The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29) this year. We considered the interaction that Jesus had with the people of Bethany as described in John 11:1-44, and sought to make sense of the call to unbind Lazarus in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.
Not too long ago (although, to be honest, any time that includes me being out in my car and making visits seems like an awfully long time ago) when the COVID 19 virus was just beginning to hit the USA, I happened to be out, and I happened to be wearing my clerical collar. A woman I’d never seen before stopped me and said, “Excuse me, are you a chaplain?”
I replied that I was a pastor, and asked if I could help.
She looked down, and then engaged my eyes, and as her own eyes filled with tears she said, “I just have a quick question, if that’s OK.”
I assured her that it was more than OK. She looked toward the doors of the nearby hospital, and continued, “Well, Pastor, it’s just this… I mean, why did God send this? Why is God doing this? Why must I suffer like this?”
My first response was to scold her (with a smile): “You said a quick question, and I’ve been working an answer to that one for 40 years…” But then I continued. I must confess that in retrospect, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my off-the-cuff answer, and I wish she were present this morning.
You may not be a pastor, but I suspect that you’ve heard this question in the past couple of weeks.
Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of those who purport to speak on the Lord’s behalf these days. Perhaps you’ve run across one of the dozens of news stories reporting that a famous clergyperson has alleged that the Almighty has visited the globe with this virus because God is so angry with humans for one of a dozen reasons. Interestingly enough, it appears as though these men (and yes, they are mostly men) are pretty well-convinced that God happens to hate all of the same people and things that they hate: those who have sought or provided abortions, sexual and gender minorities (and those who support them), immigrants, environmentalists, or who knows what else?
As if God is known for whom or for what God hates. As if God’s primary means of self-revelation is to destroy those things that God hates.
I want to distance myself in every possible way – socially, theologically, spiritually – from a theology that is presumptive enough to offer a rationale for this virus based on who or what God hates. Such conversation is simply incompatible with the Divine love that I see cascading in and through the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
Let’s look at the gospel. This is a well-known story, isn’t it? What’s happening here?
There has been a death in the village. And, unfortunately, not just any death, but a tragic death. Lazarus has died an untimely death. He has left behind him two sisters – women who were evidently unmarried, and thus dependent on their brother in all sorts of ways. His sisters are now apparently without their father, without husbands or sons, and now without a brother. There is no man in their life on whom they can rely to conduct business on their behalf, to protect them, to provide for them in the midst of this society that is incredibly gender-biased and sexist. The road ahead of Mary and Martha would seem to be filled with one barrier after another now that they are essentially alone.
Recognizing their plight, the village has stopped everything and has gathered in shared grief. There is a heaviness and a despair that seems to pervade everything.
I find this passage interesting because it not only tells us what’s happening, but it also lets us in on how people are feeling. There is a lot of emotional language in John 11. What are people feeling?
Let’s start with the easy one. Lazarus is, as they say, feeling no pain. He’s dead. He’s totally and completely disconnected from the situation. The barrier between Lazarus and everyone else seems impenetrable. He is wrapped up, bound up, locked up in a grave.
Mary and Martha are, as we have said, stricken with grief. John says that when Jesus strolled into town they fell at his feet. They are bound up just as tightly as was Lazarus – only theirs are not graveclothes, but grieving clothes. They are not only sad, they appear to have some anger: “If YOU HAD BEEN HERE, Jesus, my brother wouldn’t have died…” Martha and Mary are filled, as we might expect, with intense emotions.
The townspeople – our translation calls them “the Jews” – were also clearly saddened by the loss of Lazarus. But more than that, they seem to share in the sisters’ frustration and disappointment. “This man opened the eyes of the blind! We thought surely he could keep his friend from dying.” They saw Jesus as a miracle worker – a hero of sorts. And now, he had not only let his friends down, he had let his public down. There was not going to be a show, they thought. Jesus could have done something, but he didn’t.
And Jesus himself – how does he feel? Well, we can start with an easy one. You may know this story as the answer to a trivia question: “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?” The answer is here: John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” His friend had died, and he was sad. This passage speaks to that in several places. In both verses 33 and 38, we find that Jesus was “deeply moved” in his spirit, and that he was troubled. There’s a word that’s repeated in each of these verses: embriaomai. It’s a Greek word that initially was used to describe the snorting of horses. You’ve seen that – when a horse lets out some sort of involuntary snort that, if you’re not paying attention, can really surprise you. This is what embriaomai was first used to describe, but as time passed the word came to be understood as a deep response to a strong and powerful emotion – a kind of inarticulate groaning or sighing. And interestingly enough, it carries with it a sense of anger.
My hunch is that Jesus was frustrated – grieving, saddened, and angry that things were so wrong. Lazarus’ death was, for Jesus, an intensely personal example of the reason for which he had come into the world: to be the resurrection and the life, that all who believe in him even though they die, they might live. Jesus had come, according to the gospel, in response to all of the deaths in the world, and now, here, he has to look one particular death square in the eye.
And what does Jesus DO? There are at least four verbs here worth talking about. Jesus becomes disturbed or frustrated. Jesus weeps. Jesus prays. And finally, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb and orders him to be unbound. Jesus brings resurrection to Lazarus, his family, and that community.
What I’m asking is this: why does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? I want to emphasize that he doesn’t do it for the reasons that I would do it. He doesn’t do it because he loves Lazarus, and he doesn’t do it because he’s worried about what might happen to Mary and Martha without a man around the house. He doesn’t do it in order to delight his friends and give them some sort of a happy reunion – even though his own emotional connection makes it clear that this would make bring him joy, too. And he surely doesn’t do it to sell tickets for his upcoming tour, because Jesus knows exactly where his road is leading.
Jesus is clear: he raises Lazarus for the exact same reason that he healed the blind man in the reading we shared last Sunday. “Didn’t I tell you, Martha, that if you believed you would SEE THE GLORY OF GOD?” Why does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? So that people would believe that Jesus was sent from God. So that people would pay attention to him, not as some sort of a miracle worker or magician (“for my next trick…”) – but so that people would know that God had not forgotten the promise to send a deliverer, a redeemer, a savior.
Another question: what’s the good news for us here? What do we learn, where can we grow, from participating in this scripture today?
I, for one, am fascinated by the frustration and anger and weeping of Jesus. That involuntary “arghhhhhh” that he lets out before he bursts into tears. What is this about? I mean, Jesus knew that he could raise Lazarus.
This is what it reminded me of. What was Jesus’ job, do you think, before he started his ministry? Well, most translations tell us that his dad, Joseph, was a carpenter. The Greek word for that, tekton, is a little broader. A tekton is someone who makes things. In that part of the world, most of the making was done with stone – wood was in relatively short supply.
At any rate, Jesus, presumably, went into the family business as a young adult. So what did he do? He made things. He put things together.
Did you ever make something, and it turned out just right? You assembled it, glued it, stained it, whatever, and it was just perfect. It worked beautifully. And then someone did something to mess it up. Maybe you made the perfect birthday cake and you put it on the counter and the next person into the kitchen opened a cupboard and knocked the salt and pepper shakers right into the middle of your cake. Maybe you just finished shoveling the walk and clearing a path out and here comes the plow BOOM covering your entryway with three feet of snow and ice. Maybe you just finished the perfect term paper on the computer but before you hit the “save” button, your sister decides that she needs to download an entire season of her favorite show at the same time that your dad is streaming a work call…and the internet fails. What is your response in these situations? Arghhhhh! Embriaomai!!!
Do you remember how John’s gospel opens? How he talks about Jesus? “He [Jesus] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Do you see! Jesus wasn’t just Lazarus’ friend – he was Lazarus’ maker! And something had messed up his Lazarus! Doesn’t that just tick you off when you go to all the trouble of creating a universe and making people and calling them your own special children and then someone goes and screws it up! Man, I hate that! And clearly, Jesus did too.
Beloved, the good news of the gospel is this: Jesus reveals the heart of God as he is frustrated and saddened by things that don’t work right. What does that mean? It means when Jesus see you weeping at the grave of one that you thought you could not live without, embriaomai! When Jesus sees people fighting for breath on respirators, embriaomai! When Jesus sees his beloved children, created for joy and generosity descending into hoarding and pettiness, embriaomai!
Beloved, we can and we will see the Glory of God. Not because of our denomination, or ethnicity, or citizenship. We will not, most likely, see the glory of God when everything in our lives works out just perfectly. I am here to say that we are more likely to see the glory of God when we encounter the God who loves us enough to weep over the imperfections and the broken places of our lives. The God who groans when he sees how stained we are with sin and how deeply the pain of the world has infected us.
So to you, un-named woman I met on the street: you know there is much in your life that is broken. There are barriers between where you are now and God’s intentions for your life. You may be held down by grief, you or someone you love may be trapped in a body that doesn’t work the way you wish it did, you may be watching a relationship you have cared about deeply wither away. Embriaomai! That hurts!
People of God, wherever you are, will you join me in holding onto the truth that there is nothing in your life that is so broken that God cannot make you whole and use you to display God’s glory to the world around you? Will you join me in proclaiming to the world that the grief and pain that so often enters our lives is not the final word?
The news today is not that God is so angry that the best idea God has is to send a virus that causes fear and indiscriminate death. That is a lie. The news today is that wherever you are in the midst of this pandemic, you are not alone. Yes, I know, you may feel alone. You may be locked in your home, or even worse, a hospital bed. You may be craving human contact and a return to whatever “normalcy” looks like for you. The good news is that at this moment, God is present to and with you in the person of Jesus.
This is what I want to do to end this sermon. I want to pray that we might in fact find some display of God’s glory in the face of grief and barriers. Beloved people of God, today let me encourage you to give your God the embriaomai places of your life. Ask God to unbind him. To unbind her. To unbind you. And let us, today, look for the glory of God. And let us pray that we might believe it when we see it and even that we might be instruments of its appearing in our world.
Thanks be to God for the promise that no binding is eternal. Amen.
If you’d like, you can watch the entire worship service on YouTube! See the link below or paste this link https://youtu.be/A5GNldxpujc into your browser window.