There are many ways to live day to day as a Christian, for each life is unique in its faithful response to God’s calling. John’s story about the raising of Lazarus depicts a number of options.
- Characters with whom we identify in John 11
- How giving gifts is a giving of our lives
- Walking with Jesus, and really walking with Jesus
- “The Dash” that represents our lives
- Living day by day to make our dash count for eternity
One of the ways stories teach us is through their characters. Stories introduce us to folks and we say, “I can identify with them.” This is true for parables, and it’s true for John 11.
Thomas always stands out to me, and it’s not just because we share a name and a zodiac sign (we’re both Geminis, the sign of which is the twin). I identify with Thomas because I often think like he did.
For Thomas, it’s always a little cloudy outside.
Jesus was determined to return to Judea where they had tried to stone him earlier. Thomas’ response? “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Never mind that Jesus has just assured his disciples that they walk in the light when they walk with Jesus. And more: Jesus promises they will see something that will increase their faith.
This actually is what it means to be a Disciple, another character in the narrative. Disciples walk with Jesus. They learn from Jesus how to see like Jesus sees. Disciples come to view life in the light of Jesus.
But everything appears as darkness to Thomas. He only sees death.
Then there’s Martha. She’s always quick to get things going. Once when Jesus popped in for visit, she immediately started cleaning up and preparing a meal. In this narrative, once she hears that Jesus has arrived, she immediately goes out to meet him.
Contrast that with her sister Mary. Mary is the head and heart disciple. When Jesus popped in, she sat at his feet and listened. In this narrative, she remains deep in introspection.
But John doesn’t want us to forget that later Mary did act. She anointed Jesus feet for burial with expensive perfume and dried his feet with her hair. To others this seemed like a rash act, but in fact it was founded on previous times of contemplation.
Mary understood sooner than anyone else that Jesus was going to die in Jerusalem. He wouldn’t die on this trip, like Thomas predicted, but soon afterward. So she took expensive perfume and anointed him.
That perfume represented Mary’s life, for it represented her effort and her time. When a denominational committee on which I serve meets, the chair always reminds us of “Mrs. Henderson’s apple pie.” When he was a pastor, his congregation held a fundraiser in which Mrs. Henderson baked and sold apple pies. He felt a special responsibility regarding the funds raised by Mrs. Henderson’s pies. He is urging us to be mindful of all the Mrs. Hendersons whose donations pay for our meeting. Mary’s expensive perfume is Mrs. Henderson’s apple pie. It represents her life.
In her contemplation, Mary discovered that Jesus was worthy of her life. While others walked along with Jesus, somewhat unconsciously, Mary listened and followed him. She followed him even to death where, just like Jesus promised, she found something worthy of her most treasured possessions—the perfume, but more, her very self.
The introductory lines of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden are well known: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. . .”
How that paragraph ends is quite a shocker, especially for Presbyterians: “For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’” That’s a quotation from the Westminster Shorter Catechism—the cornerstone of American Presbyterianism.
Thoreau is wearied by his contemporaries who walk unconsciously with Jesus. They say, “OK. The church says it. I believe it. Let’s go on our way.” Thoreau wanted more. So did Mary. They wanted their lives to really count for something.
On a tombstone there are two dates: The year of one’s birth and the year of one’s death. Between the birth year and the death year is a two-inch dash. This is all that remains of our lifespan in history. Mary oriented her life around Jesus. She made her “dash” count.
Read this famous poem about “The Dash.” It helps to put things in perspective. Mary contemplated how to fill her dash. Martha started filling her dash right away. The Disciples walked with Jesus to learn how to fill their dashes. Thomas, as it turns out, spoke the truth about the matter. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to save his life, he must lose it first.” And Thomas said, “Let us also go with him, that we may die with him.” He was more right than he knew.
Living day by day as a Christian means walking step by step with Jesus. It means discerning what walking “during the daylight” means for us personally. Sometimes it requires contemplation. Sometimes it means action. Always it includes giving our lives in order to find them.
One of the ministries of the church is to identify ways we can fill the dash to God’s pleasure. One ministry calls us to financial stewardship, which is just a subset of the stewardship of our lives. Deliberating how to contribute to the worship and ministry of Jesus—as Mary did with the expensive perfume—crystalizes God’s call to us to offer our very selves to God.
Other ministries entail serving the community and the world. And within the church there are always needs which, when we satisfy them, fill our dash to God’s delight. The ordination liturgy for the Presbyterian Church (USA) includes this question: “Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?” One doesn’t have to be ordained to answer that question. And those who answer yes will fill the dash with Jesus.
I think most of us would like to hear from Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead. But John doesn’t let us. The reason provides an excellent example of how to read the Bible.
- What happened to Lazarus after being raised from the dead?
- The role of Lazarus in the bigger picture of John’s Gospel
- How to apply this story to our lives today
The raising of Lazarus had become a very popular topic among both the common people and the religious elites, though they were saying very different things. The commoners marveled at this amazing sign of Jesus’ power, while the elites made plans to assassinate Lazarus.
Lazarus only shows up again one time—at a dinner thrown by his sisters Martha and Mary. Even there he is upstaged by Mary, who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair and some expensive perfume. She is preparing him for his own burial.
For all the excitement we might have to hear from Lazarus, in the Gospel of John, he is just a talking point.
John knows that we are like the multitudes who appear earlier in is gospel. Like they, we want more of that “miracle stuff.” We would follow Jesus anywhere for some more, but in chapter six Jesus turns to the crowds and says, “You follow me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your full of bread.”
That crowd missed the sign because of the bread. John wants us to see that, as amazing as it is, the raising of Lazarus is also just a sign. John doesn’t want to let the spectacular distract us from the point. And what is the point? What is John trying to tell us in chapter 11?
Is it that there is life after death? Probably not. There were plenty of Jews in Jesus’ day who already believed in life after death. Plus, John is writing to a post-resurrection community. They have already heard of and believe in Jesus’ resurrection. So life after death can’t be John’s point.
It’s just the opposite, actually: The point of raising Lazarus from the dead is that there is life BEFORE death. John 11 is a parable. Lazarus is a symbol. He’s a promise. He’s a testimony in a worship service. He’s like an illustration in a sermon. And what is the point of John’s sermon: That in Jesus, we have life before death.
Martha understood it. From her mouth we hear the testimony: “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Mary understood it. It’s why she anoints his body for burial. She understood that Jesus would “give his life for the life of the world.” (see John 6:51)
Disciples did not get it. On the way to Bethany Jesus challenges them to realize Lazarus is dead. “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
Jesus’ own prayer makes the point: “I have said this, Father, for the sake of the crowd, that they may believe that you sent me.”
And in case we might miss it, John tells us explicitly at the end of his gospel. “These words are written so that you may believe, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”
If life before death is the point of John’s Gospel, of John’s sermon, and Lazarus is a sermon illustration, what do we learn in this depiction of Lazarus? It is that sometimes we have to die in order to live. We have to enter the dark places of our lives, enter the tombs where we have buried some loss, some part of us that we’ve had to let go. There we surrender to God’s total care, completely dependent upon God. It is in this place of ego-diminishment (remember, John the Baptizer, only in the Gospel of John, says of Jesus, “I must decrease and he must increase”) where we can listen for Christ’s call. There we will hear Jesus cry our name and command us to “come out.”
And Jesus doesn’t stop there. Next he says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
There are things that bind us in this life, that bind us TO this life. They keep us from being born again (another phrase unique to John). They keep us from being truly alive. They bind us to death before death. They could be painful memories from our past, or anxious thoughts about our future. These bonds are anything that keeps us from living in the present.
And for John, life in the present is the point. Jesus says, only in John, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Or in other words, “I have come to unbind them, and to let them go.”
If we were to talk to Lazarus, he would urge us to identify the things that bind us. He would tell us to surrender to God’s care in prayer. He would obey Jesus command to unbind us. And he would let us go.
How do we live with death in a culture that makes grief and mourning so difficult? John 11 gives us some clues.
- The difference between grief and mourning
- Mourning in Jesus’ day and in ours
- The true nature of grief
- Signs of grief in our lives
- Four things John 11 teaches us about grief and mourning
- What happens when we don’t mourn
Lazarus had been dead four days. While it was a quick death, it wasn’t unexpected. He had been ill, and it was serious enough that Martha and Mary had sent for Jesus. He was their friend and more, he was a healer. But in the time it took Jesus to arrive, Lazarus had died.
Now Martha and Mary were living with death. They entered a time of grief and mourning. Grief is the emotional response we have to loss. Mourning is the public expression of grief. We can’t control our grief. As an internal emotional response, we can only receive it like other emotions: fear, excitement, delight, for example. When occasions for grief occur, we can only experience, recognize, and receive it.
We do have some control over our mourning, however. Mourning is more challenging today than in Martha and Mary’s day. They mourned as a religious community, which is why “some Jews from Jerusalem” had come to Bethany to console them. They mourned over a long time. It had already been “four days.” Traditionally the sisters would actively mourn for a total of seven days, then spend another thirty days abstaining from social events. Finally they would recite the Kaddish prayer for a year, at which time they would rebury the bones of the deceased.
Martha and Mary also mourned in movement. During the first seven days of mourning they could only move from their home to the tomb, which is why the Jews who had come from Jerusalem assumed Mary was going to the tomb to weep there. And in Jesus day, they mourned in tears: Mary’s, the Jews’, Jesus’ own.
If this sounds a little much, it’s because we don’t mourn this way in our day. Our culture values more Stoic responses to grief. We encourage people to exercise public control of their emotions, desiring to believe they are experiencing inner peace instead of being patient with their grief.
But mourning is evidence of love. If you can love, you can grieve. Sometimes we try to shield children from grief and mourning, but children know how to love. Instead of shielding them, we need to sanction their grief and mourning.
Love, grief, and mourning are what make us human. Alan Wolfelt writes, “If we deny our pain, we also unknowingly defend against all that brings meaning and purpose to life, leaving us feeling alone and isolated— cut off from our own humanity.” (Living in the Shadow of the Ghosts of Your Grief, p. 18) The Second Helvetic Confession of the Presbyterian Church (USA) says, “it is inhuman not to grieve.”
Because mourning is the public expression of grief, and since we’re so unpracticed in mourning, it’s sometimes hard to recognize grief. We’ve been taught to think about grief in five “stages” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), but in actuality grief isn’t so much a staircase as a spiritual journey. During grief, we’re writing a new story. “When we grieve, we are not simply grieving the loss of one we have loved, we are also grieving the loss of the narrative by which we have lived our lives. . . The work of grief is to gather the fragments and to rewrite the narrative.” (Thomas G. Long, The Good Funeral, p. 224)
This rewriting is true with regard to any significant loss, not just the death of someone loved. In grief we’re forging a new identity. We’re asking questions and trying to find meaning. Grief causes us to reorient, redirect, and repurpose our lives.
I know this to be true because three years ago I discovered something about my childhood that changed my life’s story. I didn’t realize it at first, but the emotional response I was having to this revelation was grief. My childhood as I remember it was lost. I had to begin writing a different narrative of my life without it. It’s been a journey of grief.
It’s because grief is a journey that Jesus comes to Martha and Mary. He appears to arrive late. And after talking with Martha, he still doesn’t enter Bethany, but waits outside the village for her to come to him. Only then do they go to the tomb of Lazarus, only after Jesus gets them moving. Once the journey begins, he accompanies them.
Grief isn’t something we can go around. We can avoid mourning for a while, but to get to the other side of grief we have to go through it. And that journey starts by recognizing it. So here are some signs of grief. Not all relate as directly to loss, but they all can be part of the journey of grief.
Signs of Grief
- Shock, numbness
- Denial, unbelief
- Disorganization, confusing
- Searching, yearning
- Anxiety, fear, panic
- Explosive emotions
- Guilt and regret
- Sadness and depression
When we experience these, it may be grief. And if it is grief, we need to mourn.
John 11 teaches us that we need to mourn with our own “Jews from Jerusalem.” The best mourning is done with others, since it’s a public expression. But we have to mourn with safe people. One time Jesus resuscitated the daughter of a religious leader. When he arrived at their house, the mourners were already there, but they weren’t the helpful kind. Jesus kicks them out and only those who traveled with him and the girl’s parents entered her room and welcomed her back. Healthy mourning can only be done with safe people.
John 11 teaches us that we can mourn with Jesus. He does come to us. He does answer our call. We may not encounter him as quickly as we want, in which case we can go to him like Martha and Mary did. Jesus is a safe person with whom to mourn, as evidenced by his weeping with the grieving community. Max Lucado writes, “His tears give you permission to shed your own. Grief does not mean you don’t trust; it simply means you can’t stand the thought of another day without the Lazarus of your life.” (Grace for the Moment, p. 270)
John 11 also teaches us that one of the early steps on the journey is accepting death. (Another evidence that the “five stages” with acceptance as the final one isn’t accurate.) The first place Jesus accompanies us is to the tomb. On the way to Bethany, he had to lead the other disciples to this reality, also.
John 11 reminds us that the journey of grief takes time. This is a process in which we make progress. But it doesn’t really end. As long as we live, we’ll be rewriting the narrative of our lives around what has been lost. It doesn’t end, but we will discover that we have times of rest. We begin enjoying life again. We go for a time without thinking about the loss. We discover our lives go on, until we have to write another page or chapter on our journey.
Part of being human is to live with death. Grief and mourning are the ways God has given us to do that. And it is only by reconciling our lives with the reality of death, only by living with death, that we can we have life before death. For if we don’t acknowledge our grief through mourning, we become vulnerable to the effects of “carried grief.” (Wolfelt, p. 51) These include:
- Difficulties with trust and intimacy
- Depression and negative outlook
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Psychic numbing and disconnection
- Irritability and agitation
- Substance abuse, addictions, eating disorders
- Physical problems, real or imagined
In the words of Jesus, “Those who live and believe in me will never [really] die. Do you believe this?”
Fewer and fewer of us attend funerals these days, and the ones we do attend aren’t very good. But if we don’t do funerals well, we won’t live well either.
- Reasons why funerals have fallen on hard times
- The failures of the alternatives
- What good funerals do
One of the reasons funerals have fallen on hard times is because we so rarely attend one. Mostly due to medical advances and the diaspora of families, we’ve created the first “non-death” generation. A person can reach 40 or 45 years old without ever attending a funeral. The result is that we’ve lost our understanding of the purpose of a funeral.
Added to this is that churches were willing to turn over the end-of-life rites to professional funeral directors, and that the funeral industry became over-commercialized. And though personalization of funerals helped overcome impersonal cookie-cutter liturgies, funerals became very expensive and people began to wonder if it was all worth it.
Two other reasons funerals have fallen on hard times have to do with mourning. On one hand, we were overdosed with mourning, trying to compress into one afternoon of praying, singing, scripture reading, and commemoration the long journey of grief. It was ineffective in its ambition. But on the other hand, we became underdosed with mourning. In our reaction to mourning overdose we fail to allow mourning at all.
In experimenting with the alternatives the last 20 years, I myself have participated in funerals which have left me increasingly troubled, restless, disoriented, and feeling unresolved. While studying this from a theological and pastoral perspective, I find Thomas Lynch’s summary of Thomas Long’s work an accurate description of my experience.
In place of funerals—the full-bodied, full gospel, faith-fit-for-the-long-haul and heaving lifting of grief events our elders were accustomed to—what has evolved, especially among white suburban Protestants, is a downsized, “personalized,” user-friendly, Hallmarky soiree: the customized, emotively neutral and religiously ambiguous memorial service to which everyone is invited but the one who has died. The dead have been made more or less to disappear, cremated as a matter of pure function and notably outside the context of faith. The living gather at their convenience to ‘celebrate the life’ in a kind of obsequy-lite at which therapy is dispensed, closure proclaimed, biography enshrined, and spirits are, it is supposed, uplifted.
Long and Lynch, a Presbyterian theologian and Catholic funeral director, have been leading me to look for something better. I remember a hospice chaplain’s urging a group of us pastors to have a solid philosophy about death, for without that, we don’t have a philosophy about life. Part of that whole equation is the good funeral.
The good funeral is primarily one of movement. A good funeral moves us emotionally, spiritually, and physically. The good funeral moves us in our grief, and grief is a spiritual journey. When we experience loss, we have to adjust to the absence of what is lost for the rest of our lives. That adjustment takes time, and time is something through which we move. And movement implies embodiment. The Incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ are all embodied movements in time. They are also all spiritual journeys. The good funeral serves to start our spiritual move through grief.
One of the first ways it does that is by slowing us down. I remember last year trying to get home from an evening meeting at the church in time to see my children before they went to bed. On the last turn towards my house I was stopped by a funeral procession for a fallen police officer. It was slowly going throughout the city and must have been about a mile long. At first I felt inconvenienced and resentful. But it did slow me down enough to reflect on this officer’s sacrifice and upon my own life. As part of a good funeral, it slowed me down and moved me.
The good funeral moves us emotionally. When we experience loss, we may feel shock, anger, numbness, confusion, and despair. Jesus’ disciples experienced this. When their friend Lazarus was reported sick, and Jesus delayed his return to Judea, he informed them that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” Refusing to accept this, the disciples responded that it was good for a sick person to rest. They were confused, and Jesus had to speak plainly to them about Lazarus’ death. That was when he started to move them to Lazarus’ burial place in Bethany.
After getting it, one of the disciples expressed despair, saying, “Let us go with Jesus and die with him in Jerusalem.” And Lazarus’ sister Martha expressed anger: “Had you been here, my brother would not have died.” She also expressed faith and hope by continuing, “But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask.”
Like a good funeral, Jesus moved all these disciples from their first emotional response to death towards peace. It may take a long time to arrive at peace, and we may not remain there for long periods, but the good funeral reminds us that we are on that journey. This is why Jesus reminds the disciples that there are twelve hours of light during which to walk, and so we can begin the journey of grief with Jesus.
The good funeral moves us spiritually. Starting from the “sting of death,” the good funeral points us towards victory of life. Jesus told Martha that those who believe in him will never die. Of course they will die. Martha died. Lazarus died (again). Even Jesus died. So he must mean something else.
Before he said this to Martha, he said, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” It’s the distinction between something being really true versus actually true. We actually will die, but we really won’t. What Jesus is saying is that those who believe in him will not really die because, before they actually die, they will have really lived. And it is this real life that lives on, this real life that is lived with Jesus. Which is why Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?” And she responds, “Yes, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God,” which is to say, “I believe you are the fulfillment of our hopes and God’s promises. Following you gives my life direction, purpose, and meaning.” Living according to this faith, even in the face of death, is what a good funeral calls us to do. That is the spiritual movement.
And a good funeral moves us physically. It reminds us of the recurring truth of scripture, that “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19, see also Job 34:15, Psalm 104:29, and Ecclesiastes 12:7) To do this, the good funeral moves us from the waters of baptism to the dust of the earth. In water, we are baptized into Christ’s death, which gives us confidence to return to the dust, for we are also baptized into Christ’s resurrection.
The reason John tells us that Lazarus was in the tomb four days is because it was believed that the spirit lingered around the body for three days. As still happens today, people can be pronounced dead only to resuscitate within a few days. But by the fourth day, everyone knew that Lazarus was actually dead.
As in the raising of Lazarus, the good funeral helps us acknowledge death, and one of the most effective ways it does so is by physically moving the dead body to the dust of the earth with the hope of resurrection. When Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus then says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
As we heard recently, Jesus’ resurrection was seen as the beginning of the general resurrection. Dying and returning to the dust of the earth is the most powerful symbol of our hope of this general resurrection. But what Jesus is saying is that we don’t have to wait to actually die before we really live. The good funeral also reminds us of this truth, by moving us physically from the presence of our loved one, to their memory, and to our hope for them. Or in other words, from living, to thanksgiving, to anticipation.
We need more good funerals, for they launch us on the spiritual journey with Christ. They point us to more than life after death; they lead us with Christ to life before death.
We know how this is going to end. The question we have to answer is, Will it make a difference in our lives today?
- Out of sight, out of mind? Not with God.
- Rejoicing when we find something that was lost
- The vanishing point according to Paul
- Christ’s resurrection, our resurrection, and the labor of our lives
- How the Older Son’s laboring in vain kept him from rejoicing
- The choice we have to make
It feels sometimes that we are so far from home, it’s hard to imagine we can ever get back. By looking out only for ourselves, through our runaway consumerism and neglect of the needy, when we judge and condemn one another, we have scattered ourselves to various “distant countries.” We are so far from Eden, from the imago Dei (image of God) with which we were created, we wonder if even God can see us.
But like the Father in Jesus’ most famous parable, God keeps his eyes where his heart is, with us, scanning the horizon of our distant countries, searching until we are found.
And when we are found, there is in the heart of God a profound sense of relief and thanksgiving, just like when we find one of our lost treasures. We are profoundly grateful for averting what might have been. Time stands still, everything comes to rest for a moment, and we celebrate.
This helps to understand how the parable ends, with the unresolved estrangement of the Older Son and the Father. The Older Son cannot understand why the Father is rejoicing. And the Father cannot understand why the Older Son is not rejoicing. The reason is the Older Son doesn’t fully appreciate what could have happened. The Younger Son may have been lost forever! But he is not.
The Father feared the worst, but kept hope. The Older Son assumed the worst, and lost hope. Those with hope look to the horizon, to the vanishing point. The vanishing point is that place where everything appears to be pointing, which makes realism in painting possible. The vanishing point reveals what is most real in the spiritual sense also.
Paul knew where the vanishing point was. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul saw that God’s Kingdom had come, or at least it was arriving. Jesus’ resurrection revealed that the cataclysmic event known as “the general resurrection” had begun. In the general resurrection, God would make everything right.
For Paul, now that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, it was only a matter of time before everyone else experienced the general resurrection. But “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God,” so some people in his churches asked Paul, “How can those who have already died, and we who are waiting for the Kingdom, both experience it?”
Paul’s answer is that the “dead are raised imperishable,” and that the living, “will be changed.” Both must take on imperishability, for like flesh and blood, the perishable cannot inherit the Kingdom either.
Because of Jesus’ resurrection, Paul could no longer assume the worst. Death was not the final word. In resurrection, death was “swallowed up in victory.” And Paul invites us to thanksgiving, for “God has given us the victory in Christ.”
What is more, because we share in this victory now, because we can now see the vanishing point of God’s Kingdom, our labor is not “in vain.” Think of a field with row upon row of crops. Our lives may be a long row, or they may be a short row. They may end up being shorter than we expected! But they all end in the same place. They all arrive at the vanishing point of God’s Kingdom.
The Father in Jesus’ parable feared the worst, but like Paul, he kept hope. So when the lost was found and the dead returned, he rejoiced. The Older Son didn’t rejoice. He resented. Why? Part of the reason is because he had been laboring in vain. Those many years he labored in his own strength, for his own reward, out of duty instead of thanksgiving.
Unlike the Father, the Older Son assumed the worst. He assumed the worst of his brother (notice how he adds details about the Younger Son’s profligate life). And he assumed the worst of his father, that he would never show him the same generosity. So when the lost was found and the dead returned, instead of being generous and rejoicing, with his
laboring in vain and assuming the worst, the Older Son could only be resentful.
Today we have a choice to make, because we can see where this is going. In Jesus Christ, the lost will be found and the dead will return. The party has already begun. Will we maintain hope, rejoice with the Father, and labor the rest of our lives not in vain? Or will we assume the worst and remain outside with the Older Son, complaining of the Father’s grace and generosity?
Will we who are lost, be among the found?
The experience of losing hope is a painful one. It’s also the path to the true hope of heaven.
- The “Dark Night of Sense”
- How lost hope leads to truer hope
- The false hope of escape
- The truer hope of presence
- Psalm 126 as the summary of biblical hope
- How worship gives us our hope
- What a “new heaven and a new earth” mean
St. John of the Cross was a 14th century mystic who introduced to us the language of the “dark night” (no, not Batman). Contemporary spiritual literature has popularized the phrase “dark night of the soul,” but John of the Cross actually wrote about two aspects of the dark night. What most contemporary writers are actually referring to is the “dark night of sense.”
The dark night of sense refers to the experience that God is no longer responsive to prayer and other spiritual disciplines. Whereas such activities normally intensify one’s feelings of God’s presence and activity, during the dark night of sense, God feels more distant.
Our first impulse during the dark night of sense is to try harder. Increase our prayers, change our methods, study more, or go on a retreat. When even these fail, as they will during the dark night, it’s easy to lose hope.
Losing hope always feels bad. Hope is the fuel that moves us; it is our motivation for the future. Hope helps us to endure the present when it is challenging. And it is the path out of a painful past. When we lose hope, it feels bad.
But it isn’t always bad. The dark night is designed to deepen our love for God, to make it more sincere. It invites us to love God for God’s sake, not just for God’s benefits. If the dark night is fruitful in our lives, the hope we lose is replaced by a truer, deeper hope.
In Keeping Hope Alive Lewis Smedes identifies a number of false hopes from which we are liberated as we grow in faith and hope in God, our truest hope. One of those false hopes is the hope of escape. Hoping for escape is the natural response to a challenging present, and thus it has been the popular belief of religious people. It actually goes all the way back to Plato and the Greek philosophical dualism of soul versus body. The Greeks taught that the soul is immortal and good. It is trapped in a material body which is temporary and bad.
The Christian church incorporated this philosophy to varying degrees and began to distinguish between this life and the eternal afterlife. We also started contrasting life on earth to life in heaven. Given these dualistic assumptions, our hope got assigned to a location, namely heaven, to which we would escape from this earthly life someday.
The mystics like John of the Cross preserved a minority report, and thankfully their perspective is becoming more mainstream today. The mystics taught that our hope is not in escaping the earth, but in waiting for a person. Christian hope is like what an engaged couple experiences as they anticipate their wedding day. Then, they will start a new life together while not forgetting their individual lives to that point.
Just so, Christians hope for a person: God revealed in Jesus Christ. Now the person for whom we’re waiting isn’t present, of course. That’s the nature of waiting and hope. “Who hopes for what already is?” Paul asks in Romans 8. But Jesus isn’t fully absent either. And this is why Christian hope in God is the truest hope there is. God isn’t fully present now, but he isn’t fully absent either. Our truest hope is for God’s fullest presence.
Our hope would be false if we imagined Jesus, if we made him up in order to have hope. The Bible calls that kind of false hope “idolatry,” and it generates the kinds of behaviors that are condemned in vice lists. In our passage, the lists include such behaviors as sorcery, fornication, murder, lying, etc. All these behaviors result from idolatry—promoting something other than God as God and investing our hope into it.
By contrast, Jesus isn’t an idol. He’s not a figment of our imagination or an idealistic invention. He is a gift from God, a message of the divine, a Word proclaimed, a promise made, a testimony for the churches, a love note from our betrothed reminding us of our upcoming wedding day.
In a short six verses, Psalm 126 summarizes the biblical teaching on hope. It was written following the Exile when the Babylonians deported prominent citizens. After 70 years, when the Persians defeated the Babylonians, the exiles were allowed to return home. Psalm 126 begins by remembering God’s deliverance: “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” And it praises God: “The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”
But by verse four, the Psalm acknowledges that the restoration wasn’t complete. The deliverance wasn’t total: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD.”
So it resumes with a prayer: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” Finally it concludes with a more defiant and definite statement of faith and hope: “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
Psalm 126 begins with the hope of deliverance, with the hope of escape from the Exile. But once realized, it discovers that escape doesn’t satisfy. If not a false hope, their escape was an incomplete hope. The truer hope returns to the LORD.
The deliverance was cause for rejoicing, like a harvest ending the farming season. But another season follows. Our true hope is not in the harvest. It isn’t in the deliverance or in the escape, but in the LORD of the harvest. The harvest is simply a reminder.
This is why testimony is so important. We remember God’s faithfulness in order to deepen hope. Testimony of God’s faithfulness in the past is preserved for us in Scripture and tradition. Testimony of God’s faithfulness in the present comes to us through the community of faith.
And this is why worship is so important. Some weeks you may feel you don’t “get anything” out of worship. I’m sure that’s true more often than I wish. But every worship service is a deposit into the bank of memory and faith. And when we need hope, we draw it from that account.
In worship through baptism, we remember the waters of life of which Jesus spoke. He proclaimed that the Spirit and the bride (and the bride is the church, by the way) say to the thirsty, “Come.” He encourages, “Let all who wish, take the water as a gift.” He assures, “To those who are thirsty, I give the water of life.”
In worship through the Lord’s Supper, we remember the bread of life which Jesus claimed to be. He said, “I am the bread of heaven.” And he promised, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (see John 6)
In worship we remember that God is present—in this world, in this life—through things like water and bread and harvests and stars. We don’t have to wait for “heaven” to encounter God. God isn’t just waiting for us in some existence we have after death. “Heaven” isn’t the place to which we escape from earth. We actually deny ourselves the truer hope of heaven with such an escapist view of heaven and earth.
This is why Revelation speaks of a “new heaven and a new earth.” It’s because our vision of heaven and earth gets distorted by our dualist thinking. Revelation’s visions are not disposals of heaven and earth, but corrections of our conceptions of them.
Revelation invites those of us with faith to rejoice in God’s presence in this heaven and earth, like those delivered from the Exile in Psalm 126. And we can likewise be honest about God’s absence, which is really just the experience of suffering in God’s presence. Our hope is the presence of God without suffering. That’s what Revelation envisions.
And that is the nature of our truest hope. It isn’t in a location, but in a time. Our hope is in the time when we will experience a fuller measure of God’s presence, in the new heaven and the new earth, where death is no more, where mourning and crying and pain are no more, and where God will wipe every tear from our eyes.
Today we remember the 2996 people who died 15 years ago, in the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
19 of those nearly 3000 dead had undeniably bad deaths. You will deal with them, as with all people, with justice, mercy, and love.
Many others of those nearly 3000 dead had good deaths, and their good lives will live on.
We remember those aboard American Airlines flights 11 and 77, and those aboard United Airlines flights 175 and 93.
We remember those who worked in and around the World Trade Center, and at the Pentagon.
And we remember the lives devastated and lost as a consequence of that day.
We remember those with permanently disabled bodies,
those with debilitating post-traumatic stress,
those with diseases related to the rescue and recovery and reconstruction,
those with holes in their hearts and lives,
those struggling to move into the future
those who live in fear or anger or unforgiveness.
As we remember all these people and feelings, we also remember you, Most High God.
We remember that you created this world, and created it good.
We remember that you called us to a good life, and that we failed to live up to your calling.
We remember that you did not abandon us, even when we made a disaster of your good creation.
We remember that you promised never to stop seeking us, your lost sheep, not matter how far into the wilderness we might wander or run.
We remember that you came to us in Christ, and, in his resurrection, began the redemption of all creation.
We remember that you sent your Holy Spirit to sustain us—through these remembrances of the past, and our hope for the future.
Bless all those whom we remember.
And bless those who dare to remember.
For we believe that by remembering, as Christ commanded us to remember, our faith is awakened and strengthened.
Your faithfulness to your promises does not depend on our belief.
But our reception of them in this life does.
Remember us, we pray, as we remember you.
And so we pray in accordance with your will as revealed in Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray, saying, Our Father . . .