Saturday, April 5, 2014

Easter Life in a Lenten Graveyard

John 11
Lent 5
April 6, 2014
William G. Carter

On a recent visit to Washington DC, I was reminded of what kind of world this is. My daughter and I went to visit the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall. It’s one of the modern art collections in the Smithsonian Institution.

The Hirschhorn is holding an exhibit on the theme of destruction. Destruction. Within a few steps of entering the exhibit, there are the remains of a grand piano after it was chopped up by an axe. Go a little further and there are photos of atomic explosions and abandoned automobiles rusting in lakes. You can watch footage of Yoko Ono in the days before John Lennon. She sits in a chair as people come forward with scissors and cut away chunks of her clothing. A mattress is posted on the wall after it has been incinerated. At the end, there are a series of photos of what happens in a crematorium.

Destruction. Death and destruction. What kind of world puts these things on display? The kind of world that we live in. Some would say this is a world enchanted with its own demise. Others would simply declare what the museum curator declares: that we live with destruction and death every day.

As the apostle Paul quotes from one of the Psalms, “We are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” [1]

Word comes to Jesus that his friend Lazarus is near death at his home in Bethany. Lazarus is special. The Gospel of John calls him “beloved,” the friend whom Jesus loved. In a very curious move, Jesus stays where he is. He waits intentionally until his friend passes away, and then he moves toward the tomb.

He is met first by Martha, then by Mary. Both sisters wanted Jesus to come and prevent the death. They want him to cure their brother and keep him around for a while. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead he waits long enough for his beloved friend to die and be buried. He skips the funeral. It is not that he doesn’t care about his beloved friend. No, it’s that Jesus is indifferent to death.

I am going to guess that the Lord would probably skip the exhibit at the Hirschhorn Musem. He’s not interested in destruction. If we recall the opening words of the Gospel of John, we will remember why. In that peasant’s tunic, hidden in the splintered hands of the Carpenter, is the One through whom all things were made. John says, “What came into being through him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (1:3-4). Don’t bother him with death; the Jesus of John’s Gospel is only interested in life.

Life blows in the window on the wings of God’s Spirit, free and powerful. Nicodemus wondered, “How can this be?” Life wells up like a fountain and spills freely for all who will drink it. The Samaritan says, “Really? Where is your bucket?” Jesus heals the crippled person, then the sightless person, without restriction. The religious officials said, “You can’t do that; we have a Bible that says God can only act on certain days of the week.”

Now he stands before the sealed tomb of Lazarus. He says, “Roll away the stone,” and Martha replies in good King James English, “But Lord, he stinketh.” Ignoring her, ignoring the hired mourners, ignoring Death itself, Jesus bellows, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man stands up, now full of life, and the Lord of Life gives the order to unbind him and set him free. We live in a world burdened and bound by death; and Jesus gives life – full life, abundant life, God’s eternal life to a world obsessed with death.

Maybe it’s just me, in my wild imagination, but I wonder about hypothetical things. Would Abraham Lincoln beat Jefferson Davis in a game of bowling? Would Martha Stewart ever sit at a church potluck dinner without trying to improve it? Here’s my wild hypothetical thought this week: would Jesus pay good money to go to a zombie movie?

I say that with all seriousness. What’s this current obsession with the walking dead? What’s behind all of that? Are we so obsessed with death that we are afraid its representatives will stalk us, hunt us down, and eat our brains? What’s with that? Are we so fearful of the future, or sufficiently fearful that there’s not going to be a future, that we dream up these nightmares about the undead taking over the world? Somehow I think if Jesus bothered to go to a zombie movie, he would shut it down. He is not interested in celebrating death. He comes to give life. Easter life.

But it’s still Lent, you say. Easter doesn’t come for a couple of weeks. Fair enough. For that, we have the strange and unusual Gospel of John. John tells of Jesus going to the tomb of Lazarus when it’s on his timetable. He doesn’t drop everything to hurry up and fix his dying friend. No, death has its business to do. When Jesus goes it will be for an opposite reason.

When Jesus gets there, he sheds a tear. The people standing around say, “Ah, look at that. See how he loved him!” Well, they don’t understand. Sure, Jesus loves his friend, the one who is called “beloved.” But the reason he is there is to give him life, to freely give him that gift from heaven. And Jesus knows if he brings Lazarus out of the tomb, a world obsessed with death is going to put him into the tomb. That is why he weeps.

This is John’s version of the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the moment of commitment, when Jesus decides to give God’s eternal life to Lazarus, even if the backlash will kill him. That’s how the Gospel of John tells the story. We will hear more of it next week in his version of Palm Sunday.

For today, it’s enough to remember where we live. A large part of our world believes it is a Lenten graveyard, a valley of dry bones, with no hope, no breath, no power. Many churches are dwindling or dumbing down. The wider culture has forgotten its Christian influences. Greenland is thawing. CNN is obsessed with the technological failure of airplane tracking systems. And somebody out there is making blockbuster movies about zombies. The only conclusion: the whole place is falling apart. Maybe you are fearful of that, too.

If so, I commend to you Jesus of Nazareth. He doesn’t obsess about death because he’s free of it. He comes with the life of eternity, to give it freely to anybody who wants it, to give it to Lazarus who ran out of time before he could ask for it. To take hold of this life, you simply have to trust that is why he has come, and what he has come to do – to give life to you and to the world. Just trust that. That’s the essence of faith.

As somebody has said, “Apart from trust in God, the world is a cemetery, but into the world God has sent in Jesus Christ the offer of resurrection, the opportunity to pass from death to life. Just as the crowds wanted bread and he offered Bread, so here the sisters want their brother returned and Jesus acts to restore the world to life. To act in this larger life-giving way means Jesus must move to his own death, and so he does.” [2]

To come to faith, to come to Christian faith, is to trust that the life God gives is stronger than death. Even if we can’t see it, we can trust it. And it shapes how we live.

Yesterday my friend Virginia Miner reminded me of a story about the medieval Christians. They believed Jesus gives life. They believed eternal life begins in us when we start to trust the life-giving God with our hearts. So in the Middle Ages, when famines and plagues came to town, the Christians were the last to leave. They stuck around because there were people to be cared for – and they weren’t afraid of dying. Of course. Living with God here and how, living with God eternally – it’s one and the same. And there’s holy work to do.

Lazarus is raised from the dead. He’s going to die again. But living or dying, he is going to remain with Jesus. So what’s the difference?

That’s the eternal life – or more properly translated, the life of eternity. It begins at the point of our faith and trust, and it just keeps going forever. Jesus commits himself to giving us this. He dies, yet he says, “I am the resurrection. I am the life.” Then he gives that profound paradox: we die but we live - or we never die. It’s a paradox that makes complete sense if we are full of life.

A Lenten graveyard? But Easter life. Always Easter life. I conclude with a poem by Julia Esquivel, a remarkable poet from Guatemala. She loved the poor, remembered those who were forgotten, and was exiled from her native country because of her Easter poems. One of those poems goes like this:

I am no longer afraid of death
I know well
Its dark and cold corridors
Leading to life.
I am afraid rather of that life
Which does not come out of death,
Which cramps our hands
And slows our march.
I am afraid of my fear
And even more of the fear of others,
Who do not know where they are going,
Who continue clinging
To what they think is life
Which we know to be death!
I live each day to kill death;
I die each day to give birth to life,
And in this death of death,
I die a thousand times
And am reborn another thousand
Through that love
From my People
Which nourishes hope! 

Do you know why I like that poem? Sounds like Jesus.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Romans 8:36, cf. Psalm 44:22
[2] Fred B. Craddock, John: Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982) 85.
[3] Julia Esquivel, Threatened with Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan (Elgin: Brethren Press, 1982) 65.

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