Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
In the mysterious story we heard in today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus confronts the power of death face to face and emerges victorious. His friend Lazarus dies; and his death produces a ripple effect. Any death produces a ripple effect. Think of those you have loved, and are now no more. Their significance didn’t stop with their death. They are alive within us, in our memory, in the very people we are. They are there in the questions we ask—Why did this have to happen? They are there in the question a child asks—When is daddy coming home? They are there in the empty spaces they leave behind, in the touch that is not felt, and the voice that is no longer heard.
Lazarus died, and left his sisters Martha and Mary distraught. Not only them—Jesus was also grieving.
I remember years ago reading A Grief Observed
, the book CS Lewis wrote after his wife’s death. Something he wrote struck me then, and has stayed with me:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. When I first read that, I had never suffered real grief, but I was dealing with people who had. After my dad died at the age of fifty nine, I learned something of what CS Lewis had said. Not that I was afraid, either; but the body only has a limited range of ways to tell us all is not well, and the signals it sends in grief can feel like fear.
But we who are living, who are neither dying nor grieving, can feel fear. Fear of death. Fear of crossing that threshold from which we shall not return. Fear of the unknown. Fear of judgement. In the end, it’s an unhealthy fear of God.
Fear stops us from stepping out in confidence. Fear of death stops us from really living. Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Not, “One day, I will be the resurrection and the life”, but “I am”. Right now. And I am the resurrection and the life for you. So you don’t need to live in fear. You can live with hope, with confidence, with trust, with joy, with courage. This you can do because you live in me, and I live in you, and I am the resurrection and the life.
In prayer, gathering for worship today, we heard a number of names. Some perhaps you expected, the biblical characters. But there were some characters you perhaps didn’t expect, people who have died in the last twelve months or so. These names included Beryl Green, who died only two days ago, and whose death was a release from pain and suffering. Ellis, Jenelle, Matthew, Sarah and Josh, we offer you and the rest of your family our deepest sympathies and our prayers.
I want to mention one of these characters, one who taught me a great deal. In singling out one name, I’m not at all diminishing the others. It’s just that Lena became an inspiration to me. I told her once, “Lena, you have taught us how to die.” She tried to suggest that I was perhaps just being nice, but it was true. What is also true is this: In teaching us how to die, she also taught us how to live. How to live without fear, how to live with trust in the God who has given us life.
Life is too short for fear. We need to let go of fear so that Jesus can really enter our hearts. Jesus said some things that help us here, from the Sermon on the Mount:
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? … Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things—food, drink, clothing—will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matthew 6.25b-26, 33-34).
I have heard that this sort of thing is unrealistic. On the contrary—it’s realistic, not pie in the sky. How can all people have enough, unless we seek God’s justice and share what we have? Imagine if all Christian people lived this way! Life is too short for fear. Lena found that out. Some of us learn the lesson, others are still learning as our end comes. But listen: Life is too short for fear because we have a Saviour, who is Lord over life and death. So we confidently entrust ourselves and our loved ones into his hands.
In closing, let me remind you of the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was executed at the age of 39, on 9 April, 1945, 63 years ago all but one month. He was part of a plot to kill Hitler; he was arrested and taken to Flossenburg Concentration Camp. One of those who was with him when he was taken away describes Bonhoeffer’s last acts and words:
Sunday, April 8, 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer held a little service and spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought. He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil looking men in civilian clothes came in and said; ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.’ The words ‘come with us’ had only one meaning. The scaffold. We bade him good-bye, he drew me aside, ‘This is the end,’ he said; ‘for me, the beginning of life.’” Those were his last words. “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.”
“I am the resurrection and the life,” says the Lord. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Life is too short for fear. Let us pray:
Blessed are you, Lord God almighty,
for ever and ever.
Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the might
and the glory and the victory and the majesty;
for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours;
yours is the kingdom,
and you are exalted as head over all.
Therefore we adore you now and always. Amen.