Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 2, 2017
John 11:1-45 Commentary
For this Fifth Sunday in Lent Sermon commentary, I again present a sample sermon of mine that I wrote in connection with doing a seminar with Frederick Dale Bruner as he completed his Commentary on John (Eerdmans 2012).
“Just about Everywhere”
In one of her short stories the writer Annie Dillard has a scene in which a family is sadly gathered at a grave to commit a loved one’s body to the earth. At one point the minister intones the familiar words from I Corinthians 15, “Where, O Death, is thy sting?” Upon hearing that, one of the family members looks up. He scans the sorrowful faces of his family and sees all around him row upon row of headstones in the cemetery. And then he thinks to himself, “Where, O Death, is thy sting? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked!”
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. Indeed it is. Nothing makes headlines like lots of deaths. An earthquake hits Haiti and in the span of a few seconds tens of thousands of lives disappear. A tsunami hits Asia and our minds grow numb as the death toll mounts higher by the day: 10,000, 50,000, 100,000, a quarter of a million. But those are just the big events. The relentless fact of death can also be seen in the everyday. You never open the newspaper’s Obituary column only to see the word “None.” It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.
So is the denial of death, of course. Don’t look your age, defy it, the make-up commercials say. You’re only as old as you feel, the old aphorism asserts. Meanwhile people hope to defy death by being put in cryogenic frozen storage, by getting themselves cloned, by hoping to transfer their consciousness into a robot like Mr.Data on Star Trek and any number of loopy ways by which to attempt an end run on our common human denominator. But all to no avail. They say that when prisoners arrived at the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, some were told that there was only one way out of Auschwitz, and that was up the smokestack of the crematorium. But in a dark yet true way, the same could be said for all life on this planet: there’s only one way out and that is via the cemetery. Birth, someone once said, leads to a terminal condition called life.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. It’s everywhere in John 11, too. And not just in the obvious place where Lazarus was buried. There is a whiff of death when John reminds us in verse 2 that Mary anointed Jesus with perfume. That actually doesn’t happen until the next chapter but when it does, Jesus makes clear that this is a burial anointing for his body. The specter of death is visible when Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus has died and again when Thomas invites the disciples to go and die with Jesus since they anticipate some kind of a lynch mob to meet them in Bethany.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. But nowhere is the choking reality of death on better display here than in what Jesus encounters once he at long last arrives in Bethany. You could hear the sound of the crying a long ways off. The whooping cries of the professional mourners mixed with the heaving sobs of Mary, Martha, and others. Sorrow creates its own kind of presence, doesn’t it? We’ve felt it as pastors when walking into that hospital room, that living room, that funeral parlor. It’s like walking into a layer of wet gauze. Grief is palpable and engulfing. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it more than once when I have barely made it back to my car before dowsing my steering wheel with a lot of pent-up tears I had been holding back.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and it surely was in Bethany that day. Jesus encounters Martha first. Perhaps recalling a time when Jesus chided her for staying in the kitchen too much, Martha is the first one to leave the house. But it’s difficult to know just how she meets Jesus. It kind of looks like she meets him with some measure of unhappy disdain in her voice, but then again, we’ve all seen deep grief come out as anger, haven’t we? “Well there you are! It’s about time. This whole thing could have been avoided had you just shown up when we first called you. I know you could have healed Lazarus same as you’ve done for lots of people who mean a whole lot less to you than he did!”
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus offers. “Lord, if I had wanted a Hallmark card . . . Of course he will rise again at the last day when the roll is called up yonder by and by. But I’m hurting this day, Lord!” And that’s when Jesus says it. He fixes Martha in an unusually intense stare and makes a claim so bold, it brooks no middle ground in terms of its being true or false: “Martha, I Am the resurrection and the life. Now. Today. Martha, I Am the roll that’s called up yonder and I am now. Do you believe this, or does that sound like a Hallmark card yet?”
With trembling lips and a quivering chin, with tears leaking out from her eyes for the first time since she encountered Jesus that day Martha says, “Yes. Yes . . . I do believe that, because I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the future of the whole universe that has come into the world.” It was a bold thing for Jesus to say and a bolder thing for Martha to buy into. But even so, within minutes, when Jesus sees also Mary and then the others, he loses it. He didn’t make it back to the car. He weeps.
He weeps not because he doesn’t believe his own words. He weeps not because he has forgotten that he’d be having tea and cucumber sandwiches with Lazarus within the hour. No, he weeps because as the Word of God who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were made, he knows more keenly than anyone there that day that this is not the way it’s supposed to be. He didn’t say “Let there be light” in the beginning to end up with a world so full of darkness and sorrow. He weeps for the same reason you cry when you see your kid trying to be brave on the playground even though he’s just been taunted and insulted by some other kids, taunted in ways that shriveled his little spirit. You weep for your child because you hate to see him diminished, because you love him. And Jesus weeps because he loves. He weeps because he is in love with this creation’s flourishing.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and no one sees it with more startling clarity than Jesus himself. And so on that day he does something to take, if even for just a little while, some of the wind out of death’s sails. Lazarus will die again. Mary and Martha may still have to go through another funeral for him at some point (and since we are told in the next chapter that the chief priests decided to murder Lazarus so as to cover over what Jesus had done, for all we know Lazarus’ second funeral may come really very soon after all). But still Jesus shows that he is on the side of life by bringing Lazarus back.
But that’s where John ends the story. Silly John! Doesn’t he know we want to read about the reactions of Mary and Martha? Doesn’t he know we want to see how they turned the leftover turkey on buns and potato salad from Lazarus’ funeral lunch into a “Welcome Back to Life” dinner party? But no, all we get is Jesus’ saying, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go!” We’re left to imagine the joy.
For his part, however, John returns us to death. We pivot from Lazarus the mummy walking out into the sunlight in Bethany to a secret plot to kill Jesus. After all, if Jesus keeps raising the dead, it’s going to start to get pretty tough for the Pharisees to convince people that Jesus is, as they say in Texas, “all hat and no cattle.” Raising the dead has a way of catching people’s attention and so—in a narrative twist so sharply ironic as to take your breath away—they decide to kill the life-giver. They will prevent future resurrections by burying the one doing the work. With life busting out all over Bethany, the authorities opt to bring things back to normal where death has the last word.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. And for now, despite the joy and spectacle of John 11, that remains our reality, too. And that would be a piece of bad news were it not for those clarion words of John 11:25 that have had a way of hanging in there across the centuries and right on down to this July morning, too. “I am the resurrection and the life.” You either believe those words or you don’t but if there is one thing both the religious and the non-religious could agree on it is this: one way or another the truth or falsity of those words have something to do with every last person on the planet, past, present, and future.
Think of it this way: suppose I came up to you and said “I am the cure for hemorrhagic fever.” Well, that might be a nice thing to know about me but unless you have hemorrhagic fever—or unless you anticipate ever getting this rather rare disease—then my claim to possess the cure for that condition won’t do much for you. It would be a claim that would, at best, have something to do with other people but not you. But the same cannot be said if I claim to be the cure for death. Now I’ve got everyone’s attention. Those who believe me will latch on quite literally for dear life. Those who do not believe me will walk the other way but will still have to know that death remains their destiny. Either way or both ways, someone’s claim to being the resurrection and the life is never a claim that has nothing to do with anyone.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and so therefore is the need to deal with it. God’s solution was, unsurprisingly, rather ingenious! The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg is someone who understands—as best anyone can understand such a mystery, that is—what Jesus as the resurrection and the life means. Pannenberg said that what happened on Easter was the future breaking into our collective past. The new life Jesus brought was quite literally our future taking place at a distinct moment in history.
So now when Jesus comes up to each of us to ask the question he first posed to Martha, “Do you believe this?” we have a new way to answer. Yes, we do believe in Jesus, we do believe that we will rise again one day. We believe it will happen because, in Christ, it already did happen! Nothing can prevent the eternal life Jesus offers us because it has already come! On that long ago day in Bethany, Jesus essentially told Martha that the Last Day, the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection was standing right in front of her! That great font of wisdom, Yogi Berra, once said, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” To that I reply, “Oh yes it is! The future is exactly what it used to be in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!”
In commenting on John 11 Frederick Buechner once pointed out that sometimes people who go through so-called “near-death experiences” profess to not being completely happy that the doctors pulled them back. Many have said that they saw a bright figure standing in the light and that they wanted to approach that figure but were cut off when the heart defibrillator yanked them back to this world. For them it felt less like “near death” and more like “near life.”
Well, as Buechner imagined it, maybe that bright afternoon in Bethany when Lazarus emerged, blinking into the Palestine sunshine, only to see Jesus standing there in the light, maybe Lazarus was at first not sure which side of death he was on! Was he walking toward eternity or back toward earth? Some of you have seen the fine film Field of Dreams in which long dead baseball players somehow come back to life to play on a mysterious baseball field that Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, had built right in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
When one player steps out onto the ball diamond, he says to Ray,
“Is this heaven?” to which Ray replies,
“No, it’s Iowa.”
“Funny, it looked like heaven to me.”
So also maybe Lazarus at first asked Jesus,
“Is this heaven?”
“No, it’s Bethany.”
But maybe it looked like heaven to Lazarus just because Jesus was there. Perhaps as much as anything just that is the point of John 11: whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s because he just is, right now, the resurrection and the life. That will have enormous meaning when the roll is called up yonder by and by. But faith understands that tasting Jesus’ life and hope doesn’t have to wait that long. It is here, now. It is at the Lord’s where each time when we come we quite literally taste and tsee that the Lord is good, taste and see that new life is here now because as this table says to us, Jesus is here, Jesus is now. And if by faith you can see him each time in the bread and the wine, then you, too, have begun to taste heaven already.
“I am the resurrection and the life.” Because of these words from our Lord, when we as Christians get asked by people, “Where can you find any hope in this world,” we now have the joyful privilege to proclaim the gospel by boldly declaring, “Where is hope? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.”
Hallelujah and Amen!
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