I’m addicted to safety. Even if I wasn’t born that way, I learned to crave it growing up. My adults were broken, so by age eight I was busy trying to make everything feel safe for my younger siblings and me. It was also around then I first watched The Ten Commandments and was shaken with fear. By 12, I was reading my Bible trying to understand a scary God. At 14, I told Christ I trusted him with my life. Now, I’m … well, I’m much older and just learning what I would like to have learned long ago. Dying is not something to be avoided. In fact, it’s preferable.
Through the years, whenever I’ve read about or pondered Moses on the mountain asking God for a glimpse of his glory, the thing that no man could see and live, I still imagine Charleton Heston clinging to some rocks, squinting against the thunder and lightning and hurricane force winds of God’s holy presence. What was Moses thinking? Why would he want to get that close to something that, but for the protection of a rocky cleft, would kill him?
We humans have a strong survival instinct and despite my small frame and passive personality, mine is at least as acute and maybe more stubborn than most. Looking back, a huge chunk of my life has been focused upon avoiding death and other unpleasant things, except for the couple of times I was so depressed I didn’t care. The truth is, much of what we all do is in the effort to distance ourselves from death. We work so we can afford to eat, have a safe place to sleep and buy that gym membership … so we can live. We learn not to run with scissors, dive into shallows, put fingers into electrical outlets or jump out of airplanes. (Except for my friend Kim, for whom parachuting has suddenly become a high priority.)
If we are honest, even our pursuit of God is often begun with the desire to avoid spiritual and eternal death. It’s exactly the reason I first showed up asking questions, something along the line of the rich young ruler’s inquiry, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” I prayed the sinner’s prayer and followed up for safe keeping by bringing him a few acts of service and some of my treasures. Either he let me go on for a while or I was just too blind to see, but he doesn’t want my token offerings. He wants everything … my life, my heart, my love. And he wants yours too. As with the rich young ruler, he wants us to let go of our lives and come with him. As I said, I’m stubborn so I’ve walked away sad an embarrassing number of times.
Worse than the rich young ruler’s closed hand, I have a claw, just like the mythical character Lilith, who George MacDonald borrowed as a subject for his parable. Lilith’s claw was clenched so tightly she couldn’t open it. What was in it? Her life. She clung to her own vision of herself, her own will and desire for sovereignty. As much as it pains me, I identify with that part of her. I am repenting, but it’s multi-layered and goes deep. I want to turn myself over. I want to be remade and I want God’s presence even if it is the death of me – which is a fair certainty.
It’s funny how God orchestrates snippets of stories and real life circumstances to bring understanding. I have thought much about Lilith and Moses in recent days. They are a study in contrasts. Moses was a shepherd, advocate and intercessor for his people. Lilith was a shape-changing murderous narcissist. Moses abandoned a comfortable future in Egypt to give himself to God’s will. Lilith grasped her own life until she was unable to release it. Moses risked death to see God and Lilith resisted every inch of the way. In Lilith our sin natures are personified. The Self she sought to preserve is the thing that needed to die. It is the same for us. How does it come about?
Early in Exodus 33, God told Moses he wouldn’t be going with him and the Israelites into the land flowing with milk and honey. The people were entirely too stiff-necked and God said he might consume them on the way. Consume is the Hebrew word kalah, meaning to destroy utterly, make clean riddance of, quite take away or waste.
On the other hand, several verses later, up on the mountain, Moses is hashing it all out with God, interceding for Israel and telling him that he needed God’s presence for himself and for all of them. The following scene seems surprisingly tender considering their discussion of death. God said to Moses, “I will … do this thing of which you have spoken: for you have found favor in My sight, and I have known you by name.”
Moses then asks, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!”
God said, “You can’t see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (See Exodus 33: 17-20.)
There is no talk of God consuming Moses like the stiff-necked Israelites who were in love with their golden calf. No, God said that if Moses saw him he would not live. The Hebrew word chayai can mean to live, revive or recover, either literally or figuratively. God doesn’t seem to be speaking of any killing force, but his glory would produce an effect; Moses would not live.
Consider Isaiah in another scene. The prophet said, “In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple.” He further describes a vision of seraphim covering God’s face and feet and announcing continuous revelations of his holiness and glory, perhaps serving the same protective purpose to Isaiah as the cleft where God hid Moses. Isaiah’s reaction is telling. “Woe is me, for I am ruined (or undone in KJV)! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord or hosts.” (See Isaiah 6:1-5.) Undone is damah in Hebrew and it means to be cut off from speech, dumb, silent, to perish, to be destroyed, brought to silence.
Job had a similar experience. Allowed by God, Satan took everything from Job except his life. After forty some chapters Job stopped seeking vindication and asking God why. Something profound happened. “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5,6). Moses, Isaiah and Job each saw God. In their flesh they did not die, but a type of death occurred. None of them was ever the same.
Let’s fast forward to the New Testament, specifically to the village of Bethany and the house of Lazarus and his two sisters Mary and Martha. Maybe you’ve read their story and thought about them a number of times. As a new believer, I categorized Martha as a self-righteous, controlling workaholic like me. Mary was the one I wanted to be. She was the one who sat at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach. She was the one who poured perfume on him in preparation for his burial and wiped his feet with her hair. I never thought much about Lazarus, except that he became the oddity, the one who got called from a stinking sepulcher after four days. It was weird and miraculous, but I didn’t aspire to be Lazarus. That would involve dying.
Over the years, the three siblings have intrigued me more and more, perhaps because their home seemed to be a favorite of Jesus, and theirs a family of his heart if not biological relationship. They loved each other, they loved Jesus and Jesus loved them. In fact, John reminds us of this more than once. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). It’s interesting that John mentions Martha first. She wasn’t the shallow control freak of my imagination. She was a woman who was gifted to serve and she practiced hospitality. She spent herself to welcome Jesus and create a sanctuary from the hardships of a traveling ministry under constant threat.
Even if John didn’t mention Mary’s name in the list first, we know how Jesus felt about her. He was profoundly pleased that her first love in life was to sit at his feet and drink in his words. She would also be the one to comfort him and bless him with the outpouring of her perfume as his impending crucifixion loomed. He prophesied that her ministering act would be forever remembered and it has been.
Of Lazarus, we don’t know much, but if we did it would all pale in light of what happened in this chapter. He became very ill. “So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick’” (John 11:3). We know what happened next … nothing … at least for two more days. Jesus stayed where he was.
At last, he told his disciples it was time to go back. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” Of course, they didn’t understand and Jesus had to be more direct. “Lazarus is dead.” By the time they arrived, he’d been in the tomb four days and his house was overrun with mourners.
“When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home” (John 11:20). I picture Martha loaded for bear … angry … once again in her take-charge persona. But the first word out of her mouth is “Lord …” It is a word of submission and recognition of his position, and no doubt wracked with grief. What follows is a remarkable exchange … Martha expressing complete faith in Jesus and Jesus offering comfort and the promise of resurrection. At this, she calls her sister Mary to come. “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.”
Mary’s first words to Jesus are identical to her sister’s. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These two women, so different in personality, are alike in their reaction to Jesus. They trusted his love for them and Lazarus, believed in his power and that he was the Christ. Together, they watched Jesus weep. Together, their lives had intermingled to demonstrate the beauty of grace received and service given. And now, the metaphor of the household in Bethany was to be completed with Christ’s remedy for the human condition … death and resurrection.
It could be argued that unlike Moses and Isaiah and Job, Lazarus’ death was quite literal and involuntary. It’s true, but his death is illustrative of more than physical resurrection. Could anyone doubt that Lazarus and all the witnesses at his tomb saw the glory of God that day and were changed forever in that encounter?
Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God” (John 11:40)? Seeing the glory of God leads to a very good death. It is the end of Self and the beginning of his life in us. Moses longed for it because he was God’s friend. Isaiah was silenced and cleansed by it. Job’s final abandonment of his old life gave him a second life once he saw God. And Lazarus? His death proved Jesus’ mission was to call us out of a destiny of decay and prepare us for eternity as God’s sons and daughters.
Some of us, like Lazarus, have been waiting for Jesus to arrive and prevent the death. That’s where I have been for a long while. I’m not so brave as Moses. Climbing a mountain to see God and die seems more than I can do.
Recently, a friend said to me that God would provide in an area of my life if I would give it up to him. She said, “He wants to know if you will let him.” I want to, but opening this claw I have seems so impossible. My will would have to die.
Maybe like me you have been hoping for a healing instead. Like me, you may be distraught, even grieved, that he has not come yet. Perhaps he has more in mind for us than healing. Maybe he is bent on resurrection … but we know what has to come first.
Death is so very hard and none of us wants to die, to voluntarily walk into the chamber of death and lay our wills down to sleep. If we thought we had signed up for a safe eternity and a preservation of ourselves, this seems far too dangerous. But when we are looking for the Lord of Love and long for him more than anything, our dying is inevitable and even becomes mysteriously preferable. We repent not for what we have done, but of who we are. It’s a time for letting go of the life we cling to so tightly. It’s a time for our remaking. It’s our Sabbath and our rest and it’s also the prelude to our resurrection.