Recently a friend sent me an account of a hilarious email miscommunication:
A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon twenty years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules—so, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the next day.
The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to email his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her address, and without realizing his error, sent the email to someone else…
Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband’s funeral. He was a minister who had died from a heart attack. Expecting messages from relatives and friends, she checked her email but after reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. Her son rushed into the room and saw this on the computer screen …
To: My Loving Wife
Subject: I’ve arrived
I know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and checked in. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was. P.S. Sure is hot down here! J
Today I am preaching from today’s passage from the Gospel According to John, a passage about the one appointment all of us must keep… death.
In his prologue, John wrote that Jesus “became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (1:14 and 16)—and throughout his account of the gospel John sets forth seven “signs” or miracles, each of which reveal the glory and grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Several of these “signs” are linked to an “I am” saying of Jesus. In John 6, after the feeding of the five thousand Jesus said “I am the Bread of Life” (6:35). In John 8, he identified himself as “the Light of the World” (8:12) and then healed a man blind from birth (8:12-9:7).
In John 11, we read about the seventh and final of these “signs”—when Jesus told Martha “I am the Resurrection and the Life” and then raised her brother Lazarus from the dead.
At the beginning of this passage, we read that Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus to let him know their brother Lazarus was sick—but listen to how they told him: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
“He whom you love is ill.”
Sometimes it is tempting to think that sickness and death are signs that we are not loved by God—and unfortunately this can even be reinforced by some teaching in the church, like this saying that I have heard occasionally in the church: “a tattered Bible is evidence of a life that is not.” In spite of being pithy, it is not true—even with a tattered Bible your life may be tattered too.
And this type of thinking was evident in both of Lazarus’s sisters. When Jesus arrives at Bethany after Lazarus had died, Martha, who had gone out to meet him, said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Later John tells us that Mary arrived, and while weeping, knelt at Jesus’ feet and echoed her sister, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
And yet it is when things go wrong, even deadly wrong in our lives that we experience the grace of God, as Richard Rohr writes in his recent book Immortal Diamond:
“Death is not just physical dying, but going to full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control, fully beyond where I am now. No wonder it is scary… We all die eventually; we have no choice in the matter. But there are degrees of death before the final physical one. If we are honest, we acknowledge that we are dying throughout our life and this is what we learn if we are attentive: grace is found at the depths and in the death of everything” (xx-xxi).
I think Rohr is exactly right, that indeed “grace is found at the depths and in the death of everything.”
Twenty years ago, The Pretenders had a hit song called “I’ll Stand by You,” which in my opinion is pure gospel, and certainly expresses the unconditional love of someone who will stand by you no matter what and will minister grace to you. In her powerful soulful voice, Chrissie Hynde sings:
Why do you look so sad?
Tears are in your eyes
Come on and come to me now
Don’t be ashamed to cry
Let me see you through
‘Cause I’ve seen the dark side too
When the night falls on you
You don’t know what to do
Nothing you confess could make me love you less
I’ll stand by you, I’ll stand by you
(from their 1994 album Last of the Independents)
Perhaps some of you here today struggling somehow with illness or death may have the same thought that Mary and Martha had, “Lord, if you had been here…”
I remember the first time someone I knew died. There was a secretary at the school I attended, Mrs. Murdoch, who greeted us with a warm smile and a wave of her hand each and every time we passed her desk on the way to class. She would always call us by our last name. “Good morning, Mr. Johnson!” she would say (a pretty nice greeting for a twelve-year old kid).
One weekend Mrs. Murdoch died suddenly from a heart attack. Friday morning she had greeted me as usual, “Good morning, Mr. Johnson” and when I arrived at school Monday morning her desk was empty. I remember going to the viewing at the funeral home and there she was in the casket, wearing a simple dress with a floral pattern, a string of pearls around her neck, the same hands with which she had waved hello to me so many times now folded and utterly still.
And you have your own “Mrs. Murdochs” in your life—those who you knew who were kind to you who have died, those you long to see again. I remember teaching an eighth grade confirmation once about heaven and we went around the class and each kid said who they wanted to see again in heaven, and one student said, “I want to see my dad again.”
The good news of the gospel is that you, like Lazarus, are one whom Jesus loves, that no matter what—even in death—Jesus will stand by you, and his response to the “Lord, if you had been here’s” in your life is the same as his response to Martha, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
John tells us that when Jesus arrived at the tomb of Lazarus he wept for awhile…then he said, “Take away the stone”…then John writes that Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” and “the dead man came out.”
Earlier in his account of the gospel, in an often-overlooked passage in which Jesus is talking about his authority, he speaks about his authority even over death:
“Very truly I tell you the hour is coming and is now here,” Jesus said, “when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God…all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out” (5:25, 28-29).
This happened with Lazarus, as Jesus called him by name, “Lazarus, come out!”
And guess what? When you die, you will be among “all who are in their graves,” and Jesus, as he did with Lazarus, will call you by name, “Come out!”
And you will come out of the grave.
One of my favorite songs by The Beatles is a song that I can’t remember ever not knowing, a song from their 1969 masterpiece Abbey Road. In his 1980 autobiography I, Me, Mine, George Harrison describes how he was supposed to go to a meeting with the accountants from Apple Records when he decided to do something different instead:
“It seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton‘s house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun’” (144).
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun…
Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes…
Some consider that song to be rather shallow and lightweight.
Perhaps, but it is not lightweight or shallow for those who have experienced the “long cold lonely winter” of suffering or the “empty desk” reminders of those we miss who have died—for those in such places, knowing that the sun is coming and that it will alright is a word of hope.
For those of you who may prefer classic literature to The Beatles, this same word of hope is also found in Holy Sonnet X by the incomparable John Donne:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then ?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Shortly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead—the seventh and final “sign” in John’s gospel revealing the grace and glory of God—he went to the cross, the ultimate demonstration of his glory and grace.
And on the cross Jesus kept the one appointment all of us must keep, our appointment with death, and in his resurrection he assured us that death is not the end of the story.
You are one loved by Jesus. He will always stand by you, even when your life is tattered, even in your death—and after your death, as with Lazarus, the One who is Resurrection and Life will call you by name.
And at his Second Coming the Resurrected Lord will usher in an eternal spring even for those of us who don’t “deserve it”—an eternal spring that will forever mark the end of the “long cold lonely winter” and assure us that “death shall be no more.”
Here comes the Son (S-o-n)—Son, Son, Son, here He comes…