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death grief jesus religion resurrection

While It Was Dark

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She got up two hours before sunrise. She couldn’t sleep, and lying wide-eyed in the dark was not doing any good. She had to be up and getting ready. She dressed quickly and took up the basket she had prepared the night before. She checked it again to make sure everything was there. She didn’t want to come back for anything.

The outside air was cool after the closeness inside. She pulled her cloak close around her. No one would be abroad at this hour. No one except the other women, who, like her were going to the garden. Her grief, still painful but now kept at bay by the task at hand, went with her like a dead child she had to carry.

As she walked she examined her feelings. She felt bereft, of course, but there was something unexpected, and she realized it was anger, not just anger that he was gone. No, it was the senseless, uselessness of his death. His friends had warned him. They all knew that the authorities were looking for any pretext to get rid of him. But he would not listen. He insisted on going into the city, teaching in the temple, and deliberately antagonizing the religious leaders. She was angry at him.

She couldn’t fathom it. He had been so different. He had done such extraordinary things. She had almost believed that he was the anointed one the Prophets had talked about. Who was she kidding? She did believe it. But now, how could it be true? He was going to restore the kingdom. He was going to rule with his closest followers. She had heard him talk about it in that confident, so-certain voice that made you sure whatever he said was true.

That was enough to make her angry, feeling they had all been duped. The fickle crowds had praised him only a week ago and demanded his execution just two days ago. His death could have been avoided. It was all so pointless, so hopeless. She couldn’t see any way forward for herself.

That was the worst part. He was utterly different from any man she had ever known. With him she felt seen, felt heard, felt respected. She could hardly articulate it to herself. There were men she felt comfortable with. There had been men she had loved. But there was only one man who made her feel so present. She didn’t know how she could go back from that. Part of her grief was for a loss she had no words for, a loss of her very self.

When she got to the garden, she saw that she was the first to arrive. She didn’t have long to wait. The other women, looking as forlorn and empty as she felt, soon approached.

“We’ve been talking,” Joanna said. “The tomb is sealed by a great stone. Who will roll it away for us?”

“Maybe we will find someone to help us,” she replied. “Let’s just go and see what needs to be done.”

When they got to the tomb, they found the stone already rolled away. At first they thought it would make everything easier, but they soon realized why it was moved. His body was gone. Someone had come in the night and taken his body.

“Who would do such a thing?” she cried. But she knew. The religious leaders feared his followers would steal his body and claim he had risen from the dead as he had said he would. To prevent that, they must have moved the body themselves. She thought about Peter and the other men, how devastated they had been. There was no way any of them could have done this.

The other women were conferring together, deciding what to do. They agreed to go tell the men and urged her to join them, but she wanted to be alone. “I’ll just stay here,” she said, and that seemed to satisfy them. She wondered if they could read the anguish in her heart on her face.

After they left, the grief would no longer be held back. She cried. Her whole body shook with sobs, and she made no attempt to conceal them. Her misery and despair seemed as vast as the sea. She did not know how long she cried. A voice behind her startled her.

“Ma’am, why are you crying?”

“Because they have taken away my lord,” she said without turning around, “and I don’t know where they have laid him. Please, sir, if you know where he is, please take me to him.”

“Mary,” said the voice, and that one word sent an impossible thrill through her. It couldn’t be. She turned, hastily wiping tears from her eyes. It was! He was there, looking more alive than ever. Without thinking, she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his warm chest. She was sure she would die. Then she thought perhaps she already had, and this was that heaven he had so often talked about. She did not know how long she held him and felt the vitality of his body. She kept looking up into his face, trying to see in it the horror she had seen him undergo. She saw him smile, and she held him even more tightly. Then he gently pried her arms from around his body.

“Don’t hold on to me now,” he said. “I have to present myself to my Father. Go and tell my disciples, especially Peter, that you have seen me.”

She stepped back looked at him, trying to take in every detail. The marks of his torture were still there, but his face! His face! She knew she would never forget his face and never be able to describe it. So great was her joy that her own face mirrored his, though she did not know it. She could barely take in what he said to her. He had given her a task. What was it? Ah, yes. She was to tell the men that she had seen him. She turned and ran toward the city, her basket of embalming spices forgotten on the ground. The sun was up, and the world was filling with light.

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death faith grief jesus resurrection suffering theology trust

The Dead Man Came Out

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Allowing or Causing

Near the end of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale) confronts Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) in a speeding train. After a fierce fight, it becomes plain that Batman has won, and Ra’s al Ghul expects to be killed. “Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?” he asks Batman. “I won’t kill you,” says Batman, “but I don’t have to save you.” That distinction, between killing and failing to save, is what sets Batman apart from the criminals and from the vigilantes in the League of Shadows. As the audience, we feel the justice in the distinction: killing a man is morally different from letting him die.

Or is it?

What about a doctor who refuses to perform a life saving operation on a child because the child belongs to a hated enemy?

Good Mary, Bad Martha?

I know about Mary and Martha from Luke chapter 10. Martha complained to Jesus because Mary was not helping her with dinner. Jesus rebuked Martha for her anxiety about many things and refused to make Mary help out. “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). I’ve heard dozens of sermons echoing Jesus’ praise for Mary, making it easy to approach the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection with the notion that Mary is good and Martha is bad.

Both sisters make the same accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I think it is important that we see this statement not just as a fact (Too bad you weren’t here; you could have done something) but as an accusation (Why did you delay coming? You could have prevented our brother’s death, but you didn’t). The sisters were hoping for a healing that never came. They knew that Jesus endangered himself by coming. The Jews were seeking his life. The last time he was in Judea, the crowd had picked up stones to stone him, but he had eluded them. So Jesus had good reason for not visiting at all. John makes it clear, however, that it was not concern for his life that held him up. Jesus deliberately let Lazarus die. He tells his disciples, “[F]or your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” His purpose in letting Lazarus die was to strengthen the faith of his followers.

If a mere man were to do such a thing, we would be appalled. We would call him callous and unfeeling for letting a good man die so he could have a teachable moment with his followers. John intends to astonish us with Jesus’ audacity. Here is a man behaving in a way that only God is allowed to behave. Only God allows good people to die young without being guilty of wrongdoing.

There is a difference, though, between Martha’s accusation and Mary’s. Martha immediately follows up with an astonishing profession of faith: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” What tremulous hope flickers in that affirmation! Even now. You could have prevented his death, but even now you can ask God for anything—anything!—and he will give it to you. Martha believes—incompletely to be sure, and with fear and trembling—that Jesus can raise her brother from the dead.

To make sure we don’t miss it, Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.”

“I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Martha does what we all do. She tries to take comfort in knowing that her brother will rise again at the last day. But what comfort is there in the all-too-present grief from knowing that your loved one will live again in the distant future? Doctrine is cold comfort. It is also academic. Trust in that future resurrection may bring some comfort into the present, but we can’t test it in any meaningful way. What does it matter now whether the doctrine of the resurrection is true?

Jesus will not allow Martha to take refuge in doctrine. He tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Then, “Do you believe this?”

Do you really believe, Martha, that God will give me whatever I ask? Do you really believe that I am the source of all life? Do you really believe that death is not the end for those whose life is entrusted to me?

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

Martha makes her most extraordinary profession of faith. Her trust is not in cold doctrine but in the warm presence of the living Christ who stands before her. Trust in a person is so much more complicated than trust in a doctrine. The doctrine will always behave the same way. It will not ask more of you than you think you can do. It will not make any greater demand on you than to assent to its truth. But Jesus might do anything. He has already let Lazarus die. He can raise him to life. But will he? In declaring her faith in the person of Jesus, Martha allows him to be, really to be, in control of the situation. I trust you. Whatever you do will be right.

Martha returns to her sister, her heart poised on the knife’s edge of faith. She tells Mary that Jesus is asking for her, and Mary goes to him right away. Mary makes the same accusation as her sister, but there is no accompanying profession of faith. Both sisters share an offense against Jesus. We sent for you and you did not come. If you had been here, if you had only been here, our brother would not have died. You let him die. You could have prevented it.

The Offense

Jesus makes no excuses for letting Lazarus die. Elsewhere in John, Jesus claims to do only what he sees his Father doing, so we can assume that it was God’s will and purpose for Lazarus to die. Jesus tells us why: “[I]t is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Lazarus will die for my glory. Jesus lets Lazarus die, lets Martha and Mary experience the grief of his loss, lets them experience doubt and anger and fear and turmoil, all to bring glory to his Father and himself. What kind of God is this, who aggrandizes himself at our expense? John tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” Jesus loved them, and he let them suffer.

There is an important lesson here, especially for parents. Our natural inclination is to prevent our children suffering. We want to protect them and keep them safe. No matter how old they get or how capable they become, we want to keep them from getting hurt. But growing up requires suffering. No one can become mature without experiencing pain, loss, trouble, grief, despair, discomfort, sorrow, remorse,―the list of life’s hurts is endless.

Fortunately, Jesus shows us how to allow suffering. We do it with compassion, by suffering with those who suffer. The glory of God is not just in raising the dead. It is in dying with them and then raising them. It is not just in healing the sick. It is in being scourged and flayed for our healing. It is not just in delivering the prisoners. It is in descending into hell to deliver them. The glory of God is no light thing. It is weighty and majestic. God himself endures suffering to achieve his own glory. Should we be surprised if he asks us to suffer, too?

How easy it is to be offended at a God who allows suffering! How hard it is to trust him! Trusting God is work. It is not for the fainthearted. It is not for quitters. It requires persistent, unrelenting effort. But consider the rewards. “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” Lazarus died. Martha and Mary grieved and were offended at God. But Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and many put their faith in him. The faith of those many was not possible without death and grief and offense.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus asks Martha.

Many have become offended at God. They have buried their offenses to cover up the stench of corruption in their relationship with God. Jesus wants to call out the dead man. Allowing him to do so will be painful, but enduring that pain will result in lasting faith for ourselves and for others. In your suffering, seek God’s purpose, and allow him to glorify himself.

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faith jesus love resurrection salvation trust

Peter’s Reinstatement

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Peter was downcast after the initial joy of Jesus’ resurrection. He couldn’t forget that he had denied Jesus after boasting of his loyalty. Even though Jesus had anticipated his desertion, Peter knew he could no longer expect to be part of the new kingdom Jesus told them about. Like the other disciples, he still expected Jesus to seize power, oust the Romans, and make Israel great again. But for Peter there would no longer be a place at court on Jesus’ right or left hand. He had failed in the time of trial. He had proved disloyal and untrustworthy.

Peter still knew how to fish. So he returned to what he knew, and some of the other disciples went with him. Though not plagued with the same sense of failure, they did not know what was going to happen, and they needed to work to occupy their hands and thoughts. They spent the night fishing but caught nothing. In the morning, they saw Jesus standing on the shore of the lake, but they did not realize it was him.

Friends,” he called to them. “Don’t you have any fish.”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because there were so many fish.

Then John said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were only about 100 yards from shore. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish already on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

After they ate, Jesus took Peter aside and asked him, “Peter, do you love me more than these?”

Yes, of course, Lord,” said Peter. “You know that I love you.”

Feed my lambs,” said Jesus. Then he asked again, “Peter, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord. You know that I love you,” Peter replied.

“Take care of my sheep,” said Jesus. Then he asked yet again, “Peter, do you like me?”

Peter was hurt that the Lord had asked the third time, “Do you like me?” He thought back on the years they had spent together, the wonders he had seen this man do, the conviction that had inexorably stolen over his heart that this man was somehow God. He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I like you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old, you will feel your way, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Then he said to him in that no-nonsense tone Peter knew so well, “Follow me!”

Could it be true? Was Jesus really telling him that he still had a place for him? Wasn’t there someone else better suited to the task Jesus had in mind. He could see John obviously eavesdropping nearby. “What about him?” he asked Jesus.

If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Jesus replied.

Then Peter knew. He knew beyond doubt. Jesus had urged all the disciples to believe in him, and Peter had. His faith in Jesus had saved him, but what transformed him was Jesus’ faith in him.

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