So we’re in the fourth week of Easter and we’ve heard some remarkable stories about the miracles that happened after Jesus was resurrected. He appears in a locked room, twice, to reassure the disciples that his resurrection really did happen. He meets Peter and the other disciples fishing and they drag in 153 fish to shore (a number, by the way, that in Greek represented all of the fish known to humankind) without breaking the net. And today, we see Peter, following Christ’s miracle with Lazarus, appearing to give new life to Tabitha after she had died. All of these wonderful miracles testify to the truth that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and that his resurrection paved the way for our own resurrection from death to new life.
At the same time, though, they raise questions. The biggest question they raise, which we don’t particularly like to ask out loud, is: Why doesn’t this happen now? Why don’t we see these miracles of new life now? It’s not like we’re not praying for it. We pray earnestly and sincerely for new life. When we’re faced with some kind of loss or death, we pray that it won’t actually happen, that death won’t come our way. We pray that life would go on, that the things we fear won’t happen. We pray, and we pray, and we pray, and nothing. We don’t get what we’re asking for. And so we wonder, secretly most of the time, Why did God allow this particular loss or death? Didn’t God hear me? Why didn’t God answer my prayer?
There’s a church sign that I drive by every time I leave the house, and a few weeks ago it said, God answers prayer in three ways: 1) Yes, 2) Not Yet, and 3) Wait, I Have Something Better. And I like that third one. It reminds me of the country song by Garth Brooks, Unanswered Prayers. In the song, he talks about how he ran into a woman that he used to know, and he remembers that in high school he used to pray to God that he would marry her and was heartbroken when it didn’t happen, but as it turned out, he married someone else and he loves his wife so much more than he ever loved his high-school sweetheart. And the chorus goes, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Remember when you’re talking to the man upstairs, that even though he may not answer, it doesn’t mean he don’t care. Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”
You see, God always hears our prayers. And I know sometimes it doesn’t seem that way - I’ve spent my own sleepless nights wondering if I was just praying into a void - but God does. God always hears us - how could God not? We say that God is our shepherd, who does not lose a single sheep. Of course God hears our prayers. It’s just that sometimes, many times actually, God doesn’t answer our prayers with the Yes we’re hoping for, but instead answers our prayers the third way. With “Wait, I have something better.”
Which is really the story of Easter, isn’t it? That when Jesus prayed that this cup might be passed from him, and when the disciples no doubt prayed that nobody would end up nailed to a cross, that God responded with something better? If you’ve seen the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, you’ll remember that when Jesus is on the cross, he has a hallucination that in fact, God rescued him from the cross and that he continued to live his life with Mary and Martha and have children and grow old and never die by crucifixion. But since he doesn’t die, the disciples who followed him take up arms against Rome, and Jerusalem descends into war, and what would have been the beginnings of the Christian church instead dies in a blood bath. In the movie, because God said yes to Jesus’ prayers not to die, there was no Easter resurrection, no peaceful early church, and in the end, no Christian church at all. And Jesus realizes that for all of these things to happen, which are far better than what he thought he wanted, he has to die on the cross after all. And the hallucination ends, and he takes last breath, and he dies, and then we have Easter.
The hard truth of the Easter story is that the “something better” that God is offering us doesn’t come as soon as we like, or even as soon as we think we need. As much as we love Easter, the hard truth of it is that ‘the something better’ God has for us often doesn’t come until after whatever it is we’ve prayed for dies.
And, oh, do we struggle with this. We really don’t want to accept that we have to die before we can have the life God has for us. But there’s no way around it––we have to let go of the old life in order to grab hold of the new. One of my professors at seminary used to say that it’s like being stuck on the roof of a house in a flood, with the waters rising higher and higher. And along comes a helicopter, with a ladder dangling down, ready to rescue you from that roof. But what rescue workers have so often seen, and I’ve seen it too in other crisis situations, is that people will generally refuse to grab onto the ladder and be rescued, because it means letting go of the thing they’re currently holding onto, even though it’s far more dangerous than what they’re being offered. There’s something about human nature in crisis where we grab onto the first thing we see, and then we just can’t let go, even if there is something better. And my professor, who was giving us this example in relation to baptism and Luther’s belief that the old self has to drown in the waters of baptism––be killed––in order to receive the new life that Christ offers, said that we have to die before we can receive new life. (And what made this so powerful is that his wife was dying of cancer as he was teaching this class, so he wasn’t just saying things. He really meant it.) He said that it’s impossible to hold onto the life we have and to grab onto the new life that God is offering. We can’t hold both things at the same time. We have to let go of the old, no matter how much we love it, in order to receive the something better God has for us. We have to die before we can have new life.
So how do we do that? How do we let go and trust that God really has something better? Well, rescue workers are able to coax people off of their roofs by constantly reassuring the stranded people that they will be safe, that it will be okay, telling them about all of the things that are waiting for them - food, warm clothes, their other friends and family, safety. And this is what God does for us. God gives us glimpses of the new life that God has waiting for us. New life looks a bit like what we heard from the book of Revelation this morning - a great multitude of people from every nation. New life looks like an immense gathering of people, all different from one another––different races, different ages, different opinions––all together as a family, where no one is alone. Revelation talks about angels and elders and four living creatures singing before God. New life looks like singing and joy and light. Revelation talks about those whose robes are washed in the blood of Christ and made white. New life looks like forgiveness for every mistake and reconciliation and the restoration of all relationships. And Revelation talks about shelter. No more hunger, no more thirst, no more suffering from the elements. And so we know that new life looks like a rest from all our worries, a rest from our struggles to keep going, a blessed relief from trying to keep ourselves alive.
Of course, what this new life looks like exactly in the here and now is impossible to say. We can’t ever know exactly what God’s something better is going to look like. Probably because we don’t have eyes to see––because we think ‘something better’ is just more of what we already have. But God’s something better is radically different from what we know. It’s not the same old life extended––it is new life. Something beyond what we can imagine and beyond even what we would ever pray for.
But we have to let go first. We have to let go of what we think would be the best for us, let go of our desire that God would stop death from coming. In fact, some of the most faithful prayers I’ve heard, coming from people who have been Christian their whole life, are those prayers to die. The prayer to die is one of the most Christian prayers I know, because underneath that prayer is the deepest and most enduring trust that God does indeed have something better waiting. Underneath the prayer to die is the most faithful belief that God will bring new life, and that it is better than anything we know. I am humbled every time I pray one of these prayers with someone, and I am in awe that God has given them the faith to be prepared to let go of this life at any moment in order to embrace the new life God has waiting for them.
The Christian life, the path we are called to follow from baptism, is a constant cycle of dying and receiving new life, of letting go of the old in order to grab hold of God’s new, so that on our last day, we will have had so much practice and experience with it that we can literally let go of this life in order to embrace new life in Christ. This is the Easter path and the Easter promise, that new life comes after death. That whatever we pray for, God always has something better. So, whatever it is that you might be praying for these days, a loss that you might be hoping never to endure, may God grant you a glimpse of the new life and the something better that God has waiting for you and all of God’s children, and give you the strength to let go and embrace the promise of Easter. Thanks be to God. Amen.