Thursday, April 6, 2017

Seeing, Hearing, and Understanding

Seeing, Hearing, and Understanding (4/2/17)
 Jesus MAFA, Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life

On Sunday, April 2, I preached on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. I suppose I could have posted this sermon earlier in the week, but I decided to let it sit for four days. Like Lazarus. Follow the link to read the full text of the sermon.

          Our Gospel lesson this morning comes from the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, verses 1-45. And yes, it’s another really long story: Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. I’m guessing that most of you know this story. This is the last sign—the last miracle—that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John. It may be the most important of all the signs, too.
          The story of Lazarus’ resurrection is a little bit different than the previous signs. Remember, the typical pattern is sign—dialogue—discourse. That is, Jesus performs a sign, has a conversation with someone who witnessed the sign, and then explains the miraculous thing that he did. In all of those stories, the sign was the shortest part. That is true of the story of Lazarus, too, but the pattern is different. In this story, the conversations and the explanation come first, and then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
          The story of Lazarus continues to develop the picture of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, and what it means to be in relationship with Christ. As you hear this story, think about all of the relationships it details, and then think about why this sign is presented differently than the other signs. Hear the word of the Lord.

          Good morning! I was on Facebook the other day and I got a message from one of my fraternity brothers, Chris. I haven’t seen him in a few years and he’s not super active on Facebook. Anyhow, Chris responded to a post I made and his response was something like, “It’s been too long since we’ve gotten together.” It was really nice to hear from him—it wasn’t like Lazarus coming back from the dead, but it was good. And it reminded me of a story from college. One morning, I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for class, and Chris comes into the room. He’s standing in front of the mirror, tying his tie. I turned to him and asked the obvious question: “Interview this morning?”
          Chris had an interview with Nationwide or some other big insurance company. Mind you, Chris was studying computer science. To this day, he works as a programmer. But of course, I had to be a smart aleck. I said, “Oh, you want to be an insurance salesman?”
          Chris rolled with it. He chuckled, and then he got up in my face, and said, “Would you like to buy some insurance?”
          It was sooooo funny. I almost spit my toothpaste all over him. It was completely out of character. I was laughing about it for the rest of the day. And I’m still laughing about it today. That’s the power of a relationship. The story might be a little bit funny to you, but it means the world to me, because it’s about a connection to an old friend. Chris and I shared a powerful experience; we have a bond of friendship that extends far beyond the years that we lived in the same fraternity house.
          Believe it or not, this story ties in to this morning’s Gospel lesson. It connects to a superficial understanding of what we believe, as Christians, and also to a deeper and more profound understanding of our faith, through our relationship with Christ.
          On the superficial level, we’re all gathered here today for fire insurance. That is, there’s a notion that we all should believe in God and come to church every Sunday so that we avoid eternal damnation—fire insurance! I think this notion is pervasive, within the church and without. It was certainly something I heard as a kid.
          My great aunt, Minnie, watched Pat Robertson every afternoon. Once, when I was eight or nine, she asked me if I wanted to watch Pat Robertson with her. I wanted to go outside and play with my cousin. Aunt Minnie kind of suggested that if I didn’t watch the program with her that I might be going to hell. For not watching Pat Robertson. That’s an awful lot to lay on a kid. I went outside and played with my cousin, anyhow.
          I think a lot of the people who used to come to church, as well as many who have never been, also hold this same superficial notion—that we come to church and profess our faith to avoid some eternal punishment and enter some sort of paradise. Maybe they don’t see the need for fire insurance. And to be quite honest, I’m not an insurance salesman.
          The truth is, there are a lot of false gospels out there. Our culture tells us that buying more stuff will lead to happiness and satisfaction. Some preachers will tell you that if you believe hard enough in Jesus, not only will you be saved, but you’ll get rich, too! They will tell you that your faith will bring you a fortune in this life! You don’t need to wait for an eternal reward! If you watch their programs, send them money, and buy their books, then Jesus will shower you with riches!
          Now I’m sure that all of you see the emptiness in that sort of theology, but that caricature of Christianity is quite plain in the minds of many people who have given up on church. And those superficial notions of Christianity fail to address the real suffering in the world.
          To put it another way, you can’t sell people on fire insurance when Hell is real and present for all to see. Hell is real and present for children in Africa who are forced to work in mines or serve as child soldiers in a civil war. Hell is real for young women who are trafficked from Asia or Eastern Europe to work in brothels. Hell is real for the children who were abused by members of the clergy. Hell is real for those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and Hell is also real for the loved ones of addicts.
          Looking back on things, my Aunt Minnie probably wasn’t saying that I would go to Hell if I didn’t watch Pat Robertson, but she didn’t do a good job of articulating why I needed to watch the program with her. And I think if we, as the Church, the body of Christ in the world are to communicate the message of salvation that comes to us through the incarnation and the resurrection, we have to move beyond a superficial understanding of what it means to be a Christian; we have to move beyond fire insurance.
          In the stories from the Gospel of John that we’ve heard over the last four weeks, we see the full range of understanding of Jesus’ true identity. We meet Nicodemus, who can’t quite understand how God can enter the world in the person of Jesus—well, not in the stories we’ve heard thus far. We meet Pharisees who hear reports of the miraculous signs that Jesus has performed, but they cannot believe that the Messiah could perform a healing on the Sabbath.
          We also meet lots of people who have only a partial understanding of Jesus’ true identity. They see the signs and they follow Jesus, but they are not true disciples. They’re only following because they saw something miraculous and many of these people will desert Jesus after Palm Sunday.
          Others—like the twelve disciples, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the man who was born blind—will actually hear Jesus’ call and they will follow Jesus. Some, like the Samaritan woman, will go out right away and recruit new followers; they will witness to the Word made flesh. Others, like the twelve disciples, will continue to teach and preach the Word, after the resurrection. But still, throughout the Gospel stories, we see that the disciples have an incomplete understanding.
          We can see this very clearly in the story of Mary and Martha; they love Jesus and they trust in Jesus. That’s why they’ve summoned him. This story doesn’t tell us how they came to know Jesus or why they came to believe in him. All we know is that a relationship already exists; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus know Jesus well enough that Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus, telling him that Lazarus was sick: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Yet this is the first time that Lazarus is mentioned.
          This, too, is a story about discipleship. “In placing their confidence in Jesus [Mary and Martha] demonstrate the dependence demanded of discipleship, but more so, they demonstrate what it means to see, truly, who Jesus is.”[1] They reach out to Jesus in their greatest time of need. They know that Jesus can change their situation, yet their trust and their understanding are incomplete.
          Mary and Martha are upset; they think Jesus did not arrive in time to save Lazarus. Each one says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They think Jesus has abandoned them. Can you blame them? I think there are a lot of people in this broken world who feel that they have been abandoned by God or by Jesus.
          Mary knows that Jesus is the Messiah; she says so. Martha knows that God will grant whatever Jesus asks; she says so. But when Jesus promises that Lazarus will rise again, Martha responds: “I know that he will rise again on the resurrection in the last day.” She doesn’t quite understand what Jesus is saying; she can only imagine the resurrection as a future event. Ultimately, Martha connects Jesus with life:
The interchange here between Jesus and Martha is the primary reason for changing the structure of sign, dialogue, discourse as used for all the previous signs. Martha’s response to [Jesus indicates Martha’s] general belief in a final resurrection. Jesus’ correction of Martha’s conviction is the theological center of this chapter.[2]
The order of the miracle story is reversed because Jesus needs to teach Martha a different understanding of the resurrection.
          Also, by reordering the elements of this sign, the Gospel writer raises the stakes—John increases the tension of the story, he builds the anticipation. But before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he weeps. Jesus weeps with Mary and Martha. The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus takes on the pain of Mary and Martha’s loss; Jesus experiences the pain himself. It tells us that Jesus truly understands us, understands our needs.
          Finally, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus calls, just as he calls the disciples; just as he calls the Samaritan woman at the well; just as he calls the man who was blind from birth. Jesus calls out to the man who has been dead for four days. Jesus asks the impossible. Jesus calls, “Lazarus, come out!”
          “Lazarus, come out!” And hearing Jesus’ call, Lazarus comes out from the tomb! Jesus calls him from beyond the grave and into the here and now! Jesus tells and shows Mary and Martha that the resurrection is not just a future event. The resurrection is here. The resurrection is now. Jesus’ power to give life is constant and complete. This story also points forward to Jesus’ death and resurrection. What is true for Lazarus is true for Jesus. It’s also true for us. The resurrection is present and it’s real. And we must understand that if we’re going to speak into the brokenness of our world.
          We can be forgiven for not knowing this stuff, for not truly understanding. Mary and Martha don’t truly understand the present nature of the incarnation and the resurrection until Lazarus is raised from the dead. So, we have to study our Scripture carefully. We have to understand it intellectually and we have to experience it personally and directly. And that takes a lot of hard work.
          Jesus Christ is fully God, fully human. Jesus is God in direct relationship with humanity. The Church is an embodied network of believers who are busy living into the knowledge of the resurrection. We continue in Christ’s reconciling work by maintaining our human relationships; we can’t be Christians in isolation. And we are sent forth from the Church to be witnesses to the resurrection.
          The signs that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John demonstrate to us what it means that the Word became flesh. These stories show restoration, people made whole through relationships with Christ. These stories remind us that we have to be living witnesses for Christ—like the Samaritan woman at the well, like Mary and Martha, and like Lazarus. We have to invite people into this complicated network of relationships. We won’t do this by offering fire insurance or peddling the prosperity gospel. False gospels don’t work! We must show the power of the resurrection through the relationships we already have and we must show the power of the resurrection by entering into new relationships. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, here the Word of the Lord: Lazarus, come out! Remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. As the Church, we are called to participate in the work of re-creation, through relationship. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 154.
[2] Lewis, p. 157.

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