22 April 2014

Sermon – “Mary” (John 20:11-18)

I wonder how many of you have seen what many regard as British comic actor Peter Sellers’ greatest movie. Being There was produced less than a year before his death in 1980. It tells the story of a guileless, simple-minded man named Chance. As the film opens, Chance’s entire world has been the protected environment of the townhouse of a wealthy man, where he spent his time doing nothing but watching television and tending the garden. When his employer dies, Chance is forced to leave the only environment he has known. He wanders out into the streets of Washington, D.C., dressed in one of his benefactor’s expensive tailored suits. I will not go into all the details of the story, except to say that, through a series of coincidences and confusions, Chance the gardener is transformed into Chauncey Gardiner. His simplistic and meaningless utterances are taken to be arcane statements of profound insight. People assume he is speaking in enigmatic metaphors, when in reality all he is talking about is flowers and gardens. He becomes the most sought-after guest at every socialite soirĂ©e. He is a media celebrity. And before the film reaches its conclusion he is being touted as the next likely candidate for the presidency.

I can’t imagine that the story’s author had today’s gospel reading in mind when he wrote Being There. Yet I cannot escape the correspondence between the two. In Being There, a gardener is mistaken for a savior. This morning we have been presented with the Savior being mistaken for a gardener.

All Mary saw was the gardener

You can’t blame Mary, really. Less than forty-eight hours before, she had been one of those standing by, watching helplessly as Jesus hung dying on the cross, as he gasped for his last breath, as the javelin was thrust into his side. She had been there as Jesus’ body was laid in the sepulcher and as the huge round stone was rolled across the entryway. She had also been the first to arrive at the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid to rest. The other gospels indicate that she did not come alone. There were other women with her: Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, Joanna, and others unnamed as well. They had brought with them spices to complete the hasty anointing that had been given to Jesus at the time of his death. Mark tells us that they were in a quandary about how they would manage to move the stone away from the opening. Perhaps the soldiers whom Pilate had placed on a security guard might be willing to give a helping hand.

As it turned out, however, there was no need. The stone had already been rolled away. John doesn’t mention it explicitly (although he does imply it and the other gospels do tell us so) that they went into the tomb and were confronted by the horrifying reality that the body had been removed. Mary did not stop to think twice. She raced back to where the disciples were staying and breathlessly announced to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Moments later John and Peter were there, peering inside the tomb—and they too witnessed what Mary and the other women had seen. The tomb was empty. All that was left of Jesus were his grave cloths.

Peter and John went back, as quickly as they had come, to tell the other disciples. Which left Mary alone, standing outside the tomb, sobbing and trembling in grief and bewilderment. Then something (and John doesn’t tell us what) something prompted Mary to take one more look inside the sepulcher. There she saw two angels. Or was it one angel, or a young man, or two men, in white in dazzling white clothes? At this point the various gospel accounts don’t entirely coincide. I can imagine that the shock and amazement of it all would have made it impossible to recall the precise details even hours after the event, much less decades.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” they ask. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” For some reason (and again John does not tell us why) Mary turns around to look behind her. Did she hear a footfall? Did she sense the presence of another? We do not know. What we do know is that she saw Jesus, but she did not recognize him for who he was.

Perhaps it was her tears. Perhaps there was still a little of the early morning mist in the air. Or alternatively perhaps the sun was glaring into her eyes. Frankly, I’m not sure it was any of these things. Again and again after his resurrection people were unable to recognize Jesus: not only Mary, but think of Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus or the disciples in the upper room. I think the real reason was that there was a little bit of Thomas in each of them, as there is in us. Resurrections just don’t happen. It never occurred to them that this really could be Jesus.

I think that there is something of a parable in Mary’s inability to recognize Jesus, in her mistaking him for the gardener. How many times has Jesus come to me and I have not recognized him? We are accustomed to talking about Jesus coming to us the marginalized, about recognizing him in the face of the poor—and there is a truth in that. But I am thinking about something different. I am thinking about those times when God has done something powerful and we ascribe it to coincidence or simply ignore it. We are much more comfortable in a world of mechanical regularity, where things are predictable, explainable—in a world where God does not intervene in power. But Jesus’ resurrection tells us that is not the world in which we dwell. “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead,” the Scriptures tell us, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

God the gardener

The resurrection of Jesus turns our world with all its naturalistic presuppositions on its head. The man who stood in Mary’s presence was Jesus. Yet, stop for a moment and think. Was there not a sense in which Mary was right? Was he not also the gardener? Take a moment to look at the Renaissance paintings of this scene by Fra Angelico, van Oostsanen, Lavinia Fontana and Rembrandt. What they all have in common is that they depict Jesus with a spade in his hand (and in some cases with a gardener’s broad-brimmed hat!). The one Mary saw was indeed the Gardener (with a capital “G”) returning to his garden. “She did not mistake in taking him for a gardener,” declared Lancelot Andrewes, the Bishop of Winchester, in his Easter sermon of 1620.

Though she might seem to err in some sense, yet in some other she was in the right. For in a sense, and a good sense, Christ may well be said to be a gardener, and indeed is one. A gardener he is then. The first, the fairest garden that ever was, Paradise. He was the gardener, it was of his planting. So, a gardener.[1]

“No wonder at the empty tomb, Christ came to Mary Magdalene as the gardener,” reflects contemporary theologian Vigen Guroian. “For he is the Master Gardener, and we, we are his apprentices as well as the subjects of his heavenly husbandry.”[2]

The Old Testament prophets looked with anticipation to the day when God would return to his garden:

The Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. (Jeremiah 31:12)

They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon. (Hosea 14:7)

In the final chapter of the Bible John the Seer is given a vision of the world that is to come:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1,2)

As Mary turned around from the empty tomb and looked up, the figure she saw was indeed the Gardener returning to his garden—and his work is in the soil of our hearts, yours and mine, planting the seed of his word in its furrows, pruning away the unfruitful branches, producing within us the luxuriant fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Christ the second Adam

What Mary was the first to witness was the new creation irrupting into the old. The garden that had become a wilderness was beginning to bloom again. But before we leave this passage this morning I would like to take us one step farther. It has to do with the fact that the one whom God entrusted to till and to tend the original garden was Adam. So when Mary turned from the sepulcher the one she set her eyes upon was the second Adam: humanity fully transformed, you and I as we will one day be, victorious over sin, evil and death.

For the time being we groan, as Paul says, with the whole of creation. In the Spirit’s power we wrestle with the sin that has become so deeply implanted within us. We wait eagerly for the day when Christ’s redemption will be fully revealed.

Yet at Easter especially we recognize that by God’s grace, by Christ’s redeeming work on the cross, by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, we are at the same time in some mysterious sense partakers in the new Adam. Yes, we continue to sin. Yes we stumble and fall, sometimes spectacularly. Yet we are the gardeners, called and empowered to mediate the beauty of God, to be agents of his shalom, in a world corrupted by sin and death.

Our Christian communities ought to be places where loveliness of Christ is evident in our lives and relationships. Right now in our front lawn there are snowdrops and crocuses blooming. Passers by walking their dogs or pushing their strollers stop to admire them. That is how it is to be with us—that people may see the difference in our daily lives, in the quality of our relationships, in the undying hope that is within us. That is how it was with our earliest forebears. Luke tells us that they enjoyed the favor of all the people (Acts 2:47). Tertullian, writing at the end of the second century, observed how the pagans would say of their Christian counterparts, “Look how they love one another … and how they are ready to die for each other…”

As we stand with Mary, may it be with a profound wonder and joy that the Gardener has returned to his garden. And may it be with a willingness to let him do his work in us and through us. “For we are to God the sweet fragrance of Christ…” (2 Corinthians 2:15)

[1]     Sermons of the Resurrection, Preached on Easter-Day, 1620
[2]     The Fragrance of God, 47

15 April 2014

Sermon – “Pilate” (Matthew 27:11-26)

In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem there is a block of white limestone, almost three feet long and two feet across, on which is engraved this inscription:

To the Divine Augustus Tiberius
… Pontius Pilate
… prefect of Judea
… has dedicated [this]

The “Pilate Stone”, as it is called, was discovered in 1961 by Italian archaeologists. Dating from the first century AD, it had been reused as a part of repair work on a staircase leading up to the seating in a theater in the coastal town of Caesarea Maritima. Caesarea Maritima was the governmental and military headquarters of the province of Judea since 6 AD onwards. There Pontius Pilate held sway during his ten years as procurator or prefect, from 26 to 36 AD. The inscription is significant because it is the only actual Roman evidence for the historical existence of the man we meet in this morning’s Gospel reading, the man who has been immortalized in our creeds in the words, “crucified under Pontius Pilate”.

Rising from the ranks of the military, Pilate owed his appointment to the influence of Sejanus, for a time the most influential and feared citizen of Rome. From the beginning of his tenure Pilate did everything possible to antagonize the local citizenry. Previous occupants of his office had respected Jewish customs by removing all images from Roman standards in Jerusalem. Pilate had them secretly brought into the city at night. When the people appealed to have them taken down, Pilate waited five days and then had his soldiers surround the petitioners and threaten them with death. When they would not relent, he finally had the images removed.

Some time later he created further ill will when he had gold-coated shields honoring the emperor Tiberius placed in the Temple. When he refused to take them down, the Jews wrote to Tiberius himself, who commanded that they be removed immediately. Later Pilate used Temple funds to build an aqueduct. When this was met with opposition, he had his soldiers attack, beat and kill scores of the protestors.

Philo, a first-century Jewish philosopher, described Pilate as having “vindictiveness and a furious temper”, and as being “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness”. In Philo’s words, Pilate’s rule as governor was characterized by “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages and wanton injuries, executions without trial constantly repeated, and ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty. This, then, was the man before whom Jesus stood as this morning’s Gospel reading opens.

Are you the king of the Jews?

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate queries. We are reminded of a similar question asked at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel: “Where is the one born king of the Jews?”—and of the sign which would later that day be placed above Jesus’ head on the cross: “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.” The wise men asked their question in reverent inquiry. Pilate’s came with a sneering superiority.

His aim was no doubt to ridicule both Jesus and the religious leaders at one and the same time. The sad figure who stood before him, his hands bound and faced bruised, looked like anything but a king. As Pilate snickered, I can imagine the chief priests and the elders seething. But there was nothing they could do. They were the ones who had brought Jesus here.

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus’ answer must have ricocheted back at him like a lash: “So you say.” I am rather attracted to Bishop B.F. Westcott’s alternative translation of Jesus’ reply, which turns it into a question: “Is that what you say?” It makes the irony of Pilate’s question all the more stinging. In the end it doesn’t matter which way you translate it really. Either way, this man who was accustomed to absolute power, this little tin god, had been trapped in his own words by a helpless prisoner—and a Jew no less.

It took Pilate a moment or two to regain his composure. “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” To which Jesus makes no reply, nor to any of the other questions that Pilate puts to him. Indeed, the next words we hear from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel do not come until he is hanging on the cross. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).

Now Pilate was a man who had seen everything. He had watched (and probably with some degree of pleasure) as his soldiers had beaten people senseless and committed other acts of cruelty and even murder. His final act as procurator of Judea in AD 36 was to order the slaughter of a whole crowd of Samaritan pilgrims. But he did not know what to do with this man who stood before him. Matthew tells us that he was amazed—the same reaction as the crowds in Galilee as they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. Pilate was no less amazed.

Whom should I release?

We do not know what crept into his mind at this point. But for some reason it hit upon Pilate to explore a legal loophole. Perhaps it was the name, Jesus. In any case, it occurred to him to take advantage of an obscure custom that allowed him to grant liberty to a single prisoner, anyone the people chose. And so he gave them the option of choosing between two Jesus—a notorious brigand, Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus the would-be Messiah.

However Pilate was not to be let off the hook so easily. At that very moment, as he sat on the judgment seat, a message was brought to him. It was from his wife, warning him not to become any further involved with Jesus, whom she described as “that innocent man”. The word used here is in fact “righteous”. It is the same word that Peter used as he looked back to the events of the cross and wrote, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

The interruption, brief though it may have been, did not serve its purpose, however. Indeed it did quite the opposite. For it gave time for the chief priests and the elders to agitate the crowd further against Jesus and to call for Barabbas. So when Pilate turned to them again and asked for the second time, “Whom do you want me to release?” he was met by the unanimous reply, “Barabbas!” “Then what should I do with Jesus?” “Let him be crucified!”

Now crucifixion was a particularly horrific form of death, reserved for the lowest of the low—traitors, slaves and dangerous criminals. Writing a century before the time of Christ, Cicero described it as “that plague” and recommended that even the word “cross” should be far removed from the thoughts, eyes and ears of a Roman citizen. Any Jew witnessing a crucifixion would naturally think of the passage in the Old Testament Law that states, “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). So it was that the apostle Paul could reflect in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’ ”

While Pilate may not have been fully aware of the particular Jewish horror at crucifixion, he was aware of its particular cruelty. And so he asked one more time, “Why? What evil has he committed?” But his questions only caused the crowd to clamor even more vociferously, “Let him be crucified!”

What unfolded at that point was one last, desperate measure on Pilate’s part—not to have Jesus released (Things had gone far beyond that point and he knew it.) but to exonerate himself. Washing his hands in the sight of all he proclaimed, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

Of course Pilate’s words were hollow. He could not evade responsibility for what was unfolding. He knew very well (as he himself admits in John’s gospel) that he had full power to release Jesus or to crucify him. I would be surprised if Pilate had not engaged in questionable justice many times over the course of his career. Yet there was something within him that made him want to be, in this case at least, innocent. But that was not to happen—and there was no amount of hand washing that could make it so. The only innocent person in the scene was Jesus, the Lamb of God without spot or blemish.

The people too protested their innocence as they cried out in frenzy, “His blood be on us and on our children!” We need to note that Matthew has been very specific in his use of words here. He does not say that the crowd answered Pilate, but that it was the people. It is the same word that was used at the beginning of the gospel by the angel who spoke to Joseph in a dream, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And so his blood would be upon them and upon their children, not as a curse, but to redeem them—and not them alone, but all people everywhere. “You are worthy, Lord, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

With their cries still echoing, Matthew tells us that after having Jesus flogged, he handed him over to be crucified.

What should I do with Jesus?

On Palm Sunday we read the Gospel in a way that is different from every other Sunday in the year. One of the benefits of that is that it reminds us that we are not just to be passive observers of the events surrounding Jesus’ death on the cross, but participants. The apostle Paul wrote of “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). We have not fully appropriated the meaning of the cross until we have been there, until we have been able to see ourselves in each of the people involved in the story:

·      To acknowledge that, like Pilate, I am not without guilt and that only Jesus can make me clean;

·      To recognize that, like Barabbas, in spite of my sin Jesus has died for me so that I might go free;

·      And to see that I too am one of those wayward and rebellious people whom Jesus came to save and for whom he shed his blood.

In our hymn book there is a hymn, which no doubt we will sing before this week has ended, and which includes the words:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?

Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.

’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied thee!

I crucified thee.

As we look at the cross today, it is not to induce guilt or to assign blame. It is to turn once again in faith and gratitude to our wondrous God, who for our sake made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

07 April 2014

Bible Study: Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:11-54)

Getting started

Think back to a time when you felt as though God were absent from your life. What happened to make it work out?

Exploring God’s word

1    What is Pilate’s first question to Jesus? What answer does he receive? What do you think is Pilate’s opinion of Jesus? How does he attempt to secure a discharge for Jesus? Why is he thwarted in his efforts?
2    What do the soldiers do to Jesus? What do you think lies behind their desire to humiliate him? What happens on the way out of the city? Why do the soldiers offer Jesus the wine and gall mixture? How does Jesus respond to this? What do you suppose is the reason behind his refusal?
3    Once Jesus is on the cross, how do the soldiers occupy their time? What is the official charge against Jesus? What are the taunts yelled at him from the passers-by and the religious officials? Can you detect an irony in them?
4    Trace the events that take place beginning at the sixth hour (noon). What effect do they have on the centurion and the other guards?
5    How do you suppose the women felt as they watched from a distance? Which of these events makes the deepest impression on you?

For further thought and action

St Paul spoke of Christ crucified as “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23,24). How does this work out in your life today?

Sermon – “Lazarus” (John 11:17-27)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!

Of all the emotions that wring the heart, surely there is none that touches us more deeply than grief. In the Bible we find numerous pictures of it: in the aged Abraham mourning and weeping at the side of the lifeless body of his wife Sarah. In Jacob holding in his hands the blood-soaked cloak of his son Joseph and crying aloud in inconsolable anguish, “It is my son’s robe!” In King David, learning of the death of the rebellious Absalom in battle and wailing, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”[1]

Half a century ago, in what is the most personal of all his books, C.S. Lewis recorded his feelings of deep sorrow following the death of his wife, Joy Davidman:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life. I was happy before I ever met [her]. I’ve plenty of what are called ‘resources’. People get over these things. Come, I shan’t do so badly… Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.[2]

Today in our Gospel reading we also come face to face with grief. This morning’s passage opens mid-way through the story of Lazarus. Jesus has just arrived in Bethany. When Lazarus’ sister Martha learns the news that Jesus has come, she rushes out to greet him. But she cannot hold her feelings of questioning and perhaps not a little resentment within her. And so her first words to him are, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus waited

Now if we have read the earlier part of the chapter we know that Martha and her sister Mary had gone to the trouble of sending Jesus a message about Lazarus’ illness some days before, well in time for Jesus to have come to Bethany while their brother was still alive. Nevertheless, Jesus had delayed his departure for two days, and now Lazarus was dead and buried.

We have to credit Mary for her forthrightness in her words to Jesus. So often it is a temptation (for me at least) to hide my real feelings from God. Far more often than I care to admit, my prayers tends to skim along the surface of my life. I am not inclined to share with God my deepest hurts and disappointments—and certainly not to blame them on him!

Yet no doubt there are times for all of us when we are tempted to ask, “God, why couldn’t you have done something?” “Why could you not have acted?” And I think those are perfectly legitimate questions to bring to him. One of the repeated prayers of the Bible is, “O Lord, how long?”

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13:1,2)

How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? (Psalm 89:46)

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? (Habakkuk 1:2)

How long, O Lord, will you look on? (Psalm 35:17)

My soul is in great turmoil, but you, Lord, how long? (Psalm 6:3)

It was not for lack of faith that Martha came to Jesus with these words. Quite the opposite: for a moment later she is making one of the most profound statements of faith in all of Scripture, “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It was her very faith in Jesus that gave her the freedom to come to him in that way.

Throughout this Lenten season we have been opening our services with the words of Jesus from Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” And the apostle Peter echoes, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). And so with Martha we have the freedom to respond to Jesus’ own gracious invitation to come to him with our sorrows and disappointments, our hurts and even our anger. “Lord, if only you had been here.”

Jesus wept

Moments later we hear the same words again, not from Martha but on the lips of her sister Mary. And this time John tells us in verse 33 that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”. As happens not infrequently in the Bible, it is hard to convey the depth of emotion that John is portraying in this verse. The word rendered “greatly disturbed” was originally used of horses. It means “to snort”. Elsewhere in the New Testament it is translated “to scold”, “to censure” and “to warn sternly”. It is used of the guests at Simon’s table when the woman poured her precious ointment over Jesus’ hair. Mark tells us that his guests scolded her—literally “snorted at her” (Mark 14:5).

If this word were not enough, John further describes Jesus as “deeply moved”. Here the word means literally “stirred up”. We find the same word being used of the pool of Bethesda earlier in the gospel. Do you remember how the paralyzed man was waiting for an angel to come and stir up the water (John 5:4)? Matthew’s gospel uses the same word to describe King Herod when the wise men told him of the birth of a new king of the Jews (Matthew 2:3). He was shaken to the core.

Now put these two verbs together and we begin to get the picture of what was happening within Jesus’ heart. One translator (Rieu) has rendered it, “He gave way to such distress of spirit as made his body tremble.” And another (Phillips), “He was deeply moved and visibly distressed.” Then, two verses later, John tells us simply and poignantly, “Jesus wept.” We do not see Jesus like this again until he faces the imminence of his own death in the Garden of Gethsemane.

What caused this enormous show of emotion on Jesus’ part? Was it sorrow over the grief of these two sisters, Mary and Martha? Was it the loss of his good friend Lazarus? That indeed was what some of those present were thinking. Yet I do not believe that it was either of these things, deeply distressing though they were. In reference to this passage English theologian Tony Thiselton has written of an “indignation in principle at what ought not to happen”[3] and I believe that this accurately describes what was taking place deep inside Jesus at that moment.

As he stood outside the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus was standing face to face before the scandal of death. In our fallen world we have come to terms with death. Yes, we grieve over it when it takes our loved ones from us; yet we have come to accept its inevitability. For Jesus, in whom was life, and for the Scriptures, death remains an enemy, a barbarity, an atrocity, an outrage against creation itself. He came that we might have life—life in all its fullness.

And so with Jesus we believe in the sacredness of human life—that life, not death, is God’s intention, God’s gift. In the midst of what Pope John Paul II described as “a culture of death”, we are called, in the words of Protestant theologian Ron Sider, to be “completely pro-life”. That may mean re-examining some of our most basic presuppositions, not only on matters like abortion and euthanasia, but also on controversial issues such as war, gun control, capital punishment, access to health care, world poverty and many others—and it will most certainly mean that we will find ourselves, like Jesus, being deeply troubled by the death that surrounds us.

Jesus’ word

I have entitled this series of sermons “Conversations with Jesus”. At this point we come to what is possibly the most remarkable “conversation” in Scripture. Jesus, still trembling with the emotions that stirred so deeply within him, walks determinedly to the great stone that has been rolled across Lazarus’ sepulcher and says, “Take away the stone.” Martha protests, “Lord, already there is a stench.” (At this point I love the earthier language of the King James Version: “Lord, by this time he stinketh.”) But Jesus would not be dissuaded. And so the stone was rolled away; and Jesus cried out, “Lazarus, come forth!” Then John tells us simply, “The dead man came out.”

“He speaks, and, listening to his voice,
 new life the dead receive…” Sad to say, the time would come when Lazarus would have to die again. What he experienced that day was not resurrection but resuscitation. It is the last and greatest of the seven “signs” in John’s gospel; and like all signs it points to something greater than itself—that even death falls a defeated foe at the feet of Jesus. “The last enemy to be destroyed us death…,” wrote St Paul. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:26,57).

In the book of Revelation John looked forward to the great day when the fullness of that victory would no longer be a hope but a present, all-encompassing reality. Like Lazarus in his tomb, John too heard a loud voice, this time saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Until that day comes (and it surely will), death and grief both remain ever-present realities for us. There will be times when our faith is shaken, when we want to scream out from the depths of our spirit, “Lord, if only…” At those times may we remember that the one who came to bring us life has won that victory at the cost of his own death. The one who promised Mary, “I am the resurrection and the life,” was the one who cried out from the cross for you and for me, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Surely he has borne our griefs
 and carried our sorrows—a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

[1]     See Genesis 23:1-4; 37:31-35; 2 Samuel 18:33.
[2]     A Grief Observed, 7,8
[3]     Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things, 7

Bible Study: Martha, Mary & Lazarus (John 11:1-44)

Getting started

What hymns and Bible passages would you like included at your funeral? Why these in particular?

Exploring God’s word

1    Read John 11:1-16. What is the state of affairs as the passage opens? How does Jesus respond to the sisters’ message? Why do you suppose he chose not to go and see Lazarus immediately?
2    Move on to verses 17 to 27. What had happened when Jesus arrived at Bethany? With what plea does Martha approach Jesus? What reply does Jesus give her in verse 23? How does Martha understand these words? What do you think Jesus meant by his answer?
3    What does Jesus reveal about himself in verses 25 and 26? How does this address Martha’s statement in verse 24? How does Martha’s declaration of faith compare with Jesus’ own words about himself? What do you think he wanted her to grasp?
4    Continue with John 11:28-44. How does Jesus react when he comes to Lazarus’ grave? What would you say was the cause of these tears? Compare Mary’s meeting with Jesus with that of Martha. What response does this prompt in him?
5    What does Jesus do as he stands at the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb? What does Martha have to say about this? What would you have done in these circumstances? What was the final outcome?

For further thought and action

What important lessons may we learn about Jesus—particularly about aspects of his divine and human nature—from this passage?