The Universal Sting of Death
Nov 07, 2021
All Saints’ Sunday
Text: John 11:32-44
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
It’s a banner day for me! We read a portion of one of my all-time favorite Gospel lessons, and, at the end of the service, will be singing my favorite hymn – all seven verses of it. One of the reasons why these are my favorites is this: even though we acknowledge death today, as we must of give thanks for and remember those who have died, we also proclaim that death does not win. This is a message that, whether it is believed or not, speaks to every human being since the death rate among us is 100 percent.
In commentator Scott Hoezee’s sermon for All Saints’ Day, there is a short story written by Annie Dillard. It has a scene in which a family is sadly gathered at a grave to commit a loved one’s body to the earth. At one point, the minister intones the familiar words from 1 Corinthians 15, “Where, O Death, is thy sting?” Upon hearing that, one of the family members looks up. He scans the sorrowful faces of his family and sees all around him row upon row of headstones in the cemetery. And, then, he thinks to himself, “Where, O Death is thy sting?” Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked!” (1)
Indeed, the Covid 19 pandemic has brought this to our attention more than usual. I think, and as Pastor Hoezee noted, you never open a newspaper’s obituary section only to see the word “none.” Death is always “alive and well,” so to speak, and that’s the case in today’s Gospel lesson.
In it, Jesus was drawing closer to the cross; he was in the temple and was asked by his opponents, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” in his response to them, he proclaimed, “The Father and I are one.” This stirred up such anger that some took up stones to attack him, and others tried to arrest him. But, Jesus escaped and went across the Jordan to a safer location. He was there when he received word that his good friend Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, was ill.
The text is clear that Jesus purposely stayed two days longer saying, “This illness does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Then, finally, Jesus announces it is time to return to the city, which agitates the disciples given the recent violence directed toward Jesus. But Jesus insists that they go, finally plainly stating that Lazarus has died.
You should read the entire story; each detail is meaningful! For example, thinking of the threats against Jesus, the disciple Thomas proclaims, “Let us also go, that we may die with him!” Unfortunately, Thomas’ words do not reflect true understanding, either that Jesus will die, or that from the beginning, Jesus has been saying some version of this, telling them that those who lose their lives will save their lives.
Anyway, back to the story: as Jesus arrived, both Mary and Martha confronted him with an accusatory, yet faithful, statement: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We read that when Jesus saw Mary weeping, he was “greatly disturbed,” which most scholars say is a nice way to translate a phrase that is more accurately rendered “he was really angry,” and then he too wept. Why? He knew what he was about to do, that the end of the story was positive; why weep?
More than one commentator insisted that it was not that Lazarus had died, nor that Mary or Martha was upset and grieving that angered and hurt Jesus. Instead, it was what the scene around him represented that stirred those emotions – the chaos, the suffering caused by sin and death. He knew this was not the way it is supposed to be, not what was intended when the words, “Let there be light,” were spoken at creation; the intent was not that the world would end up so full of darkness and sorrow. Jesus showed what should be, that he is on the side of life, when he brought Lazarus back. (2)
I’ve often thought, what would it have been like to watch this event unfold? Mary and Martha must have been overcome with fear and joy. And, what would it have been like for Lazarus, which is an even more astounding image?
Listen to the way that Pastor JoAnn Taylor describes it: “Imagine waking up in the cave, wrapped tightly in cloth, unable to pull the covering off your own face, because your hands are still bound. It’s dark and it stinks in there…. And you hear a familiar voice, muffled but easy to recognize. Your dearest friend is calling you to come out. You don’t even know which direction the door is, or how to get to it. But, you wriggle around enough to get up, and you inch your way toward the light.
As you trip over yourself, struggling to get free, there is a gasp from the crowd that is gathered around the cave. They are just as surprised to see you as you are to be there. But here you are. As you stumble forward, that voice you love says, “Unbind him and let him go.” And the bandages come off and you can see Jesus standing there, tears streaming down his face, welcoming you back to life.” (3)
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Lazarus’ story is a very concrete event pointing to a future reality first fulfilled in Jesus who was raised from death to life, but unlike Lazarus, will never die again. That’s what is promised to us.
Quoting Pastor Hoezee, “The new life that Jesus brought was quite literally our future taking place at a distinct moment in history. We believe it will happen because in Christ it already did happen! Nothing can prevent the eternal life Jesus offers us because it has already come. On that day long ago in Bethany, Jesus essentially told Martha that the Last Day, the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection was standing right in front of her.” (4)
What the man in Annie Dillard’s story said is true; death’s sting is just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. But, even more powerful is the promise of eternal life; it is everywhere too. None of us knows exactly what eternity will be, but the image of Jesus welcoming us as he did Lazarus somehow seems right. AMEN
(1) “Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 29, 2020” by Scott Hoezee, www.cepreaching.org
(2) Same as #1
(3) “Resurrection Hope – Sermon on John 11:32-44” by JoAnn Taylor, November 4, 2018, www.pastorsings.com
(4) Same as #1