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Sermon – November 1, 2009: Death

Sermon for All Saints’, Sunday, November 1, 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Isaiah 25: 6-9; Revelation 21: 1-6a; John 11: 32-44

Death

From 1959 to 1991 the movie “The Wizard of Oz” was shown annually on

television. This gave generations of kids, especially in the earliest decades when there was

much less competition for attention, a chance to know the film better each year.

There’s a scene in the movie in which the Wicked Witch very suddenly appears

atop a thatched hut and, I think, sets the straw man on fire and the hut on fire as she attacks

Dorothy and her friends. It comes out of nowhere, if I am remembering it right, and of

course the image of evil surprising the innocent is accompanied by a big orchestral “sting,”

the music accentuating the mood of shock and dismay. That was too much for me. The

next time I’d see it I’d be alert for the scenes preceding the scariest segments, and shut my

eyes or look away. By the third or fourth year I knew pretty well when to keep focused on

the story and when to shut it out.

Everyone adopts a similar strategy in coping with the recurring evils of life. We

make a virtue of it by calling it “accentuating the positive.” We early find evidence of the

injustice or cruelty of experience disturbing, and develop a preference for good news. We

rush past the opening pages of the newspaper, with their grim possibilities, to have our

hopes raised or dashed much less damagingly in the sports pages, or we focus on the

funnies. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. In fact, so much of what’s available in the media is

sensationalized or trivialized, or turned to propaganda, that I am sure that the world would

be better off if everyone ignored almost all of it.

However, there is a cost to deliberately avoiding the unpleasant parts of the story of

life. It robs us of perspective and, to the extent that seeing the whole might offer

understanding, a chance for understanding. In the Wizard of Oz it was always good finally to

have that awful witch melted–that was a bigger deal than everyone getting what they

wanted from the wizard–but avoiding the witch as much as possible up to that point made it

hard to see how the fear of the Yellow Brick Road questers had to be overcome heroically,

and to appreciate the love and loyalty which motivated the threatened characters to see

things through. The darkness of the scary side of the story doesn’t just make the sunny side

all the brighter. The substance of darkness, its motivations of greed or jealousy or malice,

makes it easier to discern the substance of the good opposed to it.

In the Second Letter to Timothy, first chapter, tenth verse, it is said of Christ that “[he]

abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” This New

Testament confidence in Christ’s ushering in a new and different relationship between

human beings and death is our justification for finding hope and comfort in marking the

holiday of All Saints’. In order better to understand the Christian hope with respect to death,

we must have our eyes open to how death looks apart from it.

This is harder than it should be, because the hardness of death itself urges us to look

away from it, and to keep our gaze away from it until we can focus only on the image of its

being abolished. Death’s destruction, however, no matter how many times and in how

many ways announced by the New Testament, remains a matter for faith–which is not to

discount it, for faith is paramount. It’s simply that the weakened grasp, the eclipse of death

envisioned by the New Testament is not the experience of death we have when we are

forced to look upon it, and see it as it presents itself to us. It can be as awful and sudden

and unbearable as any scene of horror imagined, and it alters our world irrevocably.

Most of us know that mainstream Judaism believes in no life after this one. The

compass of a person’s potentials, for spiritual growth, love, understanding, achievement,

being judged, being forgiven–everything–is the span between birth and death. Late in the

Old Testament period and in the era of the gospels Judaism becomes of several minds

about the matter, for all kinds of reasons, but for most of its history and in most of its

presuppositions death simply is an end. When Christianity and Judaism go through their

messy divorce, catalyzing the birth of the church in the era after Paul, resurrection ends up

with Christianity and Judaism affirms no afterlife as part of its outlook.

We’ll look at the passage from Isaiah to see what it has to say about God

overcoming the way death oppresses the living, but first I want to look at how the largest

part of the Old Testament regards death. Since death puts an end to a person, the older

Bible view tends to respond to death according to circumstances. When a person dies at a

great age, especially following a life of satisfaction and accomplishment, death is regarded

as an acceptable conclusion. When, on the other hand, death comes prematurely, or when

it erases the potential for further good, it is seen as intrusive, unwelcome, and horrible.

Isn’t that more or less how we react to death? This basic Biblical view, this view

which antedates the New Testament’s astonished proclamation of resurrection, seems

identical with what we might call a commonsense attitude about death. Death must be

accepted, and can be relatively easily when it seems a fitting or a gracious last event in a

life. However, death also can come in ways which are terrible and with which it is very

difficult to make our peace, however much we finally have to accept it in those instances,

too.

It’s important to recognize that this reacting to death according to circumstances, and

sometimes being very indignant, hurt, and dismayed by particular deaths, is the basic

Biblical response. New Testament Christianity continues Biblical attitudes and so even the

claims and comforts of resurrection are properly understood in contrast to the earlier image

of death as remorseless, random, and unanswerable. The earliest converts wondered at

the defeat of death–which defeat itself was conceived in various ways–and rejoiced in it

precisely because they knew death the way you and I know it, when we’re bereft.

The prophet Isaiah belongs to that later stage of Old Testament thinking in which an

end to the power of death is foreseen. Death, long accepted as a natural limit beyond

which no creature might pass, has come to be understood as a burden. The nearness of

human beings to God in their creative imaginations and their apprehension of past and

future make the certainty and finality of death into an evil which God mercifully will remedy.

In a future Jerusalem, when God makes right all the wrongs of the world, even death–the

knowledge of which has been like a shroud laying over people’s hearts–will be put aside,

that God’s people might no longer suffer its sway.

This is a large promise, because God traditionally has interacted with and impinged

only on the living. Death has been a negative–it renders everything unclean, and it seems

to be as beyond God’s reach as the presence and companionship of God is unavailable to

those who die. Now, in this vision of Isaiah’s, God will overcome death. This will be chiefly

for the benefit of the living, who no longer will live in fear of it. In the next chapter there’s a

reference to a future time when God will bring back from their nonexistence the shades who

have gone into the realm of death, so resurrection is in Isaiah, too. This scripture, though,

has more to do with the effect death has on the living than what it has done to those whom it

has robbed of life.

The gospel passage shows both the power of Christ and the familiar dominance of

death and decay. Mary reproaches Jesus for not having come earlier– he could have

forestalled death. Nobody expects him to be able to do anything now. They weep, and

he weeps. Here again is the traditional understanding of death as final and hopeless. The

bereaved sister even cautions against opening the tomb because of the inevitable decay

of the corpse. This is the commonsense, unpleasant aspect of death, which Jesus

overcomes as the greatest and last of his great public signs in the logic of John’s gospel.

Death is not bypassed. There’s no getting around it. There’s no getting around its

weeping and its decay, its hopelessness and reproach. In order to demonstrate the power

of God and the place of Christ, it is overruled, overturned. “Unbind him, and let him go!”

Jesus commands, and Lazarus is restored. Something which by its nature never would

have released him, submits to the authority of Christ and the power of God.

The vision from the Book of Revelation conceives that New Jerusalem foretold by

Isaiah. This is consistent with one of the New Testament’s hunches about resurrection, that it

is something more underway than achieved, that it will come with the final resolution of

history into eternity, and the dissolution of the distance between creation and Creator. The

New Testament at times is uncertain about the status of those who’ve died already, in terms

of whether their resurrection is instantaneous or merely guaranteed. Sometimes they’re

characterized as “sleeping in Christ.” The promise of resurrection, however, is firm. If death

can be characterized as “the last enemy to be defeated,” its overthrow is underway and

certain. That’s the truth beyond the veil which still shields death’s defeat from view. God’s

emptying death of power, and delivering to new life, is, like God declares himself to be in

today’s scripture, the beginning and end of our faith.

 

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