When the famous agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, died, the printed funeral program left this solemn instruction. It read: “There will be no singing.”
When I read that, I thought, “Now that’s sad.” But then again, I suppose when you believe that this life is all there is – that there is nothing beyond the grave – what in the world is there to sing about?
Pastor Becca and I have presided at a number of funerals. And we take great care in making preparations with the family for the service. We work with families to choose Scripture readings and hymns. Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art are usually in the top five. And sometimes, the singing at the funeral fills the room. But then there are those times when we’ve said to each other – more than once – “Man, I felt like I was singing a solo.”
Well, you know, Pastor Becca and I, we both love to sing. Even at a funeral we love to sing. Maybe especially at a funeral. When you know that death does not have the final word. When you know that Jesus has the final word – and that that final word is life – that final word is resurrection. Okay, that’s two words. But when you trust the words of Jesus – and you know that death does not have the final word – well then, it seems to me that we do have reason to sing.
I know it’s not always easy. Grief is a powerful thing. And at the death of a loved one, we need to grieve. It’s good, and right, and natural – it’s healthy – to grieve. We need to do that.
In today’s Gospel reading from John, we discover that Lazarus, friend of Jesus, brother to Mary and Martha, has died. It has been four days since Lazarus died. No one’s singing. There are only tears of grief. And I hope you noticed that Jesus is moved by the grief and the tears of Mary and Martha and their friends. Jesus himself, when they take him to where Lazarus is buried, Jesus himself cries.
You know what that tells me? It tells me that Jesus understands. He understands your grief. He understands your pain. He understands whatever it is that you are going through right now. Jesus understands. The word I love to use here is compassion. What a wonderful word! Jesus knows compassion and when you and I are down in the dumps – he shows compassion because he knows what we’re going through.
Back to our story. Before Jesus is taken to the tomb of Lazarus, first Martha, and then Mary, go out to meet Jesus. And they both say the same thing. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Obviously, they’ve been talking about this in the four days since Lazarus died.
So Martha goes out to meet Jesus first, and here is what she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
And Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Apparently Martha thinks Jesus is talking about the resurrection – sometime in the future. And she’s right. Lazarus will someday be raised at the resurrection. And since we’re all still here, we know that that day has not yet arrived.
But then Jesus says these wonderful words. Listen carefully. He says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Listen! This is not just wishful thinking. This is a promise. It’s a Jesus promise. And this promise was spoken not just to Martha. Not just to Mary. But the promise is for you! Do you believe this?
When Jesus gets to the tomb of Lazarus, he does something absolutely amazing – actually, he does the impossible! He brings Lazarus back to life. How does he do it? He simply shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” I think I just woke a few of you up just now.
That’s all it took. Lazarus comes out of that tomb alive. Wrapped in the burial wrappings. And that’s when Jesus says, “Hey guys! It might be a good idea if you unwrapped him, and let him go.”
Now, I can only imagine the shock – after all he wasn’t merely nearly dead, he was really most sincerely dead! The shock and then the joy. From tears to cheers! And maybe even – a great deal of singing? I don’t know. We’re not told. But what we are told is that those who witnessed this miracle – witnessed the impossible – believed in Jesus. It’s a great cemetery story.
Let me share with you a story. “A woman once wrote to Catholic Digest to tell about her six-year-old grandson. A retired priest was temporarily serving at their parish.
“One day he announced that the bishop would soon be sending the church a new young priest directly from the seminary. When her grandson heard this announcement, he told his parents that when the new priest came he would no longer be going to Mass.
“‘What are you talking about?’ his parents wanted to know.
“The young fellow replied, ‘When they get priests directly from the cemetery, I’m staying home.’
“Obviously that young fellow wanted nothing to do with a zombie apocalypse. Of course the young priest did not come from a cemetery, but from a seminary.” There’s a big difference between a cemetery and a seminary – in most cases.
Lazarus is the only person we know who was given the gift of returning from a cemetery. And even that was only temporary. The raising of Lazarus is what we call a resuscitation. Lazarus would one day die again. I know. Real bummer! But that’s the difference between being resuscitated and being resurrected. So Lazarus was resuscitated. He would one day die again. And even though the Gospel doesn’t say so, I’ll bet Lazarus was not afraid of death – of dying a second time.
And isn’t that what Jesus wants us to know? That we don’t need to be afraid of death or dying. Why?
Because wherever Jesus is, there is resurrection and life;
– there is hope
– there is promise
– there is singing.
Listen! I know that there are things in life – things that we all go through. Things that steal the song from your heart. I’m talking about those times when it feels like we’re going through a dark valley. Things that happen to us that cause us to be discouraged, or frightened, sad, or worst of all – those times when we feel like giving up. When we’ve given up all hope. Just don’t feel like singing. When we feel like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.
By the way, I love the Lord’s question to Ezekiel, when he asks, “Hey Ezekiel – what do you think? Can these bones live again?” And Ezekiel in essence says, “I don’t know. Tell me.”
I love the Lord’s answer to Ezekiel. The answer is a resounding yes! “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” There’s something to be learned from Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.
Listen! Whatever it is you’re going through – if it feels like you’re going through a valley of dry bones – the Lord will see you through it. And more importantly – he will help you to rise above it. Dry bones will live again!
But don’t be afraid to get help. Jesus raised Lazarus, but it was his friends and family who got him free from those burial cloths that had bound him so tightly. So don’t be afraid to get help from a trusted friend – from a teacher – a counselor – or from one of your pastors.
And listen! If you’re suffering from something – like clinical depression – it’s not your fault, and it’s okay to get help from a professional. Prayer and medicine go hand in hand.
If life has sucked the song right out of your heart, just remember what you’ve heard today. Remember these Jesus promises!
“I am the resurrection and the life. All who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.” And then the Lord’s promise to Ezekiel.
“These dry bones will live again. I will put my Spirit within you, and you will live.”
Those are promises you can hang your hat on. And who are those promises for? Yeah, us! To all of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ.
As we will hear again in just two weeks, Jesus also had a cemetery experience. God raised him up from death. And for Jesus, it was not a temporary experience. His was a resurrection. He is raised, and he lives forever, neve to die again.
And because he lives – we will live also. Do you believe this?
If that isn’t something that will help you to live with a song in your heart – and make you want to sing – well, I don’t know what else will.