Just down the street from us lives a family that weeps today. Their son was killed in a tragic accident last weekend. Today does not feel like Easter to them. There is little sense of the power of Jesus’ resurrection when you stand in a cemetery, and watch the body of your child sink into the dark earth.
Death is so much stronger than life for our friends. In fact, much of their lives right now seem like the zombie shuffle of the animated dead. They died along with their son last week, and whatever “life” might be, it has no power over them or in them.
Some of you know our neighbors. Many of you have been struck dumb, along with us, by the tragedies of young lives lost in our community in recent weeks.
That’s why I had to prepare message for today based on Jesus’ words to his disciples just before he himself died. “In my Father’s house are many rooms,” he said. “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.”
On this Easter morning, allow me to bring three thoughts to you in reflection on Jesus’ words.
The first is this: for the friends of Jesus, death was the final stop on life’s railroad.
They had come through much that was difficult with Jesus, and yet they felt they could go through even much more with him. Peter was very bold about it. He was ready to swing swords and to stride through hell. James and John would stick it out with Jesus no matter what happened, because they could envision the day when Jesus would be king. If they were mere at the time (and they certainly planned to be), they would be rewarded with great honors.
But it was Thomas who was the realist among them. A week before this night of feasting and fellowship they had been up north in Galilee. News came to them there of Lazarus’ death. Outside of the twelve disciples, Lazarus was one of Jesus’ closest friends. Whenever Jesus went south, he stayed with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. But it was dangerous to go there now. Jesus had a lot of powerful enemies, and there were rumors that they were out to get Him. If he so much as showed his face in Bethany, they were pledged to assassinate him! That’s why the disciples were surprised when Jesus told them that he was planning to go to Lazarus’ funeral. They tried to talk him out of it. They could cope with a lot of other things. They would march with Jesus almost anywhere. But this was pushing it. A hunted Jesus they could shelter. A lonely Jesus they would comfort. A despised Jesus they would honor. But a dead Jesus was worthless to them. Death would ruin everything. It was the final stop on life’s railroad. Only death could cancel all their hopes and dreams and schemings.
The twelve begged Jesus not to go. And when He still insisted, they argued among themselves whether or not they were bound to go with him. It was Thomas who finally sighed and said, “Well, men, we’ve been with him this long; let’s go and die with him!” If he’s going to come to the end of his life, we might as well come to the end of ours. Let’s take the train with him, and get offer the final stop. That’s how they were thinking. Someone tells of a road near Lone Wolf, Oklahoma, that has a sign post reading: “This road ends in the cemetery.” That might have been the sign Thomas saw in his mind on the road Jesus was about to travel. The others saw it too: “This road ends in the cemetery!” They knew it. Death is the final stop on life’s railroad. W. H. Auden wrote a ballad, once, that he called “Victor.” It was the story of a young man, tender and innocent, who was betrayed by his wife. Victor wanders in a daze, wishing he could talk with his parents about his woes, but they are already dead. One of the saddest scenes from Auden’s poem happens when Victor meanders around town, hoping to communicate again with his father. If only he could do that! ”
Where are you, Father, when I need you most?”
Listen to Auden’s description! Picture it!
Victor walked out into the High Street,
He walked to the edge of the town;
He came to the allotments and the rubbish heap;
And his tears came tumbling down.
Victor looked up at the sunset
As he stood there all alone:
Cried: ‘Are you in Heaven, Father?’
But the sky said, ‘Address not known.’
Death is the end of the line. Death ends it all. Death is the terminal on life’s railroad. Emily Dickinson described the dead like this:
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon,
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin,
And roof of Stone.
They’re not going anywhere! And when Jesus spends this night of talk with his friends, they know that they are coming into the last station of the line, too. Tomorrow they all get off the train, and Death puts them in their places.
That’s why Jesus’ words here surprised them so much. They couldn’t quite understand what he was trying to say. In fact, they carry on a debate with him for some time, asking what he means, probing further into these mysterious thoughts.
It takes a long time before they begin to sense what Jesus is talking about. Actually, it won’t be until after Easter morning that they will truly figure out what he is saying. And this is the second reflection for us this morning: Jesus talks about turning death into a customs and immigration passageway. Where they had known death only as the end of the line, Jesus shows them a new way of looking at death. No longer a stone wall, a barrier, a termination.
No, says Jesus, it’s only the passage through customs and immigration, before the next train pull out of the station.
Years ago I saw a movie on television called The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. It was the story of a British woman named Gladys Aylward. She started life as a maid, a servant in the lower classes of English society. But somehow, through a number of surprising turns of fortune, she eventually became a missionary of the gospel of Jesus in the mountains of China. As she looked back on her life, from her elderly years, she saw it as a series of Inns or way stations that she had stayed in as she made her journey.
Each Inn had housed her for a time. Each way station had been a temporary home and each resting place offered to her its own type of happiness. But each successive Inn also brought to her life a deeper joy and a more profound sense of value and worth and meaning and love.
And so, when she reached this final plateau of here life, the one which she felt had brought her all the fullness possible, she called it The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. The Inn of the greatest joy.
It makes sense, doesn’t it?
But here’s the interesting thing: there are a number of ways that Jesus’ words can be translated from the Greek. He may be picturing, as our New International Version Bibles put it, a heaven that looks a lot like a large house, with many, many room. And each of us, passing through death’s customs stop, moves on to a place in our Father’s house that has a sign on the door bearing our name: “This is Wayne’s room!” “This is Sally’s room!” “This is Ken’s room!”
That is one way of understanding what Jesus says here. But there is another possibility as well. William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, like the translate Jesus’ words as meaning “many resting places.” He had traveled much in the Middle East, and he said that “resting places” are “shelters at stages along the road where travelers may rest on their journey.”
He said that travelers always sent someone on ahead to prepare a resting place for themselves, so that when they finally arrived at that spot near the close of day, their accommodations would be comfortable, and would suit them perfectly.
Another great Bible scholar, Brooke Westcott, said the same thing. He said that Jesus’ words meant “resting places or staticus on a Great road where travelers found refreshment.”
If that is the case, think again about Gladys Aylward’s story, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Think, as well, of travelers in ancient Palestine, moving through the brightness and heat of the day, on toward the coolness and the fellowship and the feasting of the Inn at sundown. And then think of Jesus’ words as a picture of passage — the movement of our lives from one journey to the next, with Death as an Inn where we spend the night.
Jesus tells his disciples that he is going on ahead to the Inn of Death. If no one makes the proper preparations there, it would only be a jail, or a prison, or a terminal with no escape when they themselves arrive. But Jesus turns it into an Inn where they may rest for a time before beginning their final journey into eternity.
I don’t know how many of you remember one of the Eagles’ final songs, the one called Hotel California. It always gave me shivers, because it pictures death in a rather creepy and mocking way. You get to the Hotel California, sang the Eagles, and you check in. The place is full of strange and sordid life forms. Death forms is probably a better term.
And when you get tired of staying there, you bring your bags down to the desk, and your tell the clerk you’d like to check out. He’s most agreeable. He processes your bill, and he sends you on your way.
You walk out through the front doors of the hotel, and you find yourself walking right back into the same hotel lobby! Now you are getting scared! What’s going on around here? You challenge the clerk at the desk! You just checked out! Why can’t you leave? And he only cackles a devilish chuckle: “You can check out anytime!” he sneers. “But no one ever leaves the Hotel California!” Once you’re in, you’re in! This is the end of the line!
And so it would seem. And so it was to the twelve who crowded around Jesus. “Don’t go to Jerusalem!” they said. “Death will trap you! The end of the line! You go there, and you’ve had it!”
But Jesus says “No! That’s not the way it is!”
He said, “I’m going ahead of you to make Death’s Inn a Resting Place. Someday it will be time for you to check in. And when you do, you will find it a welcome spot on your journey. It will never frighten you again! I’ll sweep away the ghosts and goblins. I’ll fix that front door. I’ll get rid of that nasty desk clerk called Satan, and I’ll make a place for you that is warm and welcoming. And when morning comes round again, we will all check out together, and go on home.”
That makes a big difference, doesn’t h, in terms of how we face death. What it means for us, and what it means for those we have loved, who have already died. Death is no longer the termination of our selves, but rather the passageway of customs and emigration through which we pass on our continuing journey. Death is never again the Hotel California, but it has become the Inn of the Final Happiness on our way home to the Father.
Some years ago a pastor in Savannah, Georgia, officiated at the funeral for an elderly woman of his congregation. His text was Psalms 116:15 — “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Here’s how he ended the message. Listen!
And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacrow,
And find Sister Caroline.
She’s borne the burden and heat of the day,
She’s labored long in my vineyard,
And she’s tired —
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.
While we were watching round her bed,
She turned her eyes and looked away,
She saw what we couldn’t see:
She saw Old Death. She saw Old Death
Coming like a fallen star.
But Death didn’t frighten Sister Caroline;
He looked to her like a welcome friend.
And she whispered to us: I’m going home,
And she smiled and closed her eyes.
Weep not, weep not,
She’s not dead;
She’s resting in bosom of Jesus.
She’s staying, for a time, at the Inn with Jesus!
And that brings us to the third reflection this Easter morning. Every time this great Sunday rolls round again we’re reminded of the emigration journey still ahead for each of us.
I think of that each Easter. It was some years ago that I officiated, during the week ahead, at the funeral of Jack Duyker. He was a quiet man of great inner strength who often brought peace to the troubled waters of commotion that swirled around him in life. He was a black-haired giant who spoke softly and carried a big heart.
He struggled with cancer for more than a year before he breathed his labored last one night up at the hospital. A few weeks before his death, as we visited together, I asked Jack if he would like me to read something from the Bible. He asked me to read these verses from John 14.
I knew why. Jack had moved around a lot in his 65 years. He grew up as a boy in the Netherlands. When World War II shook the peace of Europe, Jack became an intelligence officer in the military, and was shipped off to Indonesia as a spy. After the war he came home, and he found Holland to be different place, a place without hope, a place of rubble, a place of suffering and death.
He heard of the plans of others to go to a new land, a land with lots of space, a land with life and health and vigor and vitality. A land of promise, and a land with a future. And so it was that Jack Duyker emigrated to Canada.
He emigrated to a land that he had never seen. But he went because other had gone before him, and he heard the reports that they sent back: “This is a good land, Jack! There’s opportunity here! You can prosper here, Jack! This is a great place to make a new start!”
Jack emigrated to Canada, not because he had personally experienced the country, but because he trusted the testimony of those why had charted the way ahead of him. He emigrated to Canada because the world he was leaving offered him very little anymore, and the world toward which he was moving promised much.
Jack told me about those days of emigration. They were tough times for him. He had to say good-bye to his family. He didn’t plan ever to see them again. Once he left, he would be gone from them forever!
He had to separate himself from his friends. Their life was on that side, his was now on this. He had to give up his language and his culture, and then learn the vocabulary of a new civilization. He had to die, as it were, to Holland, and to family and friends and life as he knew it, in order to emigrate to Canada.
Easter happened early the year that Jack died. Our last conversations together were about Easter. Jack told me he was getting ready to make another trip soon. He was on the move again. And the message of Easter was that Death could not keep him. Because of Jesus’ own journey through Death, Death was now nothing more than a nasty Emigration Officer at the Customs House. “You can’t take your wife with you, Jack!” it told him. “And you can’t take your house along! And you’re going to have to leave your clothes and your money behind.”
Death could tell him all those things. But Death couldn’t keep him from traveling on to the new land, to the Promised Land, to the world where his cancer couldn’t ever bother him again. Jesus had turned Death from termination into emigration. And that’s why, in our last conversations, Jack wanted me to read these words of Jesus to him one more time.
That’s why, as well, on this Easter Sunday morning, we need to hear again Jesus’ promises to His disciples.
On the Way to Jerusalem
Clement of Alexandria said that because of Easter, “Christ has turned all our sunsets into dawns.” And John Milton wrote that “Death is the golden key that opens the palace of eternity.”
But most striking, I think, is this inscription on the tombstone of a Christian: “The inn of a traveler on his road to Jerusalem.” Can you see it? “The inn of a traveler on his road to Jerusalem!”
Who know what life will be like in Jerusalem? In the New Jerusalem, that is, as the bible pictures our lives beyond the grave. There are hints and suggestions and tantalizing allusions to it in the scriptures, but very little that we can see clearly.
Yet this we know: because of Easter morning, Jesus has turned Death, for us, from the termination of our life’s journeys into the emigration passageway to Jerusalem, still to come.
When archaeologists searched the catacombs of Rome, they found many traces of the early Christians who lived and died down there. The sides of the catacombs are littered with graves, and the graves are covered with pictures and images. There you can find Jesus the shepherd, caring for his flocks of young and old. There you will see Jesus as King, crowned with the glory of heaven.
But there, too you will see Jesus as Orpheus. That’s an amazing testimony: Jesus as Orpheus.
You know who Orpheus was, don’t you? In the legends of the Greeks and Romans, Orpheus was a musician of great skill. But the fame of Orpheus lives on not because of his music but from his one heroic deed. Orpheus loved Eurydice, and married her. The two of them were happy beyond measure.
But then something terrible happened. Eurydice was running through the fields when she happened to step on a snake. The snake bit her and she died, and Orpheus was left alone in his mourning and sorrow and pain.
That’s when Orpheus did something no one had ever done before. He found the passage to the Underworld. He traveled to the depths of Death, and there he found his late bride held prisoner by Shades and Shadows.
And there Orpheus sang his song of great love and great desire, until the gates of the underworld were opened to him, and he took his love back to life above.
Do you see why the early Christians would mark their tombs with pictures of Jesus as Orpheus? A mother dies, and the children cry. A husband dies, and his wife sobs in great mourning. A child dies, and the parents are beside themselves with grief. They are powerless at the Gates of Death. Death has claimed another. Death comes snatching and grabbing, and they can’t do a thing about it. Death gobbles their friends and their lovers into its prison cells, and not one can beg loud enough for their release. Death is the end, the final foe, the termination of life’s short railroad.
But then comes Jesus, and he finds the doorway to the underworld. He challenges Death to release his friends, and Death becomes but a Customs and Emigration depot on the way to the Promised Land!
Christina Rossetti wrote a poem about death, a dialogue of two voices. The first voice asks the question: “… is there for the night a resting-place?”
The second voice gives answer: “A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.”
Comes another question from the first: “May not the darkness hide it from my face?”
And once again there is a reply: “You cannot miss the inn. You cannot miss the inn.”
Why? Because Jesus has gone ahead of you. He has made it a place secure, till the final lap of our pilgrimage calls us out, beyond Customs and Emigration, for the Chapters of the Great Story, as C. S. Lewis put it, which no one on earth has ever read, and in which every chapter is better than the one before.
This is the marking above the grave of every loved one you know. And it can be written above your grave, someday, as well The Inn of a Traveler on His Road to Jerusalem.