I had known death before, but this time it was personal…..

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John 12:20-33

I had known death before, but this time it was personal. At 21 years of age, I had experienced the loss of loved ones and even of some contemporaries, but nothing compared with this experience. I called him uncle even though he was not a blood relative; he was my father’s best friend. My helplessness in the moment, his last breath while in my arms 2 ½ miles from the closest paved road, calling his son with the sad and tragic news will be forever imprinted on my heart and soul.

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I remember my thoughtless and paralyzed gaze as we buried him on that rainy day in early January. The cold shock remained with me as I stood with his sons, wife and friends at his graveside where our tears melded with the drops from God’s sky. It was as if the Lord was crying with us. As much as we needed “the white brilliance of the Florida noon”[1], the darkness brought by the grey clouds was what we endured. At that time and at my age, I had no understanding of death and resurrection beyond the stories told in Sunday school and the sermons I had already forgotten. To say the least, I wasn’t hopeful about anything that had to do with death.

I hardly remembered anything on that seven-hour drive back to school; I do recall screaming out and beating on the dashboard in that lonely moment, “why God, why did he have to die? Why?” Death had gone from abstract and what  happens to someone else, to something very personal. The next thing I knew, I was in my driveway, unpacking my car, my tie loosened up, clothes still damp but no tears left to shed. I needed to talk to someone but had no one. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, there wasn’t any way I would stay home one more minute; I had arrived back to school before just about everyone else.

“A seed must dry up and die before it will bear good fruit, so true…….”

Even if I had remembered or ever heard Jesus’ words: “Unless a grain of wheat dies and falls to the earth, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit”, or “Those who love life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”, or “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself……..”, none of these words would have made sense to me. I wasn’t ready to hear anything like that and even if I did hear them, I would not have comprehended what Jesus was telling me.

Philip and Andrew, the Greeks and the others hear Jesus share that his hour of death has come. This seems so abstract, especially the part about being raised up. Jesus is talking about something that as much as they know and understand death in the abstract or personally, they aren’t ready to hear it and especially from Jesus. The people seek Jesus to hear of hope through exercising war-like authority, overtaking the powers of the day – the Romans, the overbearing Jewish temple leaders and the like. In the midst of the celebration of the greatest accomplishment that God has made for the people of Israel known as the Passover, they expect an even greater victory from the perceived Messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth who is in their midst.

“The life that we seem to accept as our only choice, the one that we often come to even love, will die…”

Jesus says “Oh no, victory will not be as you expect; victory comes through my death and after my death, I will be raised up, and through my being raised up, I will draw all people to myself.” Jesus says in rather mysterious and abstract terms that new life begins with death – a seed must dry up and die before it will bear good fruit, so true……. The life that we seem to accept as our only choice, the one that we often come to even love, will die. The parts of our life that we hate, including our mortality or the death of a loved one, is what Jesus raises up as the greatest possible victory. The shock and seeming finality of death brings us new life. The seed of our Lord’s life must die in order for him to bear fruit for our eternal union with him.

In order to understand the depth of Jesus’ promise, we must embrace our personal experience of human death in its fullest sense. This sounds and feels so harsh, but until we put our feet in Jesus’ sandals to consider what it is like to predict our own death, we cannot fully know the deep meaning of the words he shares in Jerusalem on this day.

Today, we find Greeks seeking Philip out of the throngs of people in Jerusalem, expressing their desire to “see Jesus.” Little does anyone know what is about to happen. In the “white brilliance” of a Jerusalem noon, at the height of the Jews’ greatest celebration, Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection as God’s greatest gift to humanity. Jesus cries out that his soul is troubled with what is about to happen to him, yet Jesus continues his death march into Jerusalem for us – for you and for me.

“Nothing compares with our personal experience of death….”

One of my colleagues recently commented that even when preachers become weary from hearing their own voice, people still want and need to hear that voice. I hope that today we hear not my voice, but the voice of God who is about to die on a cross. I pray that today we once again or for the first time, embrace what it means for Jesus to knowingly lay down his life for us. This is personal, not abstract; this is real.

Alcy Braddock Gravestone

Nothing compares with our personal experience of death. I will always remember that moment of helplessness and shock as I held my uncle Alcy in my arms and stood at his grave. But his grave is not his final resting place; I know I will see him again one day because our Savior draws us to himself both now and into eternity.

As much as we prefer a “white brilliance of the Florida noon”[2] kind of life, we must experience the cold grey clouds that meld our tears with God’s raindrops to fully comprehend what is about to happen in Jerusalem.

[1] Pineland, a short story by Marjory Stoneman Douglas

[2] Pineland, a short story by Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your personal experience. Another seed of the Lord’s was planted in your “garden” and from it sprouted another of his miracles. The mystery of his miracles has continued with each beginning of life and each end of life we have been privileged to witness. Recognizing each as the Glory of God is perhaps the best way to know and grow our relationship with his Son, Jesus Christ.

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