“How was the night?” asked the nurse. The young man’s weary eyes answered the question before his lips could. It had been long and hard. Vigils always are. But even more so when they are with your own father.
“He didn’t wake up.”
The son sat by the bed and held the bony hand that had so often held his own. He was afraid to release it for fear that doing so might allow the man he so dearly loved to tumble over the brink. He had held it all night as the two stood on the canyon’s edge, aware of the final step that was only hours away.
With word’s painted black with confusion, he summarized the fears that had been his companions during the darkness. “I know it has to happen,” the son yearned, looking at his father’s ashen face; “I just don’t know why.”
The canyon of death.
It is a desolate canyon. The dry ground is cracked and lifeless. A blistering sun heats the wind that moans eerily and stings mercilessly. Tears bum and words come slowly as visitors to the canyon are forced to stare into the ravine. The bottom of the crevice is invisible, the other side unreachable. You can’t help but wonder what is hidden in the darkness. And you can’t help but long to leave.
Have you been there? Have you been called to stand at the thin line that separates the living from the dead? Have you lain awake at night listening to machines pumping air in and out of your lungs? Have you watched sickness corrode and atrophy the body of a friend? Have you lingered behind at the cemetery long after the others have left, gazing in disbelief at the metal casket that contains the body that contained the soul of the one you can’t believe is gone?
If so, then this canyon is not unfamiliar to you. You’ve heard the lonesome whistle of the winds. You’ve heard the painful questions Why? What for? ricochet answerless off the canyon walls. And you’ve kicked loose rocks off
the edge and listened for the sound of their crashing, which never comes.
The young father crushed the cigarette into the plastic ashtray He was alone in the hospital waiting room. How long will it take? It all had happened so quickly! First came the news from the hospital, then the frantic drive to the emergency room and then the explanation of the nurse. “Your son was hit by a car. He has some serious head wounds. He is in surgery The doctors are doing the best they can.”
Another cigarette. ‘My God. “ The words of the father were almost inaudible. “He’s only five years old.”
Standing on the edge of the canyon draws all of life into perspective. What matters and what doesn’t are easily distinguished. Above the canyon wall no one is concerned about salaries or positions. No one asks about the car you drive or what part of town you live in. As aging humans stand beside this ageless chasm, all the games and disguises of life seem sadly silly.
It happened in one fiery instant. “Where is the bird?” shouted a space engineer at Cape Canaveral.
“Oh, my God “cried a teacher from the viewing stands nearby. “Don’t let happen what I think just happened” Confusion and horror raced through the nation as we stood on the edge of the canyon watching seven of our best disintegrate before our eyes as the shuttle exploded into a white and orange fireball.
Once again we were reminded that even at our technological finest, we are still frighteningly frail.
It is possible that I’m addressing someone who is walking the canyon wall. Someone you love dearly has been called into the unknown and you are alone. Alone with your fears and alone with your doubts. If this is the case, please read the rest of this piece very carefully. Look carefully at the scene described in John 11. In this scene there are two people: Martha and Jesus. And for all practical purposes they are the only two people in the universe.
Her words were full of despair. “If you had been here. . .“ She stares into the Master’s face with confused eyes. She’d been strong long enough; now it hurt too badly. Lazarus was dead. Her brother was gone. And the one man who could have made a difference didn’t. He hadn’t even made it for the burial. Something about death makes us accuse God of betrayal. “If God were here there would be no death!” we claim.
You see, if God is God anywhere, he has to be God in the face of death. Pop psychology can deal with depression. Pep talks can deal with pessimism. Prosperity can handle hunger. But only God can deal with our ultimate dilemma—death. And only the God of the Bible has dared to stand on the canyon’s edge and offer an answer. He has to be God in the face of death. If not, he is not God anywhere.
Jesus wasn’t angry at Martha. Perhaps it was his patience that caused her to change her tone from frustration to earnestness. “Even now God will give you whatever you ask”
Jesus then made one of those claims that place him either on the throne or in the asylum: “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha misunderstood. (Who wouldn’t have?) “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
That wasn’t what Jesus meant. Don’t miss the context of the next words. Imagine the setting: Jesus has intruded on the enemy’s turf; he’s standing in Satan’s territory: Death Canyon. His stomach turns as he smells the sulfuric stench of the ex-angel, and he winces as he hears the oppressed wails of those trapped in the prison. Satan has been here. He has violated one of God’s creations.
With his foot planted on the serpent’s head, Jesus speaks loudly enough that his words echo off the canyon walls. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25).
It is a hinge point in history. A chink has been found in death’s armor. The keys to the halls of hell have been claimed. The buzzards scatter and the scorpions scurry as Life confronts death—and wins! The wind stops. A cloud blocks the sun and a bird chirps in the distance while a humiliated snake slithers between the rocks and disappears into the ground.
The stage has been set for a confrontation at Calvary.
But Jesus isn’t through with Martha. With eyes locked on hers he asks the greatest question found in Scripture, a question meant as much for you and me as for Martha. “Do you believe this?”
Wham! There it is. The bottom line. The dimension that separates Jesus from a thousand gurus and prophets who have come down the pike. The question that drives any responsible listener to absolute obedience to or total rejection of the Christian faith.
“Do you believe this?”
Let the question sink into your heart for a minute. Do you believe that a young, penniless itinerant is larger than your death? Do you truly believe that death is nothing more than an entrance ramp to a new highway?
“Do you believe this?”
Jesus didn’t pose this query as a topic for discussion in Sunday schools. It was never intended to be dealt with while basking in the stained glass sunlight or while seated on padded pews.
No. This is a canyon question. A question which makes sense only during an all-night vigil or in the stillness of smoke-filled waiting rooms. A question that makes sense when all of our props, crutches, and costumes are taken away. For then we must face ourselves as we really are: rudderless humans tail-spinning toward disaster. And we are forced to see him for what he claims to be: our only hope.
As much out of desperation as inspiration, Martha said yes. As she studied the tan face of that Galilean carpenter, something told her she’d probably never get closer to the truth than she was right now. So she gave him her hand and let him lead her away from the canyon wall.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?”