Lent 5A: Neither Bang Nor Whimper
As Time magazine recently pointed out, two famous twentieth century poets both weighed in on the subject of the universe’s end. Robert Frost wrote, “Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice. / I hold with those who favor fire.” On the other side T.S. Eliot wrote, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” What both poets reflect is a debate that occupied twentieth century science. Ever since the discovery of the “Big Bang” science has known that our cosmos is expanding. Galaxies are still hurtling ever deeper into space like missiles or projectiles racing away from the explosion which birthed the universe long ago. But the question has always been whether the universe will keep expanding or, like a stretched rubber band, whether it will reach a point when it will snap back on itself and re-collapse into a ball of fire in some kind of Big Crunch.
Apparently some recent discoveries have led scientists to believe that the universe will not collapse back in on itself. Instead it will keep expanding on and on and on until it finally evanesces into extinction. Picture in your mind a ball of Silly Putty. If you flatten it out and then start stretching it flatter and flatter, eventually it will get too thin and will start to break. Something like that, it is now theorized, is how our universe may one day end. T.S. Eliot wins out: it will all end with a whimper, not a bang.
Two different articles about this in that recent issue of Time concluded on about as bleak a note as you could imagine. One article concluded by saying that, sadly enough, the day will come when “the universe, once ablaze with the light of uncountable stars, [will] become an unimaginably vast, cold, dark, and profoundly lonely place.” Nothing, another article concluded, will “save our descendants. . . from [the universe’s] last, dying gasp.”
Not terribly cheery stuff! Granted, all of this is at least trillions of years away, but the stark bleakness of these portraits is nevertheless a bit difficult to swallow. But although these are ultimately just speculations on events which reside in inconceivably far reaches of the distant future, one thing which this bears in common with our present time is this: the reality of death is inescapable. 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.
You might at this point think that I am mentioning all of this simply to make the dramatic turn toward Jesus as the real life of the universe. That is partly true but the first thing to note about John 11 this evening is that despite Lazarus’ being raised from the dead, this chapter is overall veiled in a kind of death-shroud. Yet that makes it very realistic.
Just about everywhere you look in this chapter there is either death or, equally often, the expectation of death. It starts already in verse 2 when Mary is identified as the same person who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet. Despite the past tense of the verb “poured” there, that event has actually not happened yet in John’s gospel–it is still coming up in chapter 12. But in that next chapter Jesus will describe Mary’s anointing of him as a kind of pre-burial embalming of his body. So by highlighting that act of Mary in verse 2, John begins this 11th chapter with a whiff of death.
That deathly odor becomes more intense in verse 4 when Jesus predicts that in the long run Lazarus’ sickness would not leave him dead. But then still more whiffs of death crop up in verse 8 when, after hearing Jesus’ suggestion that they return to Judea, the disciples remind him that the folks over there had tried to stone Jesus to death the last time he was there, so was it so smart to go back? Moving on to verse 14 death intrudes again when Jesus plainly lets the disciples know the sad news that Lazarus was indeed dead. Then, once Jesus begins to travel to Bethany, the disciples conclude that Lazarus wasn’t the only one who was going to die that week: Thomas at least was so sure death awaited all of them that in verse 16 he invites the disciples to go and die with Jesus.
The rest of the chapter is more obviously shrouded in death, and so we won’t take time to pick up on all of it. But before the chapter is finished, there is still more death-talk as the Sanhedrin plots to kill Jesus. You see, even after Lazarus is raised, the specter of death does not fade from the scene. But it’s darker even than that. We all know that despite Jesus’ having raised him from the dead, Lazarus died again one day. But have you ever noticed John 12:10 where the chief priests decide to murder Lazarus as a way to cover up and ultimately deny the fact of Jesus’ having raised him again? We are not told whether this plot resulted in Lazarus’ murder, but since they succeeded in getting Jesus killed, you have the sinking feeling they probably got Lazarus, too.
Death hangs in the air here like some toxic cloud of smoke from a chemical factory. There is no escaping its presence. But does any of this mute or minimize the stunning I Am saying of John 11:25? No, but the context does frame this saying in ways that are instructive. Everyone in our world expects death. But from death God brings life.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life but for that to mean anything you need either to be already dead, like Lazarus, or expecting death, like everyone in this world must. If you don’t have cancer and also have some solid reason to think you will never suffer from cancer, then how would you react if I came up to you and said, “I am the cure for cancer”? Well, that statement would not have much traction in your life in that you would not need what I was offering. You would perhaps direct me to someone who did have cancer, suggesting that although there may well be many people whom I could help, you are not one of them.
The sentinel I Am saying of John 11:25 has meaning precisely because death is our common problem. Lazarus was already dead, but his fate in death hardly made him the odd man out! The disciples accompanied Jesus to Bethany expecting that very soon they would be dead, too. Jesus goes to Bethany with his own death looming large, as John tips us off in verse 2 by pointing ahead to Jesus’ pre-death anointing by Mary.
Death is everywhere. Maybe that is why in verse 25 Jesus makes it clear that his reality as the resurrection and the life persists even if the people who believe in him die, as we all will. That’s why Martha was only partly right in verse 24 when, having heard Jesus’ promise that Lazarus would rise again, she replies in essence by saying, “Yes, I know he will be raised again when the roll is called up yonder by and by!” And true enough, the resurrection which in the long run will do Lazarus and the rest of us the most good is that final raising up which is promised in the New Testament. For all we know Lazarus may have been dead for a second time within a week of his having been brought out of the tomb by Jesus. Even if the assassination plot against Lazarus somehow failed, eventually he did die again, eventually Mary and Martha cried over his corpse yet again.
So in the long run we need the by and by resurrection “at the last day.” Jesus, however, does not want to talk in the future tense. Instead he throws in the very dramatic present tense of “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus has something to offer the dead and the living right now, today. Jesus’ raising up of Lazarus was a sign that the far greater power Jesus claimed for himself was true. Jesus can enliven you now even though you will still get buried one day. In the end you don’t need to get temporarily raised the way Lazarus did to receive the real power Jesus has to offer. All you need to get that gift of eternal life is to say with Martha, “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world.” In a way that is the real climax of this chapter because that is the verse where we need to locate ourselves.
Have you ever noticed how John stops the narration in this chapter at the very moment when you expect the greatest of all narrative fireworks? Lazarus comes out of the grave in verse 44 and yet John records not one single syllable of reaction from anyone. Yes, in verse 45 we are told that lots of people were moved to put some kind of faith in Jesus, but that is a far cry from the kind of embellished and climactic crowd reaction you expect to read here. Again, however, maybe that is because it is verse 27 that truly seals this chapter in ways that make Lazarus’ emergence from the tomb seem like little more than the icing on the cake. Lazarus had to die again, but Martha’s ability to grab hold of Jesus’ resurrection life through faith would last forever.
And how sorely we need to be able to celebrate that kind of faith precisely in a world where death cannot be headed off. John 11 is an important chapter for so many reasons. But one of the most frequently touted aspects of this chapter is the fact that it is the only definitive place where Jesus is said to have cried. “Jesus wept.” That is the shortest verse in Scripture, as all Bible trivia buffs know, and more importantly it is a dramatic piece of testimony that Jesus was truly human like the rest of us. We tend to think, as did the crowds back then, that Jesus was simply mourning Lazarus’ death.
But have you ever noticed that that was not the immediate cause of Jesus’ tears? He did not cry when he first knew Lazarus was dead. Yet for most of us just receiving a phone call with news of a friend’s death is enough to dissolve us into tears. But Jesus did not cry then. Nor did he cry when he first saw Mary and Martha, although once again many of us no doubt know how just seeing a dead person’s surviving spouse or children can really hit us hard. Nor did Jesus cry when he came to the tomb, because in verse 35 when Jesus weeps he was not yet at the tomb but is said to arrive at the tomb only in verse 38.
So what made Jesus cry? It was his seeing everyone else crying! It was not just Lazarus’ death that got to him but the tragedy of the larger human condition. The compassion of Jesus’ heart moves him to tears but throughout his ministry that same compassion moved Jesus to love all people and to want to help. Yes, it is striking in John 11:35 to see the Son of God crying. But it is a false theology which suggests that this was the first time God had ever wept. In truth, the trails of God’s tears wind all through history.
God had been mourning all along the tragic turns of events that marred his otherwise good creation. The Son of God who wept when he saw others weeping, who was moved to tears when one of his own friends died, came to this world precisely because he so desperately wanted to help, wanted to do something which would begin to dry every tear from every person’s eyes. But Jesus knew that even as death awaited him, so we would all die just as surely as Lazarus had died and would die again. The trick was to turn the tables on death–to turn it into a portal to life instead of the end of everything. The key was to accomplish what Jesus had said to Martha, which was to help people see that there is a way by faith to die and yet live–to die but yet not really die, not be extinguished. Jesus wept because of the tragedy of this world. Something simply had to be done. And so it was.
Death, as Peter Kreeft once wrote in a fascinating book, comes to us in several ways. In one sense death is an enemy and a stranger. Death is an end, a loss, a separation of people from their loved ones in ways that wrench us horribly. It comes at us like an enemy like some marauding army of enemy soldiers approaching our city in order to sack and loot and plunder and destroy. Death comes at us also as a stranger. You have not personally met death before–by definition most meet death but once. It seems only natural that we are a bit wary of strangers. Unfamiliarity breeds unease. You often feel like you cannot be yourself in the company of a stranger, and when the stranger is death, you are not at all certain you know how to act in death’s presence. You surely don’t feel like yourself.
But, Kreeft went on, in Christ death our enemy and stranger can become our friend, our mother, and even our lover. Because of the way Jesus triumphed over death, we can encounter it as a new birth which brings us into an eternal life in which, as Kreeft put it, the last fast of death becomes the first glimpse of God’s face of love. None of that is meant to sugar-coat the pain and tragedy of death. None of this is supposed to make us really like death after all. Remember: Jesus wept. Remember: Jesus himself did not die like some stiff-upper-lip Stoic but instead he bawled out his dereliction for all to hear.
But Jesus came because too often in history the eyes of God had brimmed with tears; too often did God witness dear people like Mary and Martha weeping; too often had God seen people bidding what they feared would be an eternal good-bye to some uniquely beautiful image-bearer of God. Something had to be done. And so it was. Jesus came.
And Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” If, like Martha, you can say “Yes” to that climactic question, then you are in touch with something sublime and powerful, something mysterious and even counter-intuitive. Because then you are declaring that whether we live or die, whether we laugh or weep, whether we enjoy fellowship with our loved ones or weep and wail over their absence from us through death, in and through it all we declare we are the Lord’s. We declare that there is a power of faith in us by the Holy Spirit which gives us hope even in this universe which is so shot through with death and with the expectation of death.
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 heard the old exchange, “Is this heaven?” “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–Jesus is here, now and if by faith you can see him, you’ve begun to taste heaven already. “I am the resurrection and the life. If you believe on me, you will live even after you die. Do you believe this?” If you can say, “Yes,” then you know that the universe will end in neither a bang nor a whimper. Because if in this world bent on death you can say “Yes” to Jesus our true Life, then you know what science will never see: in the end it will not really end because in Christ new life has already started all over again. Amen.
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