WHY Does Death Frighten Us?

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

Fifth Sunday in Lent 
March 26, 2023

Scripture reading: John 11: 1-41

We continue this Lenten sermon series with another WHY question for us to consider; this one contains the theme all of us wish we could avoid whenever we encounter the season of Lent; it is the theme of death.

And it presents the question:  

WHY does death frighten us?

As believers in Christ, we know this is ridiculous.  We say that we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and our Savior.

We say that we understand we are forgiven for our sins if we claim Him sincerely, honestly, and without deception.

We know that we will be with the Lord in Heaven forever, celebrating our eternal lives with Him.

We anticipate seeing friends, relatives, loved ones, and all those who have gone to their own rest in the hope of rising again with Him.

All of these statements are part and parcel in being a Christian and claiming Jesus Christ as the Son of God and our personal Savior.

True?  Can I get an AMEN?

If that is true, then why does death frighten us so much?

Perhaps it is because death is the great unknown.  There is no way to go there, explore it, return, and give everyone a detailed report.  This is how humans explored the New World, the Dark Continent of Africa, the mysterious southern continent of Antarctica, the depths of the world’s oceans, and the far side of the Moon.

We cannot see what happens after we die, we cannot prove anything scientifically, and we cannot hold to a truth that has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

That is why faith is involved in being a Christian.  We must take some things purely on faith.

So, what’s the problem?  Why is death still the number one fear of most people?

Maybe it has to do with any of the following:

  • We are afraid we might not really be forgiven;
  • We are afraid we will be left behind – as the book and TV series of the same name demonstrates;
  • We are afraid we will go to hell and suffer eternal torment for our sins – because we can’t possibly be forgiven for OUR sins…other people can because they are so much better than we are.  But we are heading to hell – and we just know it.

Or maybe that’s not it at all.

In today’s only reading, we have the death of Lazarus and Jesus’ reaction to it as our text.  There are LOTS of things here to frighten us – or to reveal the fears of the people who were there.

When Jesus and his disciples delay going to Lazarus when they receive word he is seriously ill, the reader fears for the consequences of that delay.  In fact, although nothing in the text reveals this, I can imagine the disciples also being frightened of what might happen.

Then when Jesus announces they will go to Lazarus in Judea, the disciples are frightened because they know this will put Jesus in danger of losing his life.  In fact, it is Thomas – yes, THAT Thomas, Doubting Thomas – who insists that all of them go with Jesus to die with him if necessary!  Thomas may have been frightened, but his boldness overshadows it. 

When Jesus arrives, he is met by Martha and then Mary.  Both sisters blame Jesus for not being there and for seemingly not doing anything; don’t know about Jesus, but I personally would have been frightened of being confronted by two grieving sisters that I loved telling me I could have done more.

They were joined in this accusation by some of those in the crowd who echoed the same sentiment…

Then we move to a more realistic fear: the fear of what will be found when Jesus orders the tomb to be opened.  At this, it seems that Martha snaps out of her grief for a moment to be horrified at what this might do.  After four days of Lazarus’ body being in the tomb, the inevitable decay of that body would have begun in earnest.  The pain of Lazarus’s death would only be greater, more frightening, if they had to also behold his rotting corpse.

But we know how the story ends, we know that there was no smell that anyone had time to notice.  

We know that Lazarus was raised from the dead in front of his sisters, Jesus’ disciples, and all the previously grieving people of Bethany.

We might not realize it, but we also know that although Lazarus was raised on that day, someday he died again – as all of us will too.

Despite this Gospel account, despite our statements of faith and belief in the resurrection and life everlasting with our Savior, Jesus Christ, despite all that we know, believe, and practice – we are still frightened by death.

“Why?” doesn’t seem to have any easy answer or a satisfactory one.

I wonder if it has anything to do with love.

When a father sees an out-of-control car barreling straight toward his car, he throws himself across the front seat to shield his daughter from harm.  It would seem that his love for her outweighed his fear of death.

When a very pregnant young mother is in the throes of labor and delivery, and the doctors suddenly become very concerned because things are going wrong: her blood pressure is too high, the baby’s heartbeat indicates he is in distress, there is suddenly too much bleeding that cannot be easily controlled, and the mother keeps passing in and out of consciousness; her last prayer before emergency surgery begins is, “At least our child let our son live; I survived long enough give birth to him.”  It would seem that her love for her newborn son outweighed the fear and dread she had felt right up to that very moment.

In the 1920’s, when a teenaged son is diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, medical science only knew so much about brain tumors. The family doctor sadly tells the parents, “Take him home and make him comfortable; he is going to die.”  The parents spend an agonizing night in prayer and conversation.  The next morning, the father barges into the doctor’s office and demands to know: “If he were your son, what would you do?”  The doctor pauses a moment and then tells the man to mortgage everything he owns and take his son to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  It was the only hospital in America at the time that was doing anything about brain tumors.  After three years of surgeries, journeys from Texas to Maryland, camping on the roadsides, weeks of hospitalization for the young man, his mother sleeping on the floor in her son’s hospital room, the surgeries were successful.  The young man outlived his parents, all four of his siblings and even his wife, dying at age 91.  It would seem that fear took a back seat when your child is dying and there seems to be no hope.

I wonder if it was love that removed the fear the disciples felt on that day.  

I wonder if it was love that removed the fear Martha and Mary felt on that day.

I wonder if it was love that made Jesus weep just for a moment – the moment just before he resuscitated his friend, Lazarus and raised him from the dead.

And I wonder if it was love that made Jesus face his own fear, tortuous crucifixion, and death on our behalf.

If so, then perhaps we have the answer to our question for today:

WHY does death frighten us?

Because we are not thinking of the love involved in our eternal lives.

That’s the best we may have for today – but it works for me, and I hope it works for you too.


PS – the father who protected his daughter died in that car wreck.  But his daughter lived and went on to live her own life.  She was a friend I knew in high school.

The young mom who passed out twice during that difficult delivery of her son, survived and lived to see her son, Hayes, attend day care for the very first time about a month ago.

And the story of my great uncle George and those multiple trips to Johns Hopkins when he was a teenager are told at family reunions as far back as I can remember; George only spoke up to correct details that the family story tellers got wrong.