• View Sermon Transcript

    Download sermon transcript icon Download .pdf

    We’ve been told that hopefully the worst is now over in New York City in terms of the daily death toll, but we continue to mourn the grievous loss of so many family members, friends and colleagues who have been taken away from us all too soon by this terrible virus. It is tragic to think that we have now lost so many more people in New York City to covid-19 than we did even on 9/11. Thankfully, the physical distancing orders have been effective, and we can be grateful that the rate of new cases and hospitalizations has decreased. But it still may be some time before the restrictions on our movement are lifted. 

    In the midst of all this disruption to our normal lives, we may find ourselves feeling a bit aimless. Surely we must have a higher purpose in life than constantly checking news sites and binge watching Netflix? Last week we considered the question of hope. Today I’d like to turn to the question of meaning. What meaning can we find in the face of all this devastation? 

    This was the very question that Albert Camus sought to answer in 1947 when he published a novel entitled, The Plague. Camus intended this book to be read on multiple levels. And if you read it, you will see it’s a bit uncanny how much this novel resonates with our own experience today.

    The story takes place in the port city of Oran in Algeria, and the main character is a doctor named Bernard Rieux who notices that rats—oddly enough—are dying openly in the streets all over the city. After the concierge of his building dies of a strange fever, he consults with his friend, Dr. Castel, who has come to the conclusion that a plague is sweeping through the town. Together they must convince the authorities to take decisive steps instead of denying that there is a problem or wasting any more precious time. Once the daily death toll spikes the whole city is quarantined. The gates are shut. Travel is prohibited. All communications are restricted.

    Camus describes the effect of this shutdown on the general public. It felt like living in exile. He writes: “Once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life.” They reluctantly conclude that they were “all in this together.” That certainly sounds familiar.

    Previously each person might have thought that his or her own struggle was unique compared to the common suffering of others, but now they realize that they are all experiencing the same intense longing for loved ones. “All these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again.” 

    During the epidemic Camus seeks to show the various ways in which people respond to their feelings of exile. Some devise plans to try to escape the city. Others find ways to get rich by making money on the black market during the crisis. But Camus reserves perhaps one of his sharpest critiques for the local priest. At the onset of the health threat, the priest delivers a sermon to a packed-out church in which he tries to provide a straight-forward explanation for why this is happening. No matter what the crisis, there’s always someone who gives a sermon like this. So what does the priest do?—He blames the residents of Oran for the epidemic. Rather than lamenting the fact that we live in a broken world where we may experience otherwise inexplicable sickness and suffering, the priest tries to rationalize the outbreak. The priest reaches for the most tired and simplistic explanation for any tragedy. Why did this calamity come upon them—because they deserved it. The priest calls the plague a punishment for their sins—but of course it’s not a punishment for any of his own.

    In contrast to these negative and inadequate responses to the epidemic, Camus lifts up the example of Dr. Rieux and a few of his friends who focus on treating patients and creating a volunteer team to assist in the city’s sanitation efforts. As the months go by, the situation worsens. People begin to view one another with suspicion. Everyone is at risk of infection, and everyone is a potential carrier. Eventually the authorities must declare martial law and impose a curfew to prevent people from trying to escape the city. As the number of people succumbing to the disease increases, the emergency rooms are filled to capacity. Houses and hotels are turned into make-shift hospitals and isolation wards. The number of people dying becomes so great that funerals are conducted with less ceremony and greater speed. Little concern is shown for the feelings of the surviving family members. I know. When you listen to this you realize it hits a little too close to home.

    What makes matters worse is that, in time, it becomes abundantly clear that the anti-plague efforts of Dr. Rieux and his friends do not seem to make much of a difference at all. All their efforts are futile. People keep dying all the same and there is no rhyme or reason to it. The plague is said to deliver “impartial justice” because its victims occupy all levels of the social ladder. It doesn’t matter if your or rich or poor, young or old. Everyone faces the same threat. Some die from the plague, and some die from other causes. Dr. Rieux and his colleagues know that the plague is an airborne contagion, and therefore they increase their chances of infection by fighting against it. But they also know that they could die by doing nothing at all. They choose action in the face of death. 

    After several months have passed, the epidemic finally begins to break. The gates are reopened. The city is filled with joy, and everyone tries to return to normal life. Towards the end of the novel, Dr. Rieux begins to reflect on what could be learned from this epidemic and what meaning could be found during this long period of exile—which he refers to as a cruel leisure. 

    “Yes, they had suffered together, in body no less than in soul, from a cruel leisure, exile without redress, thirst that was never slaked. Among the heaps of corpses, the clanging bells of ambulances…among unremitting waves of fear…always a great voice had been ringing in the ears of these forlorn, panicked people, a voice calling them back…And it was to this…toward happiness, they longed to return…As to what that exile and that longing for reunion meant, Rieux had no idea. But…he was thinking it has no importance whether such things have or have not a meaning; all we need consider is the answer given to men’s hope. Henceforth he knew the answer…If there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love. But for those others who aspired beyond and above the human individual toward something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer…”

    In other words, the best that we can ever hope for and sometimes attain in the midst of an epidemic is an experience of human love, but beyond that there is no answer to the question of whether our life means anything. In the final pages, Dr. Rieux reveals he is the narrator of this story, and this is how Camus concludes the novel:

    “Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle…to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise. Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a  final victory…As he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague…never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen—chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when…it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

    Now what is Camus trying to say? The Plague is meant to serve as an allegory for the human condition. Camus rejected belief in God and believed that human life was absurd because we all live under the sentence of death. Whether we die during an epidemic or from some other cause doesn’t really matter. Sooner or later, one way or another, we are all going to die – and all our attempts to resist death are ultimately futile. Our life is one prolonged period of exile in which we feel cut off from the possibility of lasting happiness. In the end, everything that matters to us—ourselves included—will be obliterated. Therefore, for Camus, life is utterly irrational and absurd. There is no meaning to our existence. But even if death renders our lives meaningless, Camus believed that it is more noble to fight against suffering and death than to simply give in and resign ourselves to it. There’s something to that of course. We have seen for ourselves how an epidemic can draw out the best in people. This is what leads Camus to say: “in a time of pestilence…there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” 

    In the final analysis, however, Camus believes that the most that you can hope for in this life is an experience of human love. That is our only shot at happiness—but Camus will admit that even that is still nothing more than a consolation prize because eventually death will strip you of the ones you care for the most. That’s why Camus concludes the novel by saying that our joy is always imperiled because the plague—representing the ultimate nothingness of death—never dies or disappears for good. It can lie dormant for years and years —but eventually it will resurface and take away everything you love.

    So what do you think of that? I admit that’s a little depressing, but that’s French philosophy for you. And as far as atheist philosophers go, Camus is probably a bit more upbeat than most. But let’s be honest, that’s about as good as it gets without God. As a contemporary philosopher puts it: “In the absence of God, all there is left to human life is human action and interaction…and the only meaning any of it has is the meaning we manage to give it.  Our existence is thus one long walk on a tightrope over a yawning abyss and there is nothing to catch us should we fall into meaninglessness or isolation or even mere ordinariness.”

    The only meaning in life is the meaning we manage to give it. That might sound exhilarating or inspiring to some. But to me, it seems like little more than a game of pretend. It reminds me of people who struggle with being on time so they deliberately set their watch fast by five minutes. I actually tried doing this once, but it didn’t work because I knew that even if the watch said 11:00 o’clock, I knew it was really 10:55. In other words, I knew I was lying to myself. And here’s the point, we can’t just IMAGINE that our life means something if it doesn’t. Let’s confront the brutal facts: either life has meaning that death can’t take away or it doesn’t.

    And that’s why Christianity offers us something far better. That’s what I would like you to see. 

    In our reading today from the Gospel of John, we find the disciples in a position not unlike our own. They’ve gone into “lockdown.” It is the evening of that very first Easter following Jesus’ resurrection, and the disciples lock themselves behind closed doors because they are afraid that the authorities may come after them next given their close association with Jesus. Just days before they watched as Jesus was betrayed by one of their own and arrested on false charges. Then they scattered as Jesus faced torture and execution at the hands of his tormentors all alone. The disciples were well aware that a similar fate might await them and they were filled with fear.

    What is perhaps a little surprising is that Peter and another disciple, presumably John, the author of this gospel, had witnessed the empty tomb with their own eyes earlier that very same morning. After Mary Magdalene discovered that the stone had been rolled away, they ran to the tomb thinking that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. But when they stooped and looked into the tomb, they believed Jesus had been raised from the dead – even though neither of them anticipated anything like the resurrection. What was it they saw that suddenly transformed their thinking like that?

    Jesus’ body had been wrapped in linen cloths with spices placed in between the folds when he was laid in the tomb. His head would have been wrapped separately leaving the face and neck bare. When Peter and John peer into the tomb, they knew in an instant that Jesus’ body had not been stolen because no one would take the body and leave the graveclothes behind.  

    But there’s more. The two disciples do not see these linen cloths unfurled and strewn about, but literally lying in place. And they notice a space between the graveclothes that had been wrapped around the body and those that had been placed around Jesus’ head. The cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head were still all twirled up lying in a place by themselves. They realize that it was not as if Jesus’ body had been unwrapped, but that it had passed through the graveclothes like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. And the graveclothes had simply fallen in place. With that, they believed. They didn’t need to see anything else. The graveclothes spoke for themselves.

    And yet, later that same evening we find Peter and John back with the other disciples, sheltering in place behind locked doors. What has happened? Why are they still in hiding? It seems they believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but they didn’t know what to do with it. There is a disconnect between what Jesus had accomplished and what it meant for their lives. We, like them, may feel the same disconnect. How are we supposed to live in light of the resurrection?

    It’s so easy to assume that Jesus’ death was nothing more than a senseless tragedy. Just another young man sent to an untimely grave. And if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then Camus is right. Our life is absurd and there isn’t any meaning to it all. 

    But if Jesus has been raised, then it means that death does not get the last word. Here’s the heart of the Christian message. God has promised to do for us at the end of time what he did for Jesus in the middle of time – He is going to raise us up with new physical bodies to enjoy a new physical world. Jesus’ resurrection is the sign that even now God is at work launching his new creation. That means that death will not obliterate everything we have ever accomplished and everyone we have ever loved. We’re not going to lose our individuality in some cosmic abyss. No, we’re going to get our bodies back. We’re going to get our lives back. And we need not be separated from the ones we love the most because we can be reunited with them in and through Jesus. Therefore, this life is not absurd, but everything takes on new meaning because this life does not come to a pointless end but lasts into God’s promised future. 

    That’s why Jesus appears to his disciples behind those locked doors. He shows them his scars in order to prove that it really is him, and then he gives them a job to do. Jesus doesn’t tell them to bask in the glow of his resurrection. No, he gives them their marching orders. He tells them: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Jesus sends us out into the world to speak and act on his behalf and to proclaim through our words and our actions that even now Jesus is ushering in a whole new world. That’s why everything we do now in service to Jesus is filled with renewed purpose. 

    Let me tell you the story of another profound thinker who discovered this truth late in life. Between the years of 1879-1880, Leo Tolstoy wrote an essay entitled, A Confession, which is essentially a spiritual autobiography. He begins by simply telling his own story. He talks about how he was baptized and raised in the Russian Orthodox church. By the time he reached the age of 16, however, he ceased praying and stopped attending services. He was trying to find some meaning in life apart from God. He decided the best way to do this would be to become great. He wanted to be more powerful, more famous, more influential, more wealthy than everyone else. The primary way in which he would achieve this goal would be through his art: by becoming a great writer. 

    That is how he would leave his mark on the world and make his life meaningful. But it didn’t seem to work. Nothing seemed to satisfy this longing. When he first got married, the new circumstances of his happy family life, diverted him for a moment from that search for meaning. But as time went on, he found that he would experience bouts of bewilderment and confusion. He would feel lost. Sometimes those moments would pass, but then they would recur and he found himself asking: “Why? What’s the meaning of it all?”

    He writes: “Beginning to reflect on the education of my children, I would ask myself ‘Why?’ Or deliberating on how the peasants might achieve prosperity, I would suddenly ask myself, ‘What concern of it is mine?’ Or thinking about the fame of my own writing, I would say to myself, ‘Well fine, so you’d be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, or Moliere, more famous than all the writers in the world and so what?’ And I had absolutely no answer.” 

    Finally, Tolstoy lands on the ultimate question. He puts it like this: “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of the death that awaits me?”

    Tolstoy concludes everything must be meaningless. Do you see what he is saying? What’s the point in investing in the lives of our children? What’s the point in serving the poor or making the world a better place? What’s the point in becoming rich and famous if we’re all going to die. There is no point to anything in the face of death. 

    But then to his own surprise, Tolstoy finds the answer he’s been searching for. He doesn’t find it among the sophisticated members of the ruling class of which he was a part. He finds it among the poor, peasant farmers in Russia. He finds it in their faith in Jesus Christ. By observing them and living among them, Tolstoy is led to acknowledge that there does exist another kind of knowledge that is different from the knowledge of the philosophers—but which is nevertheless just as legitimate. It is the knowledge of faith. It is knowing Jesus. He eventually concludes that it is only through faith in Jesus that we can find the true meaning and possibility of life.

    If the only meaning to our existence is the meaning we create for ourselves then that is like building sandcastles on the seashore. Everything we are, everything we have ever accomplished, and everyone we have ever loved will be washed away by the waves of time. 

    But if on the other hand God is bringing about a new creation, then everything we do now based on the hope we have in Jesus matters. Everything from the most trivial and mundane tasks to the most important and monumental achievements will be preserved if nothing else in the memory of God and become part of the building blocks of the new creation. 

    If Jesus has been raised from the dead then that means that the future world that God has promised has broken into the present. Already he is bringing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven and he invites us to participate in that work. 

    As the Father sent the son, so Jesus is sending us to continue his mission. That fills our lives with new purpose. Everything we do now matters because nothing will be forgotten. Do you realize what that means? 

    Every time you speak a kind word or offer a warm embrace—
    Every time you forgive a friend or love an enemy—
    Every time you care for a child or reconcile a relationship—
    Every time you offer a cup of cold water to the thirsty—
    Every time you feed the hungry or clothe the naked—
    Every time you house the homeless or heal the sick—
    Every time you befriend the lonely or welcome a stranger—
    Every time you defend the innocent or speak up for the oppressed—
    Every time you open up your home or share your resources—
    Every time you use your gifts or do your work with excellence—
    Every time you create a job or serve a client—
    Every time you compose a song or write a novel—
    Every time you grieve with those who mourn and comfort those who are dying—
    Every time you offer a prayer for the suffering—
    Or share the gospel with someone who needs to hear it—

    You point others to the truth that this world is shot through with meaning. 

    Christians do the good that they can with the time that they have because they know that God will take whatever we have to offer and weave it all together into the tapestry of the new world he is bringing about.

    That’s why at the end of his famous chapter about the resurrection of Jesus in his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul does not conclude by telling us to sit back and relax because Jesus has been raised from the dead. No, he tells us to get to work. 

    He writes: Therefore be steadfast, immovable, always abounding the in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. Don’t you see? If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then nothing you ever do for Jesus will ever be in vain. Nothing will be lost. Nothing will be wasted. Everything counts. Everything matters because everything will last. Your life is not irrational or absurd. Because of Jesus, it matters far more than you even know.

    Will you please pray with me? 

    Father, we praise you that death does not get the last word because of the resurrection of Jesus. We thank you that you have promised to do for us and for our world what you did for Jesus – to raise us up to new life. Help us to receive this promise by faith and fill our lives with new meaning knowing that everything we do now matters because you will preserve it for eternity. In Jesus’ name. Amen.