Archives For Death

Bob ArmstrongSeveral years ago, an 80 something year old man walked into one of our classrooms. We often have older “students” sit in on our classes, members of various churches who want to continue growing in their knowledge of the Bible and the world. But it quickly became clear that Bob was not a typical “auditor.”

Our professors could hardly get through five minutes of their lectures without an objection from Bob. And Bob’s objections came in the form of loud grunts followed by aggressively expressed opinions. I remember teaching a class on Paul and having to suddenly field this objection from Bob: “I don’t think Paul actually believed anything he wrote. I think he was in cahoots with the Roman government, and wrote what he did to throw people off.” Needless to say I hadn’t prepared to address that particular theory, so I responded with something along the lines of, “Wow, okay. I can’t think of a single thing in Paul’s writings that would support that theory, but I’d love to talk to you more about it after class.”

Sometimes Bob asked good questions, but for the most part, his objections were off-the-wall, groundless, and frequent.

It wasn’t long before our professors were asking each other, “Have you had Bob in class? What’s his deal?”

It turns out Bob was invited to class by one of our for-credit students: Dave. Dave had just left his teen years, and would talk to Bob at the YMCA where they both worked out. Bob had never considered himself a Christian, but as Dave continued to befriend him and talk to him about Jesus, Bob eventually became curious enough to accept Dave’s invitation to sit in on some Bible classes. I still tear up when I think of this sweet, faithful guy in his twenties patiently and graciously befriending this lonely, grumpy guy in his eighties. To an extent that we’ll never fully appreciate, the Kingdom of God expands through smiles and simple greetings.

I’ll admit that Bob was more of a nuisance than anything else at the beginning. Some professors had to talk to Bob about not disrupting the class with frequent objections, asking him to save his comments for after class.

But then a curious thing happened. Bob began showing up early to church services and greeting the congregation as they walked in. He didn’t do this in an official capacity—he just wanted to do it. He became more friendly and began speaking fondly of Jesus and of many of the things he was learning. Eventually, we were all sure that Bob loved Jesus, that his heart had been transformed.

As we got to know the new Bob, we learned that his first 80-some years of life were very lonely. He fought in three wars (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam) and experienced situations that haunted him for the rest of his life. He was even used as a “model” to test radioactivity-proof clothing, which means that he and his squad crouched in a desert bunker as an atomic bomb was detonated. With his eyes closed and hands covering his face, he said it was the brightest thing he had ever seen. Surprising, Bob never grew any extra arms, but he is quick to affirm that the clothing didn’t work.

After a lifetime of being more or less alone, Bob became part of a family. He took every class he could at the college, took professors and students out for breakfast and lunch, and frequently expressed his appreciation for his new family in Christ.

Post-conversion Bob could still be a bit of a curmudgeon. As an 80 something year old theological novice, Bob stumbled into more than a few odd doctrinal views, but he never stopped discussing the Bible and the Jesus he had come to love so dearly. The new Bob was frequently in tears. Mention Jesus and Bob would be sobbing. He was so struck by the brotherhood of believers that he insisted I call him “Brother Bob” whenever I greeted him. He was so deeply appreciative of Jesus that he would often rebuke me for not using the term “the Lord Jesus.” Bob could be an absolute grump, and the exasperated objections continued throughout his late educational career. But the new Bob was a man who loved Jesus, and we knew he was a man who loved people as well (even if he still barked).

During the last few years of his life, Bob put a lot of effort into planning his memorial service and inviting everyone he could to attend. Jesus was calling him home, Bob said, and he wanted his memorial to be a celebration. It took a few years for his actual earthly end to arrive, but Bob never tired of talking about the day he would be with Jesus. Overplanning his own memorial was Bob’s way of making sure everyone he left behind would remember what really matters.

St. Augustine’s famous words express well Bob’s feelings toward the end of his life: “Late have I loved you, Beauty so old and so new. Late have I loved you.” For me, the curious case of Bob Armstrong will always be a reminder that God is never done with a person’s life; that it’s never too late to be a learner, never too late to start again; that a prickly exterior does not always reveal was is happening beneath the surface; that no one is ever beyond the reach of God, no matter how hard or how long they’ve been running.

[Anyone in the Simi Valley area this weekend is encouraged to join us in celebrating God’s artistry in the life of Bob Armstrong. See details below.]

Bob's Memorial

In John 11, Lazarus dies. It’s a story so common that no day in the history of the (post-Edenic) world has passed without this headline. Death is tragic, heart-wrenching, unbearable—but also entirely ordinary.

And yet there is something odd about the death story of John 11. Jesus, who had been making quite a stir with his healings, was given advance warning about Lazarus’ condition. Everyone knew Jesus could have done something about it. When Jesus arrives at the scene—four days late—he repeatedly hears the same greeting: “If you had been here he wouldn’t have died” (v. 21, 32, 37).

But Jesus made a conscious decision to show up after Lazarus’ death. Oddly, John even tells us that Jesus delayed because “he loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (v. 5). Jesus loved this family and had every intention of exerting his inexhaustible power to resolve their situation in the best way possible. True to form, Jesus’ plan simply failed to align with what everyone was hoping and praying for.

As he relays the story, John keeps us in the know. There was a theological reason for this delay: “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v. 4). In John 11, death is not presented as an ominous foe. It is almost tamed. Degraded to a mere plot device. A foil for the glory of God. Jesus even speaks of Lazarus having “fallen asleep” and of his own resurrecting power as simply “awakening him” (v.11), which evokes a humorous response from the disciples who basically say, “Well, if he fell asleep, he’ll probably be alright” (cf. v. 12).

And so it happened that Jesus peacefully strolled into town to minister to a man who had been four days in the tomb. Everyone seemed to be convinced of Jesus’ power to keep the living from death. But no one expected Jesus’ clever plot device, the simple words he would utter that would call death’s bluff—except maybe Mary, who wished Jesus had arrived earlier, but still acknowledged, “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (v. 22).

And of course, it wasn’t too late. Jesus came for Lazarus. Even after death. He was gone, removed from the face of the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But Jesus came back for him. In response to a simple command to emerge, the decaying Lazarus reanimated and returned to his daily life.

If we could see beyond our Sunday school memories of this story, we would realize how shocking it is. And yet, like death itself, resurrection from the dead is also one of the most common things in the world. Or at least, it will be.

The Lazarus story stands out because he beat Jesus to the grave. What Jesus enacted with Lazarus foreshadows what Jesus himself would soon accomplish—not in obedience to the word of a stranger standing in the world of the living, but from the life-giving depths of his own being. Jesus entered the grave having already called death’s bluff (a few times). The world’s surprise at Jesus’ resurrection largely reveals humanity’s inability to understand what Jesus was up to.

Cemetary

Like Lazarus, we are all heading inexorably closer to the grave. But don’t worry, this illness does not lead to death. Yes, death is involved. But it doesn’t lead to death. Perhaps we should say it leads through death. Unlike Lazarus, who beat Jesus to the grave, Jesus has gone to the grave before us—and emerged on the other side. Jesus will come for us as well. Death does not get the last word. Resurrection—recreation—has always been God’s plan. Death is terrifying, yes. But when we view the world through the lens of Christ, we recognize it as a simple plot device. A mere foil to the glory of God.

We must be careful not to make light of what is serious. Even Jesus, who knew what he would do in a few moments’ time, saw the grief-inflicting impact of death on the people around him and wept (v. 35). There is a real place for grief in response to death, in response to a world gone berserk through the ravages of sin. But death does not get the last word. Jesus called Lazarus out of death. And he will call for us as well. “Behold, I am making all things new; I am coming soon” (Rev. 21:5 and 22:20).

Laughing at Jesus

Mark Beuving —  June 9, 2014 — 1 Comment

The other day I was startled by this verse: “And they laughed at him” (Matthew 9:24b). One helpful tool for studying the Bible well is to be on the lookout for emotional language. Like noticing when Jesus wept (John 11:35) or when Paul pleads rather than simply asking (Rom. 12:1). It’s fun to hear laughter in the Bible, but this instance is curious for two reasons.

First of all, the people laughing here were in the midst of mourning for a dead girl. For the most part, laughing at a funeral is a no no. Unless you’re laughing at an endearing photo of the deceased or a great story from his past, you don’t usually hear laughter at a time like this. In this case, a ruler’s daughter had just died, and there were musicians playing and a crowd “making a commotion.” They were mourning the tragic loss of life. Yet a simple sentence broke through their wails and had them laughing in open mockery. For a moment.

The second reason this laughter is odd is that they were laughing at Jesus. Apparently, Jesus was funny. But what this crowd found laughable was actually a confirmation of Jesus’ true identity.

Llya Rypin, The Raising of Jarius’ Daughter (1871)

Llya Rypin, The Raising of Jarius’ Daughter (1871)

In this scenario, a ruler came to Jesus, telling him that his daughter had just died, and asking Jesus to come and lay his hand on her so that she would live again. That in itself is remarkable. It’s one thing to hope that the travelling miracle-worker may be able to curb your daughter’s failing health, but quite another to believe that he held power over death. What this ruler saw in Jesus was completely missed by the crowd of mourners.

Also interesting is the fact that this father, who had just lost his daughter, was not among the mourners, but was actively seeking a remedy to bring his daughter back to life. And the remedy he sought was Jesus.

So when Jesus stepped into this house full of mourners, he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And really, can we blame them for laughing? They hadn’t seen, as the ruler did while he escorted Jesus to his home, a woman with 12 years of internal bleeding be healed simply by touching the hem of Jesus’ robe. To these mourners, the idea that death was no more permanent than a nap was absurd. Hilarious.

But when Jesus sent the mourners out of the house—what an inappropriate gathering they had become—he took the ruler’s daughter by the hand, and she got up. No incantation. No potions. No show. When touched by the hand that had formed her in her mother’s womb, the life that had temporarily left her came rushing back.

“The report of this went through all that district.” But there are still those who laugh. Even amongst those of us who claim to be his followers. His claims are absurd, his calling impossible, his promises far-fetched. Yet this simple story in Matthew’s Gospel gives us perspective. Who is the crazy one: the crowd of “realists” who laugh at the implication that death can be reversed, or the father who sees even death as subservient to the King of all?

The devil is a terrifying adversary. Though the world of fiction has given us some odious villains—think of the ones that make your skin crawl, like Sauron or Voldemort—these are but shadows of the true villain. Satan truly embodies everything that opposes God, goodness, and life. He is hell-bent on destroying anything and anyone he can, and history shows his remarkable success.

Satan’s greatest weapon is and always has been death. Not that he just goes around killing people. That would be too simple and far less effective. No, Satan leads us away from what is godly, pulls us away from our benevolent Father, destroys us from within and without to the greatest extent possible, and then leaves us in our furious race toward a death for which we are utterly unprepared.

The Bible calls Satan the one who “has the power of death” and refers to the human race as “those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14–15). Death is the problem from Genesis 3 through the end of Revelation, and it has a hold on all of us because our terror of Satan’s greatest weapon keeps us enslaved.

Terrible though it may seem, Satan’s greatest weapon is actually utterly worthless. Death is still a problem that we all face at every moment, but Jesus has transformed death into something entirely different. Jesus defeated death. How did he do this? Through death. (I’ve always loved the title of John Owen’s great work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.)

[Jesus became human] “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14–15)

Through death, Jesus dealt death the deathblow (say that 10 times fast).

“’Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54­–57)

In essence, Jesus took Satan’s terrifying WMD and turned it into a cap gun. Death still scares us, but only when we fail to understand what death now holds for us. For those who see Jesus as he truly is, death is nothing more than a transition into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). Jesus has turned the weapon of death into a gracious gift that gives us the one thing we want more than any other (Phil. 1:21–23). Death is swallowed up in victory; its brutal claws have become cuddly paws.

Satan still roars, but Jesus has made us into those who call his bluff:

“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Colossians 2:15)

Satan still waves his orange-tipped cap gun furiously, like a four-year-old cowboy fighting a make-believe enemy. But those of us who know what death now holds can smile calmly and join in Paul’s taunt:

“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Boston Tragedy HelpersYesterday we were horrified to learn about another tragedy, this time in Boston—explosions, fear, injuries, and deaths.

When things like this happen, we ask ourselves questions that we already know the answers to. Why? (Because the world is fallen.) When will we stop doing this to each other? (When the Lord returns to set the world to rights.) Why can’t we stop this? (Because evil is pervasive, and hearts must be transformed.)

Of course, knowing the answers doesn’t make dealing with the realities easy. There is still pain, doubt, and fear. This is life between Eden, when the world was unstained by sin, and the New Jerusalem, where God will right every wrong.

As I looked over my Facebook friends’ reactions to this tragedy, I came across a quote, claiming to be from Mr. Rogers (it seemed legitimate, it was written on a photo of him…):

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Whether this quote is authentically Rogersian or not, it reminds us of two important things—again, things we already know:

  1. This world is full of evil, and human beings often labor for evil rather than good.
  2. Human beings still bear God’s image (even after the fall, see James 3:9), and often labor for healing and restoration rather than destruction.

Whenever we see a tragedy, then, we are reminded of the wrestle taking place in every inch of creation:

“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:20–24)

Though we cannot do anything to reverse such tragedies, we can continue to labor as those who bring healing, hope, and peace. We still sense God’s goodness and possess an impulse toward compassion. We can be the helpers in every area of life.

And while death shows up on every page of the Bible after the first two chapters, it was dealt a fatal blow at the cross, and death is expelled forever in the last two chapters of the Bible.

Last night, as I sang with my daughter the song she always requests we sing, I was struck by the appropriateness of the lyrics:

“This is my Father’s world,
O may I ne’er forget
That though the wrong
Seems oft so strong
God is the Ruler yet.”

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