TEXT: Luke 8:40-42, 49-56



            It’s comforting to me as a pastor to remember that there were times when people thought Jesus was off his rocker.  There was the time that his own mother and brothers thought he had gone over the edge and came to retrieve him and bring him back home to a nice, padded room.  Then there was the time when he started talking about his flesh being bread and a whole crowd of followers just gave up on him and left for good.

            And then there is the passage I just read where Jesus is invited to perform a healing.  The only daughter of a man named Jairus is dying.  But Jesus doesn’t get there in time, and while they’re still on the road, the news comes that the girl is dead.  Jesus continues on to the house anyway, and when he arrives he tells the mourners that the girl isn’t dead.  “She’s just sleeping,” he tells them, and that’s crazy enough that they stop crying to laugh at him.

            After all, this was a culture that knew death first-hand. There were no hospitals for the sick to stay apart from their homes.  There were no funeral homes to come and take the bodies away and pretty them up for viewing.  You died at home or in the street or wherever you happened to be and your family, if you had one, came and got you, mourned you, and buried you.  They knew death when they saw it.  She was not sleeping, and they knew it.

            It was an odd thing to say, really.  He could have told it like it was and said, “She is dead, but I have the power to raise the dead, and I will restore her to you.”  If he said that, they probably wouldn’t have laughed.  They might have doubted whether Jesus really had that power, but I’ll bet they would have been willing to let him try.  But that’s not what he does.  Instead, Jesus looks into the face of death and says, “No.”  It is a denial of death.  “She is not dead...get that out of your heads.  Never mind that she is no longer breathing and all the signs of death are there.  She is sleeping.”

            At the risk of overdoing the Ashley Smith story that we focused on last week, she did the same thing in her encounter with Brian Nichols.  Remember, Brian Nichols is the man who went on a rampage in an Atlanta courthouse, killing a judge, deputy, and court reporter before escaping and then murdering a federal agent to take his truck.  He ended up taking Ashley Smith hostage and holding her for 7 hours in her apartment.

            It was during that time that Ashley Smith shared her faith and, I believe, gave Brian Nichols the gift of resurrection.  Of all the things she said and did during those hours, there was one interchange that just leapt out at me.  She reported, “He told me that he was already dead.  He said, ‘Look at me, look at my eyes.  I am already dead.’

            “And I said, ‘You are not dead.  You are standing right in front of me.’”

            It is the same thing that Jesus did for Jairus’ daughter, and just as absurd.  Brian Nichols was basically right in saying he was dead.  There were SWAT teams scouring the city, ready to shoot on sight.  If he survived the capture, prosecutors would be seeking the death penalty for his crimes with irrefutable evidence.  He was as good as dead, physically, and he was also as good as dead emotionally and spiritually.  He had just killed four people in cold blood and taken another one hostage.  People full of life don’t do that, or if they do, life vanishes.  Those who kill others also kill themselves.  He was right.  He was already dead.

            But Ashley Smith knew the Lord of Life.  She wasn’t playing games; she wasn’t trying to con him.  She just knew that death had been beaten on an Easter morning long ago.  And so she looked into those already-dead eyes and said “no.”  “You are not dead.”  And in that moment, it was Easter morning for Brian Nichols.  Just a few hours later he would be offering to hang her curtains as he let her go to see her daughter and turn him in.  Following her instructions, he surrendered without a fight.

            And of course it was the same thing on that first Easter morning.  The women who had watched Jesus die showed up at his tomb to tend to his body.  But instead of Jesus, they find angels with the same absurd message.  “No.  Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  The women might well have laughed the way the mourners for the little girl laughed.  They knew death when they saw it.  They watched him die.  Unlike most of the other disciples, the women did not run from the cross.  They were there.  They saw his side pierced with a spear. They knew.

            Even though the Bible tells us that Jesus appeared to over 500 people in the 40 days after his resurrection, the message became no less absurd.  Even his own disciples had trouble with it with Jesus standing right in front of them.  When Paul preached in Athens, everybody was really interested in the story until he got to the resurrection part.  Then they simply dismissed him as crazy.

            And you can’t really blame them.  From the outside looking in, it looks like Christians are really, really adept at denial, and not just about a guy who died 2000 years ago.  Even when someone is laying in a coffin in front of us, we say “No, she is not dead.”  “No, he is not here,”  When very obviously they are right there, dead as a doornail and soon to be put in the ground or the fire.  But, unlike other types of denial that lead to neuroses and illnesses of various sorts, when Christians say “no” to death, there is joy, hope, and...if we will wait a bit...resurrection. 

            Why?  Because the message is true.  Saying “no” to death is, at the same time, saying “yes,” to the power of God.  It acknowledges that God is more powerful even than this–that love is eternal and cannot be ripped away by the coldness of death.  At Christmas, we are amazed that God would take on limited, mortal flesh to live as one of us.  At Easter we are astounded to realize that God became one of us so that we might become like God...that we, too, might live forever in the power of God’s love.  Jesus didn’t just come, live, die, rise again and forget about it.  Jesus came as one of us to tell us of God’s intention to take us with him.  “Let not your hearts be troubled.  In my Father’s house are many rooms.  I go to prepare a place for you.”

            If you trace the Christian river of joy back to its source, you find there the resurrection...not just because we are happy for Jesus, but because we are thrilled for ourselves and for our loved ones.  With the resurrection at our backs, we can look death in the eye and say, “No.  This might look like death, smell like death, act like death; but I know better.  There is life.”  God is love and therefore love cannot die.  To say Jesus saves is to say that love saves.

            Through the power of God, Ashley Smith saved Brian Nichols.  He may well be executed for his crimes, and I can’t say he will never sin again.  But she gave him the love of God, and as he offered to hang her curtains and let her walk freely out of her apartment, he returned that love to her.  How did they get to that point?  Because she looked him in the eye and told him the core of the Gospel: “You are not dead.”  That good news saved them both.

            Too often we Christians forget that Easter is not just a remembrance of a historical event.  It is the proclamation that death is beaten, it’s real power gone...not just then, but now.  On its most basic level, it takes us through the experience of physical death.  Whether it is a friend, family member, a beloved pet, or the view of our own passing just around the bend; we can with all confidence look it in the eye and say, “No.  This is not death.  She is just sleeping.  He is not here.  He has risen.”  It’s the truth of the line from that old inspirational song, “I’ll walk with God,” which says, “There is no death, though eyes grow dim.”  We just move from limited, earthly reality into the unlimited love of God.

            But there are also other ways that death creeps into our lives.  Sometimes we are like Brian Nichols.  We may not be physically dead, but we are dead inside.  Maybe, like him, we have committed crimes or done terrible harm to others and thus to ourselves.   Or maybe the cruel circumstances of life have stolen our joy and we feel dead inside.  Maybe we have lost our sense of life’s purpose...or maybe we never found it in the first place.

            To you, Jesus says, “No...you are not dead.  Stop acting like you’re dead, because you’re not.  That’s a lie, and if you keep telling yourself a lie, it will lead to more death.  You have to say ‘no’ to death and ‘yes’ to life.  I don’t care what it looks like.  Say it anyway, because it’s the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”  It doesn’t matter if it’s impossible.  It doesn’t matter if others laugh at you for saying it or if it contradicts the plain facts that you see with your own eyes.  Just say “no” to death.

            Now when I say to say “no” to death, I don’t mean the kind of scene that has been playing out in Florida with the tragic case of Terri Schiavo.  I don’t mean that we should deny the fact that our bodies give out and need to be laid to rest or that we should pretend that life is only a biological reality and keep the biology running no matter what.  Earthly life is sacred, but it is also temporary.  Jesus wasn’t eager to die, but neither did he fight it when his time had come.   It is his example we follow.  Death comes to us all...we do not say “no” to the event of death.  We say “no” to the permanence of death.  We say “no” to the victory of death.

            I have no way of knowing the agony that Terri Schiavo’s parents are going through.  But as they have become more frantic and desperate across the week, I have wanted to take their hands and tell them about Easter.  I know they have heard it before, but in the incredible pain of the moment, they have forgotten the part of their Christian faith that was meant to bring comfort in just such a time.  Terri’s body is about to give out.  But Terri herself is not about to die.  She is about to live in a way that she had not for the past 15 years.  It will be terribly hard to know she is gone from earthly life, and I don’t mean to minimize that in the least, but the Easter proclamation is not about preventing death so much as it is about taking away death’s sting.  They can say “no” to death and still let her go to enjoy the freedom of resurrected life.

            As Christians, we believe that the life of Jesus is the revelation of God.  In other words, when we look at Jesus’ life, the nature of God is revealed and we can understand how God wants us to live.  When Jesus heard about Jairus’ daughter, he didn’t run to her house.  In fact, he stopped and healed a woman with a hemorrhage on the way, and so he did not reach her in time.  At another time, when he heard that his friend Lazarus was sick and on the verge of death and Lazarus’ family begged Jesus to come quickly...he didn’t.  He waited several days, doing nothing in particular, and Lazarus’ sisters let Jesus know how he had disappointed them when he finally arrived four days after Lazarus had died.

            Jesus allows death to happen in its time...to others and to himself.  And the reason he can let it happen, is that he knows what we keep forgetting.  It is just a passing from here to there.  As the Hymn of Promise says, “In our end is our beginning.”  He could look at a dead girl and know she was only sleeping.  He could show up four days after a friend’s death and still call him right out of his tomb.  Those weren’t just miracles.  They were signs.  They were signals to us of the real nature of death.  It has no real power.  It is not a trap from which we cannot escape.  It will happen, but it is not to be feared.  Life and love have already won the day.

            I think if Jesus appeared to Terri Schiavo’s family, he would say, “Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many rooms.”  If he appeared to you when all your days seem cold and lifeless, I believe he would say, “You are not dead.  You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”  And as your own death approaches, I believe that Jesus, like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal’s son, will see you coming from afar and run out to meet you, eager to welcome you home with the greatest party you’ve ever seen..

            She is just sleeping.  He is not here.  You are not dead.  Amen.

© 2005, Anne Robertson

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