Advent’s Four Last Things: DEATH


DEATH

In the New Testament, resurrection is key. Its light transforms all the life described there, placing all things under its spotlight, and revealing the extent of God’s love for us.

Without shadows, it is hard to see death in its full harshness. It’s there, of course: the young man at Nain, Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, are all stone-cold dead. Lazarus has been dead for so many days that there’s a stench. Jairus has brought in the professional mourners. The townsfolk of Nain are already wondering what will happen to the bereaved widow without a man to belong to. (Luke 7:11, John 11:39, Mark 5:38.)

The New Testament depicts death as final and irreversible. Lazarus is not sleeping. Jesus told the disciples plainly, “Lazarus has died.”’ (John 11:14)

A humorous old spiritual, The Deacon Went Down to the Cellar to Pray, has a chorus which claims ‘You can’t get to heaven on roller-skates, You’ll go right past them pearly gates.” Underneath the humour there’s a serious point: If you fail to take death seriously enough, you’ll miss out on the resurrection.

Despite popular culture’s love-affair with murders, we are reluctant to talk seriously about death. Our unexamined fear of death makes Western society especially vulnerable to, say, Al-Qaeda’s acts of terror.

At Christmas-time when absence scratches at people’s wound of loss, our unfamiliarity with death prevents us from providing comfort and community to the bereaved.

Death has the last word. We are the stronger for facing its power. Classics like Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying admonish Christians to face death full on as a powerful way of growing spiritually.  It’s not good enough to say that we will be raised with Christ. First, we die. We must experience the reality of death: no-one escapes it.

Eugène Ionesco’s play, Exit the King, is a powerful meditation on death. The King comes to realise that the whole world dies when he dies. Trees, people, stars, the universe, all disappear with me, me! he complains. Each death is indeed an appalling loss. Each individual is of cosmic worth, and her or his unique talents and personality are plundered from the world at death. All ceases to exist when we die.

As Christians, we shout, ‘Death may have the last word, but God has the last last word!’ God reached into the tomb where Lazarus’ earthly remains were starting to rot, and brought him back to the world of the living.  Jesus himself was dead and buried: gone from existence. Yet God called Jesus back into existence so triumphantly that the raising of Jesus is a guarantee that, if we stick with him, we too will be called back into life (I Thessalonians 4:14), a life that is even more glorious than this life.

Believing in resurrection is not enough. It’s like being sure that Houdini will escape from the water-tank. Of course, he will: that’s the nature of illusions. But our dying is real, not an illusion. Jesus, like us, was born to die, and it is only in the spiritually-bracing acceptance of death, death as final act, that we can open to the possibility of being raised from the dead.

Our response can only be ‘Alleluia’.

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Raising of Lazarus, Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (Wikipedia)
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Beloved Daughter, Beloved Son


Mark 5:21-43 – Gospel for Sunday 28 June 2015 (Pentecost 5)

Preached at St George’s, Dunsborough

These stories are partly about two women’s ability to have children. The girl is twelve years old. On her next birthday she would have been old enough to marry and bring a baby into the world. As modern Western people we recoil from this whole business of treating a girl as a commodity to be sold. Bride price, dowry, physical attributes, and then the sheer hard work of bearing babies and keeping house – and keeping to the house – for the rest of their lives. To us, the customs of those times were as repugnant as the Taliban’s are now.

But her age is mentioned for that reason. Jesus restores her to her life prospects as wife and mother.

The older woman has had a bleed for 18 years. It doesn’t specify what sort of bleed, and that leads most scholars to suggest that it was related to her womb, not a stomach ulcer. With the medical care of those days, there is no way she could have children. There is no way she could be a wife under the Jewish Holiness code. Her life as a wife and mother was on hold at the least, probably finished, dead.

Jesus restores both women to life; and that includes to restore the possibility of their cultural role as wives and mothers. Whatever we think would have been best for them, being wife and mother was what they would have known and wanted, and certainly better than being dead!

But as Mark tells us the story, he insists on two words which take the restoring of these women far beyond those cultural expectations. The two words:

  • life
    and
  • daughter

The woman has spent everything she had on cures. ‘Everything she had’: the Greek work is ‘bios’ which we know in English words like ‘biology’. She had spent her whole ‘bios’, her whole ‘life’, her whole ‘living’ on doctors and cures. At one level, it just means, she had spent all she had chasing a cure. But if you’ve ever had a complex medical problem, you know it’s not just the monetary cost. We are so blessed in Australia with Medicare, cost is not usually the problem. But we can find ourselves with so many appointments and treatments, visits to the pharmacist and physio as well as to the GP and specialists, not to mention waiting on the phone to make those appointment, that our whole life starts to revolve around our medical issues. Our life is in danger of becoming our medical impairments. There are times when we could easily spend our whole life on chasing a cure. It’s not good. That’s where this woman was.

Jesus healed her. Jesus gave her her life back.

Jairus’s daughter was dead. The professional mourners were already in place, and laughing at Jesus for thinking he could achieve anything. Her life was gone. There was nothing left but her pious burial. Jesus raised her from the dead. He gave her her life back.

Of course, both of these resuscitations are prefiguring the resurrection. And they are also mirrors to us. If we reach out to Jesus, just touch the hem of his robe, just taste his power in the Eucharist, then he may give us our life back. That’s what Jesus wants to do. There is no person, no thing, so far from God, who cannot be restored, who cannot receive their life back.

What that will mean will vary from person to person, just as it was different for the woman with the bleed and Jairus’s daughter, so it will be for you. But Mark is telling us the Good News that Jesus considers every person – even women in his society – should be able to live her life to the full, and that she can do that if she allows Jesus to restore life to her. Or him.

That’s more than the cultural script of being a wife and mother. That’s a gift of life that is wide open to all good possibilities.

The second word that Mark uses is ‘daughter’. Each of the women healed in these stories is called a daughter, because each is unconditionally loved. Jesus calls the woman he heals by the name of ‘Daughter’: ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ (Mark 5:34). And then immediately follows the rest of the other story. ‘While he was still speaking there came from the house some who said, “Your daughter is dead”.” (5:35) Whose daughter? It is ambiguous, because she is both Jairus’s much loved ‘little daughter’, and a daughter to Jesus too.

I am blessed to have a wonderful daughter. I remember the day in 1983 when she was born. I remember a lot more of her childhood than she might like me to. I am so proud of her now as a young mother of three, working at an interesting job part-time. She is a lovely and accomplished young woman. Everyone knows that. But only Rae and I can call her ‘Daughter’. We have the privilege of loving her especially. The love that I have for Clare, and the love that I know is returned, is a real joy.

Jesus emphasises with the women in these stories that the Father loves each daughter just like, and even more, than a human father loves his daughter. Daughters, you are loved, you are loved by God, with a love that gives you your life and goes on giving you your life back. Sons, you are loved, you are loved, too, by the Father, but sometimes, even in this 21st Century after Jesus, the daughters need to be told more intensely, more Intentionally, that God’s love is for them in this way of deep joy.

But for all of us, daughters and sons, can we in reality imagine what Jesus is offering to us?

  • the fulfilment of our lives up to our expectations so that we can do what God wants us to do in this world, as the two women were given the opportunity to be wives and mothers;
  • secondly, to get our lives back richer than we can imagine and better than we can imagine: this is Christ’s gift to us. As we open ourselves to Christ, so we are being transformed into new people, leaving the old one behind, becoming the person God intended us to be from the beginning, and discovering more and more joy in that. This is why for me being fed with the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood is so important, as it feeds us on that journey of transformation.
  • and thirdly, knowing ourselves deeply loved as God’s children. God has loved us from the beginning and will love us eternally.

This is good news. It takes time to seep into us. It can be hard to hear this good news. God took human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth to show us what God is like. And this is what God is like. This is what God delights in doing for people.

Sin is when we refuse to let this love, the love of Christ penetrate more and more deeply into our hearts and lives, when we refuse to connect to Christ. Christ for his part continues to offer us our lives back, renewed and better than before.

Out of our poverty, we become rich, as Paul said in this morning’s epistle (2 Cor. 8:9) – and what wealth it is. What Good News it is! And what good news we become for others as this transformation takes place.

If you think I am being too idealistic, I plead with you to go back to the reading and see again what the gift is that Jesus gives to the woman and to Jairus’ daughter, and then to resolve to go about your lives knowing that it is true. God loves you through and through for eternity. Let him change you into his glory bit by bit.

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