Each of us has experienced the pain that enters our hearts when someone we love passes from this life. We are too familiar with the experience of mourning: black clothes and black cars; hushed voices speaking in solemn tones; flowers whose brilliant colors are drained as we view them through and endless flow of tears. It’s hard for us to let go, and hard to say good bye. Comforters come and go, yet the grief remains fresh with strength. Finally, the inevitable silence comes. There are no more tears. Just the deafening sound of silence.
Even those of us who have found our hope in Jesus Christ still mourn, feeling the pain and anguish of loss and separation. The school bus drives down the street, yet there is no stop in front of the house. Rush hour traffic dwindles into twilight, yet no car arrives in the driveway. Busy feet rush through the back door, yet there is no kiss of welcome. And worst of all, there is an empty place at the table. Death draws clear lines of separation for people of faith and unbelievers alike.
John chapter 11 tells the story of a man named Lazarus who became very sick. His sisters sent word to Jesus, begging him to come to Lazarus’ aid. Yet the Lord delayed his arrival. Why did Jesus do that? Even the Jews who were in attendance at the funeral acknowledged that the man who could restore sight to blind eyes could have prevented Lazarus’ death (John 11:37). Yet the Lord delayed his arrival. Jesus love for Lazarus had been an open love. When Mary and Martha requested that Jesus come, the messenger reported, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:3). The gospel writer also tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). At the tomb of Lazarus, as Jesus joined the family and wept with them the Jews exclaimed, “Behold how he loved him” (John 11:36). Jesus’ delay was not a deficiency of love.
Martha, Lazarus sister, struggled like we struggle with separation. She boldly approached the Lord and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Lovingly, the Lord looked into her moist eyes and said, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23). Martha, engulfed in the present separation of the moment was not immediately comforted. Brushing aside her tears she said, “I know–someday, a not so near and very far away someday–he will rise” (John 11:24). Jesus caught her eye again and proclaimed, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Martha, filled with faith, desperately wanting to find security in Jesus simply confessed, “I believe (John 11:27).
With great reverence Jesus approached the tomb. He sighed deeply and commanded the stone to be removed. The stone that covered the tomb was a tangible reminder of separation. The stone that covered the tomb was the ongoing memorial of the separation that death had brought. It was designed to keep Lazarus from all of the family members and friends who loved him. “Take away the stone!” At the command of Jesus, the stone of separation was removed. Jesus looked up into the heavens and prayed. With a deep cry that pierced through the sorrow of separation, Jesus wailed, “Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11:43). At the powerful and loving word of Jesus the night gave way to dawning and the desperation of separation gave way to hope and togetherness.
In some rural areas of the midwest, many of the country people have a simple tradition. While the calendar marks Memorial Day, to these it is called Decoration Day. It’s a time when people go to modest cemeteries and place flowers on the stones of separation. Those marble monuments, tombstones we call them, stand on bright green grass fresh from winter’s sleep. To the right there is a stone which marks the separation of husband and wife. To the left, a stone that marks the separation of a parent and child. Across the well measured row stands another that marks the separation of friends or neighbors who took time to share both the joys and struggles of life. Those markers are bittersweet reminders. They are markers of separation indeed, but they are also reminders that Jesus has promised us that the separation that death brings is not permanent.
This past week we celebrated Easter and the resurrection of the Lord. On the first day of the week, the Bible tells us that the women made their way to the garden tomb to finalize the burial preparation for Jesus. When they arrived, the stone of separation had been rolled away. An angel of the Lord sat victoriously atop the rock. Because of Jesus resurrection, we never need to fear the stones of separation ever again. While they exist, they are not permanent. They are markers of hope that remind us of the promise that what Jesus experienced in resurrection is shared with us. There is life on the other side of death, all because of resurrection. And this is our hope!