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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

April 21, 2013

 

Life is Stronger Than Death

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 9:36-43

 

             Mark Twain once told the story where Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper decided to be pirates.  They take a raft to Jackson Island, build a fire, eat all their food, swim, smoke a pipe and fall sound asleep.  The next morning, they plan to return home, out of food, but then they see a crowd of people, on a ferryboat, dragging the river looking for three drowned boys – the same three boys who are watching this whole magnificent scene!  People miss them.  Hearts are breaking.  Tears are being shed.  And Tom comes up with the brilliant idea of waiting another day to go back to attend the funeral for these three boys.  The church is full when the three buccaneers arrive and sneak into the balcony to listen to their own funerals.  The preacher tells stories about how good and how full of promise these three boys were.  Everyone in the church is feeling guilty, because they had only seen how bad these rascals were!  The minister remembers touching incidents where Tom, Huck and Joe showed how sweet and generous they were.  The people all grieve all the more because all they had ever seen in these boys was what trouble and mischief they always caused.  The congregation becomes more and more moved as the preacher goes on, and soon the whole congregation is sobbing, and the preacher himself is weeping over what a loss these three saintly boys are. 

             At that moment, the three dead boys come marching down the aisle.  Aunt Polly and the Harpers hug them and smother them with kisses.  Suddenly, the preacher shouts, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow – Sing it! – and put your hearts into it!”  Tom Sawyer looks around all the admiring, envious boys in church and knows this is the proudest moment of his life.  Attending his own funeral is the best idea he ever had!

             Unlike Tom and Huck, Dorcas cannot take credit for attending her own funeral, because it was not her idea at all.  Dorcas is also known as Tabitha, and Luke tells us “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.”  Then “she became ill and died.”  The whole community, the church in Lydda and Joppa mourned, and they called for Peter.  “Please come without delay.”  When Peter made his way to Joppa, he found the widows weeping over Dorcas’ dead body, and they were all displaying the tunics and clothing that she had made for them while she was alive.  In Tabitha, they are mourning the loss of a “Proverbs 31 woman”!  In a world where too many good souls get sick and die, they are heartbroken by Tabitha’s death.  They weep and mourn as they tenderly care for her body and lay her washed corpse in the upstairs room.

             Peter comes eleven miles from Lydda to Joppa, and he comes, according to Luke, having just said to a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and bedridden for seven years, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!”  Luke follows, “And immediately he got up.”  I suspect they called upon Peter to come and do the funeral for Tabitha.  And I wonder if Peter came expecting that this was why he was coming.  But somewhere between Lydda and that upstairs room Peter remembers that he is living in a post-Easter world.  Maybe Peter remembers Jesus and Jairus’ daughter.  Luke tells us that Jesus did not allow anyone else in the room “except Peter, James and John.”  Then Jesus took her by the hand and said, “Child, get up!”  And at once she got up.

             Peter has no illusions that he is Jesus, but he also knows that the power that raised Jesus is now set loose in the world.  So he cleared the room completely, sent all the mourners outside, and then knelt and prayed.  Then he turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.”  One commentator suggests that Peter said it softly, because he did not want anyone outside to know, in case she did not get up.  “Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.”  “He gave her his hand and helped her up.”  (I wonder if his hand was shaking!)  Then Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, attended her own funeral!

             She could probably still hear the sobbing from downstairs as she walked outside the room.  The house was filled with all of her handiwork, “the work of her hands,” and probably with the smell of burial spices and flowers as well.  Luke reports, “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”  I bet they did!

             I will admit this is a strange story.  But I wonder if this was Luke’s point in bearing witness to it.  For Luke, the world after Easter is not the same as the world before Easter.  Before Easter, everyone who lived died, and all who died stayed dead, gone.  After Easter, God’s great defeat of death in raising Jesus means death is not given the last word.

             The world was still filled with death, just as our world is.  Death and evil are still too much with us.  The events of this week in Boston have cast their ugly shadow upon us once again.  We are tired and scared with all this violence and darkness.  Something is dreadfully wrong with us that we keep killing and maiming innocent people, even children.  Karl Barth reminded us that the real measure of a society is found in how we treat our youngest children and our oldest members.  I don’t say this to frighten you, but rather simply to speak the truth: Too many children are not safe in this land.  And we keep returning to this dark place of violence, evil and death.  In the face of so much death, it can be hard to hear or see anything else.

             I suspect the same was true in Peter’s world.  First century Rome was a violent, brutal place to live as well.  The cross of Jesus tells of this hardness.  And as Tabitha shows us, death was no stranger to them.  Stephen, a Deacon in their midst, had been stoned to death.  And James, the brother of John, will soon be killed for his faith as well.  In such a world, it is easy to start to think that death has the last word.  In our world, in this world where even the Boston Marathon is not safe, it is easy to give in to fear, to wonder if evil will always triumph.

             But if the cross and resurrection of Jesus say anything, they say that God will not be defeated by evil, violence and death.  If the cross and resurrection tell us anything, they tell us that God has power over death, and God will redeem evil, because evil is not as powerful as God’s goodness, and death holds no lasting power over God’s life.  After Easter, we are able to hold onto the hope that the future is not totally controlled by the past or the present.  The future belongs to God, to the Risen Christ.

             This is why the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection is called the Gospel, the Good News.  It is Good especially because what happened in Jesus Christ in His resurrection happens still in the world.  God is not defeated by evil and violence and death.  Jesus weeps over Boston, just as surely as He wept over Jerusalem and over the death of Lazarus.  But death does not have the last word.  The last word belongs to Jesus, and it is a word of life and of love and of light.  “In this world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world,” Jesus said.  Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”  He proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  Long after the world has forgotten these acts of terror, these small evil deeds, these words of Jesus will stand.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  This is the faith in Jesus that belongs to the Church, and I am clinging to it, and will not let it go.  This is the Word, and the words, we most need to hear!

             John Updike died last year, one of America’s great novelists.  He wrote much about the loss of faith in America, about our loss of faith in a sovereign God that made much of the twentieth century such a sad, violent century.  But Updike never lost his own faith.  In this poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter, he writes:

 Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules

reknit, the amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

 

It was not as the flowers,

each soft Spring recurrent;

it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled

eyes of eleven apostles;

it was His flesh: ours.

            Tabitha got to attend her own funeral.  She got a second chance.  She got to see how deeply she was loved, and she got to witness to the resurrection power of God in Jesus Christ.  I have that chance as well!  And so do you!  God is still in the resurrection business, even mine, even yours.

 

                                                                                    Amen.

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