Acts 17:1-14+Psalm 145:8-19+Romans 6:5-11+John 11:17-27
When I was in middle school, some classmates and I were assigned a project on some of the revolutionary-era historic figures in our city of Wilmington, NC. The church that I attended, St. James, was founded in 1739 and contained the graves of some of these historic people. As we began to investigate some of the history, we discovered that not only were some really important people buried in the churchyard, there was also someone who, legend has it, was buried alive. Apparently, poor Samuel Joselyn suffered from hypothermia after getting lost in a swamp outside of town which made it appear that he was dead when he was buried in 1810. He showed up in the dreams of two of his friends, begging them to dig up his body, and when they did, he was found with bloody fingers and hands from trying to dig his way out of the six feet of earth above him. And, the story goes, he can still be seen wandering that churchyard.
My friends and I were determined to see him there, but alas, we never did. So it is, apparently, with ghost stories.
This memory popped up this week as I pondered the story of Lazarus who Jesus calls forth from the grave, still wrapped in his burial cloths. There are plenty of people who will tell you that such a thing is impossible, that Lazarus only appeared to be dead. Three times in the gospels – twice in Luke and once here in John – Jesus brings someone back to life, and the rationalists among us will scoff at such a thing. It simply isn’t possible. And if that isn’t possible, then Jesus himself coming back from the dead is not possible, either. And if that isn’t true, then we are wasting our time here proclaiming the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
It’s curious, isn’t it, that even before Jesus’s resurrection, his followers had already caught a glimpse of that possibility. Jairus’s daughter and the widow of Nain’s son and Lazarus of Bethany – all brought back to life, not in some far off eternity, but right here in this world with all its brokenness and heartache. Jesus was raised to life in this world, as well, with the wounds still on his hand and feet.
And it is in this sick and sorrowful world that Martha greets Jesus, arriving four days after the fact, with the accusatory words, “If you had been here, my brother never would have died” (John 11:21).
I wonder how many people utter the same words when a loved one has died? Jesus, if you are real, if you were really who you say you are, this person would not have died. Jesus, if you really came back from the dead, surely you can keep this one from dying.
But that is not the promise. It never was the promise. Death comes to all of us. But that death does not have the last word.
I don’t know how many of you might be watching the final episodes of the NBC series This Is Us? If you are and have not seen the episode that aired on Tuesday of this week, you might want to step out for a moment, because I am about to give a little bit of a spoiler. One of the main characters, Rebecca, has been dealing with dementia for many years. In this episode where her family has gathered and the end draws near, the end, for her, is a ride on an elegant train where a guide – someone from earlier in the series – walks her through various cars on the train where she encounters those who have gone before her. At one point, Rebecca asks this guide, “This is quite sad, isn’t it? The end?” The guide replies
The way I see it, if something makes you sad when it ends, it must have been pretty wonderful when it was happening. Truth be told, I always felt it a bit lazy to just think of the world as sad, because so much of it is. Because everything ends. Everything dies. But if you step back, if you step back and look at the whole picture, if you’re brave enough to allow yourself the gift of a really wide perspective, if you do that, you’ll see that the end is not sad, Rebecca. It’s just the start of the next incredibly beautiful thing.
The next incredibly beautiful thing.
That’s what a resurrected life looks like. The next incredibly beautiful thing. It doesn’t take death to get us there. Our lives are full of twists and turns, beginnings and endings, and some of them feel like death. And some of them feel like birth.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even though they die, they will live” (John 11:25). There is a lot of sorrow and death around us, but death is not the end. Yes, it can be sad and painful, especially for those of us watching it happen, but the Good News is that God is in the midst of it, ushering all of us into the next incredibly beautiful thing, whether we are on the other side of the grave or on this one. It’s all of a piece.
If Jesus can raise people from the dead and come back to life himself, surely he can do the same for us. If we take that guide’s advice and step back to look at the whole picture, what breathtaking joy and beauty we might see. It’s like one of those images where, if you are too close to it, it looks like one thing, but if you back up, it looks like something completely different. “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him,” Paul writes (Romans 6:8). And what a next incredibly beautiful thing that is.