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10.09.16 Living with Death John 11:17-37 Sermon Summary

by on October 11, 2016

How do we live with death in a culture that makes grief and mourning so difficult? John 11 gives us some clues.

Summary Points

  • 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?”

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