why fear? Why do these things cause fear?

Here’s a wierd fact about me: sometimes when I get anxious, I clean up. I straighten up clutter, clean a counter, do dishes. It’s like I’m distracting myself from what I can’t control with what I can control. You see, I’m the kind of person who likes to feel as though I have at least something of a handle on things–at least things in my little neck of the woods. This means that a lot of the time–whether I am conscious of it or not–I want things to go a certain way. I usually prefer the routine and predictable. And so if something unexpected happens, especially something that threatens my safety or the safety of my family, I may very well get anxious. Fear rises up. All of a sudden, my life isn’t securely in my hands. I’ve lost control and I don’t like that very much.

I think that’s where a lot of our fear comes from–from losing whatever sense of control we thought we had. We like having control over our lives and our circumstances. But sometimes we lose the tight grip we so often try and maintain. Then we become disoriented. We find ourselves without solid footing. There’s nothing, we think, to keep us steady. There’s very little that’s worse than feeling like we’ve lost control. The very idea can easily terrify us.

If I get a cancer diagnosis, my health is out of my control. If I lose my job, my finances are out of my control. If my marriage breaks up, my family life is out of control.

And we want to be in control. Because we want to be safe.

But here’s the thing: control is an illusion.

Whatever sense of control I’ve had is just that: a sense of control, not actual control.

And because the world frequently feels like a dangerous place, we’ll do almost anything to give ourselves a sense of control.

In his book What’s Wrong With Religion? 9 Things No One Told You About Faith, Skye Jethani puts it this way: “To ease our fears, we all strive to control the people and circumstances around us.”

And of course the biggest fear is undoubtedly the fear of death. I think the last couple of years have demonstrated that unequivocally.

We want to control our lives so we can put off dealing with the reality of death as much as possible. Because it’s the reality of death–which none of us can in the end avoid–that leaves us feeling like we have no control. And that’s what really scares us.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews (2:14–15), the author says this about what it means that Jesus went to the cross: through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Did you catch that? One of the reasons Christ died on the cross was so that he could free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

People are slaves, Scripture says, to the fear of death.

That is perhaps one of the most profound verses in the Bible I think there is. I think that’s because I see evidence of this all around me. I think it describes human history and human nature. I think it explains much of what I see when I watch the news. And when I see people react in very different ways to what’s going on in the world and in their lives. Fear emerges in various ways: in anger, in political divisions, and, yes, in attempts at control, whether individually or collectively.

It also explains me, when I catch myself falling prey to my own fears, despite all of the theology I have in my head.

One of the most common refrains in Scripture is this: Don’t be afraid. Fear Not.

Deuteronomy 31:6 says: Be strong and courageous; don’t be terrified or afraid of them. For the Lord your God is the one who will go with you; he will not leave you or abandon you.

And when Deuteronomy says don’t be terrified or afraid of them, I think we can rightly substitute our own fears for them. Fear of sickness, fear of loss, fear of death. The same remains true of God: he will not leave you or abandon you.

In the gospels, when the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, Jesus says this: Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.

I don’t know about you, but I need to hear Jesus’ words. I need them to sink deeply into my heart. Ours is a perilous world, one that elicits our worst fears at times. Maybe now more than ever. We don’t always know how to handle life. We don’t always know what choices to make. We aren’t certain about a whole bunch of stuff. But of this we can be certain: if God is on our side, who can be against us?

Living as a person of faith in the face of very real fears is not an easy thing to do. It’s true that sometimes fears get the best of us. The waves that threaten to overwhelm us and capsize our lives seem more real than God. More real than the promises of Christ. Faith is having the actual goodness and greatness of God magnified in our eyes. Not that he becomes bigger, but that we come to see him more and more as he actually is. And he is the one who can calm the storms inside of us when the winds and waves rage outside of us.

Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says. I say amen. I say I believe; help my unbelief. And I say, finally, Come, Lord Jesus.

Faith and Fear in a Time of COVID

I think it’s an obvious scriptural truth that even people of faith experience fear. Otherwise, why would Jesus (and other biblical writers) encourage us not to worry so frequently? Surely, if people of faith were never going to worry or find themselves facing fear, the Bible wouldn’t have to address it. Yet it does. All the time. And nowhere is this more true than with the very real, universal human fear of death.

Over the last year, I think COVID has brought many in our culture face to face with the realities of human mortality. And I say face to face for a reason. Because we’re all intellectually aware of death, even our own inevitable death. We know we will not live forever. Loved ones die. Celebrities and public figures we admire and follow die. Whether from accident, crime, or illness–death follows us at every turn. At the same time, we don’t necessarily live like this is true. We sequester suffering and death into nursing homes and hospitals and then only visit infrequently. No sooner do we become more acutely aware of the brevity of human existence then we quickly put it out of our minds. It’s too much to process. It’s too painful. Yet, whereas much of the time we are able to distract ourselves or avoid having to deal with the fact of physical suffering and death, this pandemic has torn away the facade of immortality.

And so, fear.

How else to explain people breaking down in hysterics on TikTok and other social media platforms over the failure of others to abide by all the guidelines and restrictions?

Whatever else we say about COVID, it has revealed what most people fear above all: death.

And so much so that this fear is–in various ways–the controlling factor in the lives of many. Though not only in a time of COVID.

Scripture is pretty clear on this. People are slaves to their fear of death. More importantly, this is the reason why God became flesh in the person of Christ. One biblical writer says it this way:

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Hebrews 2:14–15

Another translation of the second part of this verse says that people are like slaves all their lives because of their fear of death.

Jesus came into our world to free us from all this. Jesus, after all, calls himself the resurrection and the life.

Which brings us to what for some is an uncomfortable point. Even Christians–people who believe that Jesus has conquered death through his resurrection–can fear death. In some measure, we all do. If I say I have no fear of death, maybe that’s because I’ve never really had to contend with my own mortality except theoretically. Because I’m guessing that in the moment when I am face to face with the very possibilty of my own death, assuming I have the time to contemplate it at all, my knees might shake at least a little. I’m guessing maybe more than a little. And if I don’t, that will only be because of the grace of God. I can’t really know until that time arrives.

But the question we ask as people of faith is probably this: If I experience fear of death, does that mean I lack faith?

My answer might surprise you. Because it’s this: Yes. Because even apart from a fear of death, I lack faith. Even without a devastating health diagnosis, I lack faith. Even when life is all rainbows and happy songs, I lack faith. Even at my spiritual best, I lack faith. Simply put, we do not trust God as we should. We do not love God as much as we should. God is not our hope and peace to the degree he should be.

And that’s the case with anyone who confesses faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Anyone.

You lack faith. I lack faith. The Christian you’ve known and admired for years–maybe decades–lacks faith.

We all lack faith.

Do you get that? Am I making my point?

Otherwise, we’d somehow be spiritually perfect–complete in faith and trust–in this life. And while I have met many incredibly mature, faith-filled, and wise believers, I’ve never yet met a perfect one. Ever.

However, bear in mind that lacking faith or having imperfect faith doesn’t mean we are without faith. It doesn’t mean we are faithless. We need to get that too. We can have faith even when we experience fear. The latter doesn’t completely cancel out the former. Often, on our darkest days the two live in tension.

So when we berate ourselves or feel guilt for experiencing fear, believing that somehow people of faith ought to be immune to fear, we’re making the mistake of thinking our trust in God can somehow be perfect, without fault or lack, on this side of eternity. And like I said, this is not even congruent with biblical teaching. Our guilt feelings also reveal we see God the same way, that we worry or feel he expects us to be fearless in the face of our mortality. “How disappointed he must be,” we think. Not only are we frustrated with our imperfect faith, we conclude God is too.

And if we think God is disappointed in us over our lack of faith, because when we find ourselves staring death in the face we’re afraid, what kind of effect is that going to have on our prayers, our faith, on our relationship with God? How likely are we to approach God in trust if we think our fear frustrates him? What kind of heart posture will we adopt in that moment? Is he our loving Father inviting us closer or our disappointed Father telling us to try harder?

Here’s the thing: God knows our fears. He constantly addresses our tendency to fall prey to it in the Scriptures he has graciously given to us. Do not be afraid. Don’t worry. Do not be anxious. He knows we can be fearful. But you know what? He loves us anyway. And he still chooses to meet us in our brokenness. In his mercy, he seeks to heal us rather than condemn us. In Jesus we meet a God who does not grow weary because our faith is often lacking. He doesn’t tire of us because of our failure to trust him fully. Instead, he invites us deeper in. He literally and figuratively condescends to us.

Recently, well-known pastor and author Tim Keller wrote an article for The Atlantic called “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death.” Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2020, he writes “as death, the last enemy, became real to my heart, I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day.” Even Keller, a renowned Christian leader, found himself wrestling with doubt and fear in the face of death. In a later interview with Russell Moore on his podcast Signposts, he spoke about his experience and what he has learned through it. You can see that interview here. It’s worth a watch.

But the one thing Keller said in the interview that I want to point out here and now is this: If Jesus was really raised from the dead, then ultimately everything is going to be ok. Keller then commented that there is nothing that could convince him otherwise at this point in his life. If Jesus was raised, then we’re going to be fine. And that on the other side of eternity because there will be no pain and death, there will be nothing at all to fear.

So what do we do? Well, we can ask that God would increase and grow our faith. We can ask that God would help us to trust him more and more. That he would help us to be unafraid when difficult moments come our way. That a vision of who Jesus is–as the one who defeats death–would gradually overtake our fear. Certainly we should read Scripture over and over and over so that more and more of the truth of who God is sinks into our hearts and comes out in our prayers and lives.

And of course we never, ever, do this alone. Jesus calls us to a family of faith. He calls us to shoulder one another’s fears. He calls us to remind each other that he is the resurrection and the life. To say it over and over and over. Until we believe it, and believe it so much that it, and not our fears, becomes the determining force of our lives. Whether in a time of COVID or not. We will all die, but thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, we can also live–and that forever.

On that note, there’s no better way to end than with the apostle Paul’s own words on the matter:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death.

1 Corinthians 15:21-26