Sunday, July 1, 2012

God did not make death (Sunday 13B)

Yesterday I celebrated the funeral of one young woman and the wedding of another. And now today the Church asks me to preach on death—on Canada Day, when there are a dozen happier things I'd rather talk about.

I was even tempted to skip over the first reading and the Gospel, and preach about the second reading. Since St. Paul is asking the community to be more generous to the collection, I wouldn't have minded focusing on that!

But I recalled the words from the Anglican funeral service: "In the midst of life we are in death." Besides, I found I couldn't take my eyes off the words "God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living." I think most of us disagree with that sentence in one with in one way or another, at one time or another.

Haven't you heard people say things like "God must have wanted that child very much to take her so soon"? Don't we more or less blame God when someone we love dies?And even if you see the holes in that argument, haven't you wondered why prayers often don't work when someone is dying?

If that weren't difficult enough for us, Jesus seems to confuse matters by raising the dead—notably the daughter of Jairus in today's Gospel and his friend Lazarus in St. John's Gospel.

Speaking of Lazarus, I think we have to remember that story if we are to properly understand today's miracle. Do you remember what Jesus does before he brings Lazarus back to life?

He cries! Think about it—the Saviour weeps. Those tears of Jesus speak more than any words about his tender love, about the fact that God is not—as some would have it—a distant figure on Mount Olympus, unconcerned with human suffering and death. Let's not look first to theology in order to understand how God loves us: look at the tear-stained face of our Lord.

It always seemed unlikely to me that Jesus wept merely in sorrow over the death of Lazarus and the bereavement of Martha and Mary. After all, he knew he would soon restore the dead man to life. I think he wept for all of us whose lives must be marred by the reality of death, a consequence of original sin.
He wept for all those whose faith is not strong enough to find hope in the midst of death, who fear it to be the final end of existence.

In this Gospel, Jesus shows his compassion and his power by raising a little girl. But look what he does afterwards—he ordered them strictly that no-one should know about it.

Jesus knew what could happen if he became famous as the man who could end every sorrow and cure every ill. Faith would no longer be a relationship of love and obedience; it would be a simple act of self-interest. For who wouldn't want to find the way to solve life's greatest problem: just call Jesus, and our beloved dead will get up and walk.

But that's exactly the point: Jesus did solve life's greatest problem, but he did it by rising from the dead and winning eternal life for us. He conquered death, but he did not make it disappear from the earth.

The writer Tertullian, a Father of the Church, tied all this together back in the fourth century. Tertullian begins with the same fact we're wrestling with this morning: that the age of miracles is over, whether we think of the events of the Old Testament or the raising of the dead in the New. He tackles the question of why our prayers don't seem to work the way they did for Jairus, and for Martha and Mary.

Here's what he said: In ancient times, "prayer was able to rescue from fire and beasts and hunger—even before it received its perfection from Christ. How much greater then is the power of Christian prayer. No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. But it gives the armour of patience to those who suffer, who feel pain, who are distressed.

"Prayer's only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comforts the fainthearted, gives new strength to the courageous, calms the waves, lifts up the fallen, sustains those who stand firm."

Seen in this light, Jesus is always at work among those who turn to him—and does something ultimately more powerful than raising a little girl from death. For after all, the daughter of Jairus, like Lazarus too, had one day to face death again. But those whom Jesus saves today are free forever. The tender love of God gives us life that never ends.

When we experience bereavement, it's natural to think God was asleep at the switch. Remember what Martha said when Lazarus died: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
Jesus is here; and death has lost its stranglehold forever. God takes no delight in death, and is not the author of death.

Perhaps there are more cheerful things to think about this Canada Day, but there is nothing more important.

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