A sermon preached on John 11:25-26 by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on April 4, 2021.
Death. Is the word so difficult to learn?
- Yes, by yourself
- No, with Christ
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
There was a man who was in love with a woman. And the woman was in love with the man. And then one day, the woman died. And the man, who was an author, wrote this about his grief:
“There are moments when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much…I was happy before I met her…People get over these things…But then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘common sense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.” He listened to popular speakers talk about death in the abstract. And he wrote, “It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death,’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences and (when it comes to death) they are irrevocable and irreversible.” And what he wrote next breaks my heart more now than even the first time I read it. For I know more about death now than I did then. He wrote, “I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that if in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. Is the word so difficult to learn?” (C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”)
What do you think? Is the word “death” so difficult to learn? Have you learned it yet?
The problem with learning the word “death” is that you have to learn it by yourself. No one else can suffer your grief for you. And when it is your turn to die, no one else can die for you. The rest of us can stand by your deathbed, shout into your ears. But we cannot die for you. As another Peter Kreeft wrote in his book, “The supremely lonely act is to die” ( “Love is Stronger Than Death” p.83)
There are a myriad of medical reasons that we die—cancer, heart failure, car accident. But there is only one theological reason we die—sin. “The wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23) Whether you a church-going Christian or a flaming atheist, God gets you in the end. God has given you lots of good stuff in your life, as he has me, and you’ve misused some of it, maybe misused lots of it, like me, and that is something God hates. Literally hates, it says in Psalm 5:5. Hates the people who are guilty of misusing his gifts. So, now he means to make you pay up. And what will you give him to pay up for your sin? What he wants is a perfect life. Can you give that to him? If not, he will lock you away so he never has to look at the hateful sight of you again. Lock you in a place so lonely, so dark, so painful that it can only be described as “hell.” And just to be clear about how much he hates those who misuse his gifts—he says he will never let you out. You will never get relief. For all eternity it is loneliness, and darkness, and pain. “The wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23)
Death. Is the word so difficult to learn? What do you think? Have you learned it yet?
I said a minute ago that no one else can suffer your grief and when it is your turn to die, no one else can die for you. That’s what I said. But I would like to amend that statement. I would like to amend the statement, “no one else can die for you,” to, “no one else can die for you except Jesus.”
Because that is why he was born into this world. To die. For us. All of us are born to die as well. But we usually avoid thinking about it. But not Jesus. He talked of his death. Often. Even with eager anticipation, in spite of how gruesome it would be to die on the cross. Talked of his death and his resurrection eagerly because he wanted to make this statement come true: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
What if there would be a way to make death not be death anymore? What if there would be a way to keep us alive forever? And what if that way would be found not in a pill or a potion but in a person, Jesus Christ? And what if the surefire way to stay connected to him was through words, his Word and Sacraments? Then would the word “death” be very difficult to learn?
For the whole reason Jesus died and rose again is so that we never have to die but instead can live, really live now, and really live forever, in heaven. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. And so this is how it stands—if Jesus Christ and his Word are absent from you, then resurrection and life are absent from you; when Jesus Christ and his Word are present, resurrection and life are present. And if resurrection and life are present with you, is the word “death” so difficult to learn?
After all, when you trust in Christ and his Word, you don’t even really die. “The one who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” And the way Jesus says “never” here is the strongest way you can say “never” in Greek. In Greek, if you want to say “not” you say, “mn”—you will not die. If you want to make it doubly strong you say, “ou mn”—no, you will not die. If you want to make it the strongest of all, you say “ou mn”, make the verb subjunctive, and add a prepositional phrase about time, which in English would sound something like—no, you will NEVER die, not in a million years! And that’s the way Jesus said it here, “Whoever lives by believing in my will NEVER die.” No. Not ever. Not in a million years.
And so it is, just like you do not lose your child when you put her down to sleep at night, so we do not lose a fellow believer when we let them down into the sleep of death. They continue to live, though in a much better place than Sioux Falls, South Dakota, if you can believe it. And if that is the case, as heartbreaking as it is to be separated from a loved one, is the word “death” difficult to learn?
And when it is your turn to be let down into the sleep of death, you who believe and are baptized will not die. You will continue to live in a much better place. In that place we have longed for without, perhaps, even realizing it. Because every time you get bored, every time you get let down and hurt and heartbroke, every time people forget you—what is that but your soul crying out for a place that is better than this? A place where everybody knows your name and the party never ends and you are always living in the moment and you see Jesus with your own eyes, yours and not another’s, how my heart yearns within me. And he’s smiling. At his bride, the Church. Like a man in love.
Which is how we started, wasn’t it. There was a man who was in love with a woman. And the woman was in love with the man. And then one day, the woman died. And the man, who was an author, was known as C.S. Lewis. And if you want to know more about his Christian journey through grief, read his short book, “A Grief Observed.” And if you want to know more about living a life in which death is no longer a difficult word to learn, read the Bible. Worship. Come to Bible classes. Get involved with a Growth Group when we re-start them. Speak privately with your pastors about your Christian walk. For Christ is “the resurrection and the life.” This kind of life starts now. As Michel du Montaigne said, “He who teaches men to die, at the same time teaches them to live.” (“That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”, essay, 1580) It’s spring, it’s Easter, it appears we are on the downhill side of the pandemic: aren’t you ready to live? Really live, now and forever in Christ? Amen.