Isaiah 38.9-20, Psalm 86, John 11.27-44
We can't be exactly sure what the people of ancient Israel believed about life after death. Some experts think they believed in a shadowy existence. King Hezekiah clearly expected it to be soulless in the sense that it would have no real substance. Like the writer of Psalm 30, which we used in our morning worship a few weeks ago, he believed that it wasn't possible to have a real relationship with God in Sheol. Some experts think that Sheol, the place of the dead, wasn't even an actual place where dead people were supposed to go. Instead, they think it was a virtual place - a way, in fact, of referring to how we all live on after our deaths, in the memories of those who knew and loved us. So I can still remember my grandparents as if it were only yesterday that I last saw them,whereas it's more than 25 years since the last one died. And if i tell stories about them, as I sometimes do, to my own children then my grandparents will live on - in an attenuated form - in their memories too. Is that how the past members of our church live on, just in the memories of those who knew them?
'Only the living can confess you,' says the King. But what if there is real life beyond death? Then, of course, it would be possible for the people in Sheol to confess God's name and for past generations of Christians everywhere, and past generations of church members here, to join us in worship now. Except, of course, they wouldn't be in Sheol - the place of the dead - any longer, would they, because God is not present in the Hebrew concept of the afterlife. So people would in fact be saved from the pit of death. They would have been raised, or restored to life, or become able in some sense to live on in God.
Resurrection doesn't reverse the process of dying. Instead, as the King astutely observes, if God is to save us from the consequences of death it has to be by standing surety for us. Someone who stands surety for us assumes responsibility for our actions or our debts. So, when we die, God is able to raise us to new life only because - in Jesus - he has already stood surety for us. He has been through death on our behalf. He has been to the afterlife, the place where God is not supposed to be able to go, and thus he has been able to destroy its hold on the dead for ever. Sheol - the place where it is impossible to see the Lord - no longer exists.
Psalm 86 seems to foresee this development. Hezekiah and the writer of Psalm 30 believed that Sheol was the place where we are beyond the reach of God's help, whereas the writer of Psalm 86 says 'You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.' Of course, the writer might be speaking metaphorically, and the following verses do seem to imply that, but for Christians that is exactly what God is able to do. He can raise us up from the depths of Sheol, the twilight place of the dead, the place where otherwise we would live on only in other people's memories.
Perhaps part of the reason why God is able to overcome death, and destroy its power, is because - just as we live on in the memories and imaginations of our family and friends, we also live on in God's memory. But whereas our afterlife in other people's memories is finite, and will come to an end when they - or the stories about us - come to an end, in God's memory we all live on for ever.
Is there an echo in John chapter 11, verse 32, of the idea that Jesus destroys Sheol, the afterlife or place of the dead, when he enters it after his own death? 'If you had been here,' says Mary, 'My brother would not have died.' In other words, the life force of Jesus - and his power to save - is so great that we simply cannot die, or remain dead, if we are in his presence. We simply have to live on in him even if our physical existence has come to an end.
John shows us that God in Jesus hates to see the suffering and pain which death causes. Death may be an inevitable part of the created order, but it's not meant to be a full stop, a final end, to who we are and what our lives have meant. In fact, it fills Jesus with indignation to see death apparently triumphing over existence.
The onlookers wonder why a person who is able to restore sight to the blind cannot prevent his friend from dying, but - of course - that's a fundamental misunderstanding. Jesus cannot prevent people from going blind, any more than he can prevent people from dying. What he can do is to restore their sight, and restore them to life. Death is inevitable, but Jesus can set us free from its power.
What are the implications of all this? We are supposed to live in a society which has left religion behind, which no longer seeks comfort in the idea of resurrection and which confronts death head on - believing it to be the end even more completely than the people of ancient Israel believed that. And yet, what are we to make of the reluctance of so many people to donate their body organs - or the organs of their nearest and dearest - to someone else if they die prematurely in an accident or from a sudden fatal illness? And what are we to make of the fuss about the harvesting of body organs from babies who had died at Alderhey Hospital a few years ago, which led to the consultant in charge being struck off the medical register and the payment of compensation to grieving parents? And what are we to make of the need which so many people feel to have a grave to visit, or a book of remembrance or a garden of remembrance, which they can associate with the loved ones they have lost? Or what about the roadside shrines which have sprung up in recent years to the victims of car accidents? Aren't these all signs that people continue to need to believe that death is not really the end - that by tending the grave, or the last resting places of the ashes, or the scene of death of people they loved they can keep a real and vital connection with them? Isn't this just a modern version of the Old Testament idea of Sheol, the place where the dead live on in our memories or in the shadows?
Perhaps people need to hear again the good news that there is something better - that we can be delivered from the depths of Sheol, the place of the dead, by a God who goes there with us - or ahead of us - in Jesus.
And finally, what about the implications for the Church? We have already seen that, if the dead live on in Jesus they are with us now, part of the vast congregation of believers which stretches across the centuries and continues to sing God's praises. But what of churches themselves? Can they die? Yes, of course they can, but when they do - if they die pointlessly, because of a lack of vision - it fills Jesus with the same indignation that he felt about Lazarus when he died. And, of course, when Jesus is still with us - filling our life together and shaping and energising our vision - we cannot die, or at least we cannot remain dead. His life force means that we must inevitably be reborn even if the old way of being church sometimes has to give way and die. Change is inevitable, but decay is not. The Church must keep on being renewed or rising from the dead.