Weird Things


A sermon preached on March 9, 2008 based upon Ezekiel 37:1 – 14, and John 11:1 – 45 entitled “Weird Things”:

Death has been on my mind this week, for two reasons. One, I was present in the intensive care unit Sunday evening when Don Seeley, breathed his last breath. It is an extraordinary thing to be with somebody, when, one moment their body has life in it, and the next, the life has disappeared. I had just finished praying the 23rd psalm, and was praying over him with his daughter Karan, and he departed. It was sad, especially for Karan, who will miss her Dad terribly. But there was also a sense of blessing — it was a peaceful, gentle passing for a man who had lived a long life, whose body had been causing him a great deal of pain and frustration lately, and who had been missing his beloved wife of over 50 years who departed this world just three years earlier.

The other reason death has been on my mind this week was one in which I could not detect any sense of blessing. We heard that two seventh grade boys were killed in south Jersey when they were hit by a car while crossing a residential street. My son Bobby actually knew one of the boys, having spent four days with him at a soccer camp last summer. As you can imagine, it disturbed Bobby greatly, and me in turn watching my son grapple with death, as well as the reminder this tragedy gave that there are no certainties in this world that my own 12 year old son, so full of life, could not be suddenly snatched from me as well.

We heard that the funeral home where the boy Bobby knew was laid out had a line stretched out far down the street that took three hours to move through. It reminded me of the scene that Jesus came upon when he finally reached Mary and Martha, grieving for their brother Lazarus, dead too young.

This is a strange story that the Gospel writer John tells. On the one hand, it has such painful realism. It speaks of Lazarus’ dead body decaying, causing a terrible stench. It describes people grieving in an all-too-familiar way; two sisters visited by innumerable friends, weeping, their hearts filled with an awful sadness, and anger too, considering all the “What ifs”, such as, “What if Jesus had gotten here in time?” “Why weren’t you here, Jesus!”

Along with this painful realism, though, odd things happen here in this story — bizarre things. When Jesus hears his friend Lazarus is dying, he intentionally waits before coming. When he finally arrives four days after Lazarus‘ death, he seems quite calm, and almost puzzled by the terrible distress of Martha and Mary. But then he too, weeps, described by John as “disturbed in his spirit, and deeply moved.” And then, of course, the most bizarre thing of all occurs: he simply commands Lazarus, four days dead in the tomb, to come out, and he does just that, wrapped tightly in his grave cloths.

One of the things that happens throughout John’s Gospel is that people misinterpret what Jesus is saying or doing. Though it happens multiple times in this passage, I’d like to focus on the misunderstanding of the meaning of Jesus’ tears. Seeing Jesus weeping, the people say, “See how he loved Lazarus.” Although he does in fact love Lazarus, this is not the reason why he is crying. It would have been easy enough for Jesus to have kept this from happening. He is grieving because of the heartbreak he sees Mary and Martha and all the others are going through having lost Lazarus by death. He weeps because death bullies them so.

And so when he raises Lazarus from the dead, it is not for Lazarus’ sake. It is for the sake of those who are there grieving in such terrible pain, and intimidated by death.

What, we might wonder, would it have been like from Lazarus’ point of view? We aren’t told. I think, however, that it is fair to imagine Lazarus’ response as having been mixed, at best.

Some insight to Lazarus’ point of view might be provided from the experience of another Don, Donald Piper, who wrote a book entitled, “90 Minutes in Heaven.” I read extensively from this book a few months back, and I want to return to different portions of the book this morning. The book describes Don Piper’s experience of having been in a terrible car crash on an icy bridge, hitting a truck head on. Apparently he died, which is what the EMTs concluded when they arrived on the scene and couldn’t find a pulse. Don was trapped inside his car, and once the emergency personnel concluded he was dead and there was no hope, they took their time, waiting for the jaws of life to arrive to cut Don’s body out, and for the coroner to show up to officially declare him dead.

During the 90 minutes in which Don was believed to be dead, he had a glorious vision, which he describes in the portion of the book I read from last time. It involved going to the gates of heaven, where he was greeted by all the people who had loved him and preceded him in death. It was the happiest experience he’d ever known, and there was this wonderful music, and just so much love.

Suddenly, however, Don found himself back in his broken body, trapped in the crushed car; his body wracked with pain. He tells the long, difficult story of his rehab from the accident and the severe bouts of depression he suffered, before finally discovering a calling in what he had experienced, and began sharing what he had seen and learned.

I’d like to read a passage from towards the end of the book:

One time I shared my experiences with a large congregation that included my wife’s parents, Eldon and Ethel Pentecost. They’ve been consistently supportive and made great sacrifices during my accident and lengthy recovery.

After the service, we went to their home. At one point, Eldon and I were alone, and he told me, “I was angry the first time you shared your story of your trip to heaven.”

I had not idea he felt that way.

“You finished by saying you never wanted to come back to earth.”

I just nodded in affirmation, not knowing where this was going.

“I didn’t understand it then, but I’ve changed. Now when I hear you talk about heaven’s beauty, I understand a little better why you’d willingly be separated from my daughter and grandkids for a while. You know–you really do know, don’t you– that they’ll join you someday?”

“Without a doubt,” I said.

Eldon’s revelation caught me off guard… By faith, I knew that (my wife and children) would be residents of heaven someday. Being separated from them had never crossed my mind while I was in heaven. People in heaven simply don’t have an awareness of who is not there. They do know who is coming.

Even today, I can say honestly that I wish I could have stayed in heaven, but my ultimate time had not yet come. After leaving heaven, if I had known that I would face two weeks in ICU, a year in a hospital bed, and thirty-four operations, I surely would have been even more disheartened from the outset. However, this was not my choice, and I returned to the sounds of one voice praying, boots crunching glass underfoot, and the Jaws of Life ripping through my shattered auto. (Don Piper, 90 Minutes in Heaven pp. 202 – 3)

Lazarus obeyed Jesus’ voice — Jesus whom he loved — but what he left behind to come back must have been so very beautiful.

In Buddhism, there is a concept of souls evolving over time through reincarnation; that through numerous incarnations the soul learns the lessons of life, and eventually reaches the perfection that is nirvana, roughly equivalent to what we call heaven. And yet Buddhists believe that certain great souls, having learned all the lessons that life teaches and are ready to attain nirvana, chose not to enter into bliss. Motivated by compassion, they choose rather to be incarnated in flesh once more, to be in this world as a teacher of other struggling souls making their way through this world.

Perhaps Lazarus coming back to life on this earth has that same quality.

There is more to life than we can see or touch; more than we can understand. Weird things happen. We want things to follow clear rules so we know what to expect. The physical laws of Isaac Newton seemed nice and clear, and then Einstein called our attention to weird stuff that didn’t follow the rules. It was disconcerting.

The same is true with spiritual reality. We want there to be clear rules, about how prayer works, for instance. Pray in such and such a way, and we will be assured of getting certain results: that’s what we want.

But God is free, and maybe a little weird, and the mystery of God can’t be nailed down.

Though I’ve never thought of it this way before, one of the things this story of the raising of Lazarus is about is the power of prayer. Jesus is praying to his Father in heaven when he commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb.

Prayer is more powerful that we realize.

In his book, Don Piper tells a story regarding what happened at the scene of the accident– a story he only found out much later. A Baptist minister named Dick Onerecker was driving on that same road, and when he came to the roadblock created by the police to keep people away from the bridge where the accident had taken place, he felt God urging him to pray for whoever was in the accident.

Dick got out of his car and walked a half a mile past a long line of cars stopped in traffic in order to approach Don’s car. He told the policeman that he was a minister and asked if there was anyone he could help. The policeman pointed to a couple of people who had been shaken up in the accident, but weren’t seriously hurt. Dick asked about the person who had been hit by the truck, and the officer said that the man was deceased.

Nonetheless, Dick felt God urging him to pray for the man in the demolished car. Normally praying for dead people wasn’t something Dick did, but the God nudge was insistent, and he asked the policeman if he could nonetheless approach the car, which, undeterred by the officer’s warning of the grizzly scene he would encounter, is exactly what Dick.

There was a tarp covering the car. Lifting the tarp, Dick crawled in through the trunk of the car’s hatchback. It was very dark, but Dick managed to get close enough to reach over the backseat to place his hand on Don’s shoulder. He began to pray. As he did, he became quite emotional and broke down and cried. And he sang. Despite the fact that Dick wasn’t able to feel a pulse either, he prayed fervently that Don would be delivered of unseen injuries, meaning brain and internal injuries.

Dick was singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus…” when suddenly he became aware that the man he was praying for was singling along with him.

Generally speaking, I don’t think God wants to bring back to life people who have already died. But God’s Spirit is like the wind — that’s what Jesus says earlier in the Gospel of John. You can’t control the wind.

The important thing from our point of view is to be attentive to which way the wind is blowing. We are called to be wind sailors. If, at a certain moment, God is declaring that the dry bones will live again, then as foolish as it may seem, it is time to pray for just that.

Len Bostwick tells a story from his family of a time his mother was pregnant and the child within her womb stopped moving — there was no indication of life within. Prayers were sent up to God fervently throughout a long night, and in the morning, the doctor, to his great surprise, found a heartbeat; the baby was fine.

Weird stuff happens.

A 90 year old man in my first church told me a story of a time, when, as a young soldier with an attitude he disobeyed a command given to him by superior on a cold night, and ended up sentenced to solitary confinement for 20 days.

Half way through his sentence, he was going crazy. His mind roamed to thoughts of his mother back at home, and how each morning she had knelt for prayer after she made each beds, and he began to wonder about whether this God was real or not.

He himself began to pray fervently, and he actually gave God a test. “Get me out of this prison today by noon, and I will believe in you.”

Just before noon, the guards came to set him free. After lunch he was order to report to his commanding officer, who told him the reason he was being set free ten days early was that back at Christmas time when all of the soldiers had been given a special extended furlough, his mother was the only one who sent him a thank you note.

This is crazy stuff. You ask me, and I will tell you: don’t expect God to jump through hoops for you. Demand that God intervene on your behalf, and God is under no compulsion to respond.

But maybe this one time, God decided to do just that. Why? Who knows, other than to say that God is free to do as God pleases.

Don Seeley once told me at the end of a worship service that he was convinced that it was his father’s prayers that had kept him safe when he was a soldier in World War II for over 3 years. Don had witnessed many of his buddies get killed in the war.

I must admit that when Don told me this, my reaction was, well, that’s a beautiful thing the admiration and appreciation that Don has for his father, as is Don’s belief in the power of prayer. But my intellect said to me, “That doesn’t make much sense. What about all the other fathers who prayed for their sons, only to have their sons come home in body bags?”

But now I don’t know for sure. Maybe Don was right. But the thing is, the story of the raising of Lazarus tells us that even if Don hadn’t made it back alive from World War II, that on the deepest level, he would have been, nonetheless, safe–indeed more than safe; that if he were willing to receive the gift God offered him in the moment of death, he would have been received into a place more beautiful than you or I can imagine. That in a certain sense, the ones who died in World War II were more fortunate than the ones who returned to struggle on through the pain and heartache of this life.

Knowing this isn’t going to take away all the heartache of death. Jesus knew the truth about heaven better than anyone, and even he wept. To be human is to have your heart broken in this life. But we are not left as orphans. The wind of the Spirit blows in surprising ways. Pay attention, and follow the leadings of the Wind.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.