Giving Up Our Fear of Death

First Baptist Church · The Fourth Sunday of Lent

John 11:17-27

March 30, 2014 

I love the story that is told about a particular bank in Binghamton, New York. The bank was aware that a local competitor was moving into a new building in town. As a way of promoting friendship among competitors and sharing their well wishes, they decided to send an arrangement of flowers to their local nemesis on the day the new facility opened.

The order was handled by a local florist who was also working on an arrangement that was to be delivered to a funeral being held in town on the same day. Unfortunately, the florist who was hard at work on both orders mixed up the cards that were to accompany the two bouquets. In turn, the flowers sent to the bank with the new building arrived with a card that read “with our deepest sympathy.” At the same time, the card accompanying the flowers that arrived at the funeral offered an equally interesting choice of words, “congratulations on your new location” it said. (Paul W. Krummer, From This Day Forward, CSS Publishing: Lima, Ohio, 1999, pg. 56).

This morning, what I want to suggest that the New Testament invites us to believe that what appears to be a funny little story about a florist and his mix-up is actually hopeful story about a florist who got it right. Let me say that again. This morning, what I want to suggest that the New Testament invites us to believe that what appears to be a funny little story about a florist and his mix-up is actually hopeful story about a florist who got it right.

Let me be very clear from the beginning today. I believe that one of the greatest lessons of Jesus for us to embrace at all times is the belief that even death itself is not to be feared. Without question, death is never easy, simple or painless. Death is one of if not the most difficult thing that any of us will ever face. But, the lesson of Jesus is that even death is not without hope. Rather, through our faith in Christ, death can always be simply the ending of one phase of life and the opportunity for the beginning of another. Death really can be the celebration of the “move to a new location.”

In the book Mending the Heart, the story is told of a man named Charlie who was nearing the end of his life after a bought with cancer. As he visited with an old friend one day, Charlie admitted that he had always been afraid of dying. But Charlie shared, “now that I am up against it, I have suddenly realized that dying is an old friend dressed up in a different sort of garb.” Charlie went on to share that it reminded him of being a little boy and going to school for the first time. Charlie said, “One day my mother told me that the next morning I would be getting up and starting school. I would no longer spend my days playing around the house or out in the yard. I would now have to go to school five days a week like all other boys and girls. I want you to know that I was scared. It seemed to me as though my whole world was coming to an end. I didn’t want to go to school; I loved my life just the way it was. But, I went to school and there I discovered new friends, books, music, ideas and all sorts of things about the world that I didn’t know. Likewise, when I became comfortable with my school and my teachers and these surroundings, I learned it was time to go off to junior high and then a few years later it was the transition to high school and finally to college. Through it all I discovered an important truth. You never leave one place without entering another. You never make an exit with at the same time making an entrance. And, I believe this is also the death story. I know I am preparing to exit life. Yet, I also believe that I am preparing to enter a whole new place. Oh, it is scary. I am uncomfortable. Life, however, has taught me that transitions don’t signal an end but rather the beginning of a whole new way of existing that I have simply never experienced or understood before.” (John Claypool, Mending the Heart, Cloister Books: Boston, MA, 1999. Pg. 55-58.)

I believe that our text for today, the story of Jesus and Lazarus, offers a similar lesson. In his reflections on this text, the writer John Killinger says that the gospel of John wanted to emphasize three points in the way the story is told. First, it emphasizes that Jesus loved his friends. That is to say that his sadness over Lazarus’ death and his coming to be with Mary and Martha out of love and friendship are clear and evident throughout the story. Second, the story emphasizes that Lazarus was absolutely and without question dead. This is why Jesus waited to go to see Lazarus rather than rushing there. Likewise, this is why the text points out that Lazarus had been in the grave for four days and that the stone had been rolled back in front of the tomb. Without question, Lazarus’ life was over and this was the end. Every aspect of the story gave off an air of finality about Lazarus and his existence. And, third, the story emphasizes that in Christ, death is never the end it appears to be. What is interesting is that the story teaches this lesson in two ways. First it teaches it by the reminder that Lazarus would indeed have life after physical death. But, it also teaches it through Jesus’ raising Lazarus back to life in this world—while life appeared to be over for Lazarus that simply was not the case.

Let me quickly zero in on these later two emphases of the text. Like the Lazarus story, we too see death as the ultimate end. This is true not only as it relates to the end of our lives but this is also true as it relates to all other brushes with death that we experience as human beings beyond the reality of our own mortality. This can include the death of someone else such as a beloved family member or friend. Or this can be an altogether different form of death, such as the death of a career, the death of our physical well-being or the death of a relationship. Yes, death comes in all forms and at all times in our lives and there are many forms of death that we encounter every day beyond the ending of human life. Yet, in all of them, the word death means for us exactly what it meant for those in the Lazarus story. It means that life is over. Once death has come, our belief is that life as we know it has come to an end.

But, also like the Lazarus story, what Jesus wants us to embrace is that through hope and trust in him, death really is never an end. While an exit and truly is also an entrance into a whole new way of being. Again, as with the story of the flowers that we begin the service with today, as people of faith, we can truly find a way to celebrate our moving to a new location in the journey of life. This not Pollyannaish nonsense, this really is gospel truth and it is gospel truth for all forms of death.

Yes, as people of faith, we really are called to believe that the end of this life is the beginning of life in a new and profound way in the presence of God when we die. It is not an exit; it is an entrance into a new way of living and being. And, at the same time, our faith also calls us to believe this truth is equally valid in all other forms of death.

The loss of a spouse, family members or a dear friend can also signal the opportunity for new relationships to bloom or for life to take on a new purpose or role. Likewise, the death of a career, the death of our health or the death of relationships can become both the ending of one phase of life and the beginning of another. In Christ there is always hope and there is always life. In Christ, there is always the belief that God has more to do with us and that any situation can be redeemed.

23 years ago, in 1991, the famous actor Michael J Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s’ Disease. For roughly seven years, Fox struggled to handle the diagnosis. He drank a lot, was depressed and found it hard to find any meaning in his life.

In 1998, however, Fox began to adopt a different perspective. He began to think about what it meant to live with Parkinson’s rather than to be consumed with how Parkinson’s had robbed him of his life. In turn, what he discovered was that if he allowed himself to be hopeful about what had happened, he had to admit that there were a number of lessons he had learned. Through this process, he had learned things he would have never learned had he not developed this disease.

As a result, in 2002, Fox released his first of three memoires about his life with Parkinson’s. The title of the book was startling—it was called Lucky Man. What I appreciate about Fox is that throughout he has been very honest. It isn’t that he is glad that he has Parkinson’s and it isn’t that he would not celebrate a cure tomorrow. But, at the same time, it is true that he has championed the belief that his life didn’t end with the death of his control of his physical well-being. Instead, in his own words, the death of his ability to “sit still” forced him to “be still” and to explore untapped areas of life for the first time. Parkinson’s wasn’t only an exit, it was also an entrance at the same time.

Oh death, through Christ, where is your sting? Oh death, through the hope of Christ, where is your victory over our lives? Oh death, as people of faith, you are not the end of us, you only signal a new way for us to begin again. Amen.