Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lazarus, Come Out! Reflections on John 11.1-45 (2 April 2017)

Lazarus, Come Out!
Reflections on John 11.1-45

RCL Lent 5A
2 April 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
            11.1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.  3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”  4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

            7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”  9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight?  Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.  10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”  11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”  12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”  13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.  14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.  15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.  But let us go to him.”  16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

            17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.  18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.  20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”  24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

            28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”  29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.  30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out.  They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.  32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  34 He said, “Where have you laid him?”  They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  35 Jesus began to weep.  36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”  37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

            38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.  It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”  Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  41 So they took away the stone.  And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”  43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

            45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

            In the fall of 1995 I attended my first meeting of the Joint Anglican-Lutheran Working Group and began the work of bringing the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada into full communion.  As often happens at such meetings, the chair began our first session by asking an ‘ice-breaker’ question:  ‘If you were a character in a novel, who would you be?’  I answered, ‘A character in a Chaim Potok novel.’

            Chaim Potok is an American Jewish novelist and rabbi who died in 2002.  Several of his novels deal with a similar theme.  A young man from a conservative and religiously observant home realizes that he can no longer live in that world.  He strikes out into the more liberal and non-religious world and has some success.  But he is still rooted in his religious heritage and must navigate this ‘brave new world’ of his life as someone who no longer fits comfortably in either his old nor his new context.  He has died to his past and rises to face a future that is difficult, painful and uncertain, but there is no going back.

            The raising of Lazarus from the tomb is a story about dying to one life and rising to a new one, but it is not a story about living happily ever after.  I cannot imagine Lazarus forgetting that he died.  His thoughts and emotions remain etched in his memory.  He knows that he will face this again.  Through Jesus’ actions Lazarus has also become a symbol, a sign that points to a truth greater than the sign itself.  Being a symbol is not a vocation for the faint-hearted.  It is difficult; it is painful; it is uncertain; but there is no going back.

            And do not forget that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for that final week of his life.  Soon the crowds that were cheering him will disappear to find hiding places in the shadows.  Soon Jesus will be hanging on a cross and even his own disciples will scurry away in fear.  Bethany is not that far from Jerusalem and, in verses we did not read today, the Jewish authorities take the rising of Lazarus as a declaration of war that cannot be tolerated.  They begin to discuss how to rid themselves of this troublesome rabbi.  If I were Lazarus, a symbol of Jesus’ authority, I might begin to be a bit worried.  Being called out of a tomb may seem a wonderful thing, but it leads to being called into a new life.

            I found myself this week pondering this question:  What tomb are we, as a Christian community, being called out of?  I can think of three.

            Some of us, I think, are being called out of a tomb called nostalgia.  There is a past in which we find comfort, a past where everything seemed just right, a past where we knew our place.  Some political leaders play on this nostalgia with mottos that suggest that things can be made ‘great’ again.  Now it must be said that the past can be a source of strength, but it is not a place to live.  Genuine Christian faith cannot be nurtured by nostalgia.

            Others of us are being called out of a tomb called uncertainty.  We live in the present and honesty compels me to say that the present-day society in which we live and serve is not easy for me to comprehend.  I can understand the longing for certainty that leads some of our friends, family and neighbours to join liberal and conservative movements that promise answers.  It is not easy to be a leader within a religious tradition that ‘loves the questions’ that daily life brings.  Yesterday I heard Archdeacon Michael Thompson, the General Secretary of our church, say that we can only approach truth, we cannot own it.  Genuine Christian hope is not found in certainty but in a commitment to a life-long journey towards the truth that we name as God.

            And then there are our sisters and brothers who live in a tomb called fear.  They know that they cannot live in the past and the uncertainty of the present unsettles them.  Fear blinds them to the possibilities that, even in the uncertainties of the present, God is building the foundation for the future.  Genuine Christian love cannot thrive in fear.

            Like Lazarus we are called out of the tombs that confine us and into a new life found in being a disciple of Jesus.  And what life are we being called into?

            We are called into a life of faith.  Faith in God as revealed in Jesus is an attitude of trust that whatever comforts the past may hold for us, they are inadequate to sustain us in our journey towards Christian maturity.  Faith honours the past as a reminder of what God’s power can accomplish in us.  Faith does not promise an easy journey but a journey that is infinitely more rewarding that remaining in the oases of nostalgia.

            We are called into life of hope.  Hope is the conviction that whatever uncertainty we may experience in the present God is at work, even now, to bring about the divine promises for us and for all whom God has made.  Hope dares to believe that we are agents of God, sharing in the messy work of witnessing to the world an alternative way of community.

            We are called into a life of love.  As Paul writes, ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ (1 Corinthians 13.4-7)  Love sees the world as God sees it and as the world is called to become.

            My friends, this community of St. Faith’s has a rich past.  Let us remember with thanksgiving all those who have come before us and whose gifts sustain us.  This community has a challenging present, but God is working among us and through us and in us.  This community is a symbol of the future God is bringing about and we have role in making that future visible to our neighbours.  Let no tomb confine us, whether nostalgia or uncertainty or fear or anything else.  Let us hear Jesus’ words, spoken to Lazarus, spoken to us, ‘Come out.  Come out and live in faith, hope and love.’


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