Wednesday, April 9, 2014
St. John 11:1-45
In the last several weeks we have been hearing extended narratives from John's Gospel. Three weeks ago we heard about the midnight meeting between Nicodemus and our Lord in John 3. Two weeks ago we heard the narrative of the Samaritan woman who meets our Lord at the well and is restored to new life by him. Last week, we read the story of the man born blind whom our Lord heals, giving both natural sight and spiritual vision. The common element to all of these narratives is a transformation that comes as a result of a meeting with our Lord Jesus. The point is that if you meet Jesus, you will be changed. In each of these scenes there was a sense in which the individuals were ailing or afflicted. Nicodemus comes at night out of apparent fear of what other Jewish leaders would think of his interview with Jesus. The Samaritan woman is an outcast of society and comes to draw water at the hottest part of the day just to avoid others. The man born blind is crippled by his handicap and is facing a lifetime of begging for bread. In each case they are born to new life through this encounter with Jesus. In the Gospel lesson this morning, we hear of the narrative of a man Lazarus who dies. The gravity of the afflictions of those whom our Lord meets reaches a climax with the death of Lazarus.
Death puts what feels like a definitive period on our lives. Death tears apart families. As C.S. Lewis notes in the book he wrote after his wife died, A Grief Observed, simply remembering the deceased love one is pale substitute for the real person; the person in our memory does not respond with the spontaneity and surprise that the person of flesh and bone has the ability to do. Even the person you have known for decades can say or do the unexpected, but not a memory nor a figure in the imagination. Death also shatters the images of what we imagined the future to be. Most of us live by such images. We think about future family trips; we assume that family traditions at the holidays will continue without ceasing; we picture an easy retirement with a beloved spouse. Death kills the person and all such images.
Theology teaches that death is in part the judgement of God for sin. In the scene of the Fall in Genesis 3, the Lord tells Adam, from the dust you were taken and unto dust you shall return. As humans we are given the gift of life. We squander the gift. We fritter away the time given to us in trivialities or wallowing in laziness. But we are guilty of more than just neglect and inaction. We also hurt others and hurt ourselves. We chase after vanities as if they would make us happy. We curse our fellowmen and wish them evil. We slay others and even sometimes our loved ones with careless and angry words. The folly and wickedness of human existence has upon it the divine sentence of death. If one unbiasedly consider the moral disorder of society and of our lives, it is difficult not to perceive the justice of this sentence. This is the sober thought of Psalm 130, the Psalm appointed this morning. It is a Psalm as if spoken from the grave, "out of the deep have I called to thee." The Psalmist recognizes the collective weight of sin, "if thou wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it?" Yet, like all of God's judgements, there is a grace hidden in death. An extension of the duration of human life would hardly result in remedying our collective or individual disorder. It would simply be more time for vanities and castles in the air.
The scriptures say that our whole life long we are in bondage to the fear of death. Consider the dread and fear that comes on at the news of a grave diagnosis. It seems to confirm the fear and anxieties that were always present, sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious. Our Lord has come to free us from this fear of death. He has come that he might overcome death.
In John's Gospel, Jesus makes this mission abundantly clear. He says, I am the bread of life. Not the bread of transitory life, but of an eternal life in God. He says, I am the light. He casts light into the darkness of death. Death is darkness; it is rightly said to be in valley where the sun does not shine, the valley of the shadow of death. He says, I am the resurrection and the life. He has come to take away from us the futility, the vanity, the wickedness of this transitory life; he has come that we might have life and have more abundantly. He goes before us to prepare a place for us that where he is we may be also. He prepares a place where we may abide in God everlastingly.
The Gospel lesson shows that our Lord understands the grieving and morning of human life. He even shares in this mourning in his sympathy for the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Never once do we get the sense that Jesus is unfeeling or uncaring of the pain, suffering and anguish of death. I once heard a funeral directer tell a grieving family that death is nothing; his comment was not said of malice but there is a pastoral cruelty in this lie. There is an unvarnished harshness to the reality of death. And yet for our Lord Jesus, death is just another affliction that keeps us from the new life which he has come to give. He knows our hearts are broken by sickness and death; he has known this pain personally and his heart of love is touched by our sorrow. But he was not thwarted by the Samaritan woman's checkered history in his offer of new life. He was not powerless over the affliction of the man born blind to give him new life. Death for him was not a finality in giving new life to Lazarus.
The question we must consider is are we open to an encounter from the Lord Jesus? He wants to give us new life, like he did to the Samaritan woman and the man born blind and the deceased Lazarus. We can obstruct this meeting or cover our eyes from the light of his glory, but the change, this new life is his to work in us. "Lazarus, come out"; "unbind him and let him go."