Even though it is the holiday season at present, death has not taken a vacation. Over the past few days there have been many reminders of this as well known people have died, and there have also been some tragic accidents that have resulted in death. We must never forget that behind the headlines are people in pain, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. For the friends and relatives of those who have died this is personal pain and benumbing bereavement.
Somewhat dissonantly Jesus said that those who are grieving and mourning are blessed because they will be comforted. He was not being insensitive, even though at face value what he said doesn’t seem to make sense in the face of bereavement and death. But the blessing comes not because of the grieving but because of the comfort. God is always present and he is especially present to those who are bereft when we allow his Spirit to prompt us to be his hands, his voice, his presence, his comfort. It is an amazing privilege to do that. People of faith (and others) will (rightly) surround those who are experiencing the devastation and desolation with prayer, love and support.
Death is something of a taboo subject. That’s why we have so many synonyms and euphemisms for it. We don’t like to think about it or talk about it until we are forced to confront our mortality by what has happened to others. Death is something that our medical profession is constantly fighting: we heard of new developments in vaccination against Ebola last week and I think one of the reasons why it was celebrated was that it looks like it’s humans 1 death 0. But every day in hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, hospices and homes those in the caring professions (and I use the phrase deliberately) do battle with death. And while they may score some victories they are the victories of people fighting a valiant, noble, under-appreciated rearguard action against an invincible enemy.
In the end death wins. In the end we end.
If you read John’s gospel narrative of Jesus’ life you see Jesus’ compassion when he encounters bereavement. The shortest verse in the Bible is an understatement of biblical proportions when Jesus was confronted with the death of a friend and his friend’s grieving family: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).
Two verses earlier we read, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” This is rather a sanitised translation. You could equally translate the last section as “he was inwardly angry and became enraged.” It’s a natural reaction: sometimes we respond to death’s intrusion into our lives with anger (especially if it is unexpected or ‘too soon’).
But it seems that Jesus’ anger was not just at the fact that his friend, Lazarus, had died. It was also that death itself had encroached onto the scene. Perhaps for him it was a reminder that he was to do battle with death himself in the not-to-distant future. He himself wept and sweated blood as he wrestled with his impending execution. And when he was crucified and died, it seemed that death had kept its morbid 100% record.
It was a Friday.
But Sunday was coming.
The reason that the cross (a hideous symbol of cruelty, bullying, humiliation, torture and death) is the emblem for Christians is that we know that it represents the moment when everything changed. The Good News of Jesus is that he really did defeat death. He smashed the Ultimate Statistic (1 out of 1 people die). His resurrection is a beacon of hope in the dark shadow of death. It is a defiant shout that this need not be the end.
This ‘song’ was sung in early churches:
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
And Paul, quoting it when he wrote to his first letter to the church in Corinth (Chapter 15) expands on that theme:
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Death still hurts. Bereavement is still painful. We should still fight the rearguard action with all that is in us. But death is defeated. Because Jesus is alive there is hope. Many times when I visited believers who knew they were in their last days on earth they spoke (with shining eyes) of their faith that although death was to be feared it was not the end. They looked forward to what lay beyond – an eternity in God’s presence. Many said to me, “I’m ready.”
Be blessed, be a blessing.