Posts tagged death
Today, once again, we get “rambling Paul,” going on and on about the resurrection of the dead, seemingly making the same point over and over and over. So, what’s up with that? Well, while it may seem redundant to us, we have to understand that Paul was trying to unseat long-held beliefs by some of his audience.
The matter of resurrection was a point of contention and division among the Jews long before Jesus ever came along. If you remember, that was one of the major differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees. It was one of the great questions of Judaism.
And so, Paul feels compelled to not only answer the question, but to do so in multiple ways, attacking it from every angle, so that there is no doubt about what the answer must be. We must believe in the resurrection of the dead, he says, if we believe the story of Jesus. And if we are resolute in our belief that there is no resurrection of the dead, then the story of Jesus is a lie.
Even more to the point, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Jesus’ life was lived in vain. Paul goes on to call Jesus the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” In other words, all who have died or will die are like seeds buried in the ground and Jesus was the first of the “harvest.”
I like this imagery, because it helps put death into perspective. While we live here on earth, we are something, but we are not anywhere near what we will be. We are, even in our best of times, merely seeds. And when we are buried in the ground, then we have potential to sprout into something beyond our wildest dreams.
I mean, just think about the giant trees that grow from tiny seeds. Paul says that’s what our heavenly bodies will be like, compared to our earthly ones. Whatever the greatest thing a person can do here on earth, it pales in comparison to the most mundane activities of heaven. Our death, then, is a pathway to incredible things – a momentary pause along the journey.
It’s easy for us to forget this; to view death as the end. But Paul’s point here is that death is not the end, but rather is a new beginning. It is the beginning of a life that we can’t even comprehend. It is the difference between seed and giant tree, between life in the womb and life outside of it. And while I’m happy to be a seed now, and will try to be the best seed I can be, I know that there is no reason to fear that day when I will die and be planted in the ground in order to begin the next phase of my journey.
Today, as I read, a new thought ran through my mind. What must it have been like to be Lazarus? Not only did you die (ultimately, he had to die twice), but you were in a tomb for four days. What happened during those four days? Did Lazarus’ spirit enter into heaven? If so, the return to earth must have been a real bummer.
Or maybe it was just a quick flash for Lazarus – like when you faint or pass out and then wake up again moments later. If that was the case, he must have been incredibly disoriented – one minute lying on your death bed and the next lying in a cold, dark cave wrapped in cloth.
However it happened, Lazarus had an experience that none of us will ever have. Even if others around him doubted the power of Jesus, Lazarus had rock solid proof that Jesus was who he said he was. In fact, everyone who witnessed Jesus’ miracle had that proof, but, once again, there were those who refused to acknowledge what they had seen.
When the religious leaders got together to discuss Jesus’ big feat, their discussion wasn’t about whether or not he might actually be the Messiah. They focused on the fact that if this guy went on healing people and raising people from the dead, then they might lose their position of power. Seriously?
Throughout history, countless numbers of people have been turned off from church, from religion and even from God due to the power-grabs made by religious people. Today, we see it on our airwaves and in our politics as some prominent religious leaders seem much more interested in hanging out on the coat-tails of a political candidate than they do following closely in the footsteps of Jesus.
You see, following Jesus isn’t sexy. Following Jesus doesn’t make you famous. It doesn’t make you rich. Just ask Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, who recognized just how dangerous following Jesus can be. But here’s the thing we learn from Lazarus. Jesus actually can make you famous, but only if you die first.
Lazarus wasn’t an opportunistic guy. He didn’t seek the spotlight. He didn’t try to butter Jesus up or use his name to become rich and powerful. All Lazarus did was die. Jesus did the rest.
Not only that, but Jesus said that this was his prescription for power in God’s Kingdom. You die to live. You die to grow. You die to multiply. Whatever you do, you die. Today, let us be willing to follow in the footsteps of Lazarus and to die to ourselves and allow God to use us for his purposes rather than our own.
Can you imagine being in that crowd and witnessing Jesus’ final moments on earth? Even if you had no idea who he was, and even if you were numb to the events leading up to the moment of his death, once he died, things started getting funky!
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27:51-53)
Um…this is like horror movie stuff. A guy dies, which causes an earthquake, the giant temple curtain rips in two from top to bottom like God ripping a phone book (it was a thick curtain), rocks bust open and the zombie apocalypse is upon us. Now, I don’t know if I would have had the Roman soldier’s wisdom and recognized Jesus as the Messiah, but I surely would have known that something was up with this guy!
But look at the reaction of the religious leaders just a couple of paragraphs later. Having witnessed all of this (and, no doubt, had a committee meeting about how to mend the temple curtain) their chief concern wasn’t re-examining Jesus’ life and teaching to determine if he actually was the Messiah. No, they wanted to make sure he didn’t come back to life or have the appearance of coming back to life. They were determined that Jesus would not be deified.
You see, power, especially of the religious variety, has an ability to corrupt like nothing else on this earth. These guys were at the top of the food chain – they were Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, John Hagee, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen and the Pope all rolled into one. Then along comes Jesus and, even though he was just a homeless carpenter, threatens their power and authority. At that point, it no longer mattered if he was who he said he was. All that mattered was that they wanted him removed from the equation.
I wonder how often I let my own desire for power push Jesus out of the way. How often do I ignore the obvious signs that God is doing something special because I feel it is more important that I be in control. How many earthquakes and zombie apocalypses (metaphorically speaking) have I turned my back to, denying their very existence, so that I could continue to live my “in control” life.
I’m not a powerful guy. I don’t have authority over much. But too often, I’m afraid, my little kingdom becomes more important in my eyes that God’s great kingdom. In that way, I’m more like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day than I care to admit. How about you?
I don’t know about you, but if I were the people of Israel, this is the part of the book of Ezekiel that would begin to lift my spirits. The tone begins to change here. Sure, there is still death and destruction for the nations, but there is also a sense of hope for the future of Israel.
Beyond just being gathered together again, God uses the imagery of dry bones being brought back to life and the broken pieces of Israel and Judah once again becoming one. He even has a jobs plan – albeit an unusual one:
“‘For seven months the Israelites will be burying them in order to cleanse the land. All the people of the land will bury them, and the day I display my glory will be a memorable day for them, declares the Sovereign Lord. People will be continually employed in cleansing the land. (Ezekiel 39:12-14)
It’s weird, but there is this great contrast being presented here. God is going to breath new life into the dry bones of Israel, but he is going to have the bones of their enemies buried. In his infinite power, he is going to restore lifeless Israel and destroy powerful Gog.
I think it’s important to understand that this same God is still alive and active today. His power is available and at work in our lives and in our world. When I look around the world, I know that God is working. I’m not one to try to identify the reasons behind natural disasters or to ascribe deep spiritual meaning to every war or terrorist attack, but when I read the Bible, I can’t help but know that somehow, some way, God is working through all of it. Some of it is likely initiated by him and some is initiated by others and used by him. But all of it points toward a conclusion for us that is not unlike Ezekiel’s prophecy.
Like Israel, we too will be restored. Our dry bones will be breathed back to life. Our existence will be infused once again with God’s life. In the midst of death and destruction, there is hope for the future. It has always been that way with God. We just sometimes fail to see it.
More death, destruction and punishment today. I bet some days Ezekiel just wished God would give him an easy word. But, no such luck. At the end of chapter 33, God delivers a stinging rebuke of the people of Israel:
My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice. (Ezekiel 33:31-32)
Here and throughout the Bible, the connection is made between words and actions. It’s not enough to say the right things. We must do the right things. As a worship leader, I think about the songs that I lead. It’s easy to sing great words on Sunday, but it’s much harder to live out those words the rest of the week. Words like, “Jesus, you’re all I need” and “I give you my life” and “I trust in you” are all great words. They are true words…most of the time.
But the truth is, I forget that Jesus is all I need, I fail to give him my whole life and I falter in my trust – in my faith. I’m not always great at putting those words into practice. I guess I can take some solace in the fact that I know I fail in those areas and that I actively seek to improve. I guess I have that over what the people of Israel were offering. Oh sure, they knew they weren’t following God. They just didn’t care.
For me and you, God desires better. He desired better for the Israelites, too, but they refused to accept what he had to offer. May we not make the same mistake.