April 10, 2011


“Confidence and Faith”

John 11:1-45



Here in John’s gospel we begin another long narrative.  Today’s lesson focuses on the matter of healing, or more accurately, resuscitation.  This narrative is not unlike the lesson from last Sunday where Jesus heals a man born blind.  In that pericope, the transformation provided freedom for the man to embrace the fullness of life.  Here, Jesus echoes that same experience, saying, “unbind him, let him go.”  And thus Lazarus, too, has the opportunity to embrace life again.


Now what could be more natural than the desire to embrace life, to enjoy it, and to celebrate it?  It seems then that any Messiah worth following would at the very least deliver us from those things that stand in our way of embracing life.  The fact of the matter is that a close reading of this text reveals that Jesus does not do this in the way his followers expect, and so we have a problem. 


The situation in Bethany was hot; the religious power brokers there were already aroused and on the verge of violence against Jesus.  The disciples are concerned about this and wonder if they shouldn’t avoid what could be a disastrous situation. When Jesus makes it clear he is bent on going there, Thomas says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Listen; can you hear the dejection in his voice?  This is not a triumphal exclamation.  This is not a bible waving proclamation that Jesus will keep us safe and sound from all of life’s dangers.  This is a word of faith and commitment but it is not a word of hope.


We usually remember Thomas from the other side of Easter.  He is always portrayed as pragmatic and realistic.  He was out shopping for groceries or paying the light bill while the other disciples were grieving.  Such a strategy for life isn’t all that bad.  Make yourself busy we urge the widow, join the women’s guild, plant a garden, and go on a bus trip.  We encourage the widower to take up again that woodworking hobby as if the whine of machinery and the stuffiness of sawdust-laden air might eclipse the mind’s obsession with the past.  Thomas is out getting back to the vagaries of life, keeping busy.


Here, some ten chapters prior to the upper room scene, he is as committed to Jesus as he always will be.  He is still as pragmatic, and some would say realistic.  They have just come from the region where Mary and Martha live and he knows the conflict that awaits them there.  Who would want to return?  Everyone knows the future of this ministry there: pain and suffering.  There is no compelling reason to Thomas to go back.  There are fields that are ripe for the harvest and successful preaching, but not there.  Still, Jesus says, “let us go to (him) Lazarus.”


When they arrive they meet people who have perspective similar to Thomas’.  Martha says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  This comment’s tenor is uncertain.  Did she say it angrily? “If YOU were here my brother wouldn’t have died!”  There are times when that is how we would have said it.  Some illness comes, some disaster strikes, and we wonder, maybe aloud, if it is somehow the absence of God that has permitted this to happen.  I think there is an edge of this in Martha’s voice.  Jesus delayed his coming for several days, we don’t know why.  He didn’t come when Lazarus fell ill, he didn’t take some time off work, drop what he was doing and rush to their side.  What was he thinking? 


There is another tenor we may hear in Martha’s voice.  It is simply a lament.  “If you were here, my brother would not have died.”  No anger, just sadness, just grief.  This voice would not be a blaming tone, but a mourning over the potential for Jesus to alter this outcome.  Mary, and their Jewish friends, all say the same: If only you were here.  This is the ‘if only’ view we so often adopt.  It is a ‘rear view mirror’ perspective on life. It is a view that is based upon regret.   If only she hadn’t insisted on going straight home after the meeting on those icy roads.  If only he hadn’t married that woman.  If only the research on this illness was fully funded.


We have said these things.  We heard these laments all our life.  We know that God has come into this world, bending low, being one of us, and we know that God has and will do great things.  Isn’t that why God makes his presence known, to do great things for us?  The truth of this part of the gospel is that, no, Jesus is not sent here to intercede in every dire situation.  Lazarus is dead.


Jesus tries to console Martha by saying, “Your brother will rise again.” She says what we all know and affirm; “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  This is where this story begins to get complicated.  What will happen shortly in this narrative is central to our faith: it is the part of this tissue-paper-thin page in our bibles that we cling to so closely.  “I am the resurrection and the life; they who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26) . The church clings to these words like few other sayings of Jesus.  Some will rejoice, some will grimace, and Jesus’ life will get more complicated.


Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus, weeps, presumably grieving for his friend.  This is another piece of this story so quickly overlooked.  In every disaster, in every instance of human pain, Jesus may not come and intercede so that the tragedy may be avoided, but Jesus first comes weeping with us.


Martha reappears, and her words are another instance of the Johannine technique of misunderstanding. In the colorful words of the King James Version, she says, “Lord, by this time he stinketh,” which, like the realism of Jesus’ anger and grief, enhances the horror of death. It is death we hate.  We do not like its indicators, its inevitability, its anticipation, it stinks.   Everything seems rather final.  All these faithful bystanders are more than a bit appalled that Jesus wants to open the grave.  This chapter in the book of life has ended and all sensible, realistic people turn the page and go on.


But are we talking about sensible, reasonable people here?  Thomas has demonstrated his commitment to Jesus, saying that he will follow him even into the dark unknown of death.  Martha proclaims what we preach, that the presence of Jesus is transformative, powerful, and the future in his presence is wide open.  There is a place in this story for grieving and sadness.  No one rejoices in the face of death.


Still, we know what Martha feels, what she knows, what she is certain about.  When Jesus proclaims that “I am the resurrection and the life, He who believes in me shall live…” She responds and says, “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”  She has spent her time in Sunday school, she is confirmed, she may have even listened to some of what the teacher has said and has taken it to heart.  She is certain about a few things.


Yet, she is not able to cast off her own emotions over the power of death.  She knows that it stalks us.  We die a million different ways every day.  Children measure their age by fractions.  I remember my youngest son, Andrew, once noted that he was 12 and three quarters.  I don’t do that.  Often I round down, not anxious to add another year. I never say I am fifty two and seven twelveths.  I say, “Where has the time gone?”  A friend once told me, “I am not only over the hill, but I’ve got no brakes.”  We all die a little bit as our lives change, new limits emerge, and old abilities disappear.  Yet Martha proclaims what we believe, that Jesus is the Christ.  This is our delicate dance of faith too, life on one side and death on the other.


Her affirmation of faith recognizes that this margin between life and death is not empty.  Jesus is there.  That is where he stands in this story about Lazarus.  Thomas and Martha express a strange kind of certainty.  They do not negate the difficulties of their lives, sadness is allowed here at the margins of life, but at the same time they put strangely extraordinary certainty in this person Jesus.


Now this is not a certainty born from some Norman Vincent Peal seminar on positive thinking.  It isn’t from the “Be Happy Attitudes.” Their hope lies in a growing awareness that this Jesus is more than a good preacher, a good teacher, or prophet.  It is that Jesus brings life to people who are as good as dead.


Let’s be clear: It isn’t so much that Lazarus is raised from the dead.  He is the recipient of what I call ‘temporary healing;’ this is the intermediary healing we all receive from time to time.  It is that healing that happens before the ultimate healing that Martha points toward, the resurrection, Jesus’ and ours.  No this is a temporary fix that allows Lazarus to be ‘unbound’ by death and to ‘go’ back into life. 


All these onlookers, as much as Lazarus, know the harsh realities of life but now through this man Jesus they need not languish there.  They can go, because they also know something of the power and compassion of Christ.


What you might think about today is what sort of tombs you find yourself in?  Confidence in this Jesus can loosen those things that bind you, that you may go and embrace life.


Remember I told you that some grimaced at the news of Lazarus?  They grimaced because now these others, these believers could go out into their lives of discipleship as witnesses to an alternate future.  Certain, as they now are, of who this Jesus is, they can stand against whatever struggles they faced.  These are the people who came to be known as the church.  They never hoped in what they saw, crucifixions of every kind, no, no, no.  Somehow they stopped all that looking back but always looked for where Jesus appeared to them in the here and now, not only in their sufferings, but in the other million little ways that grace and love appeared to them.  So to everyone who wants to point to temporary principalities and powers as having the last word, these people, the church, are a menace to a future only described as sadness.  Their certainty was contagious, and it still is.  Some people grimace still.


Nothing is ever as it seems in this Gospel.  The stories point toward something else.  But here, Lazarus is not just a prop.  Death and Illness, as I’ve said before is never only to teach some greater principle.  Notice: Jesus is troubled and weeping; the tomb is not far from Jerusalem; the tomb is a cave with a large stone covering the opening; the stone is rolled away; Jesus cries with a loud voice; the grave cloth is left at the tomb. Sound familiar?   The raising of Lazarus gets Jesus killed.  Jesus brings Lazarus out, but he must go in…that much, John is clear about.