All Saints Sunday
Texts: John 11:32-44;
Rev. 21:1-6a; Isa. 25:6-9
THE GOD OF THE LIVING
Not everything is as it seems in our Gospel story this morning. On the surface, Jesus comes to the grave of his friend Lazarus. He is moved to tears and raises Lazarus back to life — at least, for a few more years. It seems straightforward.
But there is a problem here in our reading — one that, if we can puzzle through it, might help us reach a deeper level of meaning in proclaiming our Lord as a Lord of Life. There is a translation problem that has puzzled translators as much as anything in the whole Gospel of John. In verse 33, our translators have given us this: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And in verse 38, we read, “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” It seems like Jesus is simply sad and deeply grieved at the death of his friend, right? Well, here’s the problem: the words that St. John uses in the Greek to describe Jesus’ mood are words describing anger, not grief. Verse 33 should probably read something more like, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was really angry and agitated.” Well, that doesn’t fit our picture of Jesus as a compassionate person, does it? So the translators have tweeked the words a bit and given us a translation in which we can go on seeing Jesus as appropriately compassionate at the death of his friend. The problem is fixed if we just change the words in translation. Jesus wasn’t angry. He was very sad.
Or is the problem fixed that easily? There’s really a deeper problem with this whole story. In our reading this morning, you see, we picked up the story at verse 32. This story in its entirety, however, begins in verse 1 of chapter 11. There have been 31 verses to the story already before we jump in at verse 32. And the deeper problem is that, for the story as a whole, anger does make better sense at verse 33 than does sadness. The story begins with Jesus and his disciples in another place. Bethany is very near Jerusalem, and, apparently, when Lazarus took ill, Jesus wasn’t very close to Jerusalem. Well, that’s why Jesus is sad when he gets there too late, right? Not quite. Because here’s what St. John tells us happened when Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, send word to Jesus that Lazarus is sick. Here’s Jesus’ response:
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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:4-6)
There! That’s the real problem in this story. Jesus delayed on purpose! He has healed many, many people throughout his ministry, most of them perfect strangers. So when he gets word that one of his best friends is gravely ill, does he come running to heal him? No! Instead, he delays a couple extra days.
Why?! This story only makes sense if Jesus knows that it doesn’t end with death. Yes, Lazarus dies. He’s been in the tomb four days when Jesus finally arrives. But Jesus has known all along that this episode in Lazarus’ life is not going to end in death. Death is not going to be the end. In the verses just before we pick it up this morning, Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) From the moment this story has begun, Jesus has known exactly what is going to happen. Lazarus is going to die. But, then again, he isn’t. Believing in Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, means, in effect, that we don’t have to die. We don’t have to fear death because it is as easily brushed aside by a God of life as is being asleep.
Now do you see the problem in this story? If Jesus knows all along what’s going to happen, then it doesn’t really make sense for him to be sad at the news that Lazarus has died. It makes more sense that, as he looks around at Mary and all the mourners doing their ritual wailing in the face of death, that he should be angry and agitated. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Jesus is trying to teach them not to be sad. Jesus does cry; he shows them sadness. But I think the point in this story is that we don’t have to be afraid of death. Sad, yes; we should feel sadness at our losses. But afraid, no; don’t let death consume our lives in fear. Jesus is there to teach them about the God who holds the very power of life that creates us so that we need not fear death so much. And his friends and followers are showing him in their reaction exactly why it is so important for him to teach them about a God of life. It is their lack of faith in a God of Life which makes Jesus angry and troubled. It’s time to go to the tomb and show them that God of Life, so that they may believe.
What I think is going on here — between the lines, so to speak — is that our human cultures are based too much on fear of death and thus efforts to manipulate death. The mourners aren’t just sad; they are performing the cultural rituals of wailing at death. And very, very important to this story is the one that comes right after it to conclude John 11: namely, the Jewish leaders plot Jesus’ death. Caiaphas says, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Do you see? Out of fear of death, they will try to manipulate someone else’s death, namely, Jesus’. In short, fear of death causes us too often to kill.
This seems to be the only way we know in our human cultures, isn’t it? In response to the 9-11 tragedy, for example, we took off to kill Osama ben Laden — Caiaphas’ principle of one man to die instead of a whole nation. But then what happened? We went on to remove the whole Taliban in Afghanistan, then Saddam Hussein’s whole regime. Now, we are looking at Iran as the problem. Or look at our budget as a nation. How much is spent on the ability to kill, and how much on promoting life? I’m not suggesting easy answers here, that we drop all ability to defend ourselves. But how hard do we try, on the other hand, to promote life? How much of our culture is based in the fear of death so that we are moved too readily to kill? Jesus has come to move us out of these human cultures based on fear of death, and move us into God’s culture based wholly and completely on God’s power of life. We need not kill out of fear of death.
There’s one other story in the Gospels to briefly consider that carries a similar message. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us this other story, and, positioned like the story in John, it comes very near Jesus’ own death — just days before Good Friday. Some Sadducees come up to Jesus and try to trap him with a strange hypothetical. It begins with a woman whose husband dies before they have any children. By law in those days, it was appropriate for one of the deceased husband’s brothers to marry the woman in order to give her children. Well, say the Sadducees, this particular man had six brothers. And they all marry this unfortunate woman, and they each die before leaving any children. So, these Sadducees wonder, when the woman dies, too, and goes to heaven, which of the seven brothers will be her husband? Jesus responds to them:
“Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage…. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.” (Mark 12:24-27)
You are quite wrong, says Jesus. Isn’t that why he gets angry and agitated in this story about Lazarus today? His friends and followers have not yet seemed to learn that God is never the God of the dead, but of the living. Jesus in the other story about the Sadducees uses the example that, when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been lo-o-o-ong dead. Yet God identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Why? Because in God they are not really dead. God is a God not of the dead, but of the living.
In a few moments, we will read the names of those members and friends of Prince of Peace who have gone before us. The Good News this morning is that, in their baptisms, each of them had already died and risen with Christ. They are not dead, for we believe in a God not of the dead, but of the living. And the Good News for us is that we, in our baptisms, are transferred into God’s culture based on life, not death, with the promise that in the end death and crying and pain will be no more. We are sad, yes; we feel sadness at our losses. But afraid, no; we no longer need to let death consume our lives in fear. We no longer need to let the fear of death so readily back our killing of others. For we proclaim the Good News of a God who is wholly and completely about life. Jesus did not stay angry at his friends and followers. Instead, he gave his life for them, and for us. When we might succumb to fears of the powers of death still all around us, our Lord comes to us once again with forgiveness and with his Holy Spirit of courage in the face of death. So let us, brothers and sisters, live our lives wholly and completely for life and never for death. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 5, 2006