The dead friend’s sister, Martha, runs up to the too late Jesus and with not a little reproach in her voice she says: ‘If you’d only come when I called my brother would still be alive.’
Apparently unmoved by her indignation, Jesus opts for what sounds like compassionless bible speak:
‘Your brother will rise again.’
Martha rebukes him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’
Read: ‘I know Lazarus will rise at the last day, but that’s no use to us now!’
And Jesus says to her: ‘I am the resurrection and the life….Do you believe this?’
Martha says: ‘Yes, I believe you’re the Messiah, the Son of God.’
But that doesn’t really answer the question Jesus asked her, does it? Jesus isn’t asking her about his identity, about who he is; Jesus is asking her about his power, about what he can do.
‘Do you believe this? he asks.
She says yes. She says she believes.
But when Jesus approaches Lazarus’ tomb, when Jesus motions for some of the mourners in the crowd to move the stone away from the mouth of the cave, Martha protests.
She tries to stop Jesus: ‘He’s been dead four days. His body has already started to rot. Think of the smell. There’s nothing you can do now.’
Before the verities of the cold, sealed tomb, her ‘Yes, I believe’ quickly becomes ‘No, don’t do that.’
It’s not that she didn’t believe in Jesus.
She confesses him to be the Messiah. She has faith that he’s the Son of God. She believes he had the power to heal Lazarus when he was ill.
It’s not that she didn’t believe in Jesus.
It’s that she believes in Death more.
And, take it from me, odds are, so do you.
Like an undertaker, I get to witness sometimes dismal, sometimes holy and beautiful moments.
I could describe in more detail than you’d want what Death smells like. I can tell you what the skin and hands and muscles of a dead body feel like in my hands. I know what it sounds like, raspy and rattling, when Death is but a few hours away.
I’ve sat and held a woman’s hand while she delivered her stillborn baby. I’ve seen white-haired lovers hold each other and kiss one last time. I’ve been there when school-aged children have said goodbye to their dad, and I’ve held a mother upright while grim-faced hospital staff pull away the curtain for her to identity her son’s body. I’ve sat all night in the ER holding the hand of a dead stranger waiting for his family from out of town to arrive, and I’ve done my best imitation of a Catholic priest and performed last rites in a prison clinic.
By my count, I’ve traced the sign of the cross on the foreheads of 8 babies. I’ve thrown earth on the caskets of 4 children. I’ve responded to 3 suicides and I’ve buried somewhere well north 100 strangers, congregants and friends.
Some of you reading this know scripture better than me. Some of you no doubt can pray more artfully than me. I’m willing to bet many of you are better teachers or servants or stewards or leaders than me.
But when it comes to Death and Dying, by sheer volume of experience, I know more than most of you.
I may not don a white lab coat but I’m the expert, and since not one of you is getting out of this life alive, you should listen up.
More often than I’d wish, I’ve been there to see someone’s dying breath wasted on anger. I’ve planned more funerals than I’d like for people who left all their documents and finances in order but who left their personal lives a mess.
I’ve done graveside burials where the only person in attendance was the cemetery custodian because the deceased had alienated everyone else in their lives.
But this is what you need to hear:
I’ve stood vigil at far too many bedsides and I’ve celebrated far too many funerals for people- good people- who spent every moment of their last days and every ounce of their remaining strength trying to stay alive instead of dying well- people who, in their desperate fear to stave off Death, missed their chance to say: I love you, I forgive you, I’m sorry for the time I…
I’ve been with too many families who worried more about trying every possible medical option than they did about having that one last conversation, worried more about doing every thing they could to keep their loved one alive than making sure they got the chance to say: I never you told you but this is what you mean to me…
I’ve seen too many people give more thought and attention to Living Wills and Advanced Directives and Pre-Planned Funerals than they do to resolving the loose ends in their relationships.
It’s not that we don’t believe in Jesus.
It’s that, when it matters, we act as though we believe in Death more.
Which I’m telling you- listen to me- is sheer folly. Because the stubborn if generally denied facts are these: not one of us is getting out of this life alive. The stat on that is damn near 100% reliable with no margin for error.
So, to my mind, since you have a 0% percent chance of beating Death, the soundest medical decision you could ever make is putting your trust in the only One who did and patterning your death after his life, to stop treating his death as your ticket to another life and instead find in his life the resources to die well.