Is it cliché to speak of the resurrection in the face of death? Some questions only have one right answer.
We know from Job’s story that silence in the face of death is often the best place to start, though we seldom stay there as long as we ought. Eventually, though, we have to speak. It is in our nature to speak, to confront, to address. We refuse to believe nothing remains to be said. We cannot accept that any tragedy is too great to eventually be faced and overcome. But every word we speak is itself eventually overcome by death. We claim the memory of a loved one will live on, but eventually, it won’t. To make the same point differently, the word “insanity” may in the days to come be spoken over James Holmes, granting him a stay of execution, but eventually both he that hears it and they that speak it will die. Death always has the last word.
Not long ago, while reading the early chapters of Exodus, I got stuck in the plagues. I mean that as I read those stories slowly, one plague at a time, I realized that every plague ends the same way: Pharaoh hardens his heart, and refuses to let the people go. At the close of each scene, Israel is still in slavery. Nothing changes. No redemption, no freedom, no release. After reading through seven or eight plagues, I’m pretty sick of it. It’s a broken record, and the only thing that ever changes is the plague itself. This past week I was reading about the plague of locusts, and when I came to the end and found the familiar refrain, I found myself wondering: “is this ever going to end? Is Israel ever going to be set free? Or is Pharaoh, beaten down as he is by the plagues, going to win in the end?”
Of course, there are some hints in the plague of locusts that Pharaoh will not win—indeed, that his defeat is absolutely certain. Exodus tells us repeatedly that the locusts ate everything not destroyed by the hail (Exodus 10:5, 12, 15). In other words, at some point there won’t be anything left for God to destroy. God also says that the locusts will be unlike anything ever seen by past Egyptian generations (10:6) or future Israelite generations (10:2). In other words, Egypt is old news, and Israel is the future. Finally, God sends the locusts away by means of a wind out of the west that drives them toward a certain body of water (10:19)—if you know how the story ends, your ears can’t help but perk up at that.
Eventually, I come to the Red Sea (Exodus 14) and the celebration of victory (Exodus 15). But even there we are quickly reminded that the story is not over, for after the Exodus comes the wilderness, the failed conquest, the failed prophets, the failed kings, the Exile, and the failed return. Once again, we may begin to feel like the story never ends, that God’s people never get it right, and that Assyria or Babylon or Persia or Rome always triumphs.
The point, of course, is that there is only one right answer to the question of death, only one word, one speech-act if you will, that resounds when the gunfire in the Century 16 theatre has faded. The resurrection of Christ is the only guarantee that death will not speak the last word.
If Christ has not been raised then God himself has been overcome by death, and any word we might speak in the face of death is spitting into the wind.
If Christ has not been raised, we may be confident that death will never be defeated, and to believe otherwise truly makes us of all people most deserving of pity.
There is a time to be silent in the face of death, and we seldom remain long enough in that time. But there is also a time to speak, and only one word deserving to be spoken. It is not cliché to speak of the resurrection, but rather pointless to speak of anything else.