Embracing the Uncertainty of Mortality

Embracing the Uncertainty of Mortality

During the Lenten season, we are working through a series called, “Embracing the Uncertain” where we are invited to take a different perspective on life’s uncertainties. There is no doubt that there are tons of uncertainties in this world, but instead of ignoring or hiding from them, we’re studying God’s Word to find the strength and power to actually engage those uncertainties with confidence.

To do so, we’re exploring six stories in the Gospels as Jesus travels closer and closer to Jerusalem where He will be crucified. These stories show some of the common uncertainties we all can have, but yet point us toward a cross that can show us how to embrace the uncertainties with courage and obedience to Jesus while giving us hope of the resurrection.

Let’s jump right into it the next uncertainty. Outside the promise of Jesus’ second coming to come back and take us to Heaven (because we don’t know when that’s going to be), deep down, we all know that none of us will make if off this earth alive. In one form or fashion, we will all die. These earthly bodies are not made to last forever. Now, I know that death is not an easy topic to talk about.

One of my grandmothers didn’t like talking about her funeral arrangements because she didn’t like to talk about death, especially her own. My grandfather wanted to prepare and plan their funeral services, pay for them ahead of time, and be assured that his family didn’t have to take care of that in their time of grief. Sounds wise to me, but my grandmother thought it was the oddest and strangest thing to think and talk what it would be like at her own funeral.

My sister recently said to me that she’s noticed that as she gets older and around death more, that it doesn’t emotional shake her like it used to. Almost like she’s used to it and can respond better to the loss. My sister and I experienced a great loss as young adults when our father died, which taught us a lot about life and death at an early age. I agreed with her as in my line of work, I see death often. Loss still hurts no doubt, but we come to expect that one day we will all not be here. We are born, we live, and we die. That’s just the way it works. Which leads me to the next uncertainty we going to talk about, the uncertainty of mortality.

Mortality is defined as referring to the state of being mortal, being human that is destined to die. In other words, people don’t live forever. One dictionary definition I found says mortality is the quality or state of being a person or thing that is alive and therefore certain to die. In other words, anything that has life, will one day die.

Great topic, right? You’re probably thinking, okay pastor we can wrap it up now. But look, whether as a child, or in our middle-aged years, or during the senior years of life, we have all had or will have moments of realization mixed with wonder of what death and eternity will be like. They may be moments that we’d rather ignore, but they are moments that grip our attention and make us realize that it’s going to happen to us too.

None of us know how or when we will die. For some in this room, it could be 50 years from now, 10 years from now, 10 days, 10 minutes from now. No one knows. And that’s why we shouldn’t take the time we have here for granted.

We began Lent with Ash Wednesday that reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It’s a difficult reality to ignore. And it had to be this kind of feeling that greeted Jesus when He finally decided to arrive in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in John 11.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are all siblings, and they are close friends of Jesus’. (This is the same Mary who, just before Jesus enters Jerusalem, pours expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair.) So immediately, when Lazarus gets deathly sick, the sisters send for Jesus because they know who He is. They know He is the Messiah and can make their brother better.

John 11:4-7, 17-27
4 But when Jesus heard about it he said, “Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.” 5 So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, 6 he stayed where he was for the next two days.

You may ask, if He loved them, then why didn’t He run off quickly to help them? Jesus waited in order to make a point about God’s glory. It’s a point that is hard for us to hear when we are captivated by grief, but it’s a point that makes all the difference in the world, and all the difference in eternity.

7 Finally, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.”

17 When Jesus arrived at Bethany, he was told that Lazarus had already been in his grave for four days. 18 Bethany was only a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, 19 and many of the people had come to console Martha and Mary in their loss.

So when Jesus arrives, Mary and Martha are deep in their grieving with the support of their community around them. With lots of people there, Jesus saw the tomb and shared in their grief by becoming deeply disturbed and weeping. Mary and Martha were angry, maybe at Jesus, but more at the unfairness of it all. Jesus heard from Martha first.

20 When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”

23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 “Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.”

25 Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. 26 Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?”

27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”

Martha knows that Jesus can do miracles. She truly believes that anything He ask the Father to do, can be done. She also knows there’s something greater after we die. What she doesn’t know is what Jesus will do in this moment, if anything. What He does do, is immediately speaks a word of hope to Martha. He knows what He’s about to do and why, but instead of jumping right to it, He relates to the grievers. His heart aches for their broken hearts even though He knows He’s going to raise this man from the dead in a few minutes. He doesn’t just ignore the fact that they are hurt. He was there to be with them, to sit, to listen, and to identify with their struggles.

I have to say, of all the privileges that we as pastors observe in our profession, it’s moments like these, when Jesus sat with the grieving, that are our most sacred privilege. The time I spend with a family to plan a funeral is one of the most profound aspects of ministry for me, and I imagine that’s true for any pastor. In those moments, every critical part of a clergy’s calling is employed, from being a counselor, to someone who can explain the scriptures, to showing compassion and support. And most of all, we are there to listen for the stories, the narratives, that capture a family’s memory of their loves one.

If the family wants me to give the eulogy of their loved one at the service, I start by gathering information about the person. Even if I’ve known the person for years, there are always things I don’t know. So I ask them to tell me stories. Sometimes in grief, getting the memories going takes a little bit, but once they get rolling the memories come flooding. The stories come randomly from different members of the family. One memory leads to another and then to another. One moment the family may tell a hilarious story that has everyone in the room laughing, and in the next breath the family can become emotional and weep. It’s almost like the family wants to speak their memories out loud as soon as they think of them, as if sharing them will preserve them a little longer in their collective memory.

One thing I observe in almost every one of these settings is that when a loved one dies, we start to think about our what eternity will be like. Something like that is exactly what’s happening in the story of Jesus, Mary and Martha. The very first thing that Martha expresses to Jesus is understandable grief and anger: “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

But in the same breath, in the same sentence she says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask….I know that he will rise in the last day.”

Jesus confirms her words and more. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die.” In Martha’s grief, she’s hopeful of the Resurrection, and Jesus tells her that Resurrection is actually standing right in front of her. He is it. He is the Resurrection and the life.

As Christians, we believe that when we walk on this side of the grave, we live with the light of eternity in our hearts. That means since He is the Resurrection and the life, the power of the Resurrection and the promise of new life are not simply things that await us when we die. They are things that live inside us now! That power that lives in us then shapes our hope and thinking, particularly on things like our mortality and our life after death. This then changes the way we live and means our lives today can have consequences for eternity, specifically for the ones around us. Let me explain.

Despite the many stories that have been told over countless funerals that I have had the privilege to conduct, I have seen a general theme among them. Loved ones are not most remembered for their achievements, or their possessions, or trophies, or financial success, or the number of abbreviations behind their name. Loved ones are most remembered for how they made the people around them feel. They are remembered for their relationships. They are remembered for the way other people say their lives are forever changed because that loved one was part of it. They are remembered for their enduring example of following Christ, their legacy, their character, and the ways that they have made those around them better people because of the love they gave. It’s about love. Love is the only thing here on earth that lives after we are gone.

Let’s go back to the mysterious question, the same question that Mary and Martha must have been wrestling with as they placed a sheet over their brothers face: What happens to us after we die?

It’s one of the most asked questions I hear in ministry. What will Heaven be like? What kind of bodies will we have? What will we look like? Will we be the age we are when we die or much younger? Will we see our loved ones? Will our pets be there? Will we recognize our loved ones? What will we do for eternity? It’s good to ask these kinds of questions because we seem to have an urgency to find the answers.
So we turn the scriptures to find the answers, only to find a wide range of what seems to be vague answers. We don’t get a full picture of what Heaven will be like, and I think God wants it that way. What fun is having all the answers. After our bible study a few weeks ago, I know some of you don’t like surprises, but there is a good thing about not knowing. Faith. Faith is believing even though you can’t see it or know it all. And what we do know from the Bible is enough about God to have faith in what He promises to us.

Here’s one thing we do have a clear picture of, the Bible tells us what kind of bodies we will have in Heaven. During Paul’s ministry, he wrote two letters to the church in Corinth, who must have been having the same questions we have today, and he points out in both of the letters what kind of bodies we will have in Heaven. He writes that we will not have our earthly bodies, because those will stay in the ground and decompose. We will have new bodies.

2 Corinthians 5:1-8
For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. 2 We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. 3 For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. 4 While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life.

Paul explains our new bodies like a seed planted in the ground.
1 Corinthians 15:36-38, 42-44
36 When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. 37 And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting. 38 Then God gives it the new body he wants it to have.

42 It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies.

When we die, it’s like our seed is being planted in the ground. When we are resurrected to Heaven, it’s like the seed sprouting into a new life above the ground. Paul recognizes that the seed and the plant are very different in appearance, but are the same. It’s like how you can’t plant an apple seed and expect to get an orange tree. It’s still you, just in a different body, a heavenly body.

So it doesn’t matter if we are buried in a casket, cremated and buried in one spot or scattered. Our earthly bodies will stay on earth when we die. When Jesus returns, scripture tells us that our earthly bodies will be taken to Heaven, and I’m sure God has a plan for how that will happen figuring how the human body naturally decomposes.

The point is that when we die, we sprout up into new life, with a new kind of body that is heavenly, not earthly, but is still very much uniquely us and still a body in some way.

Paul continues…
1 Corinthians 15:51-57
51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory.55 O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s hard to imagine the questions Mary and Martha must have been wrestling with when Jesus arrived four days after their brother died. Could this have been avoided? Why did he have to die? What are we going to do now? These questions are tough, much like the questions we have about what happens after we die.

For all of us, including Paul, there’s a box of things marked “I don’t know.” But just because there are things in your “I don’t know” box, doesn’t mean your “I believe” box should be empty. In other words, just because we don’t know all the details about Heaven, doesn’t mean we don’t believe in it. It just means we don’t know yet.

Jesus tells Martha that He is the Resurrection and the life. The Resurrection is right there with her, and then He raises her brother from the dead to drive the point home. If we had tangible evidence of what life would be like in Heaven, then there would be no need for faith. Without faith, there would be no growth and no maturity. Faith is what stretches us, motivates us, and keeps us going. It calls you take a risk and a leap into something unknown. It’s not what’s in your “I don’t know box” or your “this is what I know” box that makes you grow. It’s what’s in your “this is what I believe” box.

“Do you believe this?”, Jesus asked Martha. Not “Do you know?” Do you believe? Do you believe Jesus is the Resurrection and the life? Because whoever does will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in Jesus will never die (John 11:25-26).

2 Corinthians 5:7-8
7 For we live by believing and not by seeing. 8 Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord.