Sermon: What Comes Next

“What Comes Next”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
November 4, 2018

Revelation 21:1-6a
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God’s peoples,
and God will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

And the One who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new. Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true,” then said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.’

John 11:32-44
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

This morning we remember our saints – both the saints of the church and the saints of our lives, the people we have loved and lost and still carry with us.

For many of us who have lost a loved one, even years ago, the sting of the loss still feels fresh, can still sometimes take our breath away.

In the past year in particular, several of us have experienced the death of a loved one – a spouse, a parent, a cousin or aunt or uncle, a good friend, a dear neighbor. While there is still much to celebrate and enjoy in our lives, we sometimes feel bewildered and disoriented as we try to navigate the irrevocably altered landscape of our hearts. A deep and vital part of us is missing – gone or changed in some fundamental way. And it is painful.

I love this morning’s Gospel passage because it reminds us that Jesus shares this pain. Arriving in Bethany to visit his dear friends, Jesus learns that Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, has died – and not only has Jesus missed the last moments of his friend’s life, he has missed the funeral and the burial – the opportunity to say goodbye. Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” and begins to weep. We might say that his heart is broken, just like so many of ours’.

When I think of the pain we humans endure over death, I imagine this scene. It is powerfully reassuring that we worship a Savior who grieves like we do; who has been in our shoes, who has felt the disruption of spirit, the sensation of being torn up inside when we face death and loss. We follow a God made flesh who doesn’t merely feel sympathy over a loss, who doesn’t just pay a courtesy call when death touches our lives – but who, confronted with our grief, meets it with his own. Thank God that in our pain and sorrow we are not alone.

However much Jesus may share our grief, of course, he has the ability to respond to it in a way we do not – he brings his friend back to life. It’s what many of us long for – to have our loved ones back with us, to have one more day with them. And this passage may make us ask – why can’t (or won’t) Jesus do that for us now?

It can feel cruel to think that Jesus has this ability and does not use it. But there’s a different way to think about the raising of Lazarus: as a preview, a glimpse of how our deepest wishes will ultimately be fulfilled when the kindom of God is as fully present for all of us as it is for Jesus.  

This morning’s passage from Revelation paints a fuller portrait of what that might look like: “a new heaven and a new earth,” where God’s home is among mortals, not just for one lifetime but for ever, dwelling with us and wiping away all our tears. “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things [will] have passed away.”

Here’s the thing, friends – we don’t ultimately know what comes next. We don’t know what follows death – whether we are bodily resurrected and assigned angel harps or whether our spirits merge into the great whole of some divine cosmic energy, or something else entirely.

What we have is glimpses. What we have is hope. What we have is the word of our God that the pain and the tears we feel now will be no more, and that we instead will have our thirst quenched with “ ‘water as a gift from the spring of the water of life’”; that love and life and healing and wholeness will be poured into our dry places in a way we can’t yet envision. And if Jesus’ reaction to his friend Lazarus’ death is anything to go by, that gift will include the assuaging of our grief as we are united once again with those whom we love and have lost.

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells this story:

An 85-year-old widower came to see me to discuss his feelings about whether or not to have surgery for a cancer confined to one lobe of his lung. After an agonizing period in which he examined his options, he decided that despite the risks he would have this operation.

…Curious, I asked him how he had found the strength to go ahead with this difficult decision. He told me of a daydream that he had had a few weeks earlier. He had been sitting in his chair in the evening, reading his paper, and had almost nodded off. It seemed to him that his wife had come to sit with him. She looked much as she had in the early days of their long relationship, and as she looked at him he was struck by the love he could see in her eyes. As they sat together he could feel his fear easing a little; and then he noticed that one of his oldest friends had also come into the room and was standing behind his wife’s chair. His face too reflected the love that had cemented their lifelong friendship. He was smiling at this friend when he saw his brother standing beside him, his eyes filled with love too.

One by one, others whose lives had touched his in a loving way were there, family and friends, teachers and students, children and grandchildren, and even the family pets. It had been a long life and in the end there were more than fifty or sixty of them, crowding into the living room and even into the hall. …No longer was he alone with his decision, he felt fear release him and knew then that the surgery was the right thing for him to do, no matter if he survived it.

I could feel tears in my eyes. Looking at this lovely old gentleman, I could easily see that [these relationships] had meant a great deal [to him]. ‘What a beautiful thing,’ I told him. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘ and most of those people are dead now.’ He smiled at my look of surprise. ‘I guess anything good you’ve ever been given is yours forever.’

In the midst of the miracle recounted in this morning’s passage, we don’t often think about the fact that though Lazarus has been raised from the dead, his life will still, eventually, come to an end one day. But the point of his story is not about eradicating death or avoiding pain and loss entirely. Rather it’s that pain and loss and death are part of our human story – but in God, in Jesus, they are not the end of the story. When we are able to trust that this gift is what God has in store for us, we will see God’s glory – the glory of a story that passes through weeping and mourning, yes, but ultimately loses no good thing, resolving into a new spiritual creation marked by joy and the thirst-quenching wholeness of being together, in love.

On this Memorial Sunday, may we be reminded of this, and of the tender presence of all the saints who surround us with their love. Amen.