Sunday, March 09, 2008
The Dead Man: A Sermon on John 11:1-45
“The Dead Man”
March 9, 2008
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
“Jesus began to weep.” Let’s start there. In the middle of this long narrative, which marks the turning point in John’s gospel, Jesus begins to weep. Following a long and hard theological discussion with a dear friend, confronted with the weeping figure of another dear friend, Jesus begins to weep. As he turns to face the tomb, which holds the four-day-dead body of someone he loves, Jesus begins to weep.
As we near the end of our journey through Lent, we turn our faces to the cross. And so does Jesus. There is no doubt, there is no question, that this is the moment that seals it. Jesus can make extravagant claims about himself, such as “I am the living water,” and “I am the light of the world.” Jesus can even perform miraculous signs, turning water into wine, healing the blind, casting out demons. But today’s turn of events is what propels Jesus towards Jerusalem. Today’s sign, the bringing of life out of death, is what ensures that Jesus himself will face death, and soon.
In John’s gospel, no detail is insignificant. “Now a certain man was ill,” we are told, “Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.” The narrator presumes we already know who Mary and Martha are; they are well-known among the disciples, more well-known even than their brother, Lazarus. “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.” This is a curious detail for the narrator to set out: the anointing hasn’t happened yet. It takes place in the next chapter. But the narrator supposes we have heard all about this anointing. Mary’s pouring of costly perfume on the feet of Jesus is a story that has a life of its own; everyone has heard this story. “So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
Throughout the gospel of John, there are references to someone known as the “beloved disciple.” Much ink has been spilled by scholars over the burning question of who this might be. Traditionally, it was believed to be the disciple John, from whom the gospel takes its name. There are those who have staked their careers on this being a reference to Mary Magdalene. But it’s interesting to read the message the sisters send to Jesus in light of this question: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Is Lazarus the beloved disciple? But I think that might be a sermon for another day.
After hearing the news of his friend’s grave illness, Jesus does something rather puzzling. He does nothing. He delays going to Lazarus’ side for two days, despite the fact that, as the text tells us, he loves both Lazarus and his two sisters. Jesus delays, and he gives a reason for delay that is troubling. He says, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Well. We have to remember a few things about Jesus in the gospel of John. First, this Jesus sounds very different from Jesus in the other gospels. Jesus in the gospel of John talks a lot about himself, his identity, his relationship to his Father in heaven. Jesus in the other gospels… not so much. In the other gospels, Jesus points decidedly away from himself, and towards God. When people give guesses as to his identity, his purpose, he tends to tell them to hush and keep it to themselves. The Jesus of John’s gospel, though, tells any and all who are in his vicinity about his unique identity as the Son of God, and the ways in which both he and God will be glorified.
Only thing is, this glory comes at a cost. The cost is one dead man, and two sisters who mourn and suffer terrible grief, not only at the loss of their brother, but at the failure of Jesus to act in time to save him. Their reaction to Jesus when he arrives is, “Where were you? We needed you. You were not here.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that there are times when we feel this way about God. When things go terribly, horribly wrong… a marriage fails, a grave illness is diagnosed, someone—maybe a friend, maybe a pastor, maybe a fellow member of the church—disappoints us or hurts us. We wonder, where is God in all this? At a particularly tough time in my life I remembered something I read once about Saint Teresa of Avila, the medieval mystic. One day, the story goes, she was riding along on her donkey, when the creature stumbled and Teresa fell off into the mud. Looking up to the heavens, she shook her fist at God, saying “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”
We struggle to make sense of loss and disappointment. Sometimes we are not able to make sense of it for a very long time. We grieve our losses. And why shouldn’t that be the case? Isn’t grief about love, after all? Don’t you and I want to be the kind of people who grieve? Don’t we want to be the kind of people who weep at the tombs of our loved ones and our disappointed hopes? Doesn’t that honor the love we’ve felt? Isn’t it natural for us to wonder why? Even, sometimes, to say to God, “You didn’t get here in time”?
There is our time, of course, and there is God’s time. It becomes clear as John’s story unfolds that Jesus is operating very much on God’s time. It becomes clear that the story of the death of Lazarus, painful as it is for his sisters, even for Jesus, is a part of God’s story, and Jesus’ story. It becomes clear that so much more is at stake than this dead man, who was loved by his sisters and by Jesus.
And so we come to Jesus at the tomb, weeping. And this story, which is so very much about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, pivots on this moment of Jesus’ deep, deep humanity. I think in order to understand what we mean when we say “Jesus is the Son of God,” we need to understand that this takes place, first of all, at the level of his humanity. I suspect most of us are comfortable with one Jesus or the other: the human or the divine. We can’t get our minds around this notion of “fully human and fully divine,” hinted at in the gospels and codified by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE (“common era”). To say that Jesus is fully divine, that he is of the same substance as God is to say something that most people in the world today are not prepared to accept.
But that seems to be where this story is beckoning us. Christian scholars have struggled with this from the moment Arius was pronounced a heretic. C. S. Lewis, who gave us The Chronicles of Narnia, had his own, typically acerbic response. In his series of radio talks that later became the book Mere Christianity, he says the following about Jesus:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a good moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Lewis, with the mind of a lawyer, stakes his claim on this theological position, and brooks no nonsense about it. For some of us, this kind of logic is highly persuasive: it works, it’s helpful. For others, it is hard, perhaps it even alienates us. For some of us, it may be more helpful to take our cues from Martha, the sister of the dead man.
Martha challenges Jesus. When Jesus arrives, her first words ring out as an accusation against him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You’re late, Martha says, but then she adds, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Once again, we find Jesus taking part in a long theological conversation. It culminates with Jesus, once again, making a claim about himself, one so extravagant, it pushes hard against the boundaries of our reason. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this? Imagine being in Martha’s shoes. She is talking with her good friend, an intimate, one of her own circle. And suddenly she is confronted with a statement that must have seemed fairly bizarre. “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” Do we believe this? What do we believe? Do we believe that Jesus had—has—the power to change our experience of life and death forever? Do we believe that faith in Jesus means that we don’t have to be afraid of death ever again, and that the quality of our lives might be transformed into something called ‘eternal life’? Do we believe this?
Martha answers Jesus, but not in the way we might expect. Martha does not say, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the resurrection and the life,” etc. etc. Martha does not make an affirmation of faith in a particular point of theology or orthodoxy. Instead, she says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Instead of saying, “I believe what you say to be true,” Martha says, “I believe in you. I trust in you. I may not know what you’re about, here, letting my brother die, but somehow I still trust you.”
When Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I believe,” she is really saying, “Yes Lord, I give my heart to you. I trust you completely.” I trust you, God, even though my marriage fell apart. I trust you, Jesus, even though I have this tumor that keeps growing. I trust you, Holy Spirit, even though I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent this month. I give you my heart, God, you who are beyond my comprehension, because I believe you hold me in love through all of it.
In this story, the dead man is raised… it must be pointed out, to die again another day. The death rate for human beings continues to hold steady at 100%. In one sense, the raising of Lazarus is beside the point in this story. But trust in Jesus is very much the point. Trust in Jesus, who weeps with us when we are weeping. Trust in Jesus, who faces death and suffering not at some great remove, a god up in the sky, but alongside us, with us, in us. Trust in Jesus, as he turns his face to the cross, and we do too. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Image: Resurrection by Joseph Minton.