"Death Doesn't End the Story"#86-30
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on March 24, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: John 11
Once I hear a person's story, it's difficult for me not to like them. Mister Fred Rogers. Once we heard some of Mary's story, it was difficult for us not for like her. She was a member of our church. She lived down the road from us, and my son Jude and I, for the better part of a year, would go over there on Sunday afternoons to visit her. She could get along okay with her walker, but she had a hard time getting out of the house, so we would bring the printed church bulletin to her Sunday afternoons and drop it off and stay and visit. When we visited, she would share episodes from her life. She would tell us about catching fireflies and climbing trees when her mom took her back to the family farm in the summers, when her dad was out of the country on military duty.
Mary was born in 1922 at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Her dad's military career took them from Texas to Hawaii to New Jersey back to Texas and Oklahoma. When she was a young adult, she settled in St Louis, and she told us a story about how challenging it was to find an apartment in St Louis as a young adult shortly after World War II, because the landlords would screen the renters with the question, "Where did you go to high school?" Mary told us about how she and her husband bought their first house in 1951 and how she had lived in that house, the house that we were sitting in, for 60 years and for the last year by herself since her husband passed away. Mary told us about how her husband had installed a speaker in the ceiling of the living room and the two of them would sit next to the fireplace and be immersed in music.
The more we heard Mary's stories, the more difficult it was not to like her, to love her. Mr. Rogers is right. The more you sit and let yourself be immersed in the comedy and tragedy in the color and character and complexity of a person's story, the more difficult it is not to like them. Mary once told me, "Pastor, I'm afraid of dying." Death is fearsome because it seems to end the story. If you listen carefully to the stories that people tell to cope with the fear of death, I think you'll hear at least two kinds of stories. On the one hand, people will tell stories that would have us accept death as the end. On the other hand, people will tell stories that would have us see death as a new beginning. So some stories you hear people tell would have us simply accept death as the end.
We are biological organisms. We were evolved from lower order biological organisms, and this is how it works. This cycle of birth and death and rebirth and death—that's the fuel that turns the wheel of life. "You and me, baby, we ain't nothing but mammals," as Professor Darwin taught us to say. Mammals are animals; animals die. This is part of how life works. We don't need to be afraid of death; it's completely natural. You don't see other mammals fretting and wasting a lot of time mourning the death of their litter mates. You don't see them expending energy contemplating their own death. They live in the present moment. They embrace life in the present, moment by moment. Now I'm not endorsing that story. I'm just trying to understand it. When I hear it, there is something that gets right. I am a physical, biological being, and I was fitted for life in this physical world, and I'm made of the same material as rocks and trees and frogs and dogs. I was fashioned for life in this world, and to embrace life in this world, in the present moment, would be an authentic way for me to live.
There's something that the story gets right, and yet there's something about it that doesn't jive with the rest of my experience. You see, because I have heard Mary's stories, and the more I heard her stories, the more difficult it was for me to accept that her story ends in death. The more you listen to a person's story, the more you're immersed in their story, the more difficult it is not to see in them something that should not end in death. If I were to accept that death is the end of Mary's story, I would devalue it. If I were to accept that her story ended in death, I would not only devalue her story, I would devalue your story, and every other story of every other person that I meet. If we all thought this way, if we all thought less of the individual human story, the world would be a darker place.
My parents recently went on vacation. They went on a cruise. They started in Florida, went through the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, up around the Pacific and to the port in San Francisco. They saw incredible sights on this cruise. They went whale watching, and saw ancient ruins and breathtaking sunsets, and they took dozens of pictures to prove it, and when we picked them up at the airport and drove them home and asked them, "How was your trip?", you know what they spent the whole ride back talking about—stories of the people that they met on the cruise. You can search the four corners of the earth. You can probe the depths of outer space and still the most extraordinary, most interesting discovery you will ever make is the story of another individual human being. And if you listen to someone's story, the more difficult it is to accept that their story ends in death.
There is another story that people tell to cope with death. The first one would have us accept death as the end. This story would have us see death as a new beginning. The first one would have us see death as a biological fact. This story would have us see it as a gateway into a spiritual reality. In all times, in all places, people have been telling stories about the beyond, about the afterlife. Professor Darwin said that we all die like mammals. Professor Dumbledore says that death is the next adventure, and there's something about this story—about death as the next adventure—that resonates with this stubborn human desire to go on. There's something about this story that resonates with the reverberations of a thousand tales that tell us that human life and the human story is more than a biological accident. At the same time, there's something about that story that sounds like an imitation. A vague imitation of the real-life stories that we tell.
As Loretta Lynn sings, "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Lord, I want to go to heaven, but I don't want to die. Though I long for the day that I have new birth. I still love living here on earth. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." Compared to the real-life stories that we tell, this story about death as the next adventure sounds like a fake imitation, and so we have these two stories.
One would have us accept that death is the end, the other as a new beginning, and if I were to accept this story that death was the end of Mary, I would not be able to fully value the infinite worth of her story. On the other hand, if I were to believe that death is simply the next adventure, it just kind of sounds like something sentimental and convenient you say to an elderly woman who's afraid to die. There is a third story, and this is the story that I shared with Mary. It's an excerpt from a 2,000-year-old eyewitness account of the life of a Jewish peasant from northern Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, who was said to be the long-expected Jewish Messiah. For centuries the Jews had heard stories, had heard prophecies about this anointed, powerful Messiah King who had come and ransom His people from the grave—who would come and redeem them from the power of death.
So listen to His story from John 11: "There was a man who was sick, Lazarus from Bethany. Bethany was the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the Mary who poured perfume on Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus, who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, 'Lord, Your dear friend is sick.' When Jesus heard the message, He said, 'This sickness does not end in death. No, it is to the glory of God that the Son of God may be glorified through it.' Now, Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where He was two days. After this, He says to His disciples, 'Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to wake him up,' and His disciples said to Him, 'Lord, if he sleeps, then he'll be healed.' Jesus had been talking about his death, but they thought He meant natural sleep. So He said to them, plainly, 'Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there so that you may trust.'
"When Jesus arrived, He found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary at the death of their brother. Martha when she heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet Him, but Mary stayed back in the house. Martha said to Jesus, 'Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died, but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.' Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' She says to Him, 'I know that He will rise again in the resurrection, at the last day.' He said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever trusts in Me, though he dies will live, and whoever lives and trust in Me will never die. Do you trust this?'
"She said to him, 'Yes, Lord, I have and still trust that You are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.' After she had said this, she went back to the house and called her sister Mary and said to her privately, 'The Teacher is here, and He is calling for you.' And Mary, when she heard it, got up quickly and went out to meet Him. Now Jesus had not yet entered into the village. He was still in the place where Martha had met Him, and the Jews who were in the house with Mary, when they saw how quickly she had gotten up and went out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to mourn there. When Mary came to Jesus, she fell down at His feet and said, 'Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.'
"Jesus saw her crying loudly, and when He saw the Jews who were with her also loudly crying, He was deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled. He said to them, 'Where have you laid him?' And they say, 'Come and see, Lord. Come, come and see.' Jesus wept, and some of them said, 'Look at how much He loved him.' But others said, 'Could not this man who opened the eyes of the blind man, could not He have kept this man from dying?' Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave and there was a stone placed over it. Jesus said, 'Take away the stone,' and Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, 'Lord, by this time there will be an odor, because it's been four days. And He said to her, 'Did I not tell you that if you trusted, you would see the glory of God?'
"So they took away the stone, and Jesus looking up said, 'Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I know that You always hear Me, but I say this for the benefit of those standing here so that they may trust that You sent Me,' and after saying these things, He cried out in a loud voice. 'Lazarus, come out!' And the dead man came out. His hands and his feet still wrapped in the linens, strips and a cloth over his face, and He says to them, 'Unbind him and let him go.' Therefore, many of the Jews who had come with Mary and saw what Jesus did, it put their trust in Him."
This is the Gospel of the Lord, John 11.
This story doesn't end in death. His story doesn't end in death. Our story doesn't end in death. Jesus loved Lazarus like a brother. He knew that he would die, and when he died, Jesus did not celebrate death as the next great adventure. He stood at the tomb of Lazarus and wept, and three times in John 11 we hear people wonder aloud, "Couldn't this Man if stopped him from dying?" "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died." Yet Jesus waited. Why did Jesus wait for Lazarus to die? Because Jesus came, not to delay death, Jesus came not to deny death, Jesus came not to redefine death, Jesus came to redirect death to be a sign pointing to the Author of life. Jesus is the Author of life. He is not just another religious figure. He is not merely a miracle worker. When He called Lazarus out of the tomb, He showed us that He is the voice that called creation into being.
Jesus came not to extend our biological existence. Jesus came not to take us into a spirit world. Jesus came to put this world right. This world in which death had been the sign that all is not right. Death had been the sign of our rebellion: the wages of our sin. Death was the last enemy to be destroyed, and Jesus, who called Lazarus from the dead, died our death for us on the cross, and by rising from the dead, He turned death into a sign pointing to the Author of life. I have been telling you His story. I am telling you His story, and God help me, until my dying breath I will tell His story so that you may trust. So that you may entrust yourself to Him, and so trusting Him be forgiven in His Name and have abundant life. Life that not even death can interrupt.
Mary, my neighbor that I told you about, when she faced death, she was afraid. I was blessed to hear some of her story. I was blessed to hold her hand and pray with her days before she died. I was blessed to be her pastor and honored to preside over her funeral, and I will tell you that Mary found something in the story of Jesus. Mary found something that gave her hope. Mary found something that silenced her fears. In the story of Jesus, Mary found something.
Mr. Rogers said that the more you listen to a person's story, the more difficult it is not to like them, and so I invite you this week, listen to the story of Jesus. Read it. Read it out loud. Read it out loud to somebody else. Have somebody else read it out loud to you. Listen to the story of Jesus and see what you find.
If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me. Almighty Father, Author of life, by the death of Your Son, Jesus, You've destroyed death. By His rest in the tomb, You sanctified the graves of Your people. By His bodily resurrection, You brought life and immortality to light so that all who trust in Him abide in peace and hope. I thank You for Your victory over death, that Jesus has won for us. Keep us in everlasting communion with all who wait for Him on earth, and with all who are with Him in heaven because He is the resurrection and the life, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Reflections for March 24, 2019
Title: Death Doesn't End the Story
Mark Eischer You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, and we just heard a message from Dr. Michael Ziegler titled, "Death Doesn't End the Story," and I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, the tone of voice that you used for Martha, in my mind I've always heard her say this as though it is one seamless piece of faith: "Oh, Lord, if You had been here, he would not have died, but I know that even now God will do whatever You say," as though that's completely a statement of faith from beginning to end.
But when you delivered it, you conveyed this sense of confusion, almost chiding Jesus. "Jesus, if You had been here, he wouldn't have died," you're chewing Him out, but then reverting to a statement of faith. So I liked how you captured that conflict, I think, in Martha—she did, but she didn't. She does, but she doesn't.
Michael Ziegler: This is the challenge and opportunity and joy of having a printed text that's meant to be heard. The Gospels, all of them, are meant to be heard, but we have them in a printed form. So you always need someone to read them or speak them aloud. It shows the immeasurable depth of the Scriptures that, especially in a narrative form, the reader, the presenter, always has to make decisions about what's the tone of voice. Because we know that communication is much more than just words on a page; t's much more than just the information. You convey things with your tone, your tempo, your body language, and so the interpreter ... and we should always remember that an act of reading aloud is always already an interpretation, even a translation is an interpretation. But it gives us this open field in some ways, there's still foul lines, we can't change the words, but it gives us an open field to think about what's the emotion in these words. For me, as I meditated on this story, I heard Martha, sort of torn. At first, like you said, the first statement was an expression of her anger, her frustration at Jesus, not understanding why He would wait. But then she comes back and says, "Even now, though, I know that God will give You whatever You ask." And I think that speaks to the truth of how I experience faith, and how I see other people experience a life of faith.
Mark Eischer You talked about three different ways of facing the fear of death. I think some Christian listeners might be confused because they thought, "Well, the second way, that's what we profess." And yet you came along and said, "Well, there's a third way, and that's really more in keeping with what John is trying to tell us about Jesus."
Michael Ziegler: Right. The first way is a story we hear, and I'm sure our listeners are familiar with that story, that death is just a part of this evolutionary wheel of life, and we're all churned up and recycled in it, and I think that would sound to most listeners as clearly not the Christian outlook. Although, that might not be the case, you might be taken by that story of death. I wanted to first pause at that and see what are some good things about it—appreciating life in the present moment, appreciating earthly life; it's a good thing. And you see this in the account of Lazarus, assuming that Lazarus was a man of faith, he was resting in the arms of Abraham, in the bosom of Abraham, and yet Jesus would call him out of that. As a friend of mine was saying, "He would call him out of that." Why? For the sake of this life, to show that this life is good, He would call Lazarus out of that rest.
So I think it's worth lingering at that first story; it certainly gets it wrong. And so then you come with the second story that death is a new beginning. And we say as Christians, "Yeah, we can see that." Well, that's not a uniquely Christian view. Many world religions and worldviews see this beyond, this afterlife of the soul, the human being, whether we call it a spirit or soul, there's something about a human being that endures. That's a long-held belief, held by many. But the Christian view is different, and that comes out also in the story where Jesus would weep over this tragedy of death, that He takes it seriously. John goes out of his way to say how deeply moved Jesus was. You could even translate that word as "agitated." He was deeply troubled; he says it again when he comes to the tomb. So there's something that is evil about death, wicked about death. It's not just simply a gateway to a new life. It is an enemy to be destroyed. And John has a unique perspective where, not only is it an enemy to be destroyed, as John tells it, Jesus is going to take this sign and turn it to be the sign of God's love, peculiarly, in His death on the cross.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"May God Bestow on Us His Grace" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)