Terminal Illness...Not!!! John 11:1-6, 11-15, 17-27
The video kind of softens it before it actually happens. In the movie, Martha simply says, “It has been four days.” However, while they left the line out of the movie, we see them quickly depict it once the stone is down. Mary and Martha gag, we hear men coughing back the nausea, and many of the folks cover their faces…we see the result of Martha’s NRSV warning of “Lord, there is already a stench.” Or, better yet, as old King James puts it, “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” Any of us who watch the CSI type of shows where they encounter dead bodies, along with their resulting foul, decomposing smell, are familiar with the sight of folks reacting to that smell…some of us here may have even encountered that smell as the bacteria that are living in each of our pancreases today, start eating away, first at our pancreas and then at the rest of our organs, causing our bodies to exude a very foul smelling gas.[i] Yet we see Jesus, the wind evidently blowing in his direction, lift his face high even as others are covering theirs, and say, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” Jesus then turns his face directly toward the tomb and says, “Lazarus, come out!” Everyone watches. Some think Jesus is a madman torturing the poor sisters and others mourning…even Martha questions what Jesus is doing, Mary, calls her sister to trust Jesus. Then we watch folks fall away in fear as a body bound in burial cloths comes staggering out of the tomb. Many of them probably thinking in terms of where many of us would go, especially this time of year, that a ghost or zombie (though zombie was probably not part of their vernacular) was stumbling out of the tomb. Jesus says, "Unbind him!" Then we see, as they began removing the burial cloths that there was not even the slightest hint of decomp.
Death…many folks don’t like to deal with it—they don’t want to see it, hear about it, or consider it, especially if it might relate to themselves or someone they love.
Considering the death of someone we love, once it has occurred, many of us look at the story of Lazarus, and might dwell, day to day, on the thought or hope that something like that could occur for our loved one, a husband, a wife, a parent, a child, a friend…we would just about give anything to have them back in the same way that Mary and Martha were able to welcome their beloved Lazarus back into their arms. I would have probably felt the same way, had not one of my favorite authors and theologians given me pause to think. C. S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, a book that was really his journal reflecting on the loss of his beloved wife, Joy, to bone cancer:
I never even raised the question of whether a return, if it were possible, would be good for her. I want her back as an ingredient of my past. Could I have wished her anything worse? Having got once through death, to come back and then at some later date, have all her dying to do over again? They call Stephen the ﬁrst martyr. Hadn’t Lazarus the rawer deal?[ii]
See, what we so often forget is that Jesus did not raise Lazarus from the dead for his own benefit. He did it for the benefit of Mary, Martha, the disciples, and the others who were there…to strengthen and encourage their belief. It was not for Lazarus. Am I suggesting that Lazarus was not happy to have more time with his sisters and friends? Maybe, or maybe not…. I don’t know. But I have to wonder, as we John states twice in the verses following our reading for today, that Jesus was “greatly disturbed.” In the midst of both of those “disturbances,” we read that “Jesus wept.” There are many who say that Jesus wept because he loved Lazarus so deeply. And I will admit that could be the case, but I tend to agree with other scholars who suggest that they were not tears of sorrow, because that would negate the whole point of Jesus’ comments to Martha earlier (I’ll get to that in a moment). I think that they were tears of frustration, frustration that the people just didn’t get it. They may have been tears of frustration, because he knew to convince them that he was going to have to call Lazarus out of the tomb…and Jesus knew that that would mean for Lazarus, what Lewis knew it would mean for his wife…that for them to live with us again, they would have to experience the process of dying all over again. Lewis had seen the pain that Joy endured suffering through the bone cancer before she died—he found that it was selfish of him to wish her back alive with the possibility that she would have to endure that kind of pain all over again. We have to remember, Lazarus was not resurrected from the dead, for Christ had not been resurrected, that possibility of being raised to never die again, was not yet a possibility…Lazarus was resuscitated through the call of Christ to come out of the tomb. He would have to endure the taste of death once more. Two factors lead me to assert that Lazarus was resuscitated and not resurrected…one, that if Lazarus was resurrected, and therefore still alive, we would see his picture at least once a year, if not more often, on the cover of those magazines lining the checkout aisle at the grocery store; secondly, Paul tells us that Jesus is the “first fruits of those who have died…But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ…For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”[iii] Paul reminds us that those who have died, rest in the peace of Christ, until He returns with the trumpet blast, and then first the dead, then the living will rise to meet Him and join Him in His Eternal reign.
Some of you may be wanting to ask, “So if this is the point, why didn’t we read all of the passage, or this half of the story, instead of the first half, and what’s with the sermon title?” Well, all of this connects to the point, but is not the point…so here we go…
There is something that many of us may dread more than a call that a loved one has died. It is the call from the doctor’s office…to “please come in...there are some test results we need to go over…”. We arrive at the doctor’s office, only to have the doctor reluctantly shuffle through some papers on his desk before looking up at us and saying, “I’m sorry to tell you, but tests reveal that the treatments haven’t worked” or “ the disease has spread,” “ you only have six weeks to live.”
Now I will be the first to admit that I have never been called into the office to hear those words. Some of you have…others of you maybe had sat with loved ones as they heard those words…or heard the words related by someone you know that heard them. However, I believe there are only a few ways that we can respond.
One, we can give up hope and become depressed. We can close ourselves off from everyone and drift into a deep depression, each day filled with sorrow, more for ourselves that for those around us.
We can respond as one of my colleagues has, with the determination to enjoy life, live each day to the fullest, and continue his ministry until he physically can do no more.
We can respond in the way an actor responded in what I think is one of the most powerful scene out of the television show 7th Heaven. The character is someone who has survived years after receiving a diagnosis of weeks. He is in the hospital room talking with a patient who has given up hope after receiving a six week diagnosis. He says, “Harold, you know, they can’t give you six weeks…and they can’t take them away. You’re not going anywhere until God is ready to embrace you…and that just doesn’t have a darn thing to do with medical authority. I’m living proof of that.”[iv]
There is a fourth option. It is to respond with the words of Jesus, “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.” You see, my brothers and sisters, with Jesus, for those who have joined themselves to Him, there is no such thing as a terminal illness. That is the point of our reading this morning…that is the point that Jesus was trying to get across that no one seemed to get.
Jesus told the disciples that it was time to go to Bethany, that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” They didn’t get it. He put it in terms they could comprehend. “Lazarus is dead” (at least as far as they could understand).
Then Jesus encounters Martha and her automatically fussing him out, “If you had been here (in other words “if you had come when I sent for you), my brother would not have died.”
Jesus tells her that her brother would rise again. She responds that she knows that there is the future resurrection. Jesus responds with the words that we hear at almost every funeral, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” This is the point that Jesus was trying to get across. Yes, these physical bodies will most likely give out before that trumpet blast. Yes, we may be planted under the daisies , placed in a mausoleum or had our cremains placed in an urn or dispersed into nature. But that is not our end. If we have a relationship with Christ, we still live on with him—we do not die but rest in his arms until the trumpet blows and we rise given new bodies and join him in the New Jerusalem. That is the hope that we have that no tomb, no smell inducing parasites and decomposition, and no doctor can take from us: with Christ, we will never die...for those joined to Him…”no illness leads to death…” Praise be to God.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.