Sometimes I dream what life will be like when my eyes close only to open in the life to come. For some reason it’s always when I listen to music. It has this way of distancing my heart from the moment and stretching out my existence from the things that have been to the things that one day will be. I see. I dream. I hurt. I wonder. I ask. I consider all the things I know and all the things I don’t.
Being a pastor is an honor like no other. I remember the first time I got to speak at the Bible College from which I graduated and the first thing that was in my heart to tell them was that no one could ever articulate what it really means for someone to let you be their pastor. It’s an invitation into the most sacred parts of their life. You get to be there when two become one, when new life starts and when life goes away. People allow you into the darkest and most precious moments of life. There’s something about the words “power vested in me” that still shakes me. You get to be one of the first to hold that precious new baby. But maybe the most sacred part is when you get to sit with those when life is fleeting, or with those on the fringe when death has come.
Several years ago I had the honor of sitting with a young man who was being ravaged by cancer. His days were numbered.
He knew it. I knew it. We all knew it.
He asked me a simple question, “Pastor, what is heaven like?” When you’re sitting in that moment it doesn’t matter how much theological training you’ve had or how well you know your Bible. A lump sits in your throat that seems like it has a life of its own. Everything you’ve ever told people in easy moments runs across your mind. Everything that has been written in little booklets sold at Christian bookstores sits at the forefront of your thinking. And as I hope all Godly people would, I responded with godly fear that I don’t get the right to speculate. Not here. Not now. Maybe when it’s easy I can be opinionated, but not in this. I can only speak of the things I would die for myself. I remember that moment like yesterday. Tears rolled down my face because I didn’t even want to entertain the question…I just wanted him to live. I looked back and said,
“I don’t know. But I do know one thing…Jesus will be there. And I can promise you this, that wherever he is is exactly where you want to be.”
He didn’t have the strength to cry. He just simply said, “I can do that.” It was from that little laugh that we got to dream together. His kindness opened up the door to dream, to believe. I got to share the picture that the scriptures paint so vaguely of the life to come. I talked about new creation and resurrection, about a place where death has no more life, about a new earth that is alive and vibrant, about family and what is means to be sons and daughters of God. We dreamed and laughed about snowboarding with angels and what life will feel like when death has no place over human beings.
A week later I did his funeral.
And that’s the power of death, isn’t it? It’s hard to argue that it doesn’t have the last word. Whether it’s the death of a close friend, a madman in Newtown, a tornado in Oklahoma, a starving child in Kenya or a war-torn desert in Palestine, death’s brutality has its way. It has its way in this life and it has its way in our hearts. It looms like an unspeakable shame that taunts those in its way. And it creates for those who contend with it a deep question, “God, where are you?”
One of my favorite moments in scripture is when Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies. Lazarus has been dead for 4 days. He shows up on the outskirts of Mary and Martha’s property and Martha runs out to meet him. Desperate, broken and alone she says the question that sits on all of our lips. She asks the question not only for herself but for all mankind, “Jesus, where were you? If you were here my brother would still be alive.”
Jesus, where were you? This is the dilemma of suffering. It isn’t that we don’t understand that suffering exists. We get it. People can be evil. People can do evil things. Don’t believe me? When you realize that the same amount of money that could end global poverty is the same amount of money Americans spend on ice cream every year then you can’t really argue back with me. Watch the news for 5 minutes and the potential evil of human beings is told without a second thought. The problem of suffering is that Jesus is so good. He’s so so good. And if he’s this good, how can this happen? How can he really be the one he says he is and all of this can still happen?
This last Sunday we stopped at the moment in Matthew’s account of Jesus when death had its way in Bethlehem. Right in the middle of the King of Resurrection’s birth is an evil King who, in his jealousy and rage, murdered all of the male children under 2 in the area of Bethlehem. These two realities stand so contradicted to each other, it’s hard to hold them together. Jesus born in the slaughter.
It’s here that I sat with Matthew. Why would you tell me this? There’s so many things you didn’t tell me about Jesus, why tell me this? It’s here that I hear Matthew say back to me, “How could I not? This is who Jesus is. He came into death to be the one who would stand up to it for all of us. He didn’t come with cheap answers, he came with power. You have to know the conditions of the life Jesus was born into because it clarifies the whole story, the entire reason he came.”
“Death had always had the final word. But Jesus had something to say back.”
Matthew is capturing the two storylines of life. There is a storyline of the world, you live and you die. Do what you can to enjoy it. It comes and it goes. The dead children of Bethlehem tell us the story of this world; evil wins and suffering has no equal. And yet, right in the middle of the climax of the most evil thing that could exist in the death of children…there is another story.
There is Jesus.
He is the second storyline.
Matthew isn’t telling me this story to be brutal or for the manipulation of emotions. He’s making a statement. He’s making the statement of the entire gospel. He’s making the statement of why anyone in this life could actually believe Jesus is Good News. He in his subtlety is drawing a divergent line in the stand. “You must see, Phil, what I believe about Jesus. He created a second way. When my story is all finished you’ll know it like you don’t know it now, but Jesus came to tell death it didn’t have the final word anymore. He did.”
Martha is sitting at Jesus’ feet. The question lingers in the air. “Where were you?” Jesus looks back at Martha with a simple and audacious comment, “Your brother will rise again.” This response is so layered I understand why Martha initially responds to the level on the surface. “I get it Jesus. One day there will be a resurrection.” There is something about her words that are so defeated and sarcastic. I don’t know if she believed what she had just said, my guess is it’s the answer someone gave her in sunday school one day a long, long time ago. Much like our answers. But Jesus isn’t upset. He loves Martha so much.
He loves us so much.
I see this moment so vividly. Jesus eyes locked with Martha. There’s a power that connects past the tears. People everywhere, but right in this moment no one else exists. Jesus looks at her and says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who trusts me will live even though they will die and whoever lives by trusting me will never die.” And then the question.
“Do you trust me?”
In such a simple question Jesus’ words start to take so much life. Jesus is putting Martha’s first statement right back in front of her, but inviting her to see it with fresh eyes. Her brother will rise again, not because it’s the cheesy answer that you learned from someone you don’t really know a long time ago. Her brother will rise again because Jesus is. Jesus isn’t an imagined hope or an ideal existence. There was a day he sat in the dust with a broken woman named Martha and with tears in his eyes made a declaration to the ages…death doesn’t get to win anymore. It’s rival has come. Its enemy is at its doorstep. Lazarus is about to be the proof. Death is about to be defeated.
There is no easy conversation about suffering. Cheap answers are more dangerous than no answer. But I can tell you this, I believe in a God who has real answers. I believe in a God who did something. I believe in a God who desires to create people to be the answer to physical suffering. I believe in a Jesus who wrote a second story. I believe Jesus is the resurrection and the life. I, if I trust anything at all, trust Jesus. I believe that when everything else is gone, there will still be Jesus.
His resurrection isn’t simply a philosophy for me, I feel its existence within me. I believe in the resurrection because it has taken dwelling within my flesh and blood. The eternal promise rests within me like breath. I have no doubts. Every tragedy, personal and global, every ounce of suffering will be made right…because death doesn’t really have the last word…Jesus does.
I know for those who don’t believe questions still linger. We could debate philosophies and Jesus’ sovereignty in light of the gravity of our choices having real impact. We could debate about how the vast majority suffering is human made. We could debate that when we broke away from God nature itself shifted and now suffers from the same sin sickness that we do. We could debate that we want to shift blame on God when there is so much more we could do. We could pull out all of the great quotes of atheists and Christian social advocates who say things so much better than we ever could. We could debate God’s responsibility in a world with free will. We could say everything there is to say.
And what I would tell you back is this. After all of those words, there is one more word.
Jesus. He wrote a second story. He stands at the epicenter of your questions and wants to give you resurrection. He wants to make you resurrection. He wants to commission you to be resurrection for others. He is here to tell you that death hasn’t had the final word. He has. He is the resurrection and the life. Death may be flopping around this world like a dying fish…but it won’t win. And one day, all of us will close our eyes in this life and open them in the life to come. I don’t know exactly what it will be like, but I do know that Jesus will be there. And I can promise you this, wherever he is is exactly where you want to be.