Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Mt 5:4
Sunday 1 Nov 2020
Here we are on the brink of our second lockdown. We have seen and heard of so much death and suffering this year, and this new lockdown may be unbearable for some. Last week terrible things happened in the channel between France and England’s shores, in Greece and Turkey and in France. All is not well.
And as we gather today to remember those who we have loved, who we have lost, our grief confronts us afresh. So what can we say as we gather together? How might we be comforted? Because this is our passage “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” It sounds nice, but quite general almost wimpy in the face of actual grief.
But we have been looking at the beatitudes this term in our services. And we have come across some principles to help us embody them.
1. They speak to us of a reality that exposes the shallow and the vain and all that claims to be important but it not.
2. Jesus embodies every one of these beatitudes. They all tell us something about Jesus.
Now just hold on to that for a moment as I want you to imagine three ways in which a hand might be held.
The first is the hand squeeze that brings reassurance in a difficult time.
The second is the stroking of a hand soothingly administered to anyone who is very sick or dying.
And the third is the hand grabbed and pulled as in a rescue from a burning building.
Now I want you to imagine that the hand doing the squeezing, the stroking and the rescuing is the nail scarred hand of Jesus and the other hand each time is yours. Hold on to that image as I unpack each one for a few minutes.
Firstly, the reassuring squeeze. Jesus is with us at the graveside as we mourn. Have you ever considered that Jesus must have buried his adopted father, Joseph? The man who through fear and confusion came to accept Jesus as his own son. Who fled with him to Egypt when an army was in pursuit to kill the baby boy? The man who returned some years later and made a home for his young family. The man who raised the boy Jesus and eventually taught him his skills as a carpenter? Joseph disappears from the account by the time Jesus begins his ministry and Mary seems to be alone, so it must be that he died, and Jesus the son buried his father. If you have lost a parent, Jesus knows this grief.
But the most famous time we see Jesus by the graveside is when his great friend Lazarus died. Jesus arrives after Lazarus has been buried. He finds Mary and Martha and the grief is too much for Jesus. The people all notice his pain and comment on how he must have loved Lazarus. Jesus stands with the sisters of Lazarus and he is deeply moved. Jesus wept.
That image of Jesus standing with the close family of the dead by the grave, holding their hands as he weeps is one that I have when I am at funerals. In the face of death Jesus holds our hands and stands with us. If you have lost a friend or a peer, Jesus knows that loss.
Jesus goes on to perform a miracle and raise Lazarus from the dead, but not before he has said to Mary “I am the resurrection and the life.’ In other words in the face of death look only to me. Jesus the inventor of life says that he alone can overcome the undoing of death. And in response Mary says ‘I believe you. You are the son of God.’
So, Jesus squeezes our hand by the graveside, but Jesus also strokes our hand in the grave. What I mean by this is that in choosing to give himself over to death Jesus experiences what all of those we remember today have experienced and what we too will experience; death. I know we hate it and try to insulate ourselves against it, but it is inescapable. And the rupture of death is that it is the end of future relationship. We have our memories and our photos, but we have no way of continuing a conversation or getting the advice or encouragement we yearn for. No way of laughing afresh about a new shared joke or singing a new song. The bleakness of death terrifies us because it ends what we love. But Jesus chose to go through it, just like us. If you have ever lost a child, God the father knows that pain because His son Jesus died. He choose to be present in death as in life. So at our end we are not alone in the universe, left to our humanness. Jesus has been here too. Jesus died and knows how it feels to draw that last breath, to lose consciousness to die.
There have been many stories in COVID of the inability of loved ones to be present at the time of death and specifically to hold the hand of the dying one. I heard an ICU nurse telling an interviewer to please reassure the public that no one dies alone in a UK hospital - a nurse is always there to hold their hand, until the end. Not everyone dies in a UK hospital. Jesus died on a Roman cross. But he died so that in some way he can stroke our hand at that point of death and say, ‘I’m here and you are not alone.’
Jesus squeezes our hand at the graveside and strokes our hand at the point of death, but what about the third posture, Jesus grabbing our hand and pulling us in rescue?
As I have said death is a rupture in a relationship. People who love mourn because they cannot love in the present or the future a person who they have loved in the past. It seemed to those who loved Jesus as if the relationship had no future as he hung on the cross.
But with Jesus, Good Friday's darkness becomes Easter's new dawn as life breaks out of the tomb. Jesus could no more remain dead than a gambler walk past a casino; Jesus is addicted to life. Jesus only has to breathe out and people nearby catch the Spirit of life. The author of life is caught by death then reverses the hold, rewrites the scene and death is floored as love wins. Because love and life are what makes Jesus who he is. So much life no way could a rock tomb hold him. So much love that no way could relationship with Him die. And when he rose, he reached out a hand and pulled me and you out of that tomb as well.
Jesus holds our hands and yanks us out of the grave with him. He is blessed as one who mourns because only one who really loves really mourns and he is comforted because in pulling us out of the tomb with him the relationship does not end. He is comforted because death will be ended for us too. We are the comfort of God. In Jesus, God has won your life forever and that is the comfort that transforms mourning.
Jesus squeezes our hand as we stand at the graveside
Jesus stokes our hand as we lie in the grave
Jesus grabs our hand and yanks us out the other side from death to life with him.
So what does that mean for us today? It means that like Martha we can look at Jesus as He comes to us in our grief and says ‘I am the resurrection and the life, death will not win’ And say ‘I believe you. I am ready to hold your hand.’ It means we can trust God that our loved ones are safe in God’s love. And that means that we who mourn can be partially comforted in the present because we know that we, and those we love, have a future as Jesus takes our hand squeezes it, strokes it and then pulls it says, I’m not leaving here without you.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.