Life and Death Stuff 5/7
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
October 15th, 2017
I want to start by recognizing discipleship when I see it. Eugene Peterson wrote a book called: The Long Obedience. The book is about practicing following Jesus, year after year after year, saying it takes a lifetime of commitment to make discipleship happen, a long obedience. So I want to recognize 52 years of marriage in Gayle and Martha– long obedience. Yeah; right over here. Maybe raise your hand? After the service, you can hug them and congratulate them and spill coffee on them. It is par for the course, right? I will obey her.
Any book that you pick up that is going to tell you about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus starts by rummaging around in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and then they take a big leap over the Gospels and they land in the Upper Room. They quote three texts that Jesus quotes. The words of institution; this is my body broken for you; Isaiah, this is a new covenant in my blood; and the ransom saying: the Son of Man came not to be ministered to but to minister to others and to give his life as a ransom for many. And then they go to Paul. I have a problem with this. It happens in every book about the death of Jesus, written by authors in our cultural religion. My problem is: really? You are going to tell me that Jesus never contemplated the meaning of his death? You’re going to tell me that Jesus came and ministered among us and then at the end when he was arrested, even though he predicted it, it was a surprise? And it had no meaning for him? I cannot buy it; I cannot even speak it; I cannot even swallow it because actually there is a text that tells us the exact opposite happens.
If I’m a teacher and one of my students doesn’t understand the lesson that I’ve been hammering into them for two months, six months, a year; as the teacher I have a right to be frustrated, even angry. But if one of the students doesn’t understand something I haven’t been teaching, it’s not reasonable for me as the teacher to be frustrated or angry with the student. I have no right. So Jesus is with his disciples; they are around the campfire at Capernaum. Jesus is talking about his coming death and Peter hears this and interrupts Jesus and says: no Lord say it isn’t so; we can’t let that happen. And Jesus sighs in frustration and speaks to Peter gruffly; calls him Satan; says you are too concerned with things of human interest, and you’re not concerned with things of God’s interest. This is the fight that is present in us and we have to listen as Jesus interprets his cross for us. The fight in us between the ways of the world and the ways of humanity and what makes sense to us versus the ways of God; it is a fight in us all. What does it mean to be a disciple in the presence of difficult challenges?
I think how we interpret this text about the raising of Lazarus is the same fight happening in us. Is it simply a miracle story about Jesus raising his friend? Kind of an interesting idea because Jesus has already said: I’m on my way to my death and so if Lazarus has died, Jesus is going to see them pretty soon. Mary and Martha could have just said: say hi to our brother. So there is a little bit of trouble with it as just a simple miracle story. Something larger is going on in this text. How is Jesus interpreting his cross?
Occasionally, one of my roles as your pastor is to burst a spiritual bubble. You come to me and you tell me that in the night you couldn’t sleep because you are anxious, you had a vision of Jesus; then I am constrained as a trained theologian to caution you and to remind you that sometimes being over tired and stressed out and eating too much Italian sausage pizza can have that effect on a person. Somebody comes to me and says I’m hoping for a miracle. My response is probably going to be: in Chandler?? We are a science town. We are educated, engineered, teacher people. We manage things by staying on top of them. We are not superstitious; we are practical and we love knowing.
The book of Exodus said that when the Hebrews were finally released by the Egyptians they made their way into the wilderness. They crossed the sea and so now there in the wilderness, they ran out of food in the desert. They were going to starve to death and Moses beseeched the Lord in prayer and — wonder of wonders — there was a white flaky substance on the ground the next morning. Manna, they called it. The text tells us you can make it into bread. They survived by this miracle. My seminary Old Testament Professor, though, cautioned us not to be quick in thinking this is a miracle. He said there is a particular species of nocturnal beetles in the Middle East that secretes a white milky substance that dries and then it flakes up and it has a distinctly sweet taste. The thought of those primitive Hebrews sustaining themselves on bug droppings adds some fun to the story. And there is something — if I’m totally honest with you — there is something comforting, oddly, about knowing that there is a reasonable explanation for what those unsophisticated Jews took to be a miracle. What was comforting was: we were back in control. We were back in the driver’s seat. There’s nothing here that can’t be explained; we said. Our sophistication, are intelligence, our education is undisturbed. Our explanation of human ways this time won out over needing to rely on God for an explanation.
What do you suppose Jesus would call us? This is the fight in us all; the challenge of being educated disciples. So how do we handle this text today? Jesus goes out to the tombs and in a voice loud enough to wake the dead, he shouts: Lazarus come out and this mummy looking corpse appears. Then Jesus shouts: unbind him let him go and they do. There stands Lazarus alive. I have done a lot of funerals. I can think of a lot of grieving families who would give probably everything that they have to have available to them, someone they could call on who would come and bring life back; restore their loved one to life. But in the middle of that as a pastor I have witnessed a lot of in explainable weird things happening. People that by all rights and expectations should not survive but they do. I find myself willing to consider that maybe Jesus is the source of weird things and should not be dismissed simply because I have a few degrees and an appreciation for science.
The message of Lazarus — just to cut right to the chase — is God is not done yet; God is not done with you yet. I know we all live with choices that we regret. I know that we’ve all been in places and rationalize behaviors that make us go; Phew! God’s not done yet. I know you think no one could ever love the real you. God’s not done yet. It’s very comforting. There is something of a miracle in that and if I were to try to explain it to you, I would step from what I know into what I don’t know and I would steal from you mystery. Mystery is sometimes a gift. Very comforting that we have a God we cannot explain. The strange thing about this text, though, is it’s not done with us. The reaction to raising Lazarus from the dead: at least on the part of the good people; the Bible believing religious authorities; the cultural religious experts in the text — their response is not joy or celebration, or any of that. Their reaction is finalizing of their determination to kill Jesus. They’re going to get organized and they’re going to get it done.
Mary and Martha are thrilled to have their brother back. But the religious folk, the moralizers, the law keepers, well, they’re not thrilled whatsoever. In fact, the gospel writer John implies that it was this event, the raising of Lazarus from the dead that led directly — do not pass go, do not collect a dollar — to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. John says it was this sign, the raising of the dead that got him nailed to a cross. Why? What’s so bad about a little life amid death? Well evidently everything is wrong. But now we have the fight. You know that fight between our desire to control and have a handle on things and an explanation for everything and God’s mystery, and God’s movement and our inability to explain that leaves us feeling out of control. It’s that fight, now on the next level. People of authority defending an organization of their making; we know some of these folks because they troll us on Facebook. Their self-appointed mouth experts on just about everything and it doesn’t matter what you post, it doesn’t matter how you argue; they’re not listening. They are waiting for you to be done talking so they can drive the next knife in following the first ones. There is no conversation with these trolls. There is not. They are present to us so and if you’re one of them; after church, we need to talk.
This is the fight on a new level. People of authority defending an organization of their making; their control of the situation; things they thought they had put to bed. Defensive machinery starts to clank and rumble and the conversation becomes defending what they know to be true; reinterpreting facts strictly for from the perspective of their side; defenses put in place to ensure that in their world what’s dead stays dead. That’s the way it is. They know what it is, period.
In the story Jesus arrives, Lazarus is dead and the first thing that his sister says to Jesus is: Lazarus is dead. Case closed. We are done. You’re too late to help him. You’re too late to help us. We’ve already buried him; lost cause; no hope here. Adjust to the facts of life; God is done here. This is the defense of our side; a clear statement that we know what’s going on; a refusal to be open to listening because we know. We will not consider an alternative perspective because we know.
We don’t have to look very far for Jesus to tell us exactly what he thinks about people who won’t consider another way, who won’t listen.
There’s a story about another man named Lazarus who is poor, lives in poverty his whole life, sick and hungry, deprived. The dogs of the village lick his sores and he can’t stop them. He dies. There’s a rich man who was never poor, who was never sick, who was never hungry, never wondered about his next meal, and was also never good at compassion at all. He dies too. The rich man gets to the afterlife and the rich man is surprised to find himself in hell; he says it’s hot. And poor Lazarus now reclines in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man calls out across the chasm that separates them; pleads with father Abraham says: oh please let me go back and warn all my self-satisfied wealthy relatives that this is the way things work out in the end for self-focused, greedy people; so they can change their ways and do right by the poor. Father Abraham hears him and says: forget it. If they won’t listen to the prophets, Moses and all the others that tried to bring God’s message to them; what makes you think that they will change even if a man like you comes back from the dead? Go to hell. Jesus told that story to the same group of people who are now critiquing him in our text today. People who have determined they are going to be right and their perspective will be heard. They’re not open to listen; they’re not open to contemplate; they’re not wondering anything. They’ve locked things down and they are in control. Such a great interest in controlling their world; they have their greed, their power and their facts and they are not listening to anybody
Here is Lazarus now, standing in front of the tomb, come back from the dead, a living sign in the life-giving power of God in the presence of Jesus. God’s not done with you yet. That is terrible news if you’re one who has to be in control. When Jesus shouts: unbind him let him go; I wonder if Jesus is shouting to make sure he’s speaking loud enough for anyone, even nearby, to hear. He shouting to a recently dead person and he’s overheard by dying people because a lot of us are bound up in the ways of death. We don’t need to listen because we know. Our way, wrapped and restricted by worldviews and political positions and planks, arguments that we’ve heard on our favorite new show, that restrict what can and cannot be; what we will and will not think; what we should and should not consider. All of us are Lazarus and all of us are in the crowd. We are not dead yet, but all of us are headed toward a tomb and that frightens us. So we play the game that has been played forever. We acquire as much as we can and we justify who we are and what we do with little platitudes that cause us comfort in the moment. You only go around once, amen. You can’t teach old dog new tricks, amen. People can’t change, amen. This is the way I was raised, amen. I don’t see another way, amen. I don’t have another option, amen. You got to take care yourself first, amen. Hooked bound caught wrapped; we are stuck; platitudes and politics and we call it factors beyond our control or we call it the facts of life, but really it’s the facts of death. We are entombed and it’s not much of a way to live because there’s no joy in it because it’s all about us fighting against the power of death.
But if we pause today, there is this one who comes out to our tomb where we call home, our tomb. He leans in and peers in. He is weeping because he thinks it’s a shame that anyone dies before having really lived. He opens his mouth and he draws a breath and he shouts with the voice that surprises us. Loud enough to wake the dead: you the dead, come out! Something in us that has resigned us to the place of death stirs and rises. What then? What will be the last word? Will it be our response: oh no, I’m stuck, I’m comfortable here, leave me alone. Or will we rise that we might hear him shout again: unbind, be let go.
Jesus has been offering commentary on death and resurrection the whole Gospel of John. In John 3, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in his darkest hour and Jesus gives him life and light. In the fourth chapter of John there’s a woman at the well and she is stuck; resigned to her despairing life. Jesus gives her life back to her. In John 5, there’s a man who has been sick, paralyzed 38 years, Jesus gets him on his feet and moving, gives him back his life. In the eighth chapter of John there’s a woman caught in adultery and they bring her to Jesus for stoning and Jesus hands her life back to her at his own expense, I might add. The religious authorities will be back and they will bring a bigger stick. In John 9 a blind man who’s been blind since birth is given sight and now in the eleventh chapter of John Lazarus is raised from the dead. This resurrection is a promise to us all. It is the resurrection we celebrate at Easter and if we have been paying attention to the teacher the resurrection is nothing new. Jesus gives people back their lives. It’s what Jesus does.
So when Jesus goes to his cross, he’s counting on a God he has seen in action. It is the next logical step in the developing faith of a disciple. What we see in Jesus, he is more interested in living out the ways of the kingdom than he is worried about dying. What a great example of faith. Faith is believing in God’s different way of living life so strongly that you’re willing to act on it. You’re willing to live it no matter what; wanting God’s kingdom so deeply that you’re willing to live it into existence, even if it costs you everything. That’s what real power looks like.
The most frightening threat that the Roman Empire had over its subjects was death. Do what we say or we will end you. The fact that they used death kept a lot of people in line, like the Greeks before them. What we see in the raising of Lazarus is Jesus’ response to authority attempting to assert itself with violence. When Jesus calls Lazarus from the grave Jesus is very clearly shouting to anyone who will hear: your biggest threat puts no fear in me. God’s kingdom triumphs over death. God is not done with you yet.
In the early church it was said that the community thrilled on the reading of this story because it assured them of God’s movement in this world toward life. They were smart people, they understood that sometimes God could intervene and bring rescue and that was to be celebrated. They understood that God was sometimes not able to intervene or that the ones chosen to be God’s intervention were cowardly or indifferent or unable or unwilling. This became a prayer of the early church: God, please help us to not miss your call in our life. They also understood that sometimes the powers and principalities and the authorities with their greed WON. Sometimes the powers of this world will win. They grieved and they waited. The early church learned to wait because all kingdoms of this world will rise and fall. What thrilled the early church was the promise present in this text that they may very well individually personally not survive living out God’s ways in this world. Many of them were martyred and none of them was immune from dying. Even Lazarus in the end died. What’ thrilled the early church is the promise of this text. God has final word. God’s kingdom endures forever. God’s not done with you yet.