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Comfort in Time of Grief

Web posted on August 08, 2014

Sunday Peace

By Rev Robert Lyon

When I was a young lad, the first thing I looked at when I picked up a newspaper was the comics, or as we called them at home, the funnies. These days, the first thing I look at is the obituaries. Considering that the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (7:4) says, "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth," maybe that means I'm wiser than I used to be. Or if not wiser, at least when I read the obits and see more and more names of people that I know, I'm grateful for every day I don't find my own name there.

Except that, one June day about ten years ago, I was reading the obits in the Globe and Mail and, to my astonishment, I did find my own name there. And not a recent death, but an In Memoriam notice. It seems that back in 1833, in the town of Perth, Ontario (or Pairth, as its founding Scots would have called it) a foolish young 21 year-old law student by the name of Robert Lyon was the last person in Canada to get himself killed in a duel. Adding insult to injury, the girl married the other guy.

If you've been reading obituaries for any length of time, you'll have noticed a change over the years: it's common to see a statement that, at the request of the deceased, no service will be held. Or you see something like this: Harry's friends will gather to remember him at such-and-such a date and time at the nineteenth hole at such-and-such a country club. Not long ago I attended a memorial gathering for an atheist; on the back of the program there was a cross-word puzzle that the deceased had started but never finished, and the gathering began with an announcement that if we were bored with whatever else was going on there we could spend the time finishing it for her.

As our Western culture becomes more and more secular, we're seeing a shift in how people view death. There's a reluctant acceptance of death, because our sanity demands such an acceptance. But curiously there's not much fear. Not because secular people feel at peace with God, nor even because they think we'll all get to heaven one way or another, but simply because they see death as The End. Because they really think there's No One There. Certainly they feel grief (people will always feel grief) but this is a grief without hope; it's the grief that follows a loss that cannot and will not be repaired.

The Apostle Paul calls that view of death "uninformed". Writing to the Christians in the Greek city of Saloniki, he says, "Brethren, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who are asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, God will bring with Jesus [when he returns] those who have fallen asleep in him. The dead in Christ shall rise first, then we who are alive, and so we shall be forever with the Lord." Paul describes Christians who have died as being "asleep in Jesus", because the resurrection of Jesus means that, though their lives have been interrupted, they're not over. There is still more to come.

And because there is more to come, the loss that we grieve when a person dies is not without repair. It will indeed be repaired when Jesus returns. So we grieve, but we do not grieve like those who have no hope. Our hope is that "we shall be forever with the Lord. Therefore," says Paul to those who are grieving, "comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:17,18).

Paul here is doing grief counseling. When he tells the folks in Saloniki to "comfort one another" (Greek "parakaleite allelous"), he's deliberately using the same word that the Greek translation of the Old Testament uses at Isaiah 40:1, where it says, "parakaleite, parakaleite", "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God. Speak comfortably to the heart of Jerusalem and cry to her that her suffering has ended." The resurrection of Jesus, and the hope of believers' participation in that resurrection, is the chief comfort that God offers to those who are in grief at the loss of a loved one.

Now, what Paul gives us as a pastoral-theological statement, John (in chapter 11 of his gospel) shows us in an actual event from the life of Jesus and some of his friends, including a stinky corpse by the name of Lazarus. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, two sisters and a brother, are close friends of Jesus, living in Bethany near Jerusalem. Jesus is off somewhere preaching, and the sisters send word to him that their brother Lazarus is sick. But while Jesus is on his way back, Lazarus dies.

When Martha comes to meet Jesus, she says, "If you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Mary meets Jesus a while later, she too says, "If you had been here, my brother would not have died." It's a curious combination of their faith in Jesus and also a hint of reproach, and it's not hard to figure out what the sisters had been saying to one another at home. But I think Jesus delayed his coming back deliberately. When he first learned that Lazarus was sick, he said, "This sickness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." So it seems that Jesus intended to use Lazarus' death as a sign.

But it's important to recognize that this sign is not something Jesus staged just to create a teachable moment. This is a real family, they're friends of Jesus, their grief is real, and Jesus feels that grief so personally that John tells us, in the shortest verse of the Bible, "Jesus wept." Now, there are some commentaries that suggest the Lazarus story never really happened, but John invented it. I think the relationships and emotions here are too authentic, too poignant, for a made-up tale; and they're sufficiently off-theme for a sign-story that this incident would not even have been included if it had not actually happened. It's in the thick of real relationships and emotions that Jesus is going to give this last sign.

So Jesus assures Martha, "Your brother will rise again." But to Martha, that's not news. A whole lot of Jews in the first-century believed that; among the Pharisees it was standard doctrine. So Martha says, "Well, yeah, I know that he'll rise again in the resurrection on the last day." And that's when Jesus drops the real news: "I am the resurrection and the life."

Now, Martha has been around Jesus long enough to know the correct response: "Yes," she says, "I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who is supposed to come into the world." John reports Martha's statement because it is theologically correct, but I don't think Martha herself quite gets it. Why do I think that? Because when they go to the tomb, and Jesus says, "Roll away the stone," Martha protests, "Oh, I don't think that's such a good idea. He's been in there four days already, and [as the King James Version says so quaintly] by now he stinketh." To which Jesus replies, "Didn't I tell you that if you'd just believe me you'd see the glory of God?" That's when Jesus calls Lazarus to "Come out", and some of the onlookers have to unwrap him and let him go. And John tells us that many of the Jews who had come with Mary and saw what he did, believed in him.

Now, that was all very well for Mary and Martha and Lazarus. If we were there, we would have been supremely happy for them. But John says that the raising of Lazarus was a sign. A sign of what? Of Jesus' compassion? OK. Of his power over the natural world? OK. Perhaps an intimation of his divinity? OK. But he had already sufficiently demonstrated all those things. Well, you might say, perhaps it foretells his own resurrection. But he doesn't have any need to foretell it; in just a few more days he's actually going to do it. So how is the raising of Lazarus a sign? Or to ask the question a better way: What is it a sign of?

That question niggled at me for years. And then one day, the penny dropped. Go back to Paul's letter to Thessaloniki, where he says: "We do not want you to be uninformed about those who are asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, God will bring with Jesus [when he returns] those who have fallen asleep in him. The dead in Christ shall rise first, then we who are alive, and so we shall be forever with the Lord." So the raising of Lazarus is a sign about our Lord's Second Coming. Jesus raised his friend Lazarus to illustrate what he will do for us who believe in him, when he returns at the end of the world's history. "Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and every living person who believes in me shall never die."

"And so," says Paul, "we shall be forever with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words." But for some folks, that's where coping with grief gets tough, because we're asked to believe in a future for which we have no schedule. Sometimes it feels like we're characters in that Samuel Beckett play "Waiting for Godot", where Godot never comes.

The apostle Peter writes about this problem in one of his letters (2 Peter 3) where he quotes people who say, "Where is the promise of his coming? Ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning." And Peter assures those who feel this frustration, that "the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise"; actually the Lord is being patient with unbelievers. But Peter says we have to remember that, with God "a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day." God has, you might say, all the time in the world, so we have to accept that he operates on his schedule, not on ours.

When we're experiencing grief, as inevitably we all will, and many of you already have, let me suggest four things that may be helpful to remember. First, the raising of Lazarus demonstrates, in a way that we can visualize, that Jesus will one day restore to life everyone believes in him. Second, Jesus' own resurrection, an actual historical event in time and space, is the objective evidence that he is able to do so. Third, Jesus' promise, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live", is our assurance that he will do so. And fourth, but really first, all this comes from the heart of God himself, who says in Psalm 116: "Right precious in the sight of the Lordis the death of his saints."

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, "comfort one another with these words."

Robert welcomes your questions and comments at nm@bbs42.net


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