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Look Serious

angry_old_womanGloom, despair and agony an me,
Deep, dark depression,
Excessive misery.
If it weren’t for bad luck,
I’d have no luck at all.
Gloom, despair, and agony on me.

Many of you, no doubt, recognize this as a chorus from the popular country-western variety show Heehaw.  After singing this chorus, you will remember, one of musicians then goes on to describe why his life is in such a sorry state of “gloom and despair.”

Of course, this song was supposed to mark a time of humorous interlude, but for many folks it has became a theme song for life.  No matter how much good may be present in a person’s life, some folks seem only able to see gloom and despair.

Hey, speaking of gloom and despair let, let me tell you about a picture once taken of me.    It was taken about 25 years ago, shortly after I had finished seminary and began my first full-time pastorate.

You need to know that in my house, this picture has become something of a joke.  It shows up in the strangest of places.

Jeana pulls the covers back to strip the bed and wash the sheets, and there I am.

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Michael wakes up in the morning, and the picture has been taped to the ceiling above his head, making it the first thing he saw in the morning.

I have thought about sending it with Michelle when she goes out on a date.  Can you think of anything that might be more of a deterrent against bad behavior than this picture?

This picture shows up in all kinds of strange places.  It has been a source of amusement in our house – at least a source of humor for me, anyways.

Let me tell you about what was happening when I posed for this picture.  The church I served was having a pictorial directory published.  This picture was a gift from the photographer for me as pastor.  The photographer had just taken a break to step outside and smoke a cigarette.  When he came back in the fellowship hall, he called me over and got me situated in front of a big screen.  Then he had me hold up my Bible in this rather awkward looking pose.  Once I was all set, he stood behind the camera and said, “Okay, look serious!”

“Look serious?”  I asked.

“Yes, look serious!” he repeated.

“Why do I have to look serious?”  I asked.

“Because you are a minister,” he said.  “Isn’t that the way a minister is supposed to look?”

“Not this minister,” I said.

Then I smiled and he took this picture.

He said, “Look serious!”  He said, “That’s the way a minister is supposed to look!”

Isn’t it sad that he thought that a minister was suppose to look somber, serious, and stoic.  I imagine if I had pressed this guy a little bit, he would have thought this was the way most pastors, and for that matter Christian, were suppose to look.  Maybe that was his experience.  Moving from church to church, from one pictorial directory to another, maybe he saw a large number of church people who didn’t seem to smile that often.

Have you ever been in one of those old, historical churches – the kind where they lined the walls the photos of former pastors and ancient church members.  Look closely.  So seldom do they seem to be smiling.

It is not just old pictures.  Attend church functions – not here, of course, but in those other churches.  Attend some church functions like study sessions, worship gatherings, or business meetings.  People simply do not smile as much as they should.  They are so serious.  It would never happen here, of course!  I am talking about those other church.  The ones where it looks that people were singing, “Gloom, despair, and agony on me!” just before the meeting began.

Research says that the average person speaks approximately 4800 words each day.  I wonder what it would be like for us if we could play back a days conversation.  What if we all carried around those portable recording devices for a day, only to review our persona conversations at the end of the day?  The thought almost makes me shudder.  If we could listen to ourselves for a day – if we could reply our every word in retrospect before the day ended – how much of our conversation would sound like a reply of “Gloom, despair, and agony on me?”  How often would our words reveal a loss of hope?  How often would they reveal a lack of faith in God to accomplish His will in our lives?  How often would we hear ourselves saying things like…

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“That will never work!”

:We can’t do that!”

“There is now way we can make a difference!”

“You can’t change the world.”

“If at first you don’t succeed, just quit, go home, and lick your wounds.”

“What’s the use?  I quit.  I give up!”

I love the Peanuts Comic Strip.  Charles Shultz was a genius and understanding the human predicament.  In one strip, Charlie Brown is complaining to Lucy, saying…

“Everywhere I go trouble follows me!  No matter what I do, someone is always bringing problems to me.  Sometimes I feel like I just can’t handle all the burdens and problems of life.”

After listening to all of this, Lucy finally replies, “What you need, Charlie Brown, is an unlisted life.”

Have you ever felt like you needed an unlisted life?  … an unlisted family?  … an unlisted church?  If somebody picked a theme song for your life, might they choose the song “Gloom, despair, and agony on me?”

At one level, it is easy to understand why folks might feel this way.  When we come into this world, we are all stuck in sin and headed to the grave, aren’t we?  There isn’t a great deal of hope in that statement, but it is true.  Apart from some divine intervention, our final destination is eternal death – eternal separation from God.  “All have sinned,” the Bible says, “All have fallen short of the glory of God!”  “The wages of sin is death,” the Bible continues.  No wonder so many seem to make their way through life singing, “Gloom, despair, and agony on me!”

What if this could change?  What if death no longer had the power to steal our joy, abundance, passion, and purpose?  What if the grave were not our final destination?  How would our lives be difference if the fear of death could no longer hold us back?

The Bible speaks of death as our greatest enemy.  We know that is true.  In fact, it is the fear of death that puts so many people in bondage, even if they are not consciously aware that this is what is holding them down.  Death makes life seem so futile.  You work hard.  You play by the rules.  You do everything right.  Then it all comes crashing down.  Within a generation, or maybe too, we are forgotten by all but a few – and even then their memories of us are but a fleeting glance.

So how do people respond?  They work even more intently.  They hoard and conserve, thinking that if they can simply possess a bit more, it might make their existence a bit more significant.  On the other hand, many choose to give up and give in.  They walk through life thinking everything is hopeless and meaningless.  Or perhaps they gravitate towards hedonism.  Simply enjoy the pleasures of this life as much as possible right now.  Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.

All the while, no matter what our approach, life becomes even more dismal and gloomy.  The joys of immediate pleasures fulfillment wear off with time.  Giving into despair is certainly not the answer.  Hoarding life’s treasures does not help either.  You know what they say.  “You can’t take it with you!”  Life is serious business and our attitudes become more somber and stoic as we realize that death is just around the corner, ready to steal whatever we have built to make ourselves seem important.

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What if this could change?  What if death no longer had the power to steal our joy, abundance, passion, and purpose?  What if the grave were not our final destination?  How would our lives be difference if the fear of death could no longer hold us back?

The story we have looked at from the Bible for today teaches us that it can all change.  The fear of death no longer needs to hold us back.  We do not have to sing “Gloom, despair, and agony on me!”

Mary and Martha who live in Bethany are among of Jesus’ closest friends and greatest supporters.  They send word to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, is desperately ill.  “Come quickly.  Touch him.  Heal him.  Hurry, he is sinking fast.”

By the time Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead and buried in the grave for four days.  Martha meet Jesus as he approaches.  “If only you’d come sooner,” they say.  “If you had come sooner, maybe you could have done something.  Now, however, it is too late.  We’ve lost him!  It’s over!”

Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.  Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

The family and friends are gathered in sorrow.  It is not just their personal grief.  It is also their mortal fear.  You cannot stand near a casket for a few days without thinking about the reality of your own mortality.  One day it will be you laying in that pine box.

Jesus’ heart goes out to them.  He feels their pains.  He shares their pain.  He weeps with them.  Then Jesus does something that makes no sense whatsoever.  He does something that flies in the face of the fear of death.  He refuses to let the graveyard defeat him, control him, or hold him back.  Just the opposite is the case.  He marches right up to the tomb where Lazarus has been laid to rest.  “Roll away the stone!”  He commands.

Martha protests: “Lord, he has been dead for four days.  By now there will be a terrible odor.”  Jesus said, “Believe and see the power of God.”

He commands them again, “Roll away the stone!”  Martha nods at the onlookers, reluctantly, I imagine.  The stench is strong.  People step back in disgust.  Then, after a brief prayer, Jesus cries out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”

Then it happens.  It is incredible.  Lazarus is resurrected!

After this miracle, Jesus returned to the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  They threw a big party and Jesus was the guest of honor.  Everyone wanted to see Jesus.  Everyone wanted to see Lazarus.  Yet the religious crowd weren’t too excited.  Because of what Jesus had done – and because Lazarus was there as living proof of what had happened – the religious leaders plotted and conspired to kill both Jesus and Lazarus.  We can understand why?  Because of Lazarus resurrection, many people were leaving the stale, old, dead religion of the Pharisees and were becoming followers of Jesus.

What I want you to think about, though, is the reaction of Lazarus.  Remember our main question.  What would it be like if a person could lose his or her fear of death?  You would think, with people on warpath to kill him, that Lazarus might be hidden in some wilderness cave.  Yet where we find him is at home, throwing a huge dinner party, with Jesus as the guest of honor.  Does this sound like a man who has any fear of death?

“What’s to fear about death?”  Lazarus might say!  “Been there!  Done that!  No sweat!”

But it was more than just being brought back from the grave.  What gave Lazarus so much courage was the one who stood before him.  His old friend Jesus is now more than just a good buddy.  He is the Savior.  He is the Messiah.  He is the Lord.  He does not just bring resurrection.  He is the resurrection.  He does not simply give life.  He is the life.  Trusting him means that death no longer needs to be feared.

With Jesus in the picture, there is no more reason to sing of “gloom, despair, and agony.”

With Jesus in the picture, there are no more reasons to feel a sense of hopelessness or futility at then prospects of life.  At the very least, we can smile.  There are no more reasons to feel so serious, somber, or stoic.  Like Lazarus, we can loose that primal fear of death and gain the blessings of life.

Of course, there will still be some of the emotions there.  I talked to a fellow once who had just be diagnosed with terminal cancer.  I spoke with him about what he was feeling.  He said, “If I knew when and where I was going to die, I’d make it a point not to be there!”  He did not want to die, but he did not have any overwhelming sort of fear about it, either.  He faced it with faith and good humor because he knew Jesus was his life.

For Lazarus, possessions did not mean as much as they once did.  There was no reason to hoard them, as if by possessing more, your life became more important or valuable than the next.  There was no reason to waste possession in a vain attempt to cover your weakness with every sort of pleasure imaginable.  Instead, Lazarus was freed to give things away for the sake of Jesus and the Kingdom – as he did by throwing a party in honor of Jesus.

When Jesus is our life source, possession will not be an end-all, be-all for us, either.  We will know that things cannot give our lives meaning.  Buildings cannot give our lives purpose.  Investment accounts will never be able to defeat death and bring life.  Only Jesus can do that.  When we know Jesus as life, we will be free to with the understanding that everything we have has been given to glorify Jesus and advance His Kingdom.

People wanted to kill Lazarus, but that knowledge did not bind him up in fear.  He did not hide.  He did not capitulate to their threats.  The worst thing an enemy can do is take your life.  Lazarus had already had that experience.  He had been dead.  He had been wrapped in grave cloths.  He had been laid to rest for four days in a dusty Palestinian tomb.  It was no big deal.

Those who oppose when we are doing God’s will are also not to be feared.  Nor do we need to seek vengeance or retaliation against them.  Instead, they are to be love.  That’s what Jesus did.  When Jesus is our source of life – when He is living through us – that is how we will live.  Jesus said some incredible things, when you think about it.

“Love your enemies.”

“Bless those who curse you.”

“Do good to those who mistreat you.”

“Forgive those who have sinned against you!”

In a world where death is in charge, these things make so sense.  But we do not have to answer to a world where death is in charge.  We can live as citizens of God’s Kingdom now because Jesus is our resurrection and life.

I read a sermon by famed Baptist and then later Episcopalian pastor and preacher John Claypool.  In the sermon he introduced his readers to a play by Eugene O’Neill entitled “Lazarus Laughed.”  As I read the play, I came to believe O’Neill has put his finger on what it might mean to live without the fear of death.

The play begins, or picks up, where the Biblical story leaves off.  Jesus has just finished crying out, “Lazarus, comes forth.”  Suddenly, Lazarus is alive again.  Wrapped in grave cloths, he props himself up and begins to jump toward the entrance to the cave where he had been buried.

“Unbind him and set him free,” Jesus says.

Set free, Lazars begins to smile.  His heart is overwhelmed with joy.  Then he begins to laugh a little.  The laughter is not overbearing.  Then he embraces Jesus with gratitude.  Then he hugs his sisters and the others who are standing nearby.  Everyone, including Lazarus, is astonished at what has taken place.

Lazarus looks around, as if he is seeing the world for the very first time.  He reaches down and pats the earth very affectionately.  He looks around.  Everything is good.  The very first words he utters are the words, “Yes, yes, yes!”

He makes his way to his home, taking everything in.  Finally, somebody gets the courage to ask what was on everybody’s mind.  “Lazarus, tell us what it’s like to die.  What lies on the other side of this boundary that none of us have crossed?”

At that point, Lazarus begins to laugh even more intensely.  Then he says,

“There is only life.  There is only God.  There is only incredible joy.”

He continues, “Death is not the way it appears from this side. Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos.  It is, rather, a portal through which we move into everlasting growth and everlasting life.”

Then he says, “The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the One who gave us our birth.  Not because we deserved it but because that generous One wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear in the next realm.”  With that, his laughter began to fill the whole house in which he was staying.

In the play, Lazarus goes back to his daily tasks, but something different.  He is now a non-anxious person.  He is no longer vulnerable to that fear that diminishes the vitality of life.  The house where he lives became known as the “House of Laughter,” and night after night, you would hear singing and dancing.  His Spirit and message about life began to influence his neighborhood and community.

Most welcomed Lazarus renewal of life, but not everyone.

The Roman’s did not like is.  Neither did the Jewish leaders.  They liked to use intimidation to manipulate and control.  However, if you have lost your fear of death, you cannot be manipulated or controlled.

In the play, they set out to kill Lazarus, just as the text says.  In the play, the Romans arrest him.  They threaten him.  They abuse him.  Yet no matter what they do, he keeps smiling.  He keeps laughing.  He keeps on treating them with kindness and love.

The play ends as he stands face to face with the Roman emperor.  Here is the man who is allegedly the most powerful of all on earth.  He says to Lazarus, “You have a choice.  You’ll either stop this infernal laughter right this minute or I’m going to have you put to death.”

Lazarus continued to laugh.

He says to the emperor, “Go ahead and do what you will.  There is no death.  There is only life.”

That is how we can live if we know Jesus as our resurrection and source of life.  When that primal fear of death is removed, life can finally be lived as God intends.

When Jesus met Lazarus at the tomb, he defeated death and gave Lazarus life.  Now he wants to meet you in all of your dead places, sharing his life and victory with you.  So smile.  There are no more reasons to sing of “gloom, despair, and agony.”  There are no more reasons to be so somber, serious, and stoic.  If you believe in Jesus, then the power of resurrection and life are now yours.

Jesus is calling your name.  He is calling you to step forth from death to life.  I pray that your answer will be the same words that Lazarus gave as he came out of the tomb, “Yes, yes, yes.”  Because if we want more life, it is God’s good pleasure to give it to us.  Amen.

The Lazarus Life: Spiritual Transformation for Ordinary People
by: Stephen W. Smith
publisher: David C. Cook, published: 2008-06-01
ASIN: 1434799956
EAN: 9781434799951
sales rank: 710557
price: $2.35 (new), $0.01 (used)

I am Lazarus.  And so are you.

The life of Lazarus is one of the most recognizable stories found in God’s word. The chronicle of an ordinary man who found himself at the center of an astounding miracle. A divine process that fully revealed Christ’s transforming power, through a resurrection that preceded His very own.

But what if the story of Lazarus holds powerful parallels for us today? What if his story of hope and heartbreak, expectancy and disappointment, death and life, is our story too? What if the transformation Lazarus experienced is available to you and me? Stephen W. Smith presents a remarkable journey through the life of Lazarus. Come explore the life and legacy of Lazarus. Discover a story all your own.  And hear the voice of the One who loves you.

Find free study resources for The Lazarus Life at www.lazaruslife.com.

 

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