Listening to the Dead
John 11:17-26, 38-44
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had been buried four days before. 18Bethany was less than three kilometres from Jerusalem, 19and many Judeans had come to see Martha and Mary to comfort them over their brother’s death.
20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed in the house. 21Martha said to Jesus, “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died! 22But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask him for.”
23 “Your brother will rise to life,” Jesus told her.
24 “I know,” she replied, “that he will rise to life on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; 26and all those who live and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
38 Deeply moved once more, Jesus went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone placed at the entrance. 39“Take the stone away!” Jesus ordered.
Martha, the dead man’s sister, answered, “There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!”
40 Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believed?” 41They took the stone away. Jesus looked up and said, “I thank you, Father, that you listen to me. 42I know that you always listen to me, but I say this for the sake of the people here, so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43After he had said this, he called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave clothes, and with a cloth round his face. “Untie him,” Jesus told them, “and let him go.”
32 Should I go on? There isn’t enough time for me to speak of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. Through faith they fought whole countries and won. They did what was right and received what God had promised. They shut the mouths of lions, put out fierce fires, escaped being killed by the sword. They were weak, but became strong; they were mighty in battle and defeated the armies of foreigners. Through faith women received their dead relatives raised back to life.
Others, refusing to accept freedom, died under torture in order to be raised to a better life. Some were mocked and whipped, and others were put in chains and taken off to prison. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword. They went round clothed in skins of sheep or goats—poor, persecuted, and ill-treated. 38The world was not good enough for them! They wandered like refugees in the deserts and hills, living in caves and holes in the ground.
39 What a record all of these have won by their faith! Yet they did not receive what God had promised, 40because God had decided on an even better plan for us. His purpose was that only in company with us would they be made perfect.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverancethe race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Several years ago I listened to an interesting CBC radio program, where there had been a list drawn up in Britain of the 100 most influential novels in history.
Right around the top of the list was the novel Don Quixote which was written about 400 years ago. According to some scholars it is the first truly modern novel, because it contains all the techniques we associate with novel writing.
The thing though that caught my attention was that there were no Canadian novels in the top 100 and there were some Canadian literary critics who were discussing this fact. They were asked if we Canadians were being overlooked, if we had a Canadian novel worthy of being on the list, and if so, which novel, or which author.
One of the critics said one of the problems with determining a great novel is that time is required. What is popular, or what might seem great now, may not be great in a hundred years, and yet what may be obscure now, may be discovered and turn out to be great.
The test is not just what is popular at the time it is written, the test is whether an author through a novel can speak to people for generations to come. Is that voice a relevant voice for time to come?
Of course, an author doesn’t get to live a hundred years to find out if his or her book is great. By the time an author’s novel is a great novel which speaks to people in time to come, the author is dead.
And so many of the great voices we listen to in literature are the voices of dead people.
Dead people who still talk.
I once read of a large traditional church in the United States. Like many older churches, this one was surrounded with a huge cemetery where members of the church had been buried for generations. The minister was visited by some relatives of one of those who had been long buried there. They asked his permission to bring in a professional “medium” whom they were going to hire to stand beside their relative’s grave and attempt to contact him. They wanted to seek the departed’s advice on various family financial matters.
The minister refused. He told them that we were Christians and that “we didn’t believe in stuff like that.”
And of course I agree with him. We do not believe in the use of mediums.
But not necessarily because dead people cannot hear or talk
In fact, I am well aware of how much dead people still speak today. We have a CD at home of Natalie Cole and the title track is a tune called Unforgettable in which she sings a duet with her father Nat Cole.
The interesting thing about this song is that this duet was made after her father had died.
With all the modern technology of today Natalie Cole was able to take one of her father’s old recordings of Unforgettable and somehow edit it and change it so she could sing along with him.
So, we listen occasionally to a dead person singing.
I like to read and my favourite author is Ellis Peters who wrote my favourite series of books is about a monk named brother Cadfael. Actually Ellis Peters is a pseudonym for Edith Parteger who is now deceased.
Those novels of Brother Cadfael, a monk who solves murders speak powerfully to me of grace amid human frailty. The dead Ellis Peters speaks to me.
I go to all the Star Wars movies and the next Star Wars movie is coming out, December 19. The original Princess Leia is now General Leia Organa, and is played by Carrie Fisher, even though Carrie Fisher died 3 years ago.
As I am preparing my sermons, I sometimes read books by theologians long since dead.
I am aware that we will go and have refreshments in the Arthur Newcombe Room after church today. Arthur Newcombe now passed away was the organist and choir director here in First Church from 1945 until 1972.
All my children have four names. I am aware that some of the names my children carry are the names of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts, great uncles and great aunts, some of whom are dead.
I am well aware that most of the music we sing on a Sunday was composed by people long since dead and yet their hymns still speak to us.
Some of us spend a lot of time listening to and conversing with the dead.
And I think it would be an interesting exercise for us to sit and talk about the particular dead people who still influence our lives.
Authors, painters, musicians, friends, relatives, politicians, theologians, sports figures, heroes etc.
At one time I had in my possession a set of commentaries that were given to me by a minister Tom Mulholland long since died. They had an interesting history to them.
He was a missionary in China in 1941 and his son was quite sick, so they had gone to Hong Kong for treatment. So, he was there when the Japanese overran the place and he was put in an internment camp. There he remained until the end of the war, in pretty terrible living conditions. A minister from the United States had this set of commentaries with him. His health was failing and he gave the commentaries to Tom, saying that if he got better, he would buy a new set when he got back to the United States. He died shortly thereafter. Tom brought the commentaries back with him to Canada. After he retired, he worshipped at Knox’s Galt Presbyterian Church and I came along as the youth leader while I was studying at Knox College. Tom gave the commentaries to me. I kept them through a half dozen moves and I gave them to Vicki, my secretary at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Oshawa, who was going into the ministry.
Tom was a nice kind, Irish minister who gave wonderful prayers extemporaneously. He is one of the dead people who influenced my life.
In fact, you may find that your identity is still being formed by people who are not alive. My grandfather still inspires me to try and be a kind, Christlike person.
The Rev.Bob Jackson is the reason I am a Presbyterian Minister.
Ernie the clerk of Session at Gordonville church still inspires me.
Martin Luther King Jr. still inspires me.
Eric Henry Liddell, gold medallist for Britain and a missionary to China who died while in an internment camp during the war, still inspired me. The movie Chariots of Fire, chronicled a part of his life.
Fred Craddock’s preaching inspired me and was a huge influence on the way I preach.
I am who I am in my faith because of the communion of saints. Because of all the people who have gone before, who told me the stories of Jesus, and who set examples in faith. And some of these saints are dead.
The dead speak to us.
In fact, the writer of the Hebrews named a whole lot of dead people. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Gideon, Samson, David, and Samuel. Not only did these people have faith, but they still inspire us to faith. Their stories still speak to us and what is more they are watching us.
These dead are our witnesses. They are watching to see how we are doing.
And you know what? …these people never had the benefit of hearing the story of Jesus. They all died before Jesus was born.
We are the privileged ones who have received Christ, who know Christ, who talk to Christ.
Because Christ is alive.
You see, we in the Christian church have a definite opinion about dead people. Dead people are not dead.
They die as human beings, but our gospel today reminds us of something that is very close to the heart of our faith.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; 26and all those who live and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this?
Do you believe that those who die live?
Tom Mulholland, Ernie Waters, Martin Luther King Junior, Gandhi, Fred Craddock, Edith Parteger, Carrie Fisher, Bob Jackson, my grandfather…
They are not dead to me… they are alive to me…
They are a part of me…
They still speak to me…
Jesus connects us with all who have gone before and with all those who come after….
We would not know this truth had not John, Mary, and Martha and all the other saints had told us this story and others like it. We would not know the gospel good news, would not know Jesus, if a saint had not loved us enough to tell us that good news and to live it in such a way that we eventually heard it as our good news. None of us would be here without those who have gone before.
But more than that, when Jesus raises his dead friend Lazarus he shouts out.
“Unbind him and let him go,”
In a way, that is a parable of what happens in our church every Sunday. We come into the presence of the dead – people like Isaiah, Moses, Samson, Mary, Eve, John, Peter, Paul, Joseph, David, , Lazarus – all people who are entombed in the dead past.
And then, by the action of the Holy Spirit, through the inspiration of Jesus, these long dead figures walk among us, speak to us, point us the way.
The dead aren’t really dead. They are alive.
And so, our task today is to listen to the dead.
“We are the dead. Short days ago, we lived felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, but now we lie in Flanders fields.”
“We are the dead,” penned John MacRae.
In his famous poem, the dead talk. And they tell us, to take up the quarrel with the foe.
To take up the torch that they throw to us.
And I think that the Jesus would reiterate the same theme, although maybe slightly differently.
Jesus, I think would say. Take up the quarrel with evil and injustice. Oppose it and fight it. Take up your cross. Take the torch that many have carried.
The torch that says we oppose prejudice and hatred and violence and racism and sexism and selfishness and greed and oppression and hunger and starvation.
To name a few.
Listen to the dead. How many people have died by violent means over the last 100 years or so?
10 million? 20 million? 100 million?
Listen to the victims of the gas chambers and the victims of nuclear weapons.
Listen to the women and children and other innocent victims of war.
Listen to the soldiers who gave their lives.
Listen to the dead
Take up the torch to stop the madness.
I think the dead have an interesting perspective. They have the perspective of time. They have the perspective of eternity.
You ask any leader today, any person for that matter what their position on war is; or whether there is a just war, or whether this or that particular conflict is just or not, and you will not get an unbiased answer.
For all of us see in part, see through a glass darkly. We are clouded by our own biases and prejudices, by our own needs and wants.
But the dead have no such illusions.
Maybe it takes a hundred years to see whether a book is great. Maybe it takes a hundred years to analyze the justness of a war in a particular situation.
But we don’t have a hundred years.
That’s one reason to listen to the dead.
They have a different perspective.
And there is one dead person I think that is really worth listening to. The one who conquered death…
He has a different perspective as well.
He says: Love your neighbour as yourself. He says. Love your enemy.
He says to forgive seventy times seven which is code for unlimited.
For what Jesus says and I think what the dead would say. We are all humans made in the image of God. Remember to treat each person as God’s special child. Remember
The great Russian Poet Yvegeny Yevtushenko wrote:
In 1941, Mama took me back to Moscow. There I saw our enemies for the first time. If my memory serves me right, nearly 20,000 German war prisoners were to be marched in a single column through the streets of Moscow.
The pavement swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by police and soldiers. The crowd was mostly women. Every one of them must have had a father, husband, brother or son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction in which the column was to appear. At last we saw it.
The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips pursed disdainfully, their whole demeanour meant to show superiority over their plebeian victims. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and police had all they could do to hold them back…
All at once something happened to the crowd. They saw the German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty bloodstained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades. The soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent. The only sound was the shuffling of boots, the thumping of crutches.
Then I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder saying, “let me through.” Something about her made the policeman step aside.
She went up to the column, took from her inside coat, something wrapped in a coloured handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet.
And now, suddenly from every side, women were running towards the soldiers, pushing into their hands, bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.
(The Word in and out of Season. W. J. Bausch, p204-5)
They were people.
That’s what the dead say to us. We are all people.
That’s what the gospel says to us. We are all people.
“If it really were an eye for an eye, it wouldn’t be long before we’d all be blind,” said Gandhi.
Erich Maria Remarque in his book, All Quiet on the Western Front relates a story of World War 1. During a battle he jumped into a foxhole and found an English Soldier inside. Immediately he reached for his bayonet, but then he realized that the English soldier was mortally wounded. In this moment of tragedy, Remarque caught a new vision of the truth. He gave the stranger – the English soldier and his injured enemy – a drink from his canteen.
The English soldier then motioned toward his pocket. Remarque, the German soldier, opened the pocket and removed some photographs. This English soldier died staring at the pictures of his wife and children, while the German soldier held them for him.
It was a moment of death and resurrection.
For in that moment of death they both saw what life was…
For each soldier saw one another as a human being…
…As a brother, not an enemy.
Let that dead English soldier speak today.
We are all brothers and sisters. We are all children of God.