5th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 11:1-45;
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/bWFM4tspq5Q
HOW NOT TO FEAR DEATH:
LESSONS FOR SURVIVING THINGS LIKE PANDEMICS
We have another exquisitely crafted story by John this morning, our fourth long story in a row during this Lenten season. I find them to be worth it, though, since we see Jesus at his best. The drama of the Passion comes next week, the drama that changes human history forever. But Jesus definitely led up to that drama with stories like this morning — which I believe enacts another angle on the terrible consequences of Us-vs-Them thinking, the sin we’ve been talking about this Lenten Season.
To see this most clearly, we actually need to at least glimpse what comes right after the raising of Lazarus. Yes, this long story of John’s is even longer! We didn’t even read what might be the most important part! What happens next is the reaction to the raising of Lazarus from the Judean leaders. Jesus has already narrowly escaped their designs on his life several times. You here the disciples refer to it, saying, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (John 11:8) It’s the second or third time they’ve tried, actually. Before we tend to what comes right after the raising of Lazarus, then, let’s take a quick peak at what happened just before the story we read.
The story opens with Jesus having taken a break. He has left Judea after having been there for a while, to a safer place across the Jordan River, in order to get away from the Judean leaders. That’s when the news of Lazarus’ illness comes to him. For Jesus to go to his sick friend, then, means going back into Judea and risking his life. He knows from the start that he will in fact be going back, but he also makes a strange decision. He intentionally delays going back into Judea, not because he’s frightened of what the Judean leaders want to do to him, but quite the opposite. He’s not afraid, and he wants to show his followers how not to be afraid of death. So he ups the ante a bit but waiting a couple days for Lazarus to die. Then, he will go to the grieving family in order — not only to comfort them, to be their pastor, in a way — but more importantly to show them how not to be afraid of death. He will show them how to have faith in God’s power of life — in his power of life.
But to see the full scope of this, we need to go back to glimpsing what comes immediately after the raising of the Lazarus. Sure enough the Judean leaders call an emergency conference. They fear that this sign of Jesus’ power is so spectacular that it will begin to garner many more followers. And with the Passover festival approaching in Jerusalem, things could get dicey. They begin to fear for their own lives, if the followers of Jesus were to get the wrong idea. They, of course, can’t begin to understand Jesus’ way of thinking, which will never lead to the kind of violent uprising that they fear. Jesus will later tell Pilate point blank, namely, that his kingdom is coming into this world from God, or otherwise his followers would be fighting. Fighting is the human way, not God’s way. So, no, as the Judean leaders meet together in the aftermath of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, they are still trapped in their typical human Us-vs-Them thinking — mixed, as it often is, with the fear of death. So here’s what we read only five verses after Lazarus emerges from the tomb and is unbound:
But one of them, Caiaphas, the high priest that year, addressed them. “You know nothing at all!” he said. “You haven’t worked it out! This is what’s best for you: let one man die for the people, rather than the whole nation being wiped out.” He didn’t say this of his own accord. Since he was high priest that year, it was a prophecy. It meant that Jesus would die for the nation; and not only for the nation, but to gather into one the scattered children of God. [Remember that part about gathering God’s scattered children for later.] So from that day on they plotted how to kill Jesus.
There you have it! The Scapegoat Principle: it’s better for one person to die in place of a whole nation. Jesus came to be the scapegoat, the Lamb of God, which John the Baptist proclaims right at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He comes to be that Lamb of God in order to reveal what we human beings have done since our beginnings, when our Us-vs-Them thinking gets mixed in with our fear of death. That’s even what the Passover festival itself was about, when hundreds or even thousands of lambs were slaughtered on altars in the temple. Blood sacrifice is the religious ritualization of the Scapegoat Principle — in this case, it’s better for a few sheep to die. But when the tensions of our human divisions, our Us-vs-Them thinking, become high, we will look for human scapegoats, too — someone to blame, someone to imprison, or let die, or even to kill, in order to save a nation. This has been the way of the world for centuries and millennia, right? Tensions rise, and we look for someone to blame. We look for a scapegoat.
I’d like to offer an example that we just lived through, the COVID pandemic. We were suddenly confronted with this deadly virus, and it was natural for the fear of death to kick-in. Now, to be fair, we had something else that they didn’t have at the time of Jesus. We had modern science and its amazing medical branch. Science is one of the first human endeavors for which Us-vs-Them thinking is intentionally set aside in order to focus on simply what is, on the facts of how things work, things like viruses. If modern medicine could have been the complete focus of our response to the COVID pandemic, then we might have saved tens of thousands, perhaps even millions, of lives world-wide. Even more so than we did. As it was, many people did listen to the advice of science, doing things like wearing masks, social distancing, and isolating as much as possible. Then, the vaccination came through in record-time and gradually brought us out of the pandemic. Lives were saved. Especially compared to the pandemic a hundred before in 1919-20.
But lives were also needlessly lost. Tragically, our fear of death also kicked in and became mingled with our usual Us-vs-Them thinking, especially in the political arena. We searched around for someone to blame. Was it the fault of the Chinese? Violence against all Asian Americans rose dramatically. I think it was the Lieutenant Governor of Texas who even stated Caiaphas’ Scapegoat Principle right out-loud: ‘It’s better for some older Americans to die,’ he said, ‘than for the economy of the whole nation to go down the tubes.’
Brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I are called to be leaders in such times. We are followers of the One who came to show us dramatically how not to fear death but to instead have faith in God’s power of life. He showed us most dramatically on the cross.
But he also showed us beforehand in stories like this morning. Resting out of danger across the Jordan, taking some respite from the plotting of the Judean leaders to make him the scapegoat, Jesus hears news of his friend Lazarus’ illness. He has a decision to make: should he stay away to preserve his own life? No, that’s not his mission. His mission is to not only show us how to not fear death, but it’s also to show us the toxic brew of mixing that fear with Us-vs-Them thinking. That’s the part which John tells us goes way beyond Caiaphas’ understanding, trapped as he is in Us-vs-Them thinking. Caiaphas can understand the age-old scapegoat principle, that it is better for one person to die than for a whole nation. What he can’t begin to understand is how Jesus and his heavenly Father will use that scapegoating to gather all of God’s children together.
Jesus came not only to save the nation, but ultimately the whole world by revealing to us the deadly consequences of the scapegoat principle, that toxic brew of the fear of death and our Us-vs-Them thinking. He came to show us, first of all, how to trust in God’s power of life as more powerful than death. But in letting himself become the scapegoat, the Lamb of God, he also shows us how to trade our Us-vs-Them thinking for Us-only thinking. He dies to gather all of God’s scattered children into one human family.
When we are faced with such things as the COVID pandemic, we don’t have to find scapegoats. We can band together and care for one another as one family, God’s family. We can comfort one another in the face of the losses that do come with such deadly illnesses. But we can also have the faith of our Lord Jesus in both God’s power of life to ultimately conquer death, and even more so in the power of God’s love to unite us as one human family. Lives are saved when we act together as family. Like Lazarus called out of the tomb, you and I are called out to be unbound from our fear of death. Called out from our Us-vs-Them thinking. There is no longer Us and Them; there’s only Us. And together we can work for the flourishing of life. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, March 26, 2023
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/bWFM4tspq5Q