On Saturday, March 15, two women were killed in a tragic automobile accident in Santa Rosa, CA. In the blink of an eye, a husband lost his wife and mother, and his father lost his wife and daughter-in-law. As I write, churches, organizations and friends are walking alongside surviving family members, sharing their grief, praying for them and extending tangible care to them. I serve a church that is doing just that, and it’s wonderful to see. One more way to care that I feel is important is to speak about death from a Jesus centered point of view.
Speaking of death in a culture that denies death takes courage. We don’t know how to handle death well, and we avoid thinking about it. But Jesus knew how to handle death. Consider how Jesus responded to death…
Jesus talked openly about his death
Shortly after beginning his ministry, a plot formed to take his life. Jesus braced his followers by alerting them three times that he would die. He invited them to share his sorrow as he faced his cross. And he gave to them the practices of communion and baptism, both of which are steeped in imagery of death and new life.
Jesus wept with those who grieved the death of a loved one
When Jesus responded to Mary’s grief over losing her brother, he wept. He stood with her in her pain, and he wept. This tender response of Jesus speaks volumes about how much our pain matters to God.
Jesus railed in anger against death
When Jesus stood before the grave of Lazarus, Mary’s brother, he railed in anger at death (most translations say that Jesus “was moved” but the Greek is stronger, carrying the notion of bellowing with anger.)
What is Jesus angry about?
Death was never God’s intent. Death is an aberration, introduced as a severe mercy by God after the entrance of sin so that humanity would not have to endure a broken world indefinitely.
To know that God gets so angry at our worst nightmare—the death of self and the loss of loved ones—to know that God gets angry enough to die, so that we might live, with God and our loved ones is amazing.
Jesus lamented while he died
On the cross, Jesus spoke words of lament (“why have you forsaken me?”) The cry of abandonment, confusion and anger directed to God is not just cathartic. It’s an expression of bold faith to God that the world is not as it should be.
Lament is important, in part, because not everything that happens is God’s will. The starvation of children, the actions of a serial rapist, even a tragic car accident do not reflect God’s will. This notion will be new to those who think that everything that happens is a part of God’s blueprint-like plan, but the bible never says that. The Bible speaks of God’s end-game of a new earth/heaven filled with fullness of God, and it says that in the mean-time, there will be trials and tribulations, but it assures us that “all things work together for good for those who love God.” The bible never says that all things are good. For reasons beyond our comprehension, God allows tragedy but does not author it.
Some will ask: “Well, why does God ‘allow it’ in the first place, if God is all powerful and loving?” Because that’s how love works. We are not created as drones, programmed to love God and to do God’s will. Love necessitates choice, and the God who Is Love creates us with the gift of free will to love God or reject God. And rejection brings all manner of bad results that are not God’s will.
Jesus was raised from death
The Christian hope is that Jesus lived, died and rose, making him “Lord of the living and the dead.” By raising Jesus from the dead, God set in motion a day when heaven and earth will be joined and God’s gathering will dwell in joy we that only experience as foretaste in this life. As a pastor I have seen how much this hope matters for those who grieve. It’s true that believers “grieve, yet not as the world grieves.” The sorrow of loss is real, raw and painful for anyone. But without hope, it’s abysmal.
The Christian hope is also that God is able to make beauty from ashes. Just look at Jesus who enters the mess of our sin and death by dying and rising. The victory of God in Christ means that all who pin their hope on Jesus live, now and forever. And one sign of that eternal life, here and now, is God’s redemptive ability to bring beauty from the ashes of any tragedy.
The body of Christ is uniquely gifted to speak of death in a culture that denies death. May we do so with wisdom, grace and compassion, with eyes fixed on the one who lived, died and was raised from the dead.