I recently faced a most difficult pastoral challenge, which also presented a great opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of those involved. I officiated at a Celebration of Life service for a twenty-three year-old named Ronny, who had taken his own life several weeks before. Here is what I said:
One of the most brilliant theologians alive today is a German fellow named Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann did not always care about God. As a young man, about Ronny’s age, Moltmann was sent to the front to fight for the Germans near the end of World War 2. Moltmann surrendered to the Allies, and became a follower of Jesus in a POW camp in Scotland, shortly after the end of the war. When Moltmann returned to his native Germany in 1948, he came face-to-face with what he describes as “concrete experiences of an overwhelming burden of guilt and of ghastly absurdity in my generation.” It was a “condition of being unable to speak any longer of God, but all the while being compelled to speak of him.” “Of what else, after all, should one speak after Auschwitz,” Moltmann exclaimed, “if not of God?!”
It's fair to maintain that what the Hansen family is experiencing, in the loss of Ronny, is a family holocaust of sorts — their own personal Auschwitz. And, when it comes to thinking about God in the midst of all of this, I imagine most of us here today resonate with what Moltmann wrote about his experience in post-war Germany: we feel “unable to speak any longer of God, but all the while being compelled to speak of him.” Of what else, after all, should one speak, after the loss of Ronny Hansen, if not of God?!
As we turn to the Scriptures, I am reminded of Ronny Hansen’s years attending Sunday School at OCF. As Jim and Kathy are aware, I had a special nickname for Ronny. I was reading a lot of Hebrew at the time, and I labelled him “Ronny-Ben-Hansen” (= Ronny, son of Hansen). Ronny was a very bright child with a pile of questions that would derail a Sunday School lesson in an instant. When one of our teachers would tell the class, “God created the animals, God created the trees, and God created me and you!”, Ronny was the kid who would always ask, "Well, then, where did God come from?" My own spiritual pilgrimage has had a strong intellectual component — I slogged through three masters degrees and a Ph.D. in ancient history at UCLA — so I have always resonated with kids like Ronny who ask the hard questions.
Ronny’s untimely passing raises another question, however, that I find much more challenging than Where did God come from? That question is Where did God go? Where was God when Ronny needed Him most? Where is God now, in the midst of all this unthinkable grief and heartache?
I am reminded of a incident in the Gospel of John, where Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus had become ill and died. When Jesus arrived at the house several days later, each of Lazarus’s two surviving sisters, Mary and Martha, ran up to him (at different places in the story) and said exactly the same thing, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Others among the crowd of mourners that had gathered at sisters’ house echoed similar sentiments when they said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Yes. He could have. But he didn’t. And the Bible is brutally honest about the challenges we face during the most difficult seasons of our lives. But the Bible also offers great hope, even in the midst of our darkest moments. I am going to read the story of Jesus and Lazarus to us, and then comment on two beacons of hope that I find in the passage. The story is found in chapter eleven of the Gospel of John:
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him.
Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:1-44)
This passage has much to teach us about loss, about grief, about death, and about the God of the Bible. I want to highlight just a couple of things here today.
First, we learn from John 11 that God is not unfamiliar with the challenges that life brings our way. In verse 27, Martha calls Jesus, “Lord,” and identifies him as “the Messiah, the Son of God.” A few verses later in the story, we see this “Messiah,” this “Son of God,” “deeply moved” over the death of his dear friend Lazarus. And then it says that “Jesus wept.”
God does not simply observe our pain and heartache from a distance, safely isolated and insulated off in heaven, somewhere away from the realities of our broken world. In Jesus, God became part of our world. He walked among us. Elsewhere in Scripture it says that Jesus can sympathize with our weakness because he has been tested in every way, just as we are.
What this means is that, in Jesus, God has experienced, first-hand, the best — and the very worst — that life brings our way. In fact, when we read a little further in the Gospel of John, we find Jesus on the receiving end of the greatest evil ever perpetrated by human beings, the worst thing that has ever happened in human history.
According to the Bible, only one time in human history did God come into our world in his fullness, to finally reveal to us what he is really like. Earlier in his Gospel, John wrote, “No one has seen God at any time, but Jesus has now made him known.” Jesus himself said, “He who has seen me, has seen God the Father.”
So what did we do with God, the one and only time that he came into our world to share with us his love, and to show us what he is truly like? Did we throw him a worldwide party to welcome him into our midst? NO. We did not. We murdered him. We hung him on a Roman cross.
There has never been a darker moment, a greater evil in human history, than the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the perfect, sinless Son of God. What we did to Jesus, folks, was humanity’s resounding and final "NO!" to everything true, everything good, everything right in the universe—our resounding and final "NO!" to Love itself.
Or so we thought. Because as it turned out, it really wasn’t final at all, was it? For at the very moment we were at our worst, crucifying our Lord, God was at his best, bearing our sins on that cross, so we could be forgiven and enjoy fellowship with God forever. John 3:16-17 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
At the cross God turned the worst moment in human history into the greatest good that the human race has ever experienced. This tells us something about how God runs his universe. It tells us something about God’s moral economy. And it gives us great hope that God can make some sense of — bring some good out of — the apparently senseless suffering we encounter in the broken world in which we live.
The Hansen family is not alone in their grief over the loss of Ronny. Another family in our church experienced a nearly identical loss just a couple years ago. Anxiety and depression among our young people in America has, in fact, reached epidemic proportions in recent years. And it is not hard to see why. In recent decades our culture has increasingly turned away from the life-giving, unifying narrative of the Bible, a story that offers human beings, like you and me, meaning and purpose, as we share life together in community with one another as the people of God.
Instead, our culture has chosen to glorify the autonomous self. We encourage our young people to create their own reality. And they understandably become overwhelmed, paralyzed — because creating one’s own individual reality is a task no human being was ever meant to do.
This brings me to a second and final beacon of hope here in John 11. This broken, sin-soaked, distorted, upside-down world that we live in — this world that drives our young people at the prime of life to such despair that they take their own lives — this broken world will not have the last word.
At one point in our story, Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he gave us a glimpse of the future. It was only a glimpse, because Lazarus would go on to die a normal human death, just like every one of us in this room will someday. But there will be a day, Jesus assures Martha, when “he who believes in me will never die.”
The Bible is a big, complex book. But it has a very simple unifying storyline. The Bible is the story of God moving in history to fix the mess we’ve made of the life he has given us — because, as we have demonstrated, again and again, we simply cannot fix it ourselves.
But God can. And God will. This broken world we presently inhabit will not have the last word. God will have the last word.
I want to close our Scripture meditation with some verses from the end of the story, where we see what God has in store for us in the future:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. (Rev. 21:1-7; 22:1-5)