Death is Swallowed Up in Victory
Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
The Confident Complaints of Martha and mary
We read about Mary of Bethany and her words to Jesus as Jesus arrives after the death of her brother Lazarus. Her words are much like that of her sister Martha and they contain both complaint and confidence. Confidence in the fact that they know that Jesus is Lord of life but complaint because he didn't get there in time to save Lazarus from dying in the first place. Frankly, it shows their lack of understanding that, being Lord of life, Jesus does not only heal the sick but he raises the dead.
Martha had said just a few versus before that “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus has to tell her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
So now, Jesus has to hear it from Mary again. The New Revised Standard Version translates Jesus response to Mary’s tears as greatly disturbed and deeply moved and this seems to suggest Jesus deep compassion but the Greek verbs used here actually communicate agitation and indignation. Too many times we over sentimentalize Jesus’ reaction and his tears. While these verses do underscore the bitter cost and the power of death in human lives, so do they also highlight the significance of Jesus ultimate victory over death.
Jesus then goes to the tomb where Lazarus has been laid and orders the stone to be removed. Martha comes back for more. Her protest that Lazarus must be stinking by now only draws attention to the reality of death that Jesus is about to confront. Jesus again seems a bit agitated when he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus is reminding Martha and John is reminding his audience that a miracle is about to take place.
Then Jesus speaks to the real author of life, God. Everything that Jesus says and does has been given to him by God. And then we see Jesus called Lazarus by name and breaks the power of death. It's quite a visual image, Lazarus still wrapped in the burial clothes, making it concrete the death has had a complete hold on Lazarus. But it also contrasts with the description of the burial clothes that Jesus will leave behind at his own resurrection. While Lazarus is still wrapped in those clothes as he comes forth, Jesus will leave those clothes behind.
It is a great story and one which gives us hope for our lives and for the lives of those that we love who have gone before. It is a great story to be told on the day we celebrate All Saints Day.
Isaiah and the Canaanite Myth
But look at the words of the Isaiah passage and the passage in Revelation. Those words are also telling us a story, a story not about one man who had died, like Lazarus, but about the grip of death itself on humanity.
We need to take a brief look at what we call apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic Literature refers to a specific type of literature. We are most familiar with Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings, such as the book of Daniel and, of course, the Book of Revelation. But there are also Persian and Muslim examples of apocalyptic literature and these take on distinctive and easily identifiable patterns of thinking. According to that pattern, apocalypses usually reveal the struggle between the power of evil and people of goodwill. It usually involves some direct action from God on behalf of good people and is aided by angelic beings, just as the power of evil is supported by demonic powers.
The word apocalypse itself means “to draw aside,” as in pulling aside a curtain to reveal what is behind it. The fundamental characteristic of apocalypticism, however, is the knowledge that we are not in this struggle alone. Our simple worldview is pulled back to show the way things really are.
Isaiah and the Book of Revelation reveal realities beyond our worldview. In chapter 24 of Isaiah, we had seen heavenly hosts at war on behalf of the people of God. God had come to the rescue of God's own people. In chapter 25, there is thanksgiving offered to God for God's deliverance of God's people.
The verses of our lesson are a poem that celebrates the time of redemption that follows. the judgment of God. It talks about a banquet of celebration that God will host. These verses that we read are identified with ancient Canaanite mythology. The storm God Ba’al hosts the banquet in victory of his defeat over the forces of chaos, the god of the sea, Yamm. After defeating Yamm, Ba’al all is enthroned as king of the gods. The banquet is going to be held on the mountain, that is to say, the temple mount in Jerusalem. That mountain is envisioned as the seat of God's dominion and the place where heaven and earth meet.
Now in the Canaanite myth, the chaotic forces that Ba’al defeated are unleashed once more after Ba’al’s enthronement. The god of death, Mot, stretches wide his mouth and swallows Ba’al and takes Ba’al down to the underworld, leaving him dead. Chaos and Death win in the Canaanite story.
Amending the Canaanite Story
That is the Canaanite myth but Isaiah was going to amend that story, our story is better than your sad tale and death is not the end all, saying that our God, Yahweh, will be the one doing the swallowing up. Yahweh will swallow up death forever. And Yahweh, our God, will wipe away the tears from all faces. And we will be glad, not for any victory of ours but, rather, for the salvation brought to us by Yahweh.
That phrase was meaningful for Paul and he quotes it in First Corinthians 15:54 in his discussion of the resurrection, saying, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Revelation and All New Things
But Revelation will quote from it beautifully. In the Revelation passage from our text, everything is new again—a new heaven and a new earth and a new city prepared for Christ and the church and verse four says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
Everything will be new again. He does not say I will make all new things but, rather, I will make all things new again. The heavenly realities are brought to earth. No more dying, no more weeping. And this new city is not like the tower of Babel where humans tried to reach up to God. The new city is not achieved by human ingenuity or endeavor but is a city built by God and sent to us.
When Jesus says I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning in the end, he is saying that he was there at the garden of Eden. He was there when Isaiah spoke about the end of death. He was there to bestow life on Lazarus. He was there when John received his revelation of all things being made new again. And Christ will be there when death is swallowed up in victory.
John's telling of the story of Lazarus is the historical proof of the mythological theory. It is proof that death is not the end of the story. It is the assurance that life and love will indeed have the last word.
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