God With Us in Death and Life

Jesus knows what it is to grieve.

All Saints Day (Year B) – November 1, 2015 – Revelation 21:1-6, John 11:32-44

St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia

God With Us in Death and Life – Pastor Evan Davis

I’m thirty years old and I have never lost a member of my immediate family. I only have one set of grandparents – my grandfather died before I was born and my grandmother will be 92 years old this December, praise be to God. I’ve never lost a really close friend. The closest person to me who has died would be a friend from college who tragically died very young and my uncle who died somewhat suddenly three years ago now. So in that sense I have never had to grieve the death of someone I deeply, deeply loved. But I know you have. And I know that day will come for me.

I have been close to death, however. I have witnessed it, mostly at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, as a student chaplain, in the trauma bay, and in the rooms of those peacefully coming to the last of their days, surrounded by people who love them. I have, of course, walked with some of our loved ones here as they completed their baptism and approached their death. Each path was different, each experience uniquely painful, some tragic, and some even beautiful. You have been there for the death of parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, children, friends. You know what it is to grieve. There is nothing theoretical or distant about this story today, of Jesus grieving for his friend.

You can identify with what Jesus is going through. And yet there is an aspect of his grief that is deeper than we can possibly imagine. Jesus is dealing with a stunning accusation from Mary, his friend, and Lazarus’ sister. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What makes it worse is that she’s probably right. She lays her brother’s death squarely on Jesus’ shoulders. Maybe she knows he can take it. Jesus is not Stoic about it. He’s not some distant, passionless God, some unmoved mover. Jesus is a person, which means God is personal. Jesus, God the Son incarnate, the Word made flesh, is a person, a person who had friends, and he is not only grieving his friend’s death but also the reality that, in a way, he could have prevented it. Maybe doctors or police officers or soldiers or fire fighters can identify with having someone else’s death on their conscience, but we can all identify with that loss of someone we dearly love. That’s grief. That’s pain.

Our translation says Jesus was “greatly distressed in spirit and deeply moved.” The words he uses refer to deep pain, even anger, and a physical sickness to the stomach, let’s say, a punch to the gut.1 Our God in the flesh is keeling over in physical, mental, and emotional anguish. There is no shame in grief. Our God came so far down, was so in the flesh, that even though he possesses the power to overcome death he is still bowled over by its power to separate him from his friend.

Our culture so often wants to skip grieving altogether, wants to deny that death is real. This story doesn’t – Lazarus is four days dead and he smells like it. There is no whitewashing here. Lazarus is deader than dead. We surely ought to celebrate the life of someone who has died, to remember everything beautiful and wonderful about that person, and to celebrate the sure promise of resurrection life in Jesus Christ, but we cannot deny the reality of death and the pain it causes. Because then what we’re telling someone is that it’s not ok to grieve, that it’s shameful or a sign of weakness. I have been to too many funerals where the word “death” was never said out loud. To love is to sign up for grief. When Jesus wept, they said, “see how he loved him!” And it’s true. To be married is to agree that one of the two will be standing at the other’s grave. Love is what makes death hard. We mourn the loss of the person, we miss that person – what they say and do, the way they make us feel, the way their presence at our side changes everything. We mourn our lost futures.2 Each of us needs to grieve death, we need to feel everything we need to feel, so that we can learn how to live again without that person in our life, knowing the pain will never disappear, but it does get manageable, God is still with us, and life can still be beautiful and wonderful.

Jesus weeps and mourns as you do. Be he also believes. He trusts the power and presence and promise of his Father. To a pair of grieving sisters, Mary and Martha, Jesus says those who believe, who trust, see the glory of God. You will see the glory of God, no matter what it looks, or feels, or smells like now. You can believe this…because the one who grieves also has the power to call your name, to call the name of your beloved, to call her or him out of death and into life.

Just earlier in this same gospel story, Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice, that he calls them by name and leads them out (John 10:3). Lazarus, even in death, hears that living Word, he is four days stinky dead and yet he hears his Good Shepherd calling his name, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man came out.

Today you will hear the names of your beloved ones called out, and just as their names will ring out here today, so they will hear their names being called out of death and into eternal and abundant life. God is calling their names – Louellen, Lena, Esther, Cecil – and the names of all the people you carry in your hearts this morning – and Jesus will one day call your name.

And when you hear your name in that familiar voice, you will also hear a loud voice from the throne, saying something we have known all along, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more….”

God will be with you in life, but first, he will be with you in death – as you mourn these who have gone before you, and as you face the end of your days in this life. Jesus has already taken every step as the one who mourns and the one who dies, and he will be with you every step of your journey. One day, you and I will awake to a new heaven and a new earth, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending from above. That’s the vision of Revelation, that heaven comes to earth, that earth itself and all who have died here will experience Resurrection.

Can we be surprised that what makes the new earth so good is that the home of God will be among mortals. God himself with be with you…and his presence will be so powerful that even for mortals like you and me and Louellen, Lena, Esther, and Cecil, and all the dear ones you mourn, death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain, so necessary and important now, will be no more. Shed your tears today, you need to, but then he will wipe every tear from your eyes.

Take that hope with you, in your heart, take this hope into a world that needs it. Share that hope like the saints you are. Amen.

1Ginger Barfield, Commentary on John 11:32-44, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2660 (accessed October 29, 2015).

2For the sake of honesty, I will say I learned the term “lost futures” as an aspect of grief from someone who was going through intense grief. For the sake of respect and privacy, I will not credit that person specifically.