Death is that unpleasant subject that many people dread discussing and most of us dread facing. Woody Allen quipped, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But no matter how much we despise the subject, death will come our way. Benjamin Franklin summarized it well: “In this world nothing can be certain, except death and taxes.”
When death comes, it breaks the hearts of those who are left behind.
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome experienced such heartbreak. For three years they had followed Jesus around and devoted their time, their resources, and their lives to him. He became the center of their lives, and they loved him dearly.
Then they saw him arrested. They saw him beaten mercilessly. They saw him mocked and condemned and marched through the streets of Jerusalem to the “Hill of the Skull,” where he was nailed to a cross naked. They watched him breathe his last breath and die. They cringed as a spear was thrust into his heart to confirm his death. Then they watched as his corpse was laid in a tomb, with a massive boulder rolled across the entry.
The next day, the women huddled together, not knowing what else to do. Their minds were in a fog. They could make no sense of what had happened. How could God have allowed people to have done such things to Jesus? After this, the future seemed empty, worthless and terrifying. If such things could be done to one as loving and good as Jesus, what good could the future hold for them?
Early the next morning, while it was still dark, they got some spices to anoint his body, feeling desperate to express their love by anointing his remains.
But suddenly it dawned upon them that they would not be able to do what they longed to do. They would not be able to anoint the body of Jesus because a large gravestone blocked the entrance to the tomb.
That horrid stone seemed to represent all of their despair. It was too big for them. Three of them together would not be able to move it.
That horrid stone was evidence of the finality of Jesus’ death. It gave testimony to the fact that Jesus was gone from them forever. In stark fashion, it represented their distance from him. It reminded them of their aloneness.
That horrid stone reminded them of the hopelessness of their future and the coldness of their lives without him.
But when they looked up, Mark 16:4 tells us, “They saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”
The gravestone, which had seemed to them to be an unconquerable obstacle was gone! And death, which seemed to be even more unconquerable, was overcome!
An angel announced to the women, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
These women were the first witnesses to the greatest breakthrough in human history: the conquering of death!
This was completely unexpected and shocking to them. Mark records their reaction: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.”
As shocking as it was to the women, the empty tomb was and is evidence that nothing in our lives is too much for God.
Someone expressed it this way: “Write it over all your difficulties; pen it over all your disappointments; inscribe it on all your fears, post it over all your troubles: GOD IS ABLE!”
This is the great good news of the resurrection: God is able! The One who raised Jesus from the grave will care for us in all things with his unconquerable love.
God formed us in such a way that we need one another. We are not self-contained and self-sufficient independent beings. By God’s purposeful design, we are not complete without one another.
Pearl Buck has observed, “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.”
Rachel Held Evans adds, “I’m not exactly sure how all this works, but I think, ultimately, it means I can’t be a Christian on my own. Like it or not, following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together. We might not always do it within the walls of church or even in an organized religion, but if we are to go about making disciples, confessing our sins, breaking bread, paying attention, and preaching the Word, we’re going to need one another. We’re going to need each other’s help.” (Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, p. 255)
James points our attention to this reality in the closing verses of his letter.
In verses 13 & 14 he asks, “Are any among you suffering?…. Are any among you sick?” “Among you” is a phrase that has to do with community. It’s a phrase that has to do with being connected to each other. It calls us to pay attention to the hurts and needs of each other. It calls us to look out for one another.
In verse 16, James becomes more specific. He commands, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another….” Do I struggle with certain temptations? I should not make things worse by keeping my struggle secret. I am called to confess my struggle to a trustworthy Christian friend or leader. Have I fallen or failed? Does guilt hammer away at me? Rather than suffering alone in shame, I am told to confess my guilt to a trustworthy Christian friend or leader.
Verse 16 also instructs, “And pray for one another….” We are called to stand with one another, supporting and encouraging each as we pray for one another.
In verses 19-20 we are encouraged to reach out to any who fall away, with the goal of restoring them to fellowship.
We need each other, and we are to live out the Christian life in meaningful connection with each other.
The late columnist Mike Royko shared a story that was told to him by Slats Grobnik who sold Christmas trees: “Slats remembered one couple on the hunt for a Christmas tree. The guy was skinny with a big Adam’s apple and small chin, and she was kind of pretty. But both wore clothes from the bottom of the bin at the Salvation Army store.
“After finding only trees that were too expensive, they found a Scotch pine that was okay on one side, but pretty bare on the other. Then they picked up another tree that was not much better—full on one side, scraggly on the other. She whispered something, and he asked if $3 would be okay. Slats figured both trees would not be sold, so he agreed.
“A few days later Slats was walking down the street and saw a beautiful tree in the couple’s apartment. It was thick and well rounded. He knocked on their door and they told him how they worked the two trees close together where the branches were thin. Then they tied the trunks together. The branches overlapped and formed a tree so thick you couldn’t see the wire. Slats described it as ‘a tiny forest of its own.’
“‘So that’s the secret,’ Slats asserts. ‘You take two trees that aren’t perfect, that have flaws, that might even be homely, that maybe nobody else would want. If you put them together just right, you can come up with something really beautiful.’”
That is the essence of the church. God takes imperfect people and puts us together. Together we are fuller and more beautiful than we could ever be on our own.
Christ is intent on growing his character in us, establishing his likeness in us. But I notice a significant difference between Christ and me in the area of patience. Christ was never in a hurry. I, on the other hand, often struggle with what has been described as “hurry sickness” or “time urgency.”
According to an article in healthline.com, “Hurry sickness can show up as a driving need to make the most of every second…. Signs might include:
- Speeding, both in your car and through conversations, the grocery store, or meals
- Rushing through work tasks and household chores, to the point where you sometimes make mistakes and have to do them again
- Frequently performing time calculations in your head to see whether you can fit in another task
- Feeling irritable when you face delays
- Constantly trying to find ways to save time
- Endlessly running through your to-do list in your head to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything
“Hurry sickness frequently involves an undercurrent of anxiety. Perhaps stress and worry creep up when you think of everything you have to do…. Living with anxiety always simmering on the back burner generally doesn’t feel very pleasant. This anxiety presses you to keep moving, to keep doing, to attach more urgency to your to-do list than it requires.”
No wonder James 5 puts such emphasis on God’s call to us to be patient. In verses 7, we are commanded, “Be patient.” Then we are reminded of how important it is for a farmer to be patient while waiting for his “precious crop.” In verse 8, we are commanded again, “You also must be patient.” In verses 10-11 we are instructed to look at the model of endurance set by the prophets and by Job.
James wants us to know that growing in the likeness of Christ will always involve growing in patience. Mark Buchanan puts it succinctly, “Waiting is one of God’s primary means for becoming like Jesus.”
Why does God want us to grow in the virtue of patience? Leonardo da Vinci shares one important reason why: “Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind.”
Every day God gives to each one of us two wonderful gifts that we are free to spend any way we choose.
1: Each day God gives to us the gift of 86,400 seconds. We cannot save them. We cannot transfer them into some other account. All we can do is waste them or spend them.
James 4:14 warns us that we are “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
We know that we have 86,400 seconds each day, but none of us knows how many days we will have, so each day is to be lived wisely. Each day should be respected as a precious gift from God.
What should we do with the 86,400 seconds that we are gifted each day?
One day an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students. He pulled out a one gallon, wide-mouth Mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top with the rocks, he asked, “Is this jar full?”
The students answered, “Yes.”
But the teacher reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, then poured some more in. After several such fillings, he asked the class whether the jar was full now.
Cautious after their previous mistake, the students were unsure how to answer. They watched for the teacher’s next move. He took a pitcher and poured water in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he turned to the students and explained, “This illustration points us to the truth that if we start with the “big rocks” in life, all the lesser matters can be fit in around them.” Then he told them, “The “big rocks” in your life are such things as time with your loved ones, your faith, your education, your dreams, a worthy cause, teaching or mentoring others. Remember to put these “big rocks” in first or you’ll never get them in at all.”
2: Each day God gives to us resources (possessions and money) to use. None of us is guaranteed a set amount of time on earth, and none of us is guaranteed a set amount of resources at our disposal each day. But each of us is accountable for what we do with each day’s resources.
Followers of Christ need to keep in mind that our time and our resources are gifts to us from God and are to be put to use in ways that bring honor to God.
James 5:4-6 warns us, “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.” We will be accountable to God for how we use the resources he has entrusted to us.
John Wesley cautions, “But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches. What way then can we take that our money may not sink us to the nethermost hell? There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who ‘gain all they can,’ and ‘save all they can,’ will likewise ‘give all they can,’ then the more they gain, the more they will grow in grace, and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven.”
Each day, God gives us gifts of time and resources. May we use “our” time and “our” resources in ways that honor God and in ways that bring love and good into the world he cares for.
Many people turn to the Bible when they are feeling discouraged or lonely, looking for verses that will inspire them or comfort them, hoping to find pearls from God that will chase their blues away and restore a smile to their face.
But sometimes, while looking for verses of comfort and inspiration, we stumble upon a verse like James 4:9: “Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.”
Why would God allow such a verse, lacking any comfort or encouragement for our souls, to have slipped into the pages of Scripture? Why doesn’t it read, “Rejoice, laugh and sing; change your mourning to laughter and your gloom to joy”?
Either this verse is a mistake, failing to share with us the joyful good news of the gospel or this verse shares with us the truth we need to hear, that there is a treasure in the midst of lamenting, mourning and weeping that we need to pay attention to.
In his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson notes, “People submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel like they are drowning in it: they can trust nothing they hear, depend on no one they meet. Such dissatisfaction with the world-as-it-is is preparation for traveling in the way of Christian discipleship. The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God.
“A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think that the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.” (p. 22)
If we search in the Bible only for verses that comfort and encourage us, we may never become sufficiently fed up with the ways of the world or the sins within our souls.
AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) recognizes the power for good in lamenting, mourning and weeping over the brokenness of our lives. Steps 5, 6 and 7 of the 12 Step program particularly address this. Steps 5-7 state, “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.” When we lament and mourn and weep over what is broken in us, we are on the path toward healing.
The Franciscans offer a prayer that invites us to lament and mourn and weep:
“May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
“May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
“May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
“And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.”
God calls us to lament and mourn and weep not because God wants us to be miserable but because honestly facing our brokenness leads to deeper freedom and serenity. That’s why James 4:10 goes on to assure us, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”