LIKE AS WE ARE: DEATH

Funny, isn’t it, how we can remember every detail of some things that happen to us? If someone close to us dies, we can remember the details of the last hours, last words, what we did and said and thought.  Monday afternoon, I was sitting in my office catching up on some paper work.  John Mollett was talking with Susan in the next office.  It was 1:45 when suddenly John called out that Susan reported a news bulletin being flashed on television, an attempted assassination of the President had been made in Washington.  We turned on the radio in my office and followed the course of events as they unfolded.  Funny, isn’t it, how words can bring back memories.  I dare say there were many of us who remembered at that moment precisely where we were on that November day almost eighteen years ago when the first innocent words of that Associated Press bulletin came across the radio, “Shots were fired near the President as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas today.” I remember where I had been, where I was going, I can even see in my mind’s eye the curve that I was negotiating on that road that wound along the western bank of the Hudson River.  

Ronald Reagen before assassination attempt

 As I sat and listened to the news that got worse before it got better Monday afternoon, the phone rang.  The voice on the other end of the line said, “I suppose you will be preaching about the assassination attempt?” The question came to my mind: What do you say? What does the Bible have to say about these vivid events of our history?  Today is the day that the Bishops of the United Methodist Church have called for us to set aside as a day of prayer for the children of Atlanta.  What does the scripture have to say about those atrocities?  What does it have to say about violence and death in America?  

 Like you, I am sure…I have followed the various comments of persons who have been trying to explain us to us.  I don’t intend to try to explain.  It couldn’t hurt for us to try to talk a little as a people about about causes and cures.  Maybe he is only a crazy man trying to capture attention in a world that hardly noticed him all his life.  Nobody in his high school could remember him before,  but they will surely remember him now.  Is there something about us that creates such crazies?  The talk of gun control legislation has already begun.  One of the columnists said the other day that, “the tired old cliches will be trotted out again, and let me be the first”, he said, “to trot them out.  Gun control might not do any good, but I for one would be willing to give it a try.  It might not make it impossible for crazies to get guns, but it might be just a little more difficult.”  

But that’s not really the question, it it?  An event that shakes our who perception of ourselves to the very core does not merely call for new laws.  Is our society sick?  If so, is it sickness unto death?  In the words of Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”  

Ezekiel 37:1-3, 11-14 – 1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”The meaning of the story of Lazarus is that Jesus can give life to the dead as he can give sight to the blind, the water of life to those who are thirsty and the bread of life to those who are hungry.  I want to talk with you about death and life this morning, for death is not merely a physical event.  In fact, if death were only a physical event it would not be so threatening.  Death threatens us by taking away our hope.  Is there no hope for us?  Can these bones live?  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  

John 11:1-451 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” 8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” 11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” 12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[b] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.    

Let me tell you about Anwar el-Sadat.  He is, of course, the President of Egypt.*  His autobiography published some three years ago is called “In Search of Identity.”  He explains that the title means in search of the identity of Anwar el-Sadat, but also in search of the identity of Egypt.   He says that his identity is wrapped up in two things.  The first is the little village where he was born in upper Egypt, his little village where he could lie in bed at night and hear the sounds of the people, where he listened night after night as his grandmother talked of freedom.  He said that when he lost his sense of who he was, in all the years he always returned to his little village, to renew his roots and himself.  

The second source of his identity was Cell 54.  It was a cell in the prison where he spent a number of years.  During World War II while the British occupied Egypt, Sadat, who was an officer in the Egyptian army, was implicated in the assassination of a certain high Egyptian official who had become too much identified with the Colonial powers.  He was imprisoned in Cell 54.  It was during those years, he said, that he learned to distinguish between the inner and outer reality.  It was during those years that he learned to distinguish between the inner and the outer success.  It was the inner reality of his own identity that enabled him to survive all the volatile years under Nasser.And it was that inner reality that enabled his search for peace.  It was in 1971, shortly after he assumed the position of leader of Egypt that he proposed peace with Israel.  But he said, he realized in 1976 that no peace would be possible unless somebody changed his mind.  Egypt had always insisted that any negotiations with Israel be conducted through a third party.  They refused to sit in the same room at the same table with the Israelis.  He reached back into Cell 54, the inner reality, and shocked the whole world by declaring that he was willing to go anywhere for the sake of peace, even to Jerusalem, even to address the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset.  It was an offer that the Israelis could not refuse and the peace process began; all because somebody changed his mind – (the new testament word is conversion.)  

When they came to Jesus to tell him that Lazarus was sick he said that this sickness is not unto death.  He did not mean that it was not potentially fatal.  He meant that some sicknesses do lead to death.  The pursuit of the outer success leads to death.  The pursuit of the inner success leads to life.  Oh that all those entombed by the pursuit of outer success could hear that!  Can these bones live?  Jesus said I am the resurrection and the life.   

But let me tell you about Howard Ross.  I have his permission to tell you his story and to ask for your prayers. Howard Ross is one of our members.  He left last Thursday for TDC.  For those of you who do not know, TDC is the Texas Department of Corrections.  Howard Ross has gone to prison to serve a three year sentence for Driving While Intoxicated.  Howard came to Denton last summer and joined the church here, transferring his membership from another Methodist Church in Galveston.  He was in church almost every Sunday, well dressed, a nice man.  He is a retired school teacher.  But one day we got a call.  Howard was in the County Jail on drunk driving charges.  It was his third or fourth offense.  He was already on probation out of Dallas County.  When his trial came he pled guilty and received a second probated sentence on the condition that he would go to the State Hospital in Wichita Falls for the alcohol rehabilitation program.  While he was gone, I talked one Sunday morning to the Men’s Fellowship Class and asked them to help Howard.  They agreed and when he got back he became a member of that class, leading singing, getting involved in activities at the Senior Citizen Center with members of that class.  

Things went well for Howard.  He even got through Christmas and New Year’s without any problem at all.  Howard felt so good about getting through that difficult time that he went out and bought himself a drink.  It was Friday, January 2.  The next Sunday it appeared in the paper that Howard Ross had been arrested when his car hot another for driving while intoxicated.  Tuesday his probation was revoked.  Thursday he was transported to Huntsville.  I tell you this story only because going to prison is a kind of dying.  I tell you because he has asked for our prayers, that Jesus might raise him from the dead.  

When Jesus came to Bethany, Martha came running to him and said, “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  But Jesus said to her, “Your brother will live.”  It was as if he were calling her faith for the sake of her brother.   I am calling your faith this morning for the sake of our brother Howard Ross.  Bring him back from the tomb with your prayers.  Can these bones live?  Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life.  

But now let me talk to you about us.  Daniel Boorstein the historian, Librarian of Congress, won the Pulitzer Prize for his book published in 1973, The Americans, the Democratic Experience”.  The book has been called a kind of national autobiography.  It aims at a balanced assessment of the price and the promise  of what American  civilization has done with and for and to Americans. He closes the book with an Epilogue, a long quote from William Bradford, later Governor of the Colony of Massachusetts.  Bradford reported how the Pilgrims who had taken temporary refuge in Holland debated their voyage to America.  There were many, he said, who opposed it.  They knew that America was a wild land of severe winters and devastating hardships.  They would be short of food.  Many of, if not most of them would die of hunger or hard work, from attacks of wild animals or wild savages.  

“It was answered”, he said, “that all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages.” Though there were dangers and difficulties, many things to be feared. all of them might by the help of God be either borne or overcome.  They might surely expect the blessing of God in their proceeding.  Boorstein draws this conclusion: “The American Journeys never ceased.  Ever since those pilgrim landings people of this nation of New Beginnings had lived on the dangerous fertile verge between the wild and the familiar.  The large outlines of a new civilization were being drawn.  Even after centuries the continent had never become “settled”.   Would it ever be?”  

It is the very openness of our democratic society that makes us vulnerable to the crazy people.  If there is an American disease it is not so much violence as innocence.  We can lock up our presidents behind closed doors or lock up innocent people who might be a threat to our presidents, but both alternatives would somehow threaten the very freedom that is American society.  

The story of Lazarus goes on to say that it was life given to Lazarus that prompted the officials to plot the death of Jesus.  Life and death, death and life.  They seem to go together.  Is our society hopeless?  No.  Life is a risk, but our hope is not in life but in the resurrection from death.  Can these bones live?  Jesus said I am the resurrection and the life.  

The meaning of this story is that Jesus can give life to the dead, just as he can give water to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, sight to the blind.  Jesus can give life to whomever he wills.  And he wills to give it to us, to you.  Death comes in many shapes.  A violent act that shakes us to the core of our being, a prison sentence that entombs, financial disaster looks like death.  The break-up of a family threatens us with hopelessness.  What does your death look like?  

Lying there in your tomb, with the grave clothes binding your hands and feet, your life may seem hopeless.  But Jesus comes to the door of your tomb and says, Lazarus, come out.  Come out of your despair, come out of your fears, come out of your hopelessness.  Come on.  Can these bones live?  Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life.  

Romans 8:6-116 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life[a] because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who li 

This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas on April 5, 1981. If you would like to receive emails of new postings from the Rumors of Angels blog, free subscription information is available at the top of the right column of the blog home page.  

*Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated  six months after this sermon was preached. 

   

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