A Journey To The Cross III: “A Truly Transformational Moment”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 14, 2021
Reading: John 11:1-37
There have been some incredible headlines in the news this week. The BBC, for example, covered the Minassian trial for the van attack killing 10 people, and the decision that was made by the court. Headlines, even on the BBC. The headlines of Harry and Meghan, of Megxit and the bombshell that could have sunk a flotilla. There have been all kinds of headlines about Myanmar and the chaos in that country. Wherever you turn, there have been big headlines this week. And of course, the one that grabbed all of us is the headline: “COVID-19, a Pandemic for the Last Twelve Months.” Headlines grab you, they make you pay attention to the story.
Our text today has so many headlines in it. You could say, “Bombshell, Jesus of Nazareth Raised a Man from the Dead” or, “Martha and Mary in Shock and Awe” or perhaps, “Love Delayed; Jesus Does Not Respond to a Question” or simply, “Jesus Wept”. So many headlines, so many verses in this lengthy, but powerful text, can grab our attention. But overall, this story is powerful, because ultimately it is more than just a series of headlines. It’s a sign in John’s Gospel of some very powerful things. It is a sign that God is revealed in and through this story, and in the events that would follow it. It is a revelation of who Jesus is, and a foretaste of things to come.
It is a revelation about those who were around Jesus, how they saw him, and what they believe in him. It is a revelation that the biblical scholar, John Marsh, has called “the capstone of the Gospel of John”. This is one of the most powerful passages in the whole of the Bible. It is the story of Jesus and Lazarus. Like all great stories, it has four acts to it, acts that flow in sequence. Of those four acts, I want to look at three of them today. I want to leave the fourth though, for Easter Sunday, and you will see why.
Each of these acts characterise the ministry of Jesus and the revelation that comes so strongly in John’s Gospel. Let’s look at what we call Act Number One, the statement that Lazarus is dead. We are told that a family member of Lazarus came to see Jesus in another town to tell him that the one whom he loved, is ill. Now this, of course, led to a request that Jesus come to Lazarus in Bethany and care for him. It was a striking moment. Mary pleads with Jesus to come and do this. Jesus’ response was fascinating. Jesus did not go immediately, as Mary had requested. He stayed where he was. Some of the other disciples were dismayed, although it’s only implied here. Jesus said, “My friend, or the one whom I love, is ill.” So, they must have felt that Jesus would pick up sticks and go. But Jesus had a greater purpose and throughout the whole of John’s Gospel, you find Jesus responding to a situation, not by knee-jerk, but by controlling the situation and doing what he felt was the right thing.
He did the right thing for two reasons. One, for the disciples, that they may believe, but also – and this is significant – to give God the glory. He then made the statement that he will be awakened from his sleep, that his friend Lazarus will come out of all of this. The disciples again, are somewhat incredulous through all of this. You can sense that in the text. Jesus uses the word “sleep” for the first time here. The reason he does is because sleep, in biblical terms, does not mean sleep in the language that you and I use when we go to bed at night. Sleep in this context means death.
You see this, for example, in the book of Acts, where Stephen was stoned and then we’re told, he fell asleep – he died. The Apostle Paul, in both First Corinthians and in Thessalonians, talks about those who have gone ahead, who have fallen asleep. Those that witnessed the resurrection are now in a state of sleep. Sleep means death. Jesus knew that Lazarus was already dead. This might seem, on the surface, a most unfeeling moment. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read this so many times, and I think, “My gosh, that’s a callous statement. Lazarus is dead, he’s fallen asleep, what’s the point of me going?” It seems so cold. It also seems so different from all the other things that Jesus did, the miracles he performed.
We’ve already been told by John how many great things Jesus did. He turned the water into wine at Cana, he fed the five thousand, he healed the nobleman’s son. Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus caring for the infirm, the blind, or the lepers, or the ones who were bleeding. There is this incredible account in the life of Jesus of him responding positively to heal people. But not in this case. Jesus knew that Lazarus was dead. He had to come to face with another reality, a friend of his, a close associate. How many times are we told in this passage of Jesus’ love for Lazarus, and for his sisters, Martha and Mary. This was different, it was unique. Jesus took this as an opportunity to uniquely demonstrate something way more powerful than healing a blind man, than turning water into wine, or feeding the five thousand. Jesus was using this opportunity for something much greater; a foretaste of things to come.
When you come face-to-face with that phrase, “Lazarus is dead”, it brings up, I think, all kinds of questions. When we’re confronted by the reality of death, it challenges what we believe. I don’t know how many times I’ve run into people, and even in my own life, with the death of people who’ve been close to me, you think you know how you're going to deal with death. You think that your faith is sufficiently rooted and grounded, that you can handle anything, but when you come to that realisation that the one whom you love has died, it challenges everything.
There was a wonderful movie some years ago about the great CS Lewis and his love story with Joy Gresham. It was called Shadowlands. Like all movies, it played a little loose with some of the facts, but nevertheless, the story is a powerful one. Joy, who was an American, had come to love the work of CS Lewis and admired him. She wanted to come to Britain to meet him. She wanted to stay in Britain and of course, throughout it all, it becomes a love story between the two of them. But it starts out by CS Lewis agreeing to marry this woman in order that she could stay in the United Kingdom and become a citizen of Great Britain. He did it out of concern for her. What an amazing thing for someone to do.
As their life went on, that marriage turned into a love so deep and so profound that his heart was broken when she was eventually diagnosed with cancer. He stayed by her bed, he ministered to her, he worshipped her, he cared for her. But he said that during all of this, when you are this close, you come to terms with whether you believe. When you come this close to death, you question what you believe.
Lazarus is dead. Act Number Two. He has been in the tomb for four days – four days. Jesus arrives and people know that Lazarus is dead. It is not a tomb you’d want to go into after a corpse has been there for four days. The people are mourning. Martha and Mary are grieving. It’s a natural response to death. Sometimes in the culture of first century Judaism, you would have professional mourners, who would wail and cry and be there as a vigil to the body. The community would grieve and mourn. Martha and Mary would have been surrounded by people like that.
Ah, this last year – I don’t know, but I'm sure that so many of us have had to encounter that mourning and grieving ourselves. I think collectively, as a society, we’re all grieving in one way or another. I think of the members of our own church who have died because of COVID-19, or their family members who have been affected by it. I'm thinking of the burials that I've done, where only a few people could be there because of the pandemic. I'm thinking of the people who, in their own lives, have been frightened of contracting the virus, and have lived in fear of their own mortality. I don’t think there has been another moment that I can recall where our society has had to come face-to-face with its own mortality.
Recently in a journal called Touchstone, a theological journal for the United Church, in which Rev. Lori writes and I write, I dealt with the whole notion of lament during this time, and how it has caused us to confront the way that we see death. There's been a collective mourning, and the Mayor has asked that next Sunday we have a moment of silence for those who have died from COVID-19. This is shocking. We get a sense, don’t we, of how the community of Bethany, which was a small community, and Martha and Mary, felt that Lazarus was dead.
What was said to Jesus at that moment? “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” says Martha. Can you imagine how Jesus must have felt? On the one hand, it’s a profound statement of faith, isn't it, in the power of Jesus to heal, that if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. It might have seemed like a great statement of faith, but you know that underneath it, there is an anger, there is a blame, there is remorse. Jesus did not respond to Mary’s plea to come to Bethany, and she’s angry.
Often death leads to anger, it leads to the need to blame someone for it. Why did this happen? How did this happen? We also think that if God had been present, then maybe the death would not have occurred. So, let’s not judge Martha for being too harsh. I'm sure we’ve all thought it at some point in our lives. She also says to him, but – and this is a statement of faith – “I believe that you can still do something about this.” I still believe. Then there comes this incredible conversation about the resurrection, and Jesus promises that Lazarus will be raised from the dead. Martha agrees, she says, “I know that will happen.”
Now of course, as John tells us, there was a general belief among many Jews in the time of Jesus, particularly the Pharisees – though not by the Scribes – that there would be a resurrection of the dead, the “hayye olam” as it is called, the life to come. There was this general belief that there would be a resurrection down the road, and Jesus knows that that’s exactly what they're thinking. He goes right to the heart of things, and now we come to the real headline: “I am the resurrection and the life.” He’s putting the onus of the resurrection onto himself, and this is profoundly powerful. This is a statement unlike any other.
He knew in that moment with Martha and Mary, their doubts, and the community watching, that this would ultimately lead to his own rejection and condemnation by religious leaders down the line, and makes the statement that only God can do, and only God can make: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
There was the big news, this was the moment of revelation about himself, the unique revelation of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Now that’s news. I liken it to a headline in a paper saying, “All planes landing and taking off from Pearson, did so safely today.” That’s hardly a headline of any note, unless you also add the phrase, “But one” or, “With one exception” then you've got big news.
It’s not a statement Jesus is making about a general idea about the resurrection from the dead. Jesus is pointing to what would be coming. He’s pointing to his own power and that he is the resurrection and the life, and it is precisely that – as Jesus said at the beginning when he delayed leaving Bethany – that would challenge the faith and prove the faith of the disciples, but also ultimately glorify God.
This is the capstone of the Gospel of John: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
There’s a Third Act, and that is the emotion of Jesus in all of this. Let’s not take away the humanity of Jesus in this moment. Just because he said, “I am the resurrection and the life” does not mean that he has ceased to care for or be concerned about those who are grieving. This is what I tell people when we have a ceremony to remember somebody’s life: Yes, it is good to remember the resurrection, yes, it is right to glorify and to tell the message that Christ is risen, but at the same time, recognise the grief and the mourning of those who are left behind. Jesus does this, and it’s captured in a simple phrase, “Jesus wept.”
Now, we are in a culture that gets a bit overly-sensitive and sentimental at times – just a little bit. We’re not quite sure what tears really represent, because we see so many people crying these days. It’s good to show your sentiment – don’t misunderstand me – it’s good to release one’s emotions, it’s healthy but sometimes it can be contrived.
I remember as a boy, I used to go to the courthouse in Darlington in Country Durham, and sit in the stands and watch trials, believe it or not. I was about fourteen. I thought that someday I might be a lawyer, so I should learn one or two things. I remember watching one man, who had defrauded someone of a lot of money and caused tremendous grief, receiving his sentence. After he received his sentence, I saw this man crying, and I thought, “Oh, that’s wonderful, there's a sense of remorse. This man’s crying because he has hurt somebody.” I mentioned this to one of the sextants who was there, and he just laughed. He says, “Look young man, he’s not crying because he’d hurt someone, he’s crying because he’s been found guilty and he’s going to have to pay a lot of money. Don’t misunderstand his tears.”
It’s easy to misunderstand tears at times, but in this particular case we’re told even more just how much Jesus and his tears meant. He was shaken by this, touched in his heart. These tears were not the tears of some dispassionate God and Lord who simply states, “I am the resurrection and the life.” These were the tears of someone who genuinely loved Lazarus, loved Martha, loved Mary. He could still be sad at this event occurring, He could still be broken.
Now, there used to be a Greek idea that God would not be influenced or drawn into the fears or the loves or the passions of humanity. There’s a term that was used for God – “apatheia” from where we get “apathetic”, that God could not in any way be influenced by the events around us. The idea being that if God felt something, then God would be influenced by others. Therefore, those people and their emotions could have a corresponding control over God. God, in Greek thought, was dispassionate, detached, above, beyond, unfeeling, and therefore could not be influenced by the emotions of people. That is not the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. On the contrary, this is a God who sees a tomb, who knows that Lazarus is dead, who wants to do something about it, who cares, and who weeps.
During this pandemic, I think we all need the assurance that it is that same God who in fact does care and manifests his tears for us; not cold, not dispassionate, not detached.
Act Number Four, and here’s the headline that I want you to take with you on Easter Sunday: “Timothy Eaton Memorial Church Will Celebrate an Empty Tomb.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” Amen.