Third in an Advent series on the theology in Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
One of the things about turning 50 is that it causes you to get a little bit nostalgic. One of the birthday presents I got a couple of weeks ago was a little booklet that outlined all the stuff that was around and popular in 1963, but what’s even more interesting about that is all the stuff we have now that was still a futuristic dream back then: microwave ovens, cell phones, home computers, and the internet. It’s amazing to think that we actually lived without those things at one time, isn’t it?
I mean, what would life be like without Google, for example? Back in the day we used to wait for the newspaper to show up on the doorstep or wait for Walter Cronkite to tell us what was going in the world after supper time. As kids, we did research using the encyclopedia and looked up books in the card catalog (with actual cards). Now, in just a finger clicks, we can have nearly all the information in the world at our finger tips—“Google” being a verb as much as it is a noun. Need an answer? Just Google it!
Google just celebrated its 15th anniversary this September—15 years of supplying answers to life’s questions (questions we didn’t even know we had). And in September, in celebration of that anniversary, Google announced that it is about to tackle the biggest problem of all: the problem of death.
That’s right, as Time magazine reported on the cover of its September 13 issue, Google is setting out to solve the problem of death. According to the article, Google is now trying to solve the problem of human aging and disease with massive data sets designed to give researchers the ability to conquer the one major problem that plagues us all. Google set up a company called Calico, which looks at medical problems through the lens of data and the map of the human genome rather than simply bringing another drug to market. The details are sketchy at best, but Google is reportedly pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the project. Even though we don’t know precisely how the tech company is going to defeat death, Time gushes that if anyone can do it, Google can. Indeed, as the article puts it, “Who the hell else is going to do it?”
Now, there’s an interesting choice of words…
Sure, we’re glad (for the most part) that Google is in our lives, but beating death? Actually, that’s one problem we Christians don’t need Google to solve because we know it’s already been done. As Charles Wesley puts it in the third verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing:”
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace,
Hail the Son of righteousness.
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by; born that we no more may die.
Born to raise us from the earth; born to give us second birth.
Indeed, if we want to truly understand the reality of the incarnation, if we want to know what the child born in the manger is all about, we have to work backward from Easter. Only two of the Gospels, in fact, mention the birth of Jesus. All four center on his resurrection from the dead. You can’t have Christmas without Easter. You can’t truly celebrate life until you’ve dealt with the reality of death.
Beating death really the point of the whole Bible, when it comes down to it. Some biblical scholars recently revealed that they discovered what they call a “death sandwich” in the book of Genesis. The book starts out with creation and life in Chapters 1 and 2, then death enters the picture in chapter 3 and runs the show all the way up until Chapter 50, when Joseph says that what humans meant for evil, God meant for good “to preserve a people.” Two messages of life surrounding a stinking center of death. I would argue that it’s not just Genesis that contains this “death sandwich,” it’s the whole Bible—God creates, humans sin and bring death into the world, which reigns through the story until, right here at Christmas, Jesus is born and goes out to beat death by dying on a cross and being raised from the dead. (By the way, “Death Sandwich” would be an awesome name for a heavy metal band—though I Googled it and someone is already using it).
Problem is, however, that people don’t often know what to do with the story. They come on Christmas and/or Easter, but they leave essentially unchanged by the message. Yeah, that’s something that happened in the past, something that might happen in the future, but now, well… there are presents to wrap and pies to be baked.
In his Christmas hymn, Charles Wesley calls us to look deeper, under the layers of all the Christmas decorations and candlelight, and discover the real operative principle of Christmas and of beating death—worshipping and following the one who can raise us up and give us new birth—not just in the future, but right now—in the present tense. It’s a message that, if we grab hold of it, will solve more problems than Google could ever dare to.
We see this at work in the story of Lazarus which, admittedly, is a strange one to look at during Advent, but it’s also a strange story to begin with at any rate. It most often appears in the Lectionary during the Lenten season, but I think it’s an Advent story, too, because everyone in it is waiting for Jesus to show up, just like we do during Advent. And when he shows up, death itself takes a holiday.
At the beginning of chapter 11, Jesus is informed that his friend Lazarus is sick. This doesn’t seem to concern him. This part of the story usually makes people anxious when they read it—why didn’t he go right away? I would have, or at least I would have told the pastor to go right then. Isn’t serious illness your number one priority, Jesus? Don’t you know he could die?
After a couple of days, Jesus says to his disciples, “OK, let’s go. Lazarus is asleep and we’ll go wake him up.” “Oh,” say the dense disciples, “then that’s ok. Sleep is good for getting better he’ll be fine.” But Jesus had to tell them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. Let’s go.” But it’s a dangerous proposition. His disciples know that the religious leaders in Judea want Jesus dead. There could be two funerals instead of one. “Alright,” says Thomas, “I guess we’ll go die with him, too.”
Jesus shows up and Lazarus’ sisters meet him on the steps of the funeral home. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” And Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Yeah, says Martha, I know that someday he’ll rise up with everyone else on the last day. That’s what we Jews believe—it’ll happen someday.
But notice what Jesus does here—he switches the tense. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” It’s all present tense. Martha’s thinking future, Jesus is speaking about right now.
“Oh sure,” she says, “I believe you are the Messiah, God’s Son, who is coming into the world. But see, there’s the tomb and he’s been in there four days. We’ve already had the funeral. You’re too late.” She believes the time has passed for Jesus to have done anything. Death wins again.
I think that’s true for so many people. They understand the theology in principle, but the practical application is elusive. In many ways, Martha’s problem is the church’s problem. Christmas after Christmas, Easter after Easter, people show up not expecting anything to happen right then. Sure, Jesus did some great things in the past, and maybe he’ll do some great things in the future, but not now. Right now we’re dealing with, that funeral, this issue, that problem. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Someday I’ll be the resurrection; oh, you’ll have life one day.” No—he says “I am the resurrection and the life. Right now.”
What does it mean for Jesus to be the resurrection and the life in the present? Let’s break those down.
1. Jesus is the resurrection: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live:” For Jesus to be the resurrection in the present means that physical death has no power over those who put their faith and trust in Jesus. The present is manageable because the future is secure.
2. Jesus is the life: “Those who believe in me will never die.” Because of Jesus, our present isn’t about waiting around to munch on the inevitable death sandwich; Jesus’ resurrection power means that we can live life to the fullest, no matter the circumstance because we know that even death can’t stop us.
Just a chapter earlier, in John 10:10, Jesus said that he had come that we might have “life and that abundantly.” In John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus that this abundant life was a new life, a born again life, or as Charles Wesley put it, a “second birth.” When Jesus shows up, life breaks out—life that death can’t ever beat. Google is wasting its time trying to find any other solution. In his life, we find life.
But somehow this message is tough to get through to the world, even for those who come at Christmas and Easter. Maybe its because we’re not very good with good news. Think about it—are we happy when our co-worker gets a promotion? Do we look at successful people and secretly think they did something nefarious to get to the top? Do we celebrate our neighbor’s good fortune? Good news is often bad news unless its happening to us.
Couple that with the fact that everything in our world seems to be focused on death. Google up the day’s news and you’ll see that. And in a world where everyone’s attention is always focused on dying, life is actually a threat. After Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, in the very next verses in John 11 we learn that that act of raising the dead was the last straw for the religious leaders who now wanted Jesus dead. We’re suspicious of good news because death is our normal way of understanding the world. It’s difficult for us to believe that anything can beat it, be it Google or God.
But Christmas and Easter and the whole story of Jesus reminds us that we believe in a God who is good enough and powerful enough to raise the dead and have victory over death itself. Death is not permitted to have the last word with us. That’s good news for everyone, but only if we believe it, embrace it, and live it.
When evangelist D.L. Moody was a young man, he was asked to preach a funeral sermon and he started looking through the Bible to find one of Jesus’ funeral sermons, but he discovered that there weren’t any. He discovered that Jesus broke up every funeral he ever attended. Death could not exist where he was. When the dead heard his voice they sprang to life. He was and is the resurrection and the life.
“Do you believe this?” Jesus asks. Do you believe that death really has been defeated by his resurrection? Do you believe that, because of Jesus, death won’t have the last word with us?
Do you believe that Jesus can bring healing, even in the most devastating of illnesses? And even when the illness leads to death, which we can’t beat in this life, do you believe in Jesus’ promise of resurrection life?
Do you believe that addiction you’re dealing with can be redeemed from the hopelessness of death by Jesus, the resurrection and the life.
Do you believe that prodigal child of yours can come home; that Jesus can get hold of his or her life and give them a second birth, a second chance?
Do you believe that marriage can be healed, resurrected, made new by an encounter with Jesus, who teaches us what it means to have abundant life?
Do you believe that Jesus can redeem your financial situation? Your job? Your strained family relationships?
When the newly rescusitated Lazarus emerged from the tomb, covered in grave cloths, the stink of death still on him, Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go.” Whatever binds you, whatever stink of death haunts you, because of Jesus you know you can be set free.
I AM the resurrection and I AM life, he says. And since he rose from the dead, the good news is that anything is possible.
In Philippians, Paul says that Jesus set aside his glory to come as a servant and to come and die. Resurrection isn’t an abstract, metaphorical idea with him—it’s the reality. Can it be that way with us? Do we really believe this? Do we really believe in him?
That’s a question for us as we wait for his coming in Advent. His birth, his death and resurrection, means that we no more may die. He has come to raise us up—not just on the last day, but now. He has come to give us second birth—a new chance at life. He has come to heal, to forgive, to love.
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by—born that we no more may die.
Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
Who the heaven else is going to help us beat death?