Facing Death

 Inspired by John 11:1-44

For those of you who weren’t able to make it on Ash Wednesday, it was a Bible story filled with power and strength and fortitude for the journey ahead! Why? Because Jesus knew what was ahead. He knew that things were about to get very heavy, very fast. Hence, the story of the raising of Lazarus. In the middle of Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s version of the Jesus story, the cleansing of the temple, the scene where Jesus violently knocks over the money changers tables at the temple, whip in hand, doves and other sacrificial animals running for their lives, in their Gospels, that is the last straw for the Jewish leadership, that is what causes them to begin to plot his death. 

Not in John’s Gospel. You may remember that we read that story way back at the beginning of our read through of this Gospel, back in chapter two. We’re now in chapter eleven, smack dab in the middle of John’s telling, and the turning point for John is the raising of Lazarus. This is the event that caused the Jewish authorities to begin to plot his death. Oh it’s been on their minds for a while but this was it, now he had to go. It was one thing to heal on the sabbath or claim to be a messiah or prophet but this? Raising the dead? Who could do that but God? Who could do that, indeed. 

The story opens with Jesus hearing about his dear friend Lazarus being sick. He intentionally chooses to wait it out, to not go to his dear friend’s bedside. More than that, he intentionally chooses to wait for him to die. He tells his followers that this will not end in death. Which is a bit of a stretch, I mean, he isn’t lying here, this story doesn’t end in death, but it certainly included it! A small detail that Jesus keeps to himself. The fact that he intentionally waited for Lazarus to die sounds a bit cruel on the surface. But we know Jesus, and we know he is anything but cruel. Oh he may be a bit off-putting at times, with just as much of a chance as you or I to wake up on the wrong side of the bed, but cruel, no. So, why did he do this? 

Aside from the crowds getting to see the power of God at work in the raising of Lazarus, which is a large part of his motivation here, I also think it’s about facing death, head on, face to face, in all it’s ugliness, stench and all. Yes, he wanted them to see that death had no power over him, but I believe with all my heart that he also wanted them to find that power within themselves, the power to look death in the eye, in all its forms, and to be able to say you have no ultimate power here. 

Oh death is powerful, make no mistake, I don’t have to tell you that, but ultimate power, no. You can search for ultimate power all you want Death, but you won’t find it here so move along. In fact, you won’t find it anywhere according to Jesus. Because this place belongs to Christ. And by this place I mean from the dirt on the bottom of your shoe to the space dust at the end of the universe. It all belongs to me, says the Lord. But you go right on ahead and keep looking for that ultimate power that you crave so much, Death. Knock yourself out. 

This past Tuesday, we held a prayer vigil for the people of Ukraine. It was well attended. We began outside with candles and made our way in here to pray and to sing. The song that we sang was the national anthem of Ukraine, in English of course. The melody was gorgeous but I gotta tell ya, it was the words that really captured my attention and I’d like to share some of them with you now. It begins like this… 

Ukraine is not yet dead, nor her glory, nor her freedom,

Upon us, fellow Ukrainians, the skies shall smile once more.

Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine,

And we shall rule in a free land of our own.

Souls and bodies we'll lay down, all for our freedom.

Onward, to battle,

Time to rise,

Time to gain freedom!

Call us from beyond the grave,

To the holy battle.

Souls and bodies we'll lay down, all for our freedom.

Our persistence and our sincere toils will be rewarded,

And freedom's song will throughout all of Ukraine resound.

Her fame and glory will be known among all nations.

Souls and bodies we'll lay down, all for our freedom. 

That is a very different national anthem, isn’t it! And I’d totally understand if some of it is a bit off-putting, I mean, “our enemies will die” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like “twilight’s last gleaming” does it! But I was captivated. And here’s why. Our national anthem is dripping with victory and triumph. Oh there’s allusion to battle for sure but you walk away from that song feeling like a winner, right! Which is the point! And in my na├»ve small world that I am privileged to live in, I thought all national anthems were like that! I had no idea of the privilege inherent in our own national anthem until I heard Ukraine’s. Imagine if our national anthem began with “The United States of America is not yet dead.” Can you even imagine that? How un-American does that sound! 

But it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it. What I love about their national anthem is the same thing that I love about our story for today. It unabashedly faces death. It looks death in the eyes and says I’m still here. What else you got! Knowing full well that more death might be the answer to that question. Because that’s all death knows how to do. There’s a fearlessness to their national anthem, a different kind than found in our own. We U.S. Americans like to think we invented fearlessness but the kind found in their national anthem is different. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s honest. It’s the kind that says, we may be dead by the end of this song, but we will not let fear nor death, have the last word. 

I think we could learn something from that. And I also think it’s what Jesus was trying teach the crowd surrounding the raising of Lazarus. It’s what he was trying to teach Martha. Martha trusted in the resurrection, in the afterlife. That was not the issue. The issue was that Jesus was there to tell them that that new life, that resurrection life, could be had now. It’s not reserved for some future far off place—but was meant for the here and now. And in the raising of Lazarus, Jesus urged them and us, to face death head on, with Christ, look it in it’s ugly face, and say, not today. Not ever. You will never have the last word, not when we have the living light of the world, with us, in us. May we all allow this Lenten season to continue to transform us in such a way that we too, can muster up such fearlessness, to tell Death where to go. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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