Life on The Brink
As human beings, we are all going to fail at our most fundamental human tasks:
1. We cannot keep our bodies alive!
2. We cannot protect those closest and most precious to us!
O sure, we can try to do things to help with both of these concerns, but these only give us an illusion of being able to fix what are terminal problems: ultimately we will fail at both tasks no matter how hard we try at doing the following 3 remedies of our culture:
•Exercise to stay in good health to make our days as full of health as possible.
•Practice Religion by praying and trying to “put a hedge” around those we love. •Control situations trying to (over-)protect those closest to us.
While each of these can be helpful if we understand their limitations, each can also set us up for failure, anger, bitterness, and disillusionment if we really think these are going to make an ultimate difference.
Jesus speaks to these issues and opens up a doorway to life — a different kind of life — for those who follow him. His words penetrate to our hearts in a series of events that deeply impacts three people he deeply loves: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. You see, Lazarus has become sick and eventually dies. Death reigns at this point in the story — it controls the scene, holds every thought captive, determines the agenda, and puts everything under its dark shadow. Then Jesus “arrives” on the scene — not just into their world, but our world as well (Hebrews 2:14-15).
That’s when both Martha and Mary remind us of the the hard limits of love and religion: “Jesus, if you had only been here …” (John 11:20-21; John 11:29-32). Words many of us have said ourselves as we stared into the emotional abyss of a lost loved one. “Lord, if you had only been here … where are you God … why have you not answered my prayer … help me, Lord, I don’t know if I can go on … if you had only been here this would not have happened!”
Then, in the grip of deep grief, failure at our two most important human tasks is replaced, overwhelmed, displace, overcome, conquered by faith. Look carefully at Martha’s words of faith in the middle of confusion and grief:
“Lord, … even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask” (John 11:22-23).
In the middle of the grip of grief, Mary held even more tightly to one conviction: Jesus is still “Lord”! And because of that conviction, even in the face of total loss and finality of death, Mary still believed Jesus could do something to help, “even now”!
We are not sure what she means, because she clearly doesn’t expect Jesus to raise her brother from the dead — the whole rest of the story shows that neither Martha nor Mary could dare imagine that their brother would be raised from the dead. Mary is probably not even sure what she means. She just knows Jesus her Lord can do something to make things better in one of life’s worst moments!
Jesus takes that “baby faith” of Martha — like the father who said to Jesus, “I believe, but help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) — and her Lord challenges her to go beyond what she could see or understand or has been taught to believe. Jesus challenges her to go beyond just a first stage belief in life after to death to embrace life beyond death!
We’ll call level one faith in the face of death a “hope to hang onto” in the face of death: Our loved one will rise again at the resurrection (John 11:23-24). Yes, each of us yearns to believe this with all of our heart. But what about now? What about our pain? What about the separation? What about them: where are they and how are they and who are they now?
We’ll call level two faith in the face of death a “hope beyond imagining.” Jesus challenges Mary, and us as well, to believe that death has not taken our loved one’s life; eternal life is here, and begins now with Jesus’ life (John 5:24). Resurrection is real now because Jesus is “I AM the “resurrection and life” (John 11:25-26).
We believe this with all that we have and that we know, but Jesus challenges us to go deeper, to see the more profound truth. Yes, the resurrection day of celebration and victory will still happen in the future and all who truly follow him will all share in its glory (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). But Jesus is angry and frustrated* as well as grieving — not just because death is his enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26), but because in the face of their deep grief, Martha and Mary can’t quite see the bigger truth, the more comforting, more profound, and glorious truth. Lazarus had already begun eternal life in Jesus (John 11:26). Satan and death could not steal life from anything but Lazarus’ body.
The truth is, the death of a follower of Jesus looks like sleep from our view of things: the body appears to be resting until the person is awakened to enjoy life again in the presence of Jesus and those who love him (John 11:11; cf. Matthew 9:24; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). This is comforting and full of hope for the future, but somehow feels lacking. We yearn for something else.
Jesus wanted Martha and Mary to know that there is better news than this! From the point of view of our loved one who has “fallen asleep in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-15 NASB), they are right now experiencing life in the presence of Jesus.
What Jesus is saying here is what the apostle Paul is talking about when he speaks about dying and “being at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) and experiencing “deliverance” and “being with Christ” (Philippians 1:19-24).
In other words, when a person’s body dies, the living part of them goes to be with Jesus until Jesus returns, we will all be changed and given immortal bodies to enjoy the Lord and each other forever!
So here is the new spin, the true spin, the truth of Jesus on failure. Faith is living here knowing that nothing we have here is lasting and permanent, so we use our stuff and our relationships to invest in what is truly life — so that what is “mortal can be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4).
It means that when we die with Christ in baptism, we’ve died the death that matters most and our life is united with Christ in God and is secure, forever, with Jesus (Colossians 3:1-4).
And so we gather on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, the day of victory to challenge each other with what Jesus said:
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this …?” (John 11:25-26).
We look in the face of life’s greatest tragedies and we remind ourselves of Jesus’ truth — life, the life of those who love Jesus, can’t be taken, stolen, or killed. And because of his love, even in the face of death, we are more than conquerors!
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39 NIV).
* The key word in the context is “enebrimaesato” which means emotionally agitated or stirred up. See John 11:33 and John 11:38.
© Phil Ware. All rights reserved.
Phil Ware is minister of the Word at Southern Hills Church in Abilene, Texas. For the past 15+ years, he has also been co-editor of HEARTLIGHT Magazine.