Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
If you take a walk in the forest of the Pacific Northwest and pay attention, you’ll see graves everywhere. Not that people know what they’re seeing most of the time. No, most of us will walk right past a forest grave without so much as a brief pause of quiet reverence.
Here’s how you’ll know that you’re in the vicinity of a grave in the forest. Look for a straight line of trees, all about the same age. There might be three trees, or six, or more. Sometimes spread apart, sometimes closer together. But all marching along in lovely symmetry. Green and sturdy, showing the signs of being well nourished with what lies beneath them. I hope you don’t find this unnerving.
What does lie beneath them? Well, usually you can see that too. It’s a tree lying in stately repose. They’re called nurse logs because as they decompose they provide fertile ground for the seeds that fall upon their length. How beautiful is that?
Are humans the only species that finds death intimidating? You would think that the more urbane and sophisticated we become, the less we would fear death. But strangely, the opposite seems to be true in modern western society.
Even our language accommodates to our general reluctance to talk openly about death – instead of saying that someone has died, you’ll hear the phrase they passed away. More and more frequently you’ll just hear they passed. Which sounds less like decomposing into our most elemental form, and more like doing well on an algebra test. And then there is the always popular phrase, we lost so-and-so as if a group returned from an outing with one less person.
Because death, well, to many people it just seems like a slightly indecent thing. As if dying is a weakness to be discretely managed. And grief just needs a little pharmaceutical help.
So Funeral Homes (they call them homes though not a soul lives there) do a brisk business in expensive caskets and ornate urns. Funeral Directors know that the more people pay, the more satisfied they are that they have done the decent thing. Made death as respectable as possible.
On this day in the Church calendar, All Saints Sunday, we Christians also work hard at redeeming death. We recall that in the ancient church, the followers of Jesus referred to another as saints. We honor saintly heroes of faith - people who died doing something great for Jesus’s sake. We remember and celebrate the departed (see, another evasion of that terrible word, death!) of our community who have died since last November 1 - All Saints Day.
These are good things to do, but if we pay attention to our scriptures there is something altogether different to be learned. Death is the necessary prerequisite for everything good that God desires to do with us. That’s certainly what we hear in Isaiah. In fact, Israel’s descent into death came with the Assyrian conquest. They didn’t die so much from military defeat, as from losing sight of God. Israel the nation, and Israel God’s people, walked themselves right into dead-end alleys of self-interest, forgetting God’s commandments to do good and love justice.
Israel suffered and died. Individually and as a nation. But God, as we know, can work with death. See, all of God’s holy rehab begins not with detox, not with sincere apologies and promises to do better next time, but with death. It’s not by our own efforts that any saving happens. When death happens, the only thing we can do is wait for God. Wait in faith.
Isaiah tells what happens next. When the time is right, God throws a wake, inviting every last sinner to the feast. Rich food, well-aged wines. The burial shroud is destroyed and mourning comes to an end. As a tenderly loving parent, God stands the people on their feet again and wipes away all tears of grief. And new things are possible.
This theme returns in Revelation 21. It’s a different generation, and a different problem. This time people suffered and died for their faithfulness to God. Sometimes it goes down that way.
When John wrote this letter his Christian community was under terrible pressure. They were outcasts from the dominant religions, and terrorized by the government.
It seemed like faith itself would die. As they discovered though, death cannot kill faith. In fact, it makes faith stronger. Neither does death end God’s word of life. God has already claimed every word, every letter in fact. Alpha to Omega.
Jesus came to be with Mary and Martha at the death of their brother Lazarus. Two times in the story it says that Jesus was “greatly disturbed”. Because death disturbs us deeply, we probably hear this as Jesus’s grief. But the words carry a different meaning – Jesus was very frustrated. Why? Perhaps because no one was listening to what he was saying about life and death. All people wanted to talk about was how Jesus failed to prevent the death of Lazarus. Even the sisters said it. Death, it stinks! But Jesus insisted that death does not end the story.
-Here we pause for a brief interlude of spiritual humor…
An elderly couple were vacationing in Israel. The wife died quietly in her sleep. The man went to the undertaker to make arrangements. The undertaker said “I can bury her here for $500 or have her shipped back home with you for $1000.” The man considered this and opted for her to be shipped home. The undertaker was stunned “Why pay so much to have her sent back when she could be buried in the Holy Land?” The man got very close and whispered “A long time ago a man was buried here and three days later he came back, I can’t take that chance with her.”
Death is no enemy of ours or God’s. So, let’s live until we die. And die until we live. Faith demands it of us. Don’t put it off. Like refurbishing the house just before you put it on the market to sell it. Like waiting to go on the trip of a lifetime until every last detail falls perfectly into place only to discover that time has played hell with your plans and you can no longer go.
In The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner wrote: “… I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him the only life?” A good question to ask. Amen.