April 10, 2011

When Jesus Saw Her Weeping…

Passage: John 11:33-35

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep.

"Human Immortality Is Achievable By The Year 2029"; it was a news story headline that intrigued me.  The claim was made by Dr. Ronald Klatz, a Senior Fellow at Tufts University and the President of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.  At the heart of this claim was confidence in advances in biotechnology, foreseeing a technology that could transfer one's thoughts, sensory perceptions, emotions, personality, and autonomic body responses to a computer storage device, enabling your memories and consciousness to survive in the event of your physical death.  Dr. Klatz said, "The accelerating biotech revolution leads us to the incontrovertible conclusion that human immortality—life spans beyond 120 years—may well be delivered by the year 2029.

After reading the article I was very disappointed; it felt like reading the fine print of some product’s “lifetime warranty”; discovering an interesting use of the word “lifetime”.  I checked a few dictionaries; none of them had “life span beyond 120 years” as a definition for the word “immortality”.  Further, I am not sure that I want all my thoughts, sensory perceptions, and emotions transferred to a computer storage device; there are lots of those I wouldn’t want surviving my death.

“I am the resurrection and the life”, declared Jesus.  There is a vast difference between the idea of human immortality and the gospel proclamation of the resurrection to life in Jesus Christ.  In the resurrection to life death is defeated—not just staved off.  Further, sin is no more— in the resurrection the real you, the human God created you to be, flourishes in the light of God’s eternal day.  It is a distinction made evident in our gospel story; the resuscitation of Lazarus (that is, a corpse reanimated) is not the same as the resurrection of Jesus. Lazarus would eventually die (again); when Jesus called him from the tomb—as marvellous as that was—it added a little time to Lazarus’ life span.

1. Attending funerals it not likely high on our list of favourite things to do.  We go out of loyalty or duty; to honour a friend; to support the bereaved; to express our love or to grieve for a friend.  I remind you that one of the reasons Christians hold funerals is to commemorate the life of a person; we do this because we believe each person is uniquely created in the image of God; no clone or substitute for the deceased will ever be found.  We hold funerals as an expression of our faith in God.

In our gospel story we are on our way with Jesus to a funeral; a wake is being held for his friend Lazarus.  Out of the entire population of the earth alive at that point in history no substitute for Lazarus will ever be found; so we go with Jesus.

The disciples were surprised that Jesus would return to Judea so soon after narrowly escaping arrest by those who wanted to kill him.  John tells us that “the Jews took up stones to stone him” offended that Jesus had blasphemed God.  In Afghanistan, on Friday April 1 (2011), shortly after Friday prayers worshippers angered by reports that a Florida pastor had burned a copy of the Qur'an killed UN staff members.  Murderous impulse fueled by some notion of defending God rarely, if ever, ends well.  It is staggering to consider that in the cross of Jesus this very same murderous impulse is turned upside down by God to redeem humanity; even this does not thwart God’s saving action.

In spite of the danger Jesus insist they go to Bethany; “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him”, Jesus said.  Misunderstanding Jesus the disciples try talking sense into him, “Lord, if Lazarus has fallen asleep he will be all right”.  Then, as now, we humans try to soften the reality of death avoiding the dreaded “d” word; we prefer to speak of death with softer euphemism like “passed” or “passed away”.  Most newspaper death notices studiously avoid the word; many begin with the word “peacefully” assuming that readers will supply the missing word.

I fully understand why we do this; death is ugly; it is no one’s friend.  Jesus insists on realism.  “Lazarus is dead”, he said plainly.  Our Lord does not lend us a religious softening of realism.  His bluntness is not meant to brutalize; it is meant only to recover realism.  Realism is one of the blessings of the gospel: the Apostle Paul calls death an enemy—the last enemy which Christ will destroy.  Through faith in Jesus Christ the sting of death is overcome; this doesn’t mean we like dying or that it has become a good thing.  Jesus insists we confront reality; when he comes to meet Mary and Martha he doesn’t have anything nice to say about death.

“Divorce” is another “d” word we prefer not to use.  Biblically speaking, divorce is a manifestation of death; it is important not to pretend otherwise.  Painful as marriage-breakdown is, however, when a marriage is dead the only realistic thing to do is to say in a firm voice, “This is dead.”  Jesus was every bit as plain with respect to Lazarus.

2.  Whenever I hear the word “closure” used—particularly when used in relation to those grieving the death of a loved one—there is this niggling sense of a lack of realism.  Perhaps you too have noticed the way this word is used in newscasts. The story of the tragic death of a person is accompanied by reporter’s microphone capturing the painful expressions of loss uttered by family members; this is preceded or followed with the reporter opining that family members are still struggling to find closure. I am thinking—what do you mean still?

Lack of realism is not just in our hesitation to use the word “death” but also in our rush to have things tidied up afterwards.  There is this unwritten expectation that people need to deal with their grief in a timely fashion—closure will do it for you.  Now I know that bereavement means we have to reach forward for new patterns of living because our loved one is not physically present—but I wonder if our expectations about “closure” are somewhat unrealistic.

I note that when Jesus came and met with Mary and Martha he talks about Lazarus; Jesus talks about him with respect to faith in Jesus as the resurrection and the life; “Your brother will rise again”, said Jesus.  He invites us in our bereavement to cling to him in faith.  The pain of grief hammers us with painful blows; time does not heal all wounds as if the passage of time will do the trick.  However, the pain will subside—though its sharpness will surprise is with its intensity even when much time has passed.  Jesus invites us to cling to him; let him carry you when the pain is overwhelming.

3.  Appropriate words are hard for me to find; words, that is, to describe the tenderness of this moment when Jesus meets his friend Mary;  When you consider the various accounts of Jesus’ interaction with Mary—sitting at his feet, anointing his feet with expensive perfume—we know this to be a pure and deep friendship.  “33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep.”

When Jesus saw her weeping; this is likely one of the reasons we hesitate to come with Jesus to the Lazarus wake.  We find it difficult to be confronted by the uncontrolled emotions of the bereaved; perhaps we are uncertain of how we will respond.  Let us take our lead from our Lord; he too began to weep—the tense of the verb more literally means he burst into tears.  The other thing I remind you is that when you go to meet the bereaved you are accompanied by Jesus—he is there too.  He doesn’t stay away because it is difficult.

When Jesus saw her weeping; the word translated describing Jesus as “greatly disturbed” is a word that literally means “to snort” and was used typically to speak of an expression of anger.  It is common that we feel anger at the death of a loved one; anger driven by a frustration over something we cannot control; anger because death is so abrupt; anger because we are robed of what we love.  Jesus is angry too; angry at what death does to loved ones; angry at death and how it ravages the heart of Mary.

Jesus began to weep.  Some standing there remarked, “See how he loved him”.  While divine, Jesus is fully human.  This is one of these very human moments.  Jesus doesn’t like the death of a friend any more than we do.  Even though he knows he is about to awaken Lazarus; this does not render him immune to grief’s pain.  Death hurts so much because it stabs our love in its heart; our Lord who loves us perfectly is hurt as well.

I have spoken with you on other occasions about the over-the-top crazy love a grandparent feels for a grandchild and of the truth that God’s love for our children far surpasses the love of even the most doting parent or grandparent.  This truth also applies to us when we are dying.  God’s love for our dying loved one far surpasses ours; death of our loved ones stabs our Lord in the heart as it stabs us—may I say even more so.  The reason I suggest this is because his very going to the cross was to bring us to the place where death is no more.  Jesus weeps with us; he is not waiting impatiently for us to “get with the program”, so to speak, and find some closure.

When the Psalmist wrote, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones”, he was not saying that death is somehow precious to God.  Rather, the psalmist affirms that the preciousness of God’s faithful ones to him is not diminished by their death.

4. Last week we read the story of Jesus giving sight to a man born blind.  I noted with you that John speaks of Jesus miracles as signs—they point; in particular they point us to Jesus Christ.  The story of Jesus raising Lazarus is the seventh of the signs John records of the wonders Jesus performed.  Turning water into wine, healing disease, walking on the water, stilling the storm feeding the five thousand; these are marvels troubling enough for us to comprehend; resuscitating the dead seems another order of magnitude beyond the other signs.

What do you think happened here when Jesus ordered the stone taken away from the grave?  I am asked this question on occasion.  Some people ask this question as a sort of litmus test.  If you say you believe it as written some questioners conclude you to be a gullible, anti-intellectual, fundamentalist bible-thumper; on the other hand, if you are not sure how to think about it finding its details hard to embrace some see that as a sign of unbelief, of doubting the power of God, of impugning the authority of scripture.

The point I wish to make with you is the one John makes; this wonder is a sign of something greater.  The resuscitation of Lazarus (the mere reanimation of his remains) is a sign, but only a sign, of the truth that Jesus Christ has rendered Lazarus alive unto God eternally.  Lazarus, though dead, is not lost to God.  While the resuscitation of Lazarus is certainly miracle, it isn't the miracle of the entire incident. The miracle is that mighty deed of Jesus Christ whereby he makes alive the spiritually dead.  The resuscitation of Lazarus is the sign of this greater miracle.

It takes a miracle to bring anyone to faith in Jesus Christ, nothing less than a miracle. Why should we assume that spiritual restoration is any less difficult to effect than physical restoration? Think of stresses and distresses, distractions and disasters, large and small, known and unknown, individual and corporate, which add up to a weight so suffocating that faith is going to remain forever stifled. Forever stifled, that is, if faith is something we are left having to generate for ourselves. Faith is never humanly possible; yet faith arises and thrives just because -- and only because -- Jesus Christ himself still speaks to you and me as he spoke to Lazarus. And in the mysterious working of God's grace even the dead are enabled to hear and believe, arise and follow. It takes a miracle to bring anyone to faith in Jesus Christ, in any era.

5.  As a matter of fact the crown of the Lazarus incident, the interpretative key to the incident, is not the resuscitation of Lazarus; it is the truth that Jesus Christ himself is resurrection and life. He, the Son of God, lifts up the spiritually dead before the Father so that they come alive unto God. Declares the master himself, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."

The last nine words sum up the message of John's gospel: "whoever lives and believes in me shall never die". Never die? Literally never die? Of course not. "Never die" means never be lost to God, never be dead unto God, never be inert before God, never become a spiritual casualty. "Never die" here means to live eternally before God through that liveliness which God lends us out of his own eternal liveliness.

When Jesus saw her weeping; is it any different when Jesus sees us weeping?  Jesus shows Mary and us that Lazarus is not lost to God.  So it is for all who cling to him in faith.