November 1, 2015 Isaiah 25: 6-9 John 11: 32-44
Rev. Catherine Purves
Easter comes but once a year. And that’s generally when we talk about the death of death. A lot of the rest of the year we talk about how to live and what to think and what the Bible says about all sorts of things. We arrange and rearrange these ideas and we come up with a sense of what it means to be a Christian. Perhaps far too often that boils down to a simple list of what to do and what not to do, or maybe what to think and what not to think…which is all very interesting and probably even helpful. But when Christianity is turned into mere ethics or when it is reduced to a catalogue of beliefs, it becomes a very tame and manageable religion, and at its heart our faith is nothing like that.
Maybe we need to revisit Easter more than just once a year. And maybe we need to talk about, and frankly celebrate, the death of death a lot more often. When we read passages like those we heard this morning in the context of a funeral – the other time when death must somehow be talked about – there can be no sense of celebration. We can’t very well shout out that death is dead at a graveside. I do read these vital words at every funeral: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” I say this strongly, but I don’t shout it. And no one cheers, though these are the words of victory. This is the announcement that death is dead. Someone should yell, “Yes!” or “Hooray!” or “Praise God!” But, of course, that doesn’t happen at a funeral.
On Easter, we can afford to be more joyful. “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!” This is our greeting to one another, on this one day a year. And, of course, the Easter worship service is chock full of Alleluias! They are sung, they are said, they are read, they may even be shouted, or almost shouted. This is the essence of our faith: Death is Dead! Everything has been leading up to this climax. The Death of Death! This has been God’s purpose all along. It has been gradually revealed through the pages of Scripture, through centuries of history, right up to the time of Jesus Christ.
We see the anticipation of the dawning of this ultimate victory in the words of the prophet Isaiah. This is his prophesy: the Lord of hosts, “will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” Death will be dead. Centuries before the birth of Christ, this hope was born. And it grew, and it became strong. It sustained the children of Israel through times of suffering, times of loss, times when they felt abandoned and forgotten. We should perhaps remember that at times when we are tempted to feel sorry for ourselves.
By the time Jesus was born, of course, Israel was an occupied and a subdued nation, heavily taxed and controlled by Rome who used the threat of imprisonment, torture, and crucifixion to try to crush the spirit of the people. Yet, in those days most of Israel believed in the resurrection. The religious leaders like the Pharisees and the Sadducees argued it back and forth, but the people hoped for the death of death; they believed Isaiah’s prophesy. We see that in the earlier verses from John, chapter 11, where Jesus is talking with Martha about her dead brother, Lazarus. Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha responds, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
It was then a future hope, like that voiced by the prophet Isaiah. “He will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all their faces and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” The death of death was coming, and it was assured. Martha believed in it. Mary believed in it. Jesus, of course, knew that this was his purpose, and that soon, very soon, death would be defeated on the cross. Then the resurrection would not just be something that was promised, but something actually witnessed as he emerged from the tomb and appeared to his followers in the days after Easter.
But first he would give his friends a preview of that power. They already knew that he could prevent death. Both Martha and Mary said this to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But now Lazarus was dead, very dead, four days dead, sealed in a tomb dead. This was a funeral, after all. The tears flowed freely; the sadness was palpable; even Jesus himself wept with and for his friends. Death is a terrible thing, no doubt about it. Thank goodness it is dead. We must remember that not just on Easter, but every day, and at every funeral, and in every way. This is what Isaiah hoped for. This is what Martha and Mary and the others saw, right there in the middle of their brother’s funeral.
Jesus himself would defeat death. In and as and through Jesus Christ, God would accomplish his age-old purpose: the death of death. Jesus said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” In the death of death, the glory of God bursts forth in blinding power. “Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” And the dead man came out. Even after four days in the tomb, death could not hold onto one whom Jesus called, one whom Jesus loved. And when Jesus himself emerged from his tomb on Easter, there could be no doubt about it – Death was dead.
We should shout it from the housetops! We should plaster it on billboards. We should sing it at the top of our lungs. We should celebrate it each and every day. Death is dead! The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! The Lord is risen!… The death of death is what we, as Christians, have witnessed in Jesus Christ. This is not just a suggestive metaphor, a hypothetical possibility, or a distant hope that we cling to with trembling fingers. Death is dead! We know this. We can live this. Every cross on every steeple shouts this. Every prayer at every funeral assumes this. Death is dead! And every time we name the name of Jesus we proclaim this. Death is dead! Thanks be to God!
Today is All Saints’ Day, a day of remembrance, a day when we celebrate and give thanks for the lives of the saints who have gone before us. We may shed a tear or two, because they are no longer with us, and we loved them. But on this day, we need not mourn, because death is dead. As surely as Lazarus came out of the tomb, as undeniably as Jesus was raised from the dead, just as certainly we also know that for Stephen, and Daisy, and Franchard, and all of the others, generation after generation of the saints, for all of them, death is dead. This is the essence of our faith. This is what it means to be a Christian.