In the “Raising the Dead” sermon series, we are starting with the story of the resurrection of Lazarus and ending with the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. We are discussing how Christ came to raise the dead and restore new life to all.
As a pastor, one of the greatest honors of my vocation is presiding over funeral services. It is always one of the most intimate moments for a family, and one of the most humbling moments for a minister.
As a young pastor, I remember one of the first funerals I did. I was new in my first appointment when I received news of the death of an elderly woman. I had never met her; she had been living in a nursing home for years. I talked with her brother on the phone and found that he was her only relative. He told me his sister had married but never had children. Her husband had died several years earlier and in the last few years, her health had been extremely poor. She had suffered several strokes that left her bedridden and comatose. As I talked with the brother, he recounted several stories from their childhood and he told me about the kind of person she was. He shared her life with me and it was obvious that he loved his sister.
I worked hard on the funeral sermon and practiced it extensively. On the day of the funeral, I felt that I was as ready as I could be. Of course, I felt sad the woman had died, but knowing that the woman had been in such poor health left me grateful for God receiving her into the Kingdom eternal. As the service began, I remember feeling grateful that I hadn’t known the woman, because I wouldn’t be emotional; I thought it would make it easier on me to conduct the service. As I delivered the sermon, I looked at the brother and shared many of the stories that he had told me about his sister. I could tell he was reliving the memories. And then something began to happen. Even though I hadn’t known the woman, I started to see her through her brother’s eyes. His lip started to quiver as I recounted the stories of when she was a little girl. And he began to weep when he heard me talk about the kind of woman she was. As I watched the love and grief wash over the face of the brother, I found my own tears welling up. I began to grieve for a woman I had never known.
That day was an important lesson for me. I had initially thought it would be an easy service to do since I didn’t know the woman and because death brought an end to her earthly suffering. But I had opened up to the brother and, because he was in pain, it brought pain to me as well. I came to see that death brings a unique insight to the fullness of the love of God. There can be joy in the midst of grief. We can grieve and celebrate with one another. This is what is shown in the Lazarus story.
Jesus went to see Mary and Martha after the death of their brother, Lazarus. Both women are dealing with their grief, but also probably wrestling with feelings of frustration and anger because they both knew that if Jesus had been there, their brother wouldn’t have died. Jesus accompanied them to the tomb where the body of Lazarus had been placed four days earlier. Jesus knew He had come to resurrect Lazarus from the dead and that all of the grief the sisters had would transform into celebration. Yet, in that moment before raising the dead, Jesus wept with Mary and Martha. He grieved with them, even though He knew that Lazarus would live again. He took the time to grieve in the face of death before He celebrated with them in the gift of new life.
When we experience the death of a loved one, it is appropriate that we grieve. It is not a lack of faith, but an indication of our love for the person and how much we will miss them here. In the midst of our grief, we can still feel joy that our loved ones no longer suffer or struggle because they are present with God in the Kingdom Eternal. We know we will be reunited once again and so we can rejoice, even while we grieve the here and now.
Because we are connected with Christ, we have the hope and joy of eternal life. But because we are connected with Christ, we will also grieve in the face of death and loss. We know death is not the end because we know a God who loves us, who rejoices with us, who grieves with us, and who delights in raising the dead!
Dr. Robert E. Long, Senior Pastor