November 28, 2021

Do You Believe This?

Passage: Isaiah 25:8, Psalm 104:29-30, John 11:25-26, 2 Timothy 1:10, Revelation 21:4

About a year ago, I got a phone call from one of the staff at Dunwood Place Seniors Complex. The name of the staff member is Yolanda Yonzon, who used to set up refreshments for every Sunday evening service when I was a worship pastor there. Over the phone call, Yolanda asked me to visit her mother, who was dying at Vancouver General Hospital, as soon as possible. She wanted me to pray for her mother before she passed away. So, I phoned the hospital to check if I could visit her during the pandemic. Thankfully, the hospital allowed me to see her for the reason of compassion toward a dying person. That night, I prepared a very short sermon alongside a
short prayer for her.

Next day, I drove down to the hospital with Yolanda and her husband. As it was the first time for me to visit a dying Filipino senior, I kept praying for God’s help in my mind on the way
to the hospital. Opening the door of the intensive care unit, I saw Yolanda’s sisters and brother around the bed where Yolanda’s mother was lying. She was passed out like a person in a
vegetative state. Since Yolanda asked me, I slowly came closer to her mother, right beside the bed, and looked at her face for a while. Her face was scrawny, which indicated to me that her lifespan was nearing its end. I felt strange at that moment, uncomfortable with this person who was about to die, not because her face was new to me, but because I found myself not ready to look at death with my own eyes there. It was an utterly unfamiliar moment for me. Death was and is still an unknown world to me.

Ironically, I am currently hearing of deaths and deadly threats around the world more often than ever before in my lifetime. Covid-19 has taken so many lives just in the past year and a half. Around 4 million people have died worldwide, including approximately 30,000 Canadians, 2,300 of whom were BC residents. The fact that the number of confirmed cases is unceasingly increasing; that more than seventy strains of the virus have been discovered; that, in the name of individual freedom, some young people are not following the guidance of the government; that in a single week, Abbotsford has been flooded by extreme rainstorm two weeks ago; and that we in Langley too experienced power cuts and destroyed roads. All are threats to our lives continuously. Furthermore, according to a report from the World Health Organization, one person commits suicide every forty seconds somewhere in the world. And One person dies in armed conflict every one-hundred seconds. There is no doubt that death surrounds us on every side even though we are not conscious of death every second. In such a reality, why is the gospel good news to us, those who are dying, those who have lost beloved ones, and to those whose lives are threatened by deadly forces? How can we Christians face death faithfully? This is what I would like to talk about today.

That day, five hours after the visitation, Yolanda’s mother passed on in peace. The news that she died was not surprising to me, for she was an ordinary human being, one who must die as the universal result of sin. We human beings are mortal. The Psalmist repeatedly speaks of this human condition. “Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows, and we are gone—as though we had never been here” (Psa. 103:15-16). Both Christians and non-Christians die; the smart and the foolish die; the rich and the poor; Indigenous people, Asians, Caucasian, and black; the ordinary and the extraordinary; and homeowners and homeless people; and ministers and lay people all die. I will certainly die at some point, just like grass. No human can escape it. This reality of human mortality points to the fact that we don’t have life in us. Life is neither our own possession nor invention. We cannot create life. Medical science may be able to offer us a longer life than last year, but it cannot solve death itself, simply because we are not the authors of our lives. Life is a gift from God who is the author, preserver, and protector of life.

Before Yolanda’s mother passed on, I prayed for her with a brief traditional prayer. It went like this:
Gracious Father, your holy word tells us that our times are in your hands. Hear our prayers for Mrs. Fortunata Yonzon as her earthly life is near to the end. Comfort her with your gracious promises of the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

When I was praying this, I knew all that I could do was to lift her up to the Lord by reminding her of a God who saves, the sovereign Lord who rescues us from death (Psa. 68:20). This was because that I knew I was totally powerless in the face of death. I know I don’t have any authority over life and death. So, in the bottom of my heart, I wanted God to take care of her to her last breath as well as in her afterlife. Certainly, the psalmist must have understood that
human mortality totally relies on God’s breath as he sings, “…When you take away their breath, they die and turn again to dust. When you give them your breath, life is created, and you renew the face of the earth.” (Psa. 104:29-30). The word, “breath,” here is ruach in the Hebrew. Ruach means breath, God’s Spirit, or spirit.1  When God takes away our breath, we die like grass. When God breathes his Spirit (ruach) into us, we live, just like the first Adam (Gen. 2:7) and by it we flourish. Without this breath (ruach), we cannot sustain our breath. It is only a God of life who makes life possible—creates life and then keeps creating life.

Obviously, Lazarus died. The author of John, Martha, Mary, and the Jewish people who came to console Martha and Mary in their loss, they all witnessed that Lazarus was dead. He was in the grave for four days. Yet, Jesus promised to Martha that Lazarus would rise again. And she did think that her brother would rise again at the last day, which was a common belief in Pharisaic Judaism.2 To be sure, Martha had no idea of immediate resurrection for Lazarus. However, Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Here, Jesus isn’t saying that he will provide resurrection and life at the end of human history although he repeatedly mentioned resurrection on the last day in the Gospel of John. What Jesus is talking about here is that he is resurrection and life. Jesus emphasizes himself, “the one who can raise the dead, diverting Martha’s focus from an abstract belief in what takes place on the last day to a personalized belief in him who alone can prove it.”3 There is neither resurrection nor eternal life outside of him. That is, Christ Jesus has authority over life and death. Death is powerless in Christ. For this reason, the apostle Paul shouts, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1Cor. 15:55).

Jesus then goes on to ask Martha, “Do you believe this?” When he asks her, “Do you believe this?” he is not asking if she believes that her brother will be resurrected at the last day, but if she believes in “Jesus as the resurrection and the life, the only person who can grant eternal life and promise the transformation of resurrection.”4 So, the question is really, “Martha, do you believe in me?” “Yes, Lord. I believe.” Martha replies. Her firm response to Jesus’ question
reflects the state of her confident trust in the person and work of Christ—Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God who had come into the world.

According to the Population Reference Bureau and the World Factbook, 106.60 people die every minute. Over the course of this time of worship, about 4,264 people have died and will never come back. Death is a reality that surrounds us on every side. Yet, some people die while others remain. I am still alive while Yolanda’s mother passed away. We are worshipping here now while other people are dying in hospitals, their homes, or on the streets. I don’t know why we live in a safer condition while others don’t. I cannot comprehend precisely why a God who saves leaves some to die and others not to do so.
All I can understand is that this life is a precious gift from God, a different kind of life that is no longer under the power of death, that mortal lives fade away but the life that Jesus gives never ends, that Jesus Christ is the ultimate hope for Yolanda’s mother and the broken world, and that we can do something life-giving for the world in the face of death without fear of death. Death is not the final word. Christ Jesus, the resurrection and the life, must be the final word to all of us just like Martha’s confession, “Yes, Lord. I believe.”

This new morning, I hope that we may be fully immersed in her confession of the resurrection hope in Christ. “He [Christ] will wipe away every tear from their [our] eyes, and death will not exist anymore—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.” (Rev. 21:4) Amen.

Wounded Christ, you who have gone to the monstrous depths and swallowed death whole, robbed it of its sting, tasted its bitter finality, and conquered it once for all, we pray that you would free us from the fear of death, comfort us in the losses that we experience on account of death, infuse our hearts with the hope of your resurrected life, and grant us the serenity to face our own death in humility and peace. In your name we pray. Amen.
(From Dr. David Taylor)

1 Willem VanGemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol. 3, (Grand Rapids,
MI: Zondervan, 1997), 1068.
2 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second edition. (Downers Grove, IL:
IVP, 2014), 282-283.
3 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 412.
4 Ibid., 414.