Death Will Not Win

Scripture  |  Ezekiel 37:1-10 (NRSV)  |  John 11:1-44

There’s been so much death lately, and it just makes me tired. This passage makes me tired. When I realized this was the passage we had planned to preach for this Sunday in our series, I thought, Really? REALLY?! But then I thought, maybe I need to wrestle with this one.

I find myself angry and argumentative with Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. “Those who believe in me will never die.” We say those words so often at funerals, as if it weren’t patently obvious that it’s just not true. We have come together precisely because someone has died. But we say those words nonetheless. Do we say it because we want it to be true? Do we say it but not mean it? Do we say it because we’re supposed to believe that it’s true; it’s just that we don’t understand how?

And the story itself has its problems. In a perverse irony of timing, our staff had CPR training this week. We learned all about how minutes count when someone stops breathing. Not hours or days. You have to have a sense of urgency to save somebody’s life. So even if you can get past doubt and incredulity about this story and Jesus resurrecting Lazarus, even if you inhabit the story’s own logic of possibility, why would Jesus wait so long to save his friend?

Surely he wasn’t just showing off his powers, like some kind of super-hero. Was he? He stays away so he can show God’s power. He blatantly says so. He lets his own friend die, lets his friends Mary and Martha suffer the torment of losing their brother, all so he can show us this sign. What kind of hero toys with the heartstrings of broken-hearted people?

Maybe I’m argumentative because I’m just so tired of death. I know I am. On Thursday Denison held a Memorial for my friend Sue Davis. Sue was a political science professor at Denison and the director of their Off-Campus Studies program.

We got to know each other through our kids but stayed friends long after they went their separate ways. It was Sue I traveled to Greece with a couple of years ago. Last July, Sue was diagnosed with brain cancer, a glioblastoma. It’s a vicious disease; treatable but never cured. It was in Sue’s hippocampus, affecting her speech and short-term memory. This brilliant, brilliant woman gets this cancer, of all things.

Sometimes things like this just make me angry. And sad. Just sad. You know, the one comfort I have in this passage is that Jesus was sad and angry, too. This was deeply disturbing to him. This death made Jesus weep. It may sound strange, but I find Jesus’ sadness comforting. I think Jesus weeps for death itself, for every death.

For a woman like Sue who died too soon, of this wretched disease; for people in Venezuela who are dying because they can’t get the medication they need; for children who lose their lives to senseless gun violence. This week the Syrian activist and filmmaker Ahmad Hamdan was killed in an airstrike. He was determined to get word out to the world about the carnage in eastern Ghouta, to not let the world forget. His called his campaign #Iamstillalive.

Ahmad Hamdan died this week. I think Jesus weeps for him, too.

The writer and pastor Fred Craddock says that the story of Lazarus is less “about a family crisis in Bethany” than “about the crisis of the world caught in death and sin.” It isn’t just about Jesus reviving a dead man; it’s “about giving life to the world.”
[Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), 178. Cited by Rick Spalding in an unpublished paper for The Moveable Feast, 1996: Year A, Lent V.]

This is why Jesus came. Because of the vicious power of sin and death. This is why he gave his own life. So that death would not have the final word. So death will not win. People we love die; we will die, too. I hate that it’s so. The cost of coming into the world is having to leave it. The cost of loving someone is having to lose them. But death is not the only thing that is true.

Eternal life is also true. This story of Lazarus, it points us to the power beyond what we see in this world. And that’s what gives us power to face what we must face. Because of Jesus, death will not win. My friend Jon Walton, who has brushed death too many times himself, says this:

Everybody dies… We [will die]… But there is a quality in life for those who believe and trust in God that death cannot destroy. I have seen this quality again and again. Bravery and strength and faith in the face of cancer, and AIDS, and heart disease and Downs Syndrome and Alzheimers, and all the arrows that death has in its quiver.
— Jon Walton, “Out of Determined Tombs,” Sermon preached at The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, March 17, 2002.

We have seen that ourselves, haven’t we? In people we know? The courage, the strength? The conviction that death will not win. The great spiritual writer and priest Henri Nouwen says:

When we reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die, then oppression, persecution, and even death will be unable to take our freedom. Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge… that we are born out of love and will die into love…, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us.
— Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, cited by John M. Buchanan, “Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry,” Sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, March 13, 2005.

Death will not win.
As I was working through this passage – wrestling with it – a poem by Maya Angelou kept coming back to me. It’s called, Still I Rise.

The stone is rolled away for us. We are unbound. We are set free. We will rise up.
And death - death will not win.

Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
Granville, Ohio

The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890.