Lazarus was dead, to begin with

Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017

 

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Lazarus was dead, to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.  This is the reason Jesus delayed the two days: so that everyone would know that Lazarus was dead.  Remember, he arrived four days late.  Even if he had come immediately when he got word, Lazarus would have been in the grave for at least two days by the time Jesus arrived.  But at two days’ dead, one could have argued that perhaps he was merely in a coma, or in that state between life and death where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.  But no, when Jesus arrived Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.  No food, no water, no air.  There was no possibility of his still being alive under any circumstances.  Lazarus was dead, and everybody knew it with a bone-deep certainty.  He was not mostly dead, he was all dead.  He was not merely dead, he was really most sincerely dead.  He was not just dead, he was dead and rotting.

It is said that there are two certainties in life: death, and taxes.  I suppose if you are too poor or manage to live completely off the grid, you might get out of taxes; but nobody gets out of death.  Not since Adam and Eve first decided that that apple looked mighty good, and surely God wasn’t serious when he said they’d die if they ate it.  The world is broken by sin and death, and in this life we can’t avoid either.  In life, nobody gets out alive.  Things wear out.  People die.  Communities die.  Nations die.  Cultures die.  Nothing lasts forever.

But we worship a God of Life.  We worship a God who created the universe and all that is in it.  We worship a God who created the earth to be a paradise, and saw that it was good.  We worship a God who wants us to not only have life, but to have it abundantly.  Overflowing with good things: peace and joy and love and hope and so much more.

If you have ever been angry at death, if you have ever been frustrated at the pain and sorrow and suffering in the world, you are not alone.  If you have ever wanted to punch death in the face, you are not alone.  God, too, gets angry at death; God, too, gets frustrated at the way we hurt one another;  God, too, gets upset at how we take the abundance he gives and waste it so that some have too much while others are desperately in need.  God, too, wants to punch death in the face—and sin and suffering, while he’s at it.

I know that, because in our Gospel reading Jesus was upset and angry.  Where it says he was “greatly disturbed and moved” that’s actually not a very good translation.  There isn’t a translation that really gets the feel of the Greek.  We keep trying to sentimentalize Jesus, here.  We keep trying to make grief his primary emotion for his friend.  And it is true that Jesus loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha, and Jesus grieved deeply at Lazarus’ death.  But he was also frustrated.  Angry.  A better translation than “deeply moved” would be “deeply indignant.”  The Greeks, who read the New Testament in the Greek it was originally written in, have spent a lot of time over the last two thousand years pondering why Jesus is so angry, here.  There are a lot of possible answers.  But I think Jesus is angry at death.  Jesus was angry that Lazarus had died, but Jesus was also angry that anyone dies.  Jesus was angry at the way God’s beautiful creation is broken.

I think Jesus was also angry at how we take death for granted.  We take illness and brokenness for granted.  We think about the planes that crash, not the ones that land safely.  Whenever someone protests at the cruelty and unfairness in the world, someone else will shrug and say “life’s not fair, deal with it.”  Or maybe “but if you protect people from that, they won’t toughen up!”  As if cruelty and unfairness were supposed to be normal, or perhaps even good.  Death may be inevitable, death may be part of the way the world works, but it is not supposed to be.  That’s why Jesus came to earth; that’s why Jesus became human.  To break the power of sin and evil.  To smash it.  To destroy death, to swallow it up forever.  This is why Jesus came to earth; this is why, just a few weeks later, Jesus was going to die.

But notice when, specifically, Jesus gets upset, what moves him to the point of tears.  Jesus asks where they have laid the body, and the community tells him to come and see.  And then he starts crying.  The thing is, we’ve heard those words before.  They’re a common theme in John.  When Jesus first started inviting the disciples, that’s what he told them: “Come and see.”  Come and see the Lord of Life.  Come and see the one who is the Resurrection and the Life.  Come and see the Son of God.  He didn’t tell them all that, he invited them to follow, to see.  And when one disciple invites another to follow, that’s what he says, too: come and see.  Come, see and experience for yourself the lifegiving Lamb of God.  Come, see the abundant life God brings.  Come and see!  And when the woman at the well goes to her community, that’s what she says, too.  “Come and see!”  Come and see this man who might just be the Messiah, the holy Annointed One of God.  Come and see this man who knows me, who knew me before he saw me.  Come and see this one who promises living water so that we will never thirst again.

This is the invitation to life.  This is the invitation to participate, to become part of God’s kingdom.  It doesn’t start with explaining all the details, it starts with an invitation.  Come, and see for yourself what God has in store for you.  Come, and see the life God has for you and for all of us.  Come and see the love of God made flesh and bone.  Come and taste the bread of life and wine of salvation poured out for all people.  Come and touch the one who loves you and knows you more deeply than anyone else ever could.  Come and hear the word of life.  Come and see.

Jesus has been inviting people to come and see for three years, at this point.  He’s been teaching and living his message, for three years, and putting it into practice with miracles that bring abundant life for all.  Jesus has healed the sick, forgiven the sinner, fed the hungry, and done wonders beyond measure so that people can see and experience God’s abundant life.  Not just for some, but for all.  Everyone there knows who Jesus is and what he has done.  Some of them have been there to see it; some of them have heard him speak; some of them have heard the witness of others.  He has asked them all, in word and deed, to come and see what new thing God is doing.

And now, here, when they ask Jesus to come and see, they mean a tomb.  They mean death.  They mean the very opposite of what Jesus has come to do.  They have seen, but not understood.  They think he could have kept Lazarus from dying … for now, at least.  Their comment isn’t about healing, or about resurrection, although many of them believed that one day all the dead would be raised.  The highest their expectations go is the prevention of death for a little while.  Death, in their minds, still gets the final say.  Death to them is the end which we can sometimes put off but never prevent, which can never be beaten.  And so Jesus is so frustrated and upset he begins to cry.

The Gospel of John is structured around seven signs, seven miracles, that Jesus showed the people around him, signs of God’s abundant life.  The first was the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine.  The raising of Lazarus is the last and the greatest.  All right, Jesus says through his tears.  You’ve seen, but you haven’t understood.  My job is to destroy death; my job is to bring life.  So here it is, a foretaste of the feast to come.  And so Jesus, in anguish and frustration, prays loudly to God so that they might hear and orders them to roll away the tomb.  And he commands the dead man to come out … and Lazarus does.  Not as a zombie, not still sick, but alive and well enough to sit down to dinner with them all in the next chapter.

Death has one more shot.  Two weeks after raising Lazarus, Jesus will be crucified by the authorities, and he will die, and he, too, will be placed in a tomb.  And after that, he will rise, and the power of death will be destroyed forever.  The general resurrection, when all graves everywhere will be opened and all who have died will live again, whole and healed and restored, will not happen until Christ comes again.  But we know it’s coming.  We have seen our God, who brings life.  We have seen our God, who destroys death itself, who opens graves, who brings life in the most impossible places.  Life is here.  Come and see.

Amen.

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Your Funeral Sermon

Easter, March 27th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This is the sermon I am going to preach at your funeral, but since you won’t be here to hear it, I’ll give you a little foretaste of it now.  Paul writes: “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  Death is the enemy of all living things.  Death is the last, great enemy of God.  And death will be destroyed.  In his own death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has set in motion the complete, total, and utter destruction of death.  Death is a dead man walking.  Death doesn’t get the last word.  Death is going down.

In the fallen world we live in now, death comes everywhere life does.  And death is constantly fighting to destroy life.  There’s a reason we call it a “battle with cancer”—when you have cancer, you are directly fighting the old enemy, death, which is trying to drag you down into its clutches.  But death comes in many other forms, too.  From hunger to heart attacks, depression to drunk driving, brutality to blood clots, abuse to addiction, death comes in many different forms, some of them obvious and overt and some of them subtle and insidious.  And sometimes death wins!  Each one of us will die in the end, and be laid in the grave.  But when Christ comes again the graves will be opened, and we will rise as our Lord did, and death itself will be destroyed.

Christians talk a lot about sin, but if you ask people—even many Christians!—what sin is, or what makes something a sin, you’ll get a lot of different answers.  And many of those answers will be incomplete, and some of them will even be wrong.  For example, a lot of the time people will say something along the lines of “sin is stuff that God doesn’t like.”  But the obvious question, then, is why God doesn’t like it.  And the reason that God doesn’t like some behaviors, the thing that makes them sinful, is that they hurt people.  They add to the destruction and death in the world.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul pointed out that the wages of sin is death.  Sin leads to death.  And people assume sin leads to death because God doesn’t like those thoughts and behaviors and so he punishes them.  No!  It’s the other way around!  God doesn’t like them because they lead to death!  God loves all his children, all living creatures, and God wants us all to be happy and healthy.  But there are some things we do, as individuals and as groups, that hurt people.  Those behaviors add to the destruction in the world.  And it may be our actions leading to our own death, but all too often it’s our actions leading to other peoples’ death.  Our sin hurting ourselves and others.

A specific action or thought may not cause a death right then and there.  But sinful thoughts and actions add to the unpleasantness of the world.  Lies, jealousy, theft even on the pettiest level, abuse, neglect—they all add to the general harshness and evil in the world.  They make violence and neglect seem more normal.  They make the world a worse place.  They make it harder to live in.  They make people more likely to lash out at others, they make people more likely to kill, or just shrug and stand aside while others kill.  And so we get shocking crimes committed at a few people’s initiative, lots of people’s blessings, and everyone’s passive acquiescence.  All these sins, large and small, they add up.  They create conditions that make death more likely—the death of hope, the death of love, the death of the soul, the death of the body.  And death is the enemy, our enemy and God’s enemy.

Since the time of Adam and Eve, humans have been constantly adding to the death in the world.  And sometimes we do it obviously, by directly killing people.  Sometimes we do it indirectly, by causing or allowing the conditions that lead to death.  Sometimes we do it by creating a world and society where exploitation and violence and strife and oppression and greed and all the worst parts of ourselves are seen as normal, and sometimes even explained away as good.  We have been digging our own graves ever deeper.

But through the grace of God, those graves will not swallow us up forever.  Death is not the end of the story.  You see, God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to destroy death.  God sent Jesus into the world to shake things up and overturn the whole system that leads to death.  By dying for us and then rising from the grave, Jesus gave a knockout punch to death that will destroy it forever so that it can’t ever enter the ring again.

Now, we still die.  Because the destruction of death will not be complete until Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  You know how sometimes someone gets hit on the head but they think they’re fine until a few hours later, when they collapse and it turns out that blow to the head caused a fatal aneurism, but it just didn’t rupture right away?  That’s death, right now.  Death is walking around this world thinking it’s the king of the hill, but its time is numbered.  Because in his death and resurrection, Jesus has dealt death the fatal blow.  Death is a goner, it just doesn’t know it yet.  And yeah, death can rage.  Yeah, death can do a lot of damage in the here-and-now.  Yeah, death can make life here on earth really nasty for a while.  But when Christ comes again, death is gonna be toast.

Christ has been raised from the dead, and Christ is the first fruits of those who have died.  Christ’s resurrection is not a one-off event, it’s the first sprout in the field, poking up above the earth.  The rest, all those who have died, will rise when Christ comes again.  All those who now sleep in the earth, and all those who will die and be laid to rest between now and the second coming?  They will rise again from the grave just as Christ did that first Easter.  We will rise again.  The tomb will open for us just as it did for Jesus.  And on that day all people, living and dead, will be judged, and God’s kingdom will be established here on earth, and we will all be changed.  All of the chaff in our souls will be sifted out and burned, leaving only the good wheat.  Evil will be gone.  Death, the last great enemy, will be destroyed.  A new heaven and a new earth will be created, where all the things that led to death—all the sins that caused pain and suffering—will be gone.  There will be no more mourning or weeping, only joy and laughter and delight.  There will be no hurting or destruction.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox.  There will be only life, no more death, because Christ will have destroyed death forever.

That’s what Easter means.  That’s what the resurrection is all about.  We don’t celebrate the resurrection just because Christ rose from the grave.  I mean, that’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but by itself that would still leave us mired in a world of death.  We celebrate Easter because of what it means for us.  We celebrate Easter because it has fundamentally reshaped the world, and so death does not get the last word.  We celebrate because we know that Christ is only the first fruits of the dead, that we ourselves will be raised from the dead when Christ comes again, along with all our loved ones and every human who has ever died.  And then, at that point, death will be no more, and pain will be no more, and all the things that make our lives miserable in the here and now will be destroyed.  Utterly, completely, and totally destroyed by God, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  No more death, only life.  A life better than you and I can imagine.

We are children of the Resurrection.  We know that no matter how much death rages around us in the here and now, we don’t have to fear it because it will be destroyed and we will be raised with Christ.  All the fears and pains of the world, they’re only temporary.  We don’t have to be afraid of all the things the world tells us to be afraid of.  We are free, free to spread love in a world drowning in death.  Free to spread hope in a world drowning in fear and cynicism.  Free to live, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

To Be Blessed

All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

 

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This Wednesday, in honor of today being All Saints Sunday, I took the Confirmation class out to Basto Cemetery. Most of you probably don’t know this, but Birka Lutheran Church is not built on the site it was originally planned to be built on. In the 1890s, the Swedish settlers to this area built a settlement they called Basto, about three miles away from where Birka is now, on the bluffs overlooking the river. There was a post office there, a stage coach stop, and they planned to build a church. While the building of a church building could wait, a cemetery could not. So they started a cemetery there at Basto. But, by just a few years later, things had changed, and Birka was built three miles away. Some of the people buried at Basto were dug up and transferred to the new church’s cemetery. But not all. About a dozen are still buried there on the bluff, and while we know most of the names and locations of the graves, there are a few we don’t.

Of the dozen or so graves at Basto, the Confirmation students were most struck by the three infants buried there. Two died within a few months of their birth, and although they died in different years, they are next to one another. The other died at birth, and was buried with his mother—who died with him, in childbirth. He was her last child, but not her first … nor her first to die. We’re not used to tragedies like that, in our time. Yes, children die, but not often. We have medical knowledge and techniques the likes of which our ancestors at Basto couldn’t have imagined. Even more critical for those of us who live in rural areas, we have ambulances that can get a critically-ill person to a hospital quickly. We have better nutrition and safety to prevent problems before they start.

Yes, tragedy is far rarer now than it was a century ago. But sometimes all that means is that we aren’t as good at dealing with it. We are so used to be able to do something that we don’t know what to do when there is nothing that can be done. And so we avoid talking about death. We avoid thinking about it. We dress it up in euphemisms, we push it away. And as a society, we tend to avoid people who are grieving, because it makes us uncomfortable. A few months after someone has died, I sometimes hear people talking about the family. “Shouldn’t she be over it by now? I’m worried about her!” “You just need to stop dwelling on it—you’ll feel better.” We tell ourselves stories in which only bad people die, and good people always survive and thrive, no matter what happens. We try to ignore the possibility of pain and sorrow.

And yet, even in today’s world, tragedy happens. People die. People get sick, and injured. People get abused and violated. There are times when we can no longer hide from the reality that sometimes, life isn’t fair. Sometimes, tragedy strikes—and it strikes good and bad people alike. Ignoring it won’t protect us. And so maybe we should take a look at how our ancestors in the faith handled it.

Life was a lot harder a century ago, as the graves at Basto show. In fact, life was harder throughout most of history. They didn’t have what we’d consider basic medical care. If you broke a bone, anything more complicated than a simple fracture would probably cripple you for life. Famines were a regular part of life for most people. And, unless you were very rich, you would probably spend your life in backbreaking labor, day in and day out, from childhood until you died. There was no such thing as retirement. And in Jesus’ day, if you were a Jew, you could add political oppression to that, too. Judea was occupied territory, conquered by Romans whose favorite method of dealing with dissenters was killing them—by crucifixion, if they were slaves or non-Romans. So people in Jesus’ day understood death better than we do. They understood suffering; they saw it every day. They experienced it every day.

So when Jesus went up on that mountain and started talking about blessing, it was pretty shocking. We tend to spiritualize it or view it as a nice saying of Jesus, but really listen to his words: Blessed are the meek, the ones who get ground down by everyone and everything. Blessed are the mourners, the ones who have lost loved ones. Blessed are the ones who get persecuted and beat up for trying to do the right thing. Seriously? Every sad state we try to avoid, every horrible thing we try to ignore, Jesus pronounces a blessing on it. Now, sometimes when bad things happen, people will say something like “Oh, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle—God will teach you something, you’ll grow in faith through this experience!” Is that what Jesus is saying, here? That bad things are actually good because God’s trying to teach us something?

I don’t think so. For one thing, Jesus is not saying that those states are good. And he’s certainly not denying the pain and grief and hardship are horrible to live through! He’s pronouncing a blessing. He’s saying that even when horrible things happen, even when life really sucks, God is present, giving love and grace even in the midst of pain. Yes, life sometimes sucks. But we don’t have to face it alone, because God, who loves us, will be with us. God will give us blessing even when the world gives us grief and horror. It’s not that grief and pain and persecution are good, it’s that even in the worst that life can hand out—even when children die, one after another, even when there seems to be no hope, even when things seem like they can’t possibly be any worse—God is with us, giving us refuge and hope.

That hope isn’t always validated in this life. There are some people who think that having faith in Jesus will protect you from anything truly bad happening to you, that being a Christian means prosperity, that being blessed means something tangible in this life that anyone can see. If so, they need to read Revelation more closely. Revelation was written during a time of persecution. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about his followers being persecuted for his sake. Well, that happened to his followers, and it still happens in some places today. In the first few centuries after Jesus died, being a Christian could get you killed. It could get you crucified, it could get you fed to lions. Christians in this country sometimes talk about being persecuted when “Happy Holidays” cards are more common in stores than “Merry Christmas” cards. In the days when Revelation was written, persecution meant being tortured and murdered for your faith.

The book of Revelation was a dream, a vision, to give hope to people who were being tortured and murdered, who were suffering every kind of hardship imaginable. And the message was this: no matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, no matter what kinds of monsters and horrors you face in life, God is with you, and God gives life and love to all of God’s children. You may cry now; you have much to cry about. But God is with you, and at the end, God will bring you to a place where there is no need for fear, where there is no pain, no tragedy, no loss. It may not come in this life—it may not come until Christ comes again. But there is hope, no matter how dark things get, because this life is not the end of the story. As Christians, we know we are citizens of this world, but we are also citizens of the world to come. We are children of God, no matter what happens, and God will never abandon us. Even when all hope seems lost, God is with us. And God will take every horrible thing, every tragedy, every grief, every loss, and every tear, and heal us. God will make us whole in a way we can never be in this life. God will wash us clean from all the stains and mend all the holes, all the broken places, in our bodies and hearts and minds and souls.

We may not face the same hardships our ancestors faced; we may never know true persecution, or famine, or plague, or any of the things faced by the first Christians or our ancestors who first came to this prairie. But we have the same assurances they had: we have the same gift of God’s love that will never let us go. And we have the same promise that no matter what, the pain and grief and death of this life is not the end of the story. Not for us, and not for those who have gone before us.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The End of the Story

Lent 5, (Year A), April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The scriptures appointed for each Sunday are supposed to be thematically appropriate for the day, but that doesn’t mean that they always come from the same event in the Bible that is being commemorated. If you pay attention, the texts we read each week often jump around. So, during Advent, when we’re preparing for Jesus’ birth, we’ll have Gospel readings from his adult ministry. In the Easter season we’ll have stories from before Jesus’ death. But today’s Gospel matches up. We are one week out from Holy Week, a week and a half before Jesus’ arrest and trial and execution, and two weeks out from Easter. And our Gospel lesson comes from that time. Today’s reading takes place less than a week before Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and in fact if you read the rest of John eleven you’ll find that this event was the last straw, the final thing the chief priests and the scribes needed to convince them that Jesus was dangerous and needed to be gotten rid of.
Two weeks before his own death, Jesus was called to the bedside of a dying friend. Now, remember that while Jesus knows what is to come, his friends and disciples have not been willing to listen. They don’t want to hear about suffering and death, and have in fact gone to great lengths to ignore or misinterpret everything Jesus has said predicting it. And we look back at them and shake our heads, but really, who can blame them? Who likes to think about death? Particularly the death of someone we love? I can’t tell you how many hospital and nursing home rooms I’ve been in when family members have refused to believe that their loved one will die. “He’ll pull through—he’s strong, and he’s made it this far.” “How can they know she won’t recover? Just yesterday, she was doing fine!” We don’t like to think about death.

Now, in those days they believed that the soul of the dead person stuck around for three days after the death. You will note that Jesus makes a point of not coming until the fourth day. This isn’t the case of someone in a coma. This isn’t the case of someone being only “mostly dead.” This corpse is dead and rotting. And I think Jesus does this to make a point for his disciples. They don’t want to face death, well, Jesus is going to force them to. This is reality, as stark and as bare as it gets: everyone dies. Good people, bad people, friends and enemies. Some die young, and some die old, but everyone dies. Ignoring it doesn’t change that basic fact. You can’t argue it away; you can’t misinterpret it; and you can stick your fingers in your ears and ignore it, but not forever. Death is going to come.

But please remember, this is the beginning of this story. We usually place death at the end of the story, but that’s not where God puts it. No. For God, death comes in the middle. So Jesus comes to Bethany, and Lazarus’ sister Martha comes out to confront him. The first thing she says is “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Where was God when her brother, his beloved friend, lay dying? Where was he throughout the first days of Mary and Martha’s grief? It’s a question I hear often. If God loves us, why does he allow this? Why doesn’t he just wave his hand and fix things?

Jesus and his disciples weren’t there, but I don’t think that means that God had abandoned Mary and Martha and Lazarus. I think the Spirit was with them even in their pain and grief, even as Lazarus died. As for why Jesus wasn’t physically present, well, remember that this is only a week and a half before Jesus’ own death. Two weeks from Easter. And for God, death is not the end of the story.

Jesus loves Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha, but he didn’t come to Earth only for them. God was not born in human flesh solely so that one man might be saved. If that was the case, Jesus would have been there when Lazarus caught that first sniffle, and fixed it. No, God was born in human flesh so that the entire cosmos might be saved. If Jesus had been there from the beginning and waved his hand and cured Lazarus when he first fell ill, it would not have solved the basic problem. Lazarus would still die someday, unless Jesus stuck around perpetually to take care of every ache and pain and injury and sniffle. The basic problem of existence is not that one person gets sick and dying. The basic problem of existence is that everything dies. The basic problem is that for all mortal beings, death is the end of the story. That’s the problem Jesus came to Earth to solve. Jesus came to save Lazarus, yes, but also Mary and Martha and the disciples and the thieves crucified with him and the Pharisees and the Romans and the whole entire world. And he’s going to do that by dying himself. His disciples have been trying to ignore that fact, but time is running out. They have to be prepared for what’s coming. They have to be able to look death in the eye.

Death is a consequence of the brokenness of the world. You can’t always tie it to specific sins, but the sinfulness of humanity results in the death of all created things. Sin and brokenness creep in everywhere, even where we least expect them. To overcome death, you have to heal the brokenness. You have to atone for the sins. You have to remake the world into the good creation God made it to be. And that doesn’t happen without sacrifice. It doesn’t happen without pain. Because the brokenness of this world is not just going to give up without a fight.
Jesus knew that was coming. Jesus knew that it was his own sacrifice, laying down his life for the whole world, that was going to save things. It was going to be God’s own pain and grief that saved creation. And that salvation was going to come in two phases. First, after Jesus death and resurrection, the followers that Jesus has taught and brought together are going to spread the stories of Jesus. They’re going to tell people what God is like, the God who loves us so much that he became human and died for our sake. They’re going to teach people how to live lives full of love and hope, and they’re going to teach people how to build right relationships with God and with one another. That’s phase one. Phase two is that Jesus is going to come back. God’s kingdom will be established, and all the living and the dead will be raised, sins forgiven and all brokenness will be healed. God’s good creation will be re-established.

That’s what’s coming, in the end. Resurrecton. Not just resurrection of one or two people, but all people. And not just so that they can go on living in the same broken, sinful world they’ve always been living in, but in a new and better world, where there is no pain, no grief, no loss, no fear, and no hate. A world where there is only goodness and kindness, love and hope.

But to get there, Jesus has to die. And the disciples have to be ready for it. They’re going to have to be able to stand at the cross, at the place where all their hopes and dreams are shattered by the cruelties of life, and watch their friend and teacher die. They’re going to have to be able to stand there and see it and not run away. They’re going to have to be willing to stay through the grief and pain of the crucifixion, so that they will also be there when Jesus rises. They’re going to have to be able to look at death and say, “This is not the end of the story. There is still hope. God is still working, even in the midst of death.”

Because isn’t that what the Christian life is all about? Let’s not forget that the symbol of our faith, the cross, is an instrument of torture and execution. When we wear a cross, that’s what we’re saying. Yes, the world is a broken, sinful place. Yes, there is death: horrifying, terrible, death, that leaves people torn by grief and fear. Yes, there are horrors in the world. But they do not get the final word. Death does not win. God is alive, God is present, God is with us even when we can’t see him. God is with us even when we think he is dead and gone. God is with us no matter what, and God is going to turn this world upside down. God’s plan for this world is life, abundant life, joyful life, where sin and brokenness can’t hurt us anymore. And God’s plan is fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who was, and who is, and who will come again.

And so, a week and a half before Jesus’ own death, two weeks before his resurrection, Jesus takes the disciples to the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He weeps with Mary and Martha. He tells them to have faith in the Resurrection—because he is the resurrection, and the life, even in death when it seems like all hope and life are lost. And Jesus commanded them to take away the stone from the tomb, even knowing that Lazarus had been dead long enough to rot. And he called Lazarus to come out, and Lazarus did. And everyone there could see that death was not the end. Lazarus could see it, and the disciples could see it, and Mary and Martha, and the people who were there. And we can see it, too, whenever we read this story: death does not get the final say. Death is not the end of the story. Because Jesus is the resurrection, and the life.
The story doesn’t end with death, not then and not for us here, and now. We won’t see the resurrection until Jesus comes again, but Jesus will come. Death is not the end of the story. Life is the end of the story. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A Matter of Life and Death

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 23), September 8, 2013

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon, Luke 14:25-33

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Today’s first lesson from Deuteronomy takes place after the Exodus.  The Hebrew people, who were slaves in Egypt, have been freed by God’s power and grace.  They followed God into the wilderness, but because of their own sinfulness and rebellion, they spent forty years wandering in the wilderness.  God used those forty years to teach them to rely on him—God gave them everything they needed, even though they didn’t get everything they wanted.  God gave them the Commandments, instructions on how to live their lives.  And most of all, God built a relationship with them that God hoped would last forever.  When they were ready, God led them out of the wilderness to the Promised Land, what we call Israel and Palestine today.  But before they entered the land, while they were standing on the banks of the Jordan River waiting to cross into the land God had promised to them, Moses stood up to give a speech.

It’s a long speech; it takes up most of Deuteronomy.  In it, Moses summarized all the commandments and rules that God had given them, all the ways they were supposed to live.  God had promised to be their God, and in return they were to live as God commanded.  To use Christian terminology, they were to be disciples: everything they said and did was to be guided by their relationship with God.  That would bring them the life God had promised them.  Living any other way would bring them misery and death.  Our reading today comes from the conclusion of the speech: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

It sounds so simple when Moses says it.  There’s a good way, a way of life, and a bad way, a way of death.  It should be a no-brainer.  And yet, throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the people go astray regularly, so that God must come and bring them back to him and to his ways.  They had all manner of reasons to do so, some good and some bad.  Greed and corruption were common motivations, people trying to enrich themselves at the cost of their neighbors.  In some cases, through intermarriage with people who were not loyal to God, mixed loyalties were created that drew people away from God.  In some cases, people convinced themselves that God wanted what they did, instead of listening to God’s Word.  In some cases, people decided that they were rich and prosperous enough that they didn’t need God any more.  In still other cases, people just forgot about God, going through the motions and giving lip service to following God instead of genuine devotion.  These motivations should all be very familiar to us; you see them everywhere today, too.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus also talks about discipleship, too, and about making choices.  Only, when Jesus talks, discipleship sounds more like the way of death than the way of life.  To be a disciple, you must leave behind your family and friends and all your posessions.  In fact, Jesus’ words are harsher than that.  Jesus says to hate family and friends for his sake.  Now, in Hebrew, “to hate” can mean the emotion we would think of, but it can also mean “to separate” or “turn away from,” and given that Jesus’ spent so much time telling us to love one another, I’m pretty sure that’s what he meant.  But even so, that’s pretty strong language.  For Jesus, discipleship is not easy, and it means you have to make choices.  You have to be willing to put Christ first, above all the things that this world says are important, above everything else that you love.  And worse, you have to be willing to carry a cross—to be humiliated, to be persecuted, to be punished.  It sure sounds different from Moses’ exhortation to choose life.  It sounds like discipleship is choosing death.

But that depends on what kind of life you mean, and what kind of death.  In this world, death is everywhere.  Sin and brokenness are everywhere.  All the bad things people do to one another, all the natural disasters, all the illnesses and the injuries that we are afflicted with, all are symptoms of the brokenness of the world.  No one is spared.  Some people have more than their fair share; others are blessed with good luck and many good things in this life.  But even the luckiest person in the world is going to have trials.  Even the most self-reliant person in the world is going to have times when they simply can’t do it on their own, when they come to the end of their rope.  A life of independence from God—a life where you make your own priorities and follow your own goals—may be wonderful for a while.  It may bring you everything you think you want.  But it can’t last.  In this broken world, no good thing lasts forever.  And so, when things go wrong and you find yourself flat on your back, you learn that what looked like the easy path, the path that you thought would lead you to the kind of life you wanted to live, actually led to death.  It may have looked like the path you wanted, but in the end you find yourself alone and hopeless.

Jesus’ path will lead to death too, of course; today’s Gospel story comes from Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to be crucified.  When Jesus starts talking about bearing crosses, it’s because in a very short time he’s going to be carrying one, himself, out to Golgotha beyond the Jerusalem city limits, where he’s going to be crucified and die a painful, lingering death.  The path of discipleship leads us to take up our crosses and follow Christ, into the valley of the shadow of death, for we are tied through our baptisms to Christ’s death and resurrection.

Because you see, there’s a difference between the death that Jesus offers and the death the world offers.  The death the world offers is the end, and it comes dressed up in all kinds of things to hide what it is.  The death the world offers comes dressed up in all the things we want—popularity, riches, power, love, anything to hide what it really is.  The death the world offers is empty; nothing can come out of it.  But Jesus’ death comes naked and bare, and it is the beginning of the story, not the end.

Jesus’ death brings with it the seeds of the resurrection.  Jesus’ death brings with it the seeds of the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ death brings with it the only kind of life worth living, the only kind of life that lasts: a life with God, who will be with us, sustaining us and guiding us no matter what, and who will never abandon us even in the darkest times this world can throw at us.  God’s life teaches us how to live the kind of life we’ll have in God’s kingdom, where there is no sin and no brokenness.  God’s life is the truest and best life, the life that leads us to be our truest and best selves, full of love for God and for one another.

But to get to that kind of life, there’s a catch.  You have to go through death.  You have to go through Jesus’ death on the cross, and our own death with him.  You have to be willing to give up all the things that pull you away from God.  For some people, that’s money; for others, it’s the career you want to have or the place you want to live.  For still others, it’s family and friends that pull them away from God.  And that’s the choice we face, as Christians.  God has chosen us; God has died for our sake.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord we are saved; all we have to do is take the salvation that God offers us.  Are we willing to do what we have to do to follow Jesus from death into life?  Are we willing to be true disciples?  Are we willing to put our priority on the kind of life God wants us to have instead of the kind of life the world tells us we should want?

God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses.  May we choose life—God’s life—and live.

Amen.