Lent 5A Sermon (1996)

5th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 11:1-45;
Ez. 37:1-14; Rom. 8:6-11

A LESSON IN FACING DEATH

Hello! My name is Jonah. I was a friend of Lazarus in Bethany. I thought it might be helpful if I came today to help tell the story you just heard from St. John. It’s not that St. John is a bad story-teller, mind you. On the contrary, he’s a great story-teller. But he told his story to Christians 1900 years ago, so he assumed some things with them that he might not assume with you, if he was here to tell it again. I figure I can help fill in some of the details, since I was there and played a pretty big role.

As I said, I was a friend of Lazarus. But I am also a follower of Jesus Christ. So my side of the story begins across the Jordan with Jesus. I had met Jesus through Lazarus — something I will always be grateful to him for. And I had just begun to take more of an interest in this unusual teacher and miracle worker and was following him around. That’s how it happened that I was in the crowd that day when word first came from Bethany that Lazarus was very sick. My immediate response was to be frightened for my friend’s life.

But I will never forget Jesus’ response, because it was so puzzling. He started talking about the glory of the Son of God as if it was more important than the fact that Lazarus might die. Our first reaction was to think, “Oh good, that means Jesus will go right away and miraculously heal Lazarus.” If that meant glory for himself, too, well that was O.K., I guess. But that’s not what Jesus meant! No, instead of rushing right over to Bethany, he hung around for a couple of days, and we couldn’t figure out why. Whoever translated John’s story for you didn’t even quite catch the gist of what John was saying. John didn’t say Jesus stayed two days “despite” the fact that he loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus, as it says in your version. No, John said that Jesus hung around Jerusalem a couple days “because” he loved them. That’s why it struck us so oddly. Why would he have delayed on purpose, when he loved them so much? When you understand that, you really come to understand this story. I myself didn’t come to understand until later. Perhaps I can help you to understand. But back to the story.

We thought we had a clue to understanding when Jesus finally said it was time to head back to Judea, the region where both Jerusalem and Bethany are. One of Jesus’ disciples recalled that the last time Jesus was there, the people almost stoned him to death. ‘Aha! Could that be it? Jesus had delayed because he was afraid?’ That would have been understandable. No one wants to be stoned to death. Again, though, Jesus’ response was quite unexpected. He had decided to go, and he didn’t at all seem afraid. Rather, he seemed anxious to go now, so that we would see the light. Exactly what that meant we still couldn’t understand. As he put it, we were stumbling along at night, because the light that he shined wasn’t in us yet. In any case, we were finally off to Bethany.

Jesus still seemed to dally along the way, and this is where I parted company with him for a short time. Once we heard that Lazarus had in fact died, I hurried on ahead to get there as quickly as possible. For, you see, I wasn’t just a friend of Lazarus’, I’m also a professional mourner. That’s right, a professional mourner. It was my job to lead the crowds in mourning a dead person. I really have a gift to whip up the emotions of a crowd, to really get them wailing and moaning and crying out on behalf of the dead person. So when your version of John’s story says that the crowd was “weeping,” it was more than that, really. It was the ritual wailing that I had everyone whipped up to do.

I know this might seem strange to you, that I would get paid to lead a crowd through their mourning, but think of your own funeral directors. They get paid to help lead people through their mourning, except in your case it is probably more to the other extreme: instead of excessively showing emotion, the funeral directors tend to be a more stoic group of folks who lead everyone in containing their emotions. In our day, it was the opposite: we led everyone in purging all their emotions. This was especially important when it was a tragic death, like one of our Jewish people dying at the hands of a Roman soldier. We wanted to stir up all those feelings of revenge. This kind of ritual wailing was important to keep a community enraged at its enemies. It brought us all closer together in our hate of a common enemy.

It still works. Did you know that six years ago all this terrible bloodshed in Bosnia began after a year-long funeral procession throughout Serbia with the dug-up casket of a 600 year old Serb commander? Those professional Serbian mourners got that country stirred up for revenge in a way that really does our profession proud. But back to my story.

When Jesus finally did arrive in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days already. There was nothing left for him to do except join us mourners, right? Wrong. Right from the start Jesus was trying to coax us into something different. He began with Martha, and told it to her straight out: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “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?” he asked Martha. Well, what could she say, really. She wanted to believe, and, in a way, she did. But she really couldn’t understand yet. She couldn’t, because she hadn’t yet seen how Jesus himself would face death in just a few days. He would face it without letting death get the best of him. That’s what he was trying to do, you know. He was trying to get Martha, to get all of us, to face death as he would face death.

How did Jesus face death? We would soon learn that he would face it as something to be conquered, as something that shouldn’t have any ultimate power over our lives. And certainly not as a justification to create more death by stirring up vengeance and violence in its wake. He came to teach us to live for life, not for death. He came to coax us into the light of the resurrection. That’s why Lazarus’ death wasn’t the most important thing. It was what the rest of us could learn from facing it that was important. This story isn’t so much about the raising of Lazarus, as it was about coaxing the rest of us to live in the light of the resurrection.

But, alas, until Jesus himself arose from the dead, we were still stumbling in the dark. And this is probably the least understood part of John’s story for you. Again, your translators don’t have it quite right. See this part in the middle of the back page [of your bulletin]? It says:

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.

John used two different words for “weeping” here that your translation doesn’t show. As I already explained to you, what Mary and the rest of us were doing is what I was helping to lead them do: ritual wailing and mourning. What Jesus did, well, that was more simply crying. He was sad, and he cried. He expressed his honest emotion. It’s not that some of the others there weren’t also honestly sad. I’m sure that Mary and Martha were heartbroken. But our ritual wailing went beyond that sadness; it tried to manipulate and exploit it, really, to keep us bound up with that power of death in our world. Jesus was sad and cried, but refused to take part in the wailing because he was trying to get us to live for life, not death. Do you understand how that might be different?

And that explains Jesus’ strong reaction to what we were doing. Your text says that he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Yes and no. That leaves it open for the interpretation that he was simply very sad, upset. But the word John used specifically means angry, real angry, snorting mad, in fact. Folks, let me put it to you this way: Jesus was really ticked at us! He was there to coax us into the light of the resurrection, and we were continuing to let death have this mesmerizing power over us.

I hope this is starting to make sense. Let me finish by simply telling you what all of this came to mean to me, especially in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It meant, first of all, that I had to change the way in which I did my job. Rather than stirring up false emotions or overreactions in the face of death, I had to learn to help people have their most honest emotions: to be sad when they were sad, mad when they were mad, and happy when they were happy. I imagine this wasn’t too different than what your speaker shared with you last week, that Prof. Dudley Riggle from Carthage College [an expert on death and dying]. Didn’t he try to help you learn how to give permission to folks to share their feelings honestly? Well, that’s how I came to do my job from that time on — though, to be honest, there wasn’t much of a market for it, except among new Christians. People still expected the ritual wailing stuff.

This much is clear to me: Jesus wasn’t trying to teach us that living in the light of the resurrection means feeling O.K. about death. No, Jesus honestly cried because his friend died. But living in the light of the resurrection means a change in us, a change in the way we often let death get the best of us, a change in the way we often begin to live in response to death instead of life. Jesus came to have us live for life. That’s what “eternal life” really means, I think. It means truly coming alive and living for life.

And, perhaps most importantly, living in the light of the resurrection means changing the world. Jesus came to save the world. If we are spirited into another way of responding to death, it will truly begin to change the world. It would help us to avoid the kind of violence going on in Bosnia right now, for example, the kind of violence that we are so easily caught up in. Jesus called you and me to be part of changing that. He called us to be peacemakers. He came to show us how to love our enemies, and to live for life, so that even if friends or loved ones are killed, our first reaction isn’t to continue the killing through revenge. It means truly living always for life, and not for death. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said to Martha, and to me, and to you. “Do you believe this?”

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, March 23-24, 1996

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