United Church of Christ
an open and affirming congregation
Worshiping at Smith Chapel
on the Simpson College campus
Pastor: Rev. Julia Tipton Rendon
Feb. 18, 2018
The Gospel of John is the least “historical” gospel, and it relies heavily on frankly literary devices like the seven “signs” that Jesus performs and his long expository speeches which barely pretend to be conversational. There’s not even really a passion scene, because at the crucifixion Jesus is so completely in control, aware that he will be resurrected, not in any distress at all. But the story of the raising of Lazarus is an oddly human, poignant story. It’s the one that contains the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” The Jesus who barely breaks a sweat at his own crucifixion here weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus.
And really, there’s sort of a mishmash of human emotion as the people in this story cope with darkness. At the beginning, when Jesus proposes to the disciples that they return to Judea, where Lazarus is so ill, the disciples are reluctant because Judea is controlled by people hostile to Jesus. They suggest that if Lazarus is just asleep, he’s going to be fine and there’s no need to make the trip. They sound just like the little conversation I always have with myself about whether to go to the statehouse to testify at a subcommittee meeting: “They won’t listen anyway.” “Well, they certainly won’t listen if I’m not there to be listened to.” “What difference will it make?” The disciples don’t see a compelling reason to go, and they don’t want to go because it’s dangerous. Thomas finally says, and I have to think it’s with melancholy sarcasm, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Discouragement and sorrow make the disciples mistrust Jesus.
Mary and Martha are distraught. Mary can’t even leave the house, she’s so grieved, but Martha meets Jesus and reproaches him for not coming earlier. She’s sad and kind of angry. She and Jesus have one of those Johannine conversations in which she doesn’t fully understand him—he says, “Your brother will rise again,” and she says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” and Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” In other words, Martha even in her grief thinks that Jesus can do something for Lazarus, but the something she’s thinking of is that he can somehow make Lazarus safe in the afterlife. Mary, when she shows up, also says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They both think Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death, but neither of them thinks that Jesus can now bring Lazarus back to life.
In the disciples and in Lazarus’ sisters, I see a familiar pattern: managing expectations in a dark world. It’s a tough situation, and we shouldn’t expect too much. There are limits to what even Jesus can do. We see, too, the real grief that Jesus feels in this situation. He is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” to see Mary weeping, and then he himself weeps. For John to show the impassive, omniscient Jesus that disturbed is a powerful statement. The other people around him have internalized discouragement and disappointment. Jesus is just plain sad. He loved Lazarus; he loves Mary and Martha, and he feels their pain. John is telling us that, transcendent as Jesus is, he feels our pain. He grieves when we grieve.
But Martha and Mary are wrong about what’s possible. While it is true that death must come—and even Lazarus will eventually die once and for all—death is not the last word. What Jesus is trying to tell Martha, before he even goes to the tomb, is that there is life beyond the limits imposed by death. He speaks in contradictory terms because that’s the only way to express hope in the midst of grief. In fact, in John’s gospel, it’s this act, the raising of Lazarus, that gets Jesus in trouble and on track to be crucified, not the cleansing of the Temple as in the synoptic gospels. Jesus raises Lazarus from death, a foreshadowing of his resurrection. That raising of Lazarus gets Jesus into trouble and ultimately causes his death, which turns out to be the occasion for victory over death, blessed salvation wrested out of accursed crucifixion. See the dialectical movement here? It’s like yes, death is powerful and terrible, but it’s the springboard for the abundant life with God that Jesus offers. There’s a sort of leaning in to darkness in this story, letting death happen. And then its sting is taken away.
I told Mary, when we got together the first time to think about a theme for Lent, that Lent is appropriately a penitential season, but I wanted to stay far away from shame. Somehow the penitence that should mean reorientation has come to be shame and self-flagellation. Christians traditionally deprive themselves of something pleasant as a Lenten discipline, and our Lenten hymns are all about how unworthy we are of Jesus’ sacrifice, and I’ve come to think that that simply does not resonate for people today. It doesn’t get at whatever it is that keeps us from a closer relationship with the divine. It may have at one time, but I think that shame now functions as a wedge between people and God. So I wanted to think about how we could really take ourselves through Lent, reorient ourselves for spiritual rebirth, and Mary and I began to think about facing darkness as a more helpful template.
I think that what Jesus shows us of leaning into death, leaning into darkness, is what we must do during Lent. Rather than live in the chronic half-life of discouragement and pain avoidance that the disciples model at the beginning of the story, we have to move straight toward what we most do not want to deal with. After all, you can live indefinitely in the presence of a minotaur as long as you let it eat your children one by one over the years, but isn’t it better to walk straight into the dark labyrinth and face down the minotaur once and for all? And I don’t mean to mix mythologies too much here, but it also strikes me that the unseen minotaur is perhaps deeply tragic and worthy of compassion, a monster that might be less monstrous if it were let out of that lonely labyrinth and given a seat at the table, having first promised to eat only the food in the dishes.
Jesus delays going to Lazarus until it is too late to prevent his death. Then Jesus goes to Martha and Mary in the depths of their grief, and weeps from grief himself. But into this most hopeless of situations, he brings unexpected life—not a miracle, but a “sign,” a demonstration of who he is. In order to be the resurrection and the life, he trips the trigger for his own death . . . out of which he brings the access to abiding life with God. I’m not sure we can always hold those polarities in one view—it seems like we have to toggle back and forth, or at least I do—but so be it. Toggle away. Think about whatever the threats may be for you as something that have already happened and can’t be prevented, but out of which God might bring life beyond what we can anticipate. It is what God does. Now is the time to develop eyes to see the reality of the darkness and what God may do with it.
God of new life,
As Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, renew and restore us to new life, leaving in the grave all that prevents us from loving you fully. Amen.
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