Grief and Resurrection – a sermon on John 11:1-45

Our text today comes to us in the middle of the Lenten season. As we are waist-deep in the chaotic waters, knowing that Good Friday is looming and praying that Easter may come, our text calls us to reflect on the nature of God in the midst of great tragedy. The raising of Lazarus is the “seventh sign” in the gospel of John, and many of us read the story to simply say, “ooh, ahhh, Jesus raises someone from the dead”. But we are mindful that Jesus never does miracles for their own sake, but to show us what God is like. And we are mindful that this story does not simply tell us of a dead man rising, but is a long, 45 verse human story of grief, loss and suffering. And this, the last sign of Jesus, reveals to us once more the God who spans the breadth of our scriptures from the beginning and points us toward the surprising, new ending that none of us expected. This story is not simply about Jesus who raised a dead man once. This is a parable of how a God like ours responds to the death that seemingly overwhelms our human experience

The story begins telling us how much Jesus loves the family of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We are invited, then, to read this story thinking about how Jesus responds toward those whom he loves. So how does Jesus take care of the people he loves the most? It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a little extra-special treatment for people that are really close to Jesus. When my friends show up to the coffee shop I work at, I usually swing them a little ten to twenty percent discount, because that’s what friends do. So when Jesus doesn’t do that, right after we are told just how much Jesus loved this family and should totally give them a free splash of soy milk in their Americano… we are caught off guard. We are told as children to believe we are people who Jesus loves, and Jesus loves the people in the story – we wait in anticipation to see how Jesus treats them, and us.

Jesus shows up late; and if we’re honest, this experience is true for us today as it was for them. And it forces us to reflect on a central question to the human experience: where is God in our time of need? This is the hardest portion of our text to interpret, and causes a huge amount of disagreement. Why does Jesus wait for two days? He says, “This illness is not to death, but for the glory of God.” But what does that even mean?? Some are more comfortable with that than others, talking about God’s timing versus our timing, and others think that Jesus is toying around on purpose, because bringing someone back to life is a better miracle than healing someone who is sick. Some of us are not very comfortable with that – why can’t God’s timing include actually caring about how I feel and the pain I’m in right now? Why would God risk losing their faith altogether just to make a point? That God seems really manipulative, and rather cold-hearted!

The question that we’re asking turns out not to be “Why did Jesus delay in this story?”, but actually, “Why does God always delay in my life?” This question is ancient, and yet I would suspect that a good percentage of us asked it this very week in some form or fashion.

The story forces the question, but neglects to answer. In fact, the reason that this question remains so hotly debated is that it is never definitively answered. Some texts like Job meditate on it and dare to dive in… today’s text simply shows it. It’s honest. It’s brutal. It tells us that Jesus delays, even for those he loves. Where is God in our time of need? It lives within the question. And then it tells us the rest of the story.

When Jesus does arrive, Martha and Mary each meet him with pain in their voices –a profoundly raw expression of faith as old as our oldest scriptures. Martha comes first to meet Jesus, while Mary remains grieving at home. Eventually, Mary comes to meet Jesus too. Both of them have words for Jesus, the same words we had a moment ago. “Where were you? If only you had been here!” Mary is so hurt that it takes her a while to work up the courage to face him. I can relate to this as a non-confrontational person – when I’m mad at someone, I tend to avoid them for a while. In my head, I mastermind this grand confrontation where I give a speech that belongs at the end of a masterpiece courtroom drama, and the person I’m accusing weeps at their shame and begs for my mercy… but I secretly know that when I actually see them I’ll just cry and babble some nonsense.

But we are too quick to judge these two women. And this comes from a conviction that I don’t think is actually true or biblical. Many preachers I’ve heard condemn these women for having weak faith, or compare and contrast Martha and Mary because Mary doesn’t come around till later and has less of a profound statement about who Jesus is.  But I think these preachers believed something that is not true and I’m afraid many of us believe it too. I’m afraid that too many of us believe that it’s not okay to be upset at God.

A few years back I saw a note on Facebook was trending from Kay Warren, the wife of famous Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren. For those of you who aren’t familiar with their story, their son unexpectedly committed suicide about a year prior to this Facebook note. Kay writes about what it is like to experience that loss, but more about how hurt she was by many well meaning Christians who expected her to “move on” faster. I’d like to read a small portion of it:

As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to “move on.” But for most, life never stopped – their world didn’t grind to a horrific, catastrophic halt on April 5, 2013. In fact, their lives have kept moving steadily forward with tasks, routines, work, kids, leisure, plans, dreams, goals etc. LIFE GOES ON. And some of them are ready for us to go on too. They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever. Because these comments from well-meaning folks wounded me so deeply, I doubted myself and thought perhaps I really am not grieving “well” (whatever that means). [People ask] “How are you”. This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok) to end the conversation or if they should try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it. If you’re a close friend, try telling them instead, “You don’t have to say anything at all; I’m with you in this.”

How many of us can identify? That someone has used faith, implicitly or explicitly, to shame those who feel the deepest hurts of human existence? And yet throughout Scripture, the greatest heroes and heroines of faith are those who cried out to God in all their rawness and honesty and demanded an answer. From Abraham to Moses, Hannah, David, Naomi, the Psalmists and the Prophets and the writers of Ecclesiastes and Lamentations! The Bible represents a rich, illustrious tradition of saying exactly how you feel to God, even directed toward God, and receiving an answer. When we cry out to God in the rawness of our emotion, like Mary and Martha, it does not come from a lack of faith – rather, it is the deepest kind of faith that can feel the entire weight of human suffering and still look toward God for something, anything, in response.

Because that same tradition reveals a God deeply moved by our cries – while “Jesus wept” may be the shortest verse in the Bible, the truth of it pervades every page – Our God is a God who weeps for broken humanity. It could even be argued, biblically, that God’s action on our behalf is influenced by the very cries we just spoke of. The foundational act of God in the story of Israel, the Exodus, began when, as it tells us in chapter 1:

The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.

Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as being saddened, grieved, moved to pity, angry, restless, jealous… The God we claim is not the ambivalent, disinterested, uninvolved god of Greek philosophy or deism. Our God has fire, personality, zeal, and the deepest level of interest in our sorrow and joy! What’s interesting is that the different words used to describe Jesus’ emotions in this passage include anger, but also compassion. Jesus experiences a wide range of emotions in this short time, and scholars can’t agree about whom Jesus is angry at. But when Jesus weeps, it is at the brokenness of humanity; because of sin, because of grief, because of death and suffering… Jesus weeps because he is sad. His anger, whatever toward, gives way to compassion. As the Old Testament recounts over and over, God is slow to anger, but abounding in steadfast love.

I lived in Oklahoma City for four years while I was doing my undergrad. Oklahoma City, besides having a basketball team, is famous only for its tragedy. The Oklahoma City bombing, prior to 9/11, was the largest act of terrorism in U.S. History. The city wears the scars of the attack to this day, and recounts the stories of fear and disbelief from that chaotic day. Just to the east of the memorial stands this statue (pictured above).

The statue simply reads, “And Jesus wept”, quoting our passage today. The Jesus depicted in the statue looks away from the site of the attack weeping. It stands as a beautiful and tragic reminder of a God who feels our deepest pain and weeps at our brokenness. But it’s still not the end of the story.

Finally, we are brought to the explosive, brilliant conclusion that the God who seems to arrive too late, the God who hears our cries and weeps with us, is not only a friend with an ear to listen, but is also the Lord over life and death. Because this is true, every story can have a surprise ending. See, the Jews that saw Jesus weeping had two responses. The first was a nice, emotional response: “See how he loved him!” But then the hard questions came back: “Couldn’t this man who heals blind people have stopped him from dying?” Ultimately, a God who is compassionate and sympathetic is a deeply moving, helpful sentiment, but if that God has no power to right the wrongs in our world… what’s the point? God would be no more useful than a good friend during a hard time.

But God is the giver and sustainer of life, the Creator of all that is. And the wild, creative force behind everything that can be! And Jesus makes it clear in his prayer that he is not simply a human performing a miracle, but the Son of God unleashing the full power of this God from Genesis to Revelation. This is not a miracle to look at and say “ooh, ahhh, yay Jesus” like turning water into wine or walking on water. To this brilliant, unexpected conclusion, we can only say, “Behold the Lord, the giver of life!”

Jesus commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and he does! It’s enough to say Mary and Martha did not expect this; on an obvious level they did not anticipate someone who had died coming back to life. But even on a theological level, they understood that resurrection was supposed to happen at the end of time. But Jesus throughout the gospels is saying that everything God is… it’s happening in your midst. “I am the resurrection and the life!” You don’t have to wait until death or until the end of times to experience Resurrection. Resurrection begins now, and continues on. Jesus redefines resurrection to mean deep life now, and long life for tomorrow. And he will do it again on Easter Sunday.

This means that all of the ways in which we experience pain and death in this life have the possibility of a surprise ending. Our God experiences it as deeply as we do, and can partner with us to change the course. Whether it is a broken relationship, a cycle of violence, a city marred by a tragedy, addiction that can’t be broken… so many of our realities seem predetermined, like the ending has already been written. But in Christ, the end of the story can always be a surprise. In this story, and especially on Easter, we see God overcome the literal, final death that pervades our experience and charges our metaphors of pain with meaning. If God can overcome that, God can do anything for those whom God loves.

Almost to Easter, but knowing Good Friday comes first, we pause to reflect on the rich tradition of the Old Testament brought to the forefront by our text today. Jesus wants to remind us what God is like in our darkest times. Though absence and distance are so often the words we use to describe where God is in our darkness, we draw on the words of our mothers and fathers of faith who cried out to God and God responded, because God simply can’t help but feel experience our pain alongside us. And when God responds, things happen that we don’t expect, but that always bring new life, new beginnings, and surprise endings. May we be encouraged to always turn to the God of all Life in the face of death, whether near or far, in all honesty and humility, and may God finally come to us and make all things new. Amen.

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Learning to Believe – a homily on John 3:1-17

If you’re anything like me, you were caught by surprise at the end of this passage. Here we are listening to an interesting story about Nicodemus and some confusing dialogue, and all of a sudden John 3:16 pops up out of nowhere! I sometimes forget this verse is from the Bible, and not just a bumper sticker or a highway billboard. But the fact is that this verse, which has become so embedded in our psyche and memory, IS in the Bible, and is specifically found in the middle of this story. As iconic as this verse is, we find it in a particular context, which adds to, and I believe transforms, our understanding of it. We may find that this verse means something less than we thought it did, and at the same time that it may mean more than we ever thought it could. This is passage is full of “christian-ese” phrases and verses, but they come to us in a story about an aspiring believer learning how to believe.

We are introduced immediately to Nicodemus, who is a recurring character in John’s gospel, and who, we quickly come to find out, is a complex individual much like ourselves. He is introduced to us as a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, and later a teacher of Israel. We are led to believe he is a very significant Jewish leader, perhaps a member of the Sanhedrin. The passage tells us that he comes to Jesus by night, which many have interpreted to mean that he is afraid to be seen with Jesus. However, it was not uncommon for Pharisees to do their studies late into the night, and even to hold discourse and debate into the later hours of the evening. Which I suppose means that when I was a college student, I had far more in common with the Pharisees than I ever thought!

For John, light and dark, day and night mean something else entirely. Throughout the Gospel, darkness is a symbol for misunderstanding, and light is the symbol for wisdom and knowledge of God’s kingdom breaking through into the darkness. So perhaps John is emphasizing that Nicodemus is coming to Jesus from a place of naivety or “unknowing”. This makes his first words rather ironic. Nicodemus says, “Rabbi” or teacher. Himself, a teacher, Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus’ authority as a teacher. But then Nicodemus leads off his statement with the words, “We know.” Nicodemus is about to tell Jesus what he knows, and is hoping for some kind of affirmation, or maybe a congratulatory sticker. But Jesus’ response is far from what Nicodemus is expecting. Instead of a “Way to go, slugger!”, Jesus’ response throws us into a confusing dialogue. Nicodemus says, “We know”, and Jesus essentially responds, “Eh…no you don’t.” Jesus catches Nicodemus from his point of knowing and makes him listen to something he can’t understand.

Jesus responds saying, “Very truly,” which is the English way of translating what in the Greek actually says, “Amen, amen”. This is the first of many “double amens” in John, a device that is used to call to attention and focus. Jesus says that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, suggesting that while the kingdom is very real and present and active, not everyone can see it. This is the verse from which we get the phrase “born again”, another possible but less likely translation. This phrase has in our day taken a life of its own, often used as a distinguishing mark for Christians. Are you born again? Are you a born again Christian?  And the phrase is usually used to emphasize a choice that a person made, to “accept Jesus into their heart”, making them born again. And in the Wesleyan tradition we do affirm a choice, that we choose God knowing that God has chosen us. But I’m forced to tell you this morning that this passage is not about us and the choice that we make. Being born from above in this text is not about the decision that we make, but it’s about the response to God’s work in us already. As one commentary put it, this passage is about the fact of new birth, not the human experience of it.

But Nicodemus misses this point out of confusion. He thinks Jesus is referring to actual birth. He is once again shown that his place of knowing is falling out from under him. We are reminded that among those who believe in Jesus, not everyone believes rightly. Another phrase that comes to mind used to describe Christians today is “believers”. We are known as people who believe, and that’s definitely not a bad thing. But Nicodemus is a person who believes, and yet he is shown here as being naïve. If this were the last we heard of Nicodemus, we might think that he never truly “got it”. But as I said earlier, Nicodemus is a recurring character, and later in John we see him defending Jesus’ case among the Pharisees, and helping Joseph of Arimethea to put Jesus’ body in the tomb. Nicodemus is not just the “believer” or the guy who misunderstood Jesus. Nicodemus is a work in progress. And aren’t we all? Perhaps as important, or even more important, than initially believing or understanding is growing and maturing in our faith. Because believing is something we do once. Growing and maturing is something we never stop doing, and just like being born from above, it is something that God does in us more than we do on our own.

Now that Nicodemus has expressed his misunderstanding and confusion, Jesus goes on to say: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” As if we weren’t in the dark enough already… But we’re reminded that since this is God’s work and not our own, it cannot be broken down and described in “8 simple steps to being born from above”. When we’re dealing with God, it is often the case that we don’t understand all that is going on, and frankly I think we ought to prefer it that way.

But it is interesting that Jesus uses birth as the primary metaphor for this change. At the time of this gospel’s writing, there was a heavy emphasis among Jews, early Christians, and even some of the heresies beginning to emerge, on a person’s “origin”. It was believed for the most part that a person or thing is ultimately determined by their origin, where they come from. And I’m convinced that this is still true today. We were all told growing up that we could be anything we want to be when we grow up, yet most people lead pretty predictable lives. Those who grow up poor tend to stay that way, and most people live in the same geographical region their whole lives. We celebrate those people who come from obscurity and find success because, generally, it’s not the norm, and socially speaking, it’s very hard to do. Where you are born, typically, can say a lot fairly accurately about what the rest of your life is going to look like.

So for Jesus to speak of the kingdom of God as a new birth is very interesting. If identity is so closely tied to origin, what might happen if one could be given a new origin altogether? And if that origin is “from above”, as Jesus suggests, what might it mean for the rest of our lives to be shaped by our new location of origin?

As I was thinking about origins this week, I was reminded that Jesus’ origin, in this gospel of John, is described very differently than in the other gospels. Matthew and Luke have their versions of the birth narrative, but John does something very different. John’s gospel opens with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

So John tells us that Jesus’ origin goes back all the way to the beginning, to God’s original act of creation, and even before. And we are reminded here on Trinity Sunday that to be born anew, to be born from above, is to find our own new beginning right there as well. And we therefore find our new story and our new identity wrapped up in what God has been doing all along.

From this point on, Jesus begins to describe what it might mean to begin understanding the “heavenly things”. There is an interesting allusion to a story of Moses and a serpent, which may not be familiar to all of us. The story goes that in the wilderness, the Israelites were attacked by poisonous snakes, but God provided a way that they could be healed. Moses lifted a snake up onto a pole, and whoever looked upon that snake was healed. This is in anticipation, of course, that Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, and by that act, all might be saved. There is an irony at play here, though. This conversation began with a Jewish leader acknowledging that their God, Yahweh, was at work in Jesus, and allowed him to do great works. He might even compare Jesus to Moses himself. But Jesus, rather than comparing himself to Moses, is more like the snake that Moses lifted up in the desert. We are again confounded by God’s ways of accomplishing God’s goals for humanity, and reminded that God is always behaving in unpredictable and new ways.

And now we come to John 3:16 and 17. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus gives us the ultimate gospel message, that salvation is possible and tangible because of the unending love of God. Judy did a wonderful job a few weeks ago of explaining the Trinity as the “circle dance of love”, that the primary characteristic of God in God’s three-in-oneness is love, pouring itself out to each other. This passage affirms that it is God’s love, not God’s judgment or condemnation, that is the basis of salvation. And we are reminded that being born again, born anew, born from above, is to find our origin and our identity in this same love and to participate in it collectively. On Trinity Sunday, we affirm that God is, in God’s own self, a relationship of love, and that we are invited to join in that relationship. And because of that love that always pours itself out, salvation is possible for the entire world! And in this passage, we are not asked to make a decision or follow these three steps, but to simply bask in that love, and to let it overwhelm us past the point of understanding. We are invited to move past the point of believing and into the ever changing, growing and maturing that the love of God calls us to, and to never grow complacent or feel like we’ve arrived, because God is always doing a new thing. We are reminded this morning that just like Nicodemus, we are a “work in progress”, but the good news is that God just can’t help but love us into the kingdom if we will allow it.