Preached 10 April, 2011 at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Lectionary Year A, Readings for Lent 5: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
I’m writing out this sermon on Thursday after giving it off the cuff last Sunday, which isn’t really advisable, but there you go. I suspect it sounded better off the cuff than it reads here, prosey and lifeless, but again, there you go. MP+
Since many of you will leave the village for Easter Sunday, today, the last Sunday of Lent, offers a wonderful foretaste of Easter Sunday. The story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus has to be one of the most loved stories of the gospels, and combined the equally beloved story of the dry bones brought to life in Ezekiel. Both of these stories point to the triumph of life over death which is at the heart of Easter and of the Christian faith. However, for us to fully understand that story and to be able to grasp the hope behind what can otherwise seem like merely a lovely story, we need to reflect on the nature of the One who offers that hope to us.
Adjectives are words we use to describe known quantities, or at least, what we think we know about someone or something. If you can’t think of any adjectives to describe anything other than the physical appearance of a person, then that person is a stranger to you. Adjectives are what friendships (or enmities for that matter) are based on. The same is true with our faith. One of the roles of theology is to try and find appropriate adjectives for God. We are in relationship with a God who wants to be known, and it is because of God’s will to be known, what theologians call God’s self-revealing, that we have adjectives to describe God.
I want to focus on four adjectives to describe God as given to us by today’s gospel lesson: Friendly, Compassionate, Life-Giving and Hated.
Jesus in today’s gospel reading is “friendly”. I don’t mean friendly in the banal sense of a guy you might have a chat with at the pub, but in the deepest, most meaningful sense of friendship as suggested by the Greek word for companiably (rather than erotic) love: agape. An agape friend is someone you turn to in deepest need, someone you know will be there for you. True friendship requires empathy, commitment and self-giving. Mary and Martha send word to Jesus that “he whom you love (Lazarus) is ill” and John goes on to say that Jesus “loved” these three from Bethany (Jn 11:3,5). The bond of friendship between God and humanity is a central theme of John’s gospel. Jesus says during his farewell discourse in the upper room that he no longer calls his disciples servants, but rather calls them friends (Jn 15:12-15). This revelation, that God sets aside his majesty and glory to call us friends, is why the word gospel means “good news”, because all the barriers between us and God are set aside in the friendship of Christ.
Jesus is also “compassionate”, which is an outworking of his friendship. In the Lazarus story we see that compassion displayed in that one line which is often featured in the bible trivia question, what is the shortest line in scripture? (“Jesus began to weep” or “Jesus wept” John 11:35). Compassion is bound up in another great Johannine theme of Jesus as the good shepherd, which is a metaphor for God’s saving friendship. After the healing of the blind man, Jesus tells his disciples that he is the good shepherd, whose sheep know his voice. The response of Lazarus to Jesus’ voice – “Lazarus, come out!” (Jn 11:43)- is a vision of the shepherd in action, saving one of his own from death through the life-giving and compassion-filled voice of the shepherd. Compassion is also part of the Johnannine idea of the shepherd, for Jesus says the shepherd voluntarily lays down his life for his sheep (Jn 10), which is a foretelling of another saying from his Final Discourse, that there is no greater love than “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). Jesus knows that his compassion carries a cost, for Jesus knows that this miracle will bring greater suspicion and targeting from his enemies (Jn 11:45-53), but that is a cost that Jesus is clear-eyed about.
Jesus is “life-giving”. As I said, today’s lessons are a wonderful forestaste of the joy of Easter, both the raising of Lazarus and the raising of the dry bones as seen by Ezekiel. These stories point to the creative force and energy that is God. In Ezekiel it is the breath or ruach in Hebrew that gives the dry bones life, an echoing of the breath of God which gives life to humans in Genesis. That same breath proceeds from Jesus’ mouth in the form of a voice, calling Lazarus from the grave, and it all points to the same generative power, the same implacable hostility to death, that comes from God and which will raise the Son on Easter morning. But as I said, these stories will remain lovely fantasies unless we are willing to claim them as part of our faith, opening ourselves to God’s determination to combat death wherever it is found. For some of us death can come in the midst of life, whether it is a divorce, a death, a diagnosis, or loss of job and career. In all of these moments death seems to overwhelm life, even flooding our will to love, but as Christians we need to hold fast at such moments to the “life giving” quality of our God. if Jesus can bring Lararus from the tomb, he can accomplish smaller but no less powerful moments of resurrection and life restoration in our own lives, if we are willing to hear his call and walk out of the tomb, whether it that tomb for us is despair or self-pity or loneliness and darkness.
Finally, Jesus is “hated”. As I mentioned above, the cost of raising Lazarus from the dead is sealing the resolve of his enemies who “from that day on … planned to put him to death” (Jn 11:53). This also is a greater Johnannine theme, the fact that the Light of the World is not recognized by all in the world. John sets this theme up in his first chapter (Jn 1:10-13) and often returns to it, as in the story of the blind man from last Sunday, whose return to sight and recognition of Jesus as God contrats with the Pharisees who have sight and cannot see Jesus for who he is. This theme is not to underscore the villainy and sinfulness of those who do not recognize Jesus, but rather I think the determination of God and the depth of the love of God to fight for us no matter the cost. As I said a few Sundays back, John 3:16 does not seem like a sometimes overused religious cliche if we translate it as “For God so loved the God hating world that he gave his only son ….”. For us as followers of Jesus there is a cost that comes from standing for light and life in the world, because there are many forces in the world that prefer darkness and death. To identify one’s self as a Christian, particularly in the military but in the secular world around the military, is to accept some of the hatred that falls on our Lord. We will not be popular, we will be jeered at as hypocrites, as mindless fundamentalists, as intolerant legalists, or whatever. Our challenge is to be hated while still trying to show the other three qualities of Jesus – friendship, compassion, life – to the world. Jesus told us to be light and salt for the world. It’s a big job, and it’s not always easy.
Today we stand with Jesus at the end of Lent. We’ve heard the great miracle stories of John through Lent. Next Sunday we return to Matthew’s gospel and the entry into Jerusalem, leading up to the passion and death on the cross. The demands, highs and lows of Holy Week are ahead of us. But today there is a respite, for you will remember my saying that just after the raising of Lazarus, John shows us a domestic vignette of friends eating together, as Jesus returns to Bethany and takes a meal with his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus ((Jn 12:2). It’s at a meal that the qualities of friendship – listening, laughing, empathisizing, loving – are practised and the bonds of friendship are strengthened. We now turn in our service to a meal with Jesus, the Eucharist, so let us approach the table knowing that we are his friends, loved and given love by Him, and may that meal strengthen us for the road ahead.