It is nearly one year since we farewelled our friend Sue,
and as we approach this mark,
my body simultaneously feels the shiver of grief and anger over pain in our world and yet also the warmth of a fervent hunger and thirst for God’s promised hope.
Perhaps it was this mixture of emotion that prompted the tears of Jesus at the death of his friend Lazarus.
No one knew with greater clarity the hope and power of resurrection!
A hope of resurrection that he himself would bring.
And yet in that moment of death there were tears.
And those tears led to what is well known as the shortest sentence in the English Bible,
“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
Death is never pretty,
When faced with untimely death this seems obvious and yet
even if someone has lived a long and happy life and has accepted their fate,
even if they have a true and living hope of the resurrection to eternal life,
even if this is for them the beginning of eternal peace and rest with God,
there is grief.
With every death, we farewell someone who was son or daughter and perhaps sister or brother or mother or father or husband or wife or friend…
When Jesus saw Mary’s grief at her brother’s death, his heart ached.
Death is never pretty.
How can it be?
It entered the world as the consequence of evil and sin. (Romans 5:12)
Every death reminds us that things are not as they should be and creates in us a yearning for the time when death will be no longer…
God’s purpose and plan for us is life, not death! From the very beginning He has been bringing about His plan of redemption, reconciliation and restoration which will be fulfilled when God’s dwelling place will be with his people. “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21).
The story of God at work in our world is one of transformation and reversal;
From slavery to freedom
From death to life
From tears to joy,
From mourning to celebration.
Recently while reading the story of Esther from the Old Testament of the Bible, I have been struck by the clear and poignant picture of God’s work of reversal from tears to joy and mourning to celebration.
And of the encouragement that even when He seems invisible, God has not forgotten us. He is at work in the world, bringing about his purposes.
That same oh so powerfully encouraging message that the Apostle Paul reminds us of in his letter to the Christians in Rome. That while we await final fulfilment,
while we wait in a world still filled with tears,
God is at work, presently turning our mourning into celebration.
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? …Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword….No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Romans 8:31b-39)
In the present we live by faith, filled with God’s Spirit, awaiting our future hope. But how can there be joy and celebration when grief is acute and tears still flow? How does God turn our tears into joy – in the present?
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
It is God’s purpose that He will be our God and we will be His people. Through Jesus we are invited to be part of the family. To pull up a seat at the family table. We cling to the knowledge that we are not alone. God is with us. His wings long to cover us as a mother hen’s warm embrace to her chicks (Psalm 91 Luke 13, Matt 23). Jesus has walked the path of grief, pain and even death and He truly knows how we feel. Yet He will not only empathise – He will transform. We are invited to come to him and receive mercy, grace and restored relationship. We cling to the knowledge that He has not left us alone but that those who trust in Him are united to Him and He has sent His Spirit who is at work in us today. We cling to the reality that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
We look forward to the time when all God’s people will celebrate with him forever and we will be reunited with loved ones. And yet in the meantime, we are not alone. We cling to one another, rejoicing together, mourning together. Our Trinitarian God is a God of relationship. And we are created to be in relationship with Him and one another. We are not called to be independent individuals, but to be corporate, family, community. To support, challenge and encourage one another. To welcome everyone to the communal table. To be so interdependent that we are actually like parts of one body, each with their different role – needed that the whole may work together as it ought (1 Cor 12).
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the LORD’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the LORD, who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:18)
As I head towards my late 30’s I am aware that my physical body is not what it was in my 20’s. And those of you in your 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’ and 90’s plus laugh now at my comment, thinking, just you wait! And yet while the gradual decay of my physical body is a brutal reminder of the fragility of life and the immanence of death, the marks of time are not all marks of decay. For there are wrinkles from days squinting in brilliant sunshine that warmed my shoulders and my heart. There are wrinkles from hours of laughter so intense my stomach aches remembering. There are marks left from the carrying, birthing and caring for my babies. There are grey hairs that I pull out with urgency yet all awhile smiling at wisdom gained. And these strengthen rather than weaken me. The Bible doesn’t fully explain why Jesus’ resurrected body still bore the scars of his crucifixion. The physical marks on our own bodies bear testimony to the lives we have lived. And likewise, the trials, the pain, the grief, the joy, the love and the peace of our life become part of our transformation, begun in Christ (2 Cor 5:17) – of tears to joy, mourning to celebration – of a new creation. The Bible tells us that present love rather than perish and fade like other things– runs into the river of our future life in the new heavens and the new earth (1 Cor 13).
Peter writes, unlike that which perishes and fades here, God in his great mercy has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. We suffer all kinds of trials as we wait – yet we rejoice! “For these have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1) Our present lives are part of our transformation. And so we heed the wisdom of James, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
Peter continues “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9).
The Bible talks about something that is hard to get our heads around – living hope – ‘realised eschatology’. Basically that the future has already begun in the present. And this is such a strong theme that the work done by Christ on the Cross is not spoken of in terms of the future but rather the present. Despite my constant failures, when God looks at me he sees a co-heir with Christ (Romans 8:17)! Death, evil, sin and pain are defeated once for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The promises are fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 15)
While we await our future, the future is made alive in the present as we are transformed into Christ’s likeness, as we live in hope, walking in faith and love with God and one another.
When we give thanks and look around in gratefulness, we see all that God has blessed us with now, the foretaste of what is to come. We share a cup of tea with friends and the hot cup warms our hands and our hearts. We see the breathtaking beauty of God’s creation and feel the cool refreshing breeze or the warm rays of autumn sun. We sing, we remember, we celebrate – all that we have in Jesus. We gather together around a table of food and we hear the hearty laugh of a joke shared and the joyful giggle of a child amidst the hum of community. We eat the bread and we drink from the cup and we are lifted up in His presence as we give thanks for the life that He has given us and the life that is to come.
When we extend a hand of friendship and love, we are pulled from our own grief, into the joy of living out our hope now. When we toil together in the rough soil of the present we celebrate with joy the signs of new life and growth as they sprout up and break through.
There is a lot of work that goes into tending to a thriving garden. Much care, watering, feeding, pruning, weeding … and yet can you even put into words the joy and beauty of growth? Likewise, when we earnestly yearn for our own transformation and seek to grow through God’s word, prayer, worship and service, we see fruitfulness that brings great joy. When we seek to be part of the working out God’s purposes in the world by humbly offering ourselves – we experience the privilege of being part of turning others’ mourning into dancing. We see the future in the present. We dance with God in celebration of life, life of the future here now in the present.
While death is never pretty, it is true that for those in Christ Jesus, its sting is gone. Its power is gone. Its grief is only transient as it is not the end. And so we can really say, there is no fear in death. And we say with certainty for those who have died in Christ, may they rest in peace. For they have entered the rest we yearn for. And we give great thanks for them. They inspire us, they never cease to encourage us and point us towards a life of purpose.
God really does turn our mourning into dancing (Psalm 30, Jer 31), not just in the future, but in the present. We see this through relationship, transformation and our living hope.
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor 4:16-18)
For I believe that it is in fixing our eyes on the eternal and letting that shape our present life – that our tears are turned into joy and our mourning is turned into dancing.
By Maria Brand