This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia, as part of a Lenten sermon series on “holy sleep,” looking at instances of sleep in Scripture.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Before I delve into my sermon this evening, I have to thank Pastor Lissy for setting my mind on poetry tonight with his quoting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” in his sermon last Wednesday. And given that this evening’s sermon title is “Not Dead, But Asleep,” I started thinking about poems that seem to reflect this theme that we find in our Gospel reading from Matthew, and the following came to mind: Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking” (1914). Interestingly, his birthday was yesterday. I think the sentiments Frost expresses get at one of the central questions raised by Matthew’s Gospel. Is death forever? Here’s the latter part of Frost’s poem:
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
A couple of the lines toward the end of this excerpt really stick out to me, and our Gospel reading provides an answer to them. “For I have had too much / Of apple-picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired...One can see what will trouble / This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. / Were he not gone, / The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his / Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, / Or just some human sleep.” As students in AP English Literature, when we read this poem, we focused on trying to figure out what exactly Frost was talking about in these last lines. Was he talking about just being tired and wanting to lie down and sleep after working too long? Was he even really talking about apple-picking? Or was this all a more figurative way of speaking about life, its length and toils, and its end?
That final interpretation was what we eventually ran with. Frost seems to be talking about the end after a long life here (though he was only forty when he published the poem), and he (or his persona) is contemplating death and what comes after. Is the “sleep” that is coming long, like the woodchuck’s hibernation, or short like a man’s? That is to say, does it go on long, perhaps interminably, or will he awake again?
In our Gospel reading this evening, Jesus is approached by a leader of the local synagogue (given the name Jairus in Luke and Mark) whose daughter has just recently died. He lays down before Jesus and entreats him, “My daughter has just died, but come and place your hand on her, and she will live!” And Jesus gets up to go with him, as do the disciples. When they come to the leader’s house, they find a crowd outside the house with flute players and mourners, all wailing and making noise. Jesus speaks to the crowd and tells them something pretty incredible:
“Go home, for the little girl has not died, but sleeps!”
And the crowd laughs at him. They hear what Jesus says and to them it’s silly. After all, how can the little girl be asleep when her own father reported to Jesus that she had just died? She was dead— as dead as a door-nail, or perhaps, as Dickens put it, as a coffin-nail, “the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.” The mourners were there with the flute players to pipe her dirge–who does this Jesus think he is, saying that she has not died, but is asleep? The coroner had probably already been called for. This Jesus fellow was a carpenter. What did he know about death and sleep? Saying that this girl wasn’t dead was crazy talk.
And it does sound crazy, doesn’t it? Dead is dead, right? No doubt the people in the crowd had seen dead people before, especially dead children. Life expectancy for young people wasn’t great in the first century. Death was all too common, something people were used to. And when you died, you didn’t come back. For the crowds outside Jairus’ door, death was a part of life, and it was final.
That’s often how it feels for us. Death does seem pretty final; it’s rare that anyone ever comes back, and even then, when they do, the “dead” person is brought back with a shock to the heart or some medical procedure before they’ve actually and truly died and ceased to function. But even that is a rare phenomenon. The medical definition of death is a constantly shifting target. Death comes to us all, eventually, and it’s a consequence of our sinful human nature, the consequence for our first parents’ bringing sin into the world. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Adam and Eve’s sin doomed humanity to death, pain, and toil. Seeing how much pain and death there is in the world, one can be tempted to think that there’s no hope where death is concerned, that when a friend or loved one dies, they’re gone forever. That sort of woodchuck sleep Frost wonders about— long with no sensation, down in the earth, a descent into nothingness. A descent into the pit of Sheol, into, as Charles Wesley wrote in his hymn, “Idumea,” “a land of deepest shade, unpierced by human thought, / the dreary regions of the dead / where all things are forgot.”
Except there is hope. Remember what Jairus says to Jesus when he falls down at his feet? “But come and place your hand on her, and she will live!” This leader of the synagogue throws himself before Jesus, and what he says is startling. He trusts that Jesus can bring his daughter back to life. Prior to being approached by Jairus, Jesus had healed people with leprosy, paralysis, demonic possession, and other afflictions. But Jairus has faith that Jesus, who has healed so many people in his ministry, can even heal his daughter from mortality’s seemingly incurable disease.
And Jairus’ faith is not misplaced. After the jeering crowd of mourners and flute players have left, Jesus takes the girl’s hand and he does the impossible (at least according to the crowds). He restores her to life. He shows this leader of the synagogue, his daughter, and everyone who hears the report of her raising that death has no power over him and that it isn’t final. Jesus came to break death’s dominion over mankind and “to save his people from their sins.” Jairus had faith that Jesus could raise his daughter, and because of his great faith, he got to see the promise of the resurrection of all people prefigured in his little girl’s return to life. Just as Jesus commended the woman with a hemorrhage, stating that her faith had made her well (had literally “saved” her), Jairus’ faith had brought his daughter back to him. Because of his faith in Christ’s power over death, he and his family knew that the “sleep” of death was not endless, like some “woodchuck” sleep, but that, through Christ, those who trust in him would arise, as if awakening from a short slumber. His daughter was not dead forever— she was merely “asleep,” and her Lord awakened her.
The raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead is a sign for us of Jesus’ mastery over death and a sign of death’s temporariness, but we also have a greater sign. In his death and resurrection, Jesus not only destroyed the power of death over one person, but over all people. Adam and Eve’s sin no longer has the hold on us that it once did. Jesus’s sacrifice defanged death, and his resurrection proved that death’s power was and is truly broken. When we put our trust in Jesus like Jairus did, we know that, though death will come for us eventually (unless Jesus comes back first!), death will not keep us forever, but that we shall be raised up, awakened, as if from sleep, to live with him in the new creation. In fact, the Apostles, when writing about the death of those who trust in Jesus Christ, never say that those who trust him have “died” or “perished.” Instead, they write that those who are in Christ have “fallen asleep,” because he will raise them up on the Last Day. You and I also have this promise and can put our faith in it. Our faith in him will save us. Our coming sleep will not be long, interminable like that of Frost’s woodchuck, but we shall awaken again, as if from some human sleep, to new life with Jesus Christ, our Lord.