notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
John 11 - Lazarus & Jesus - and an argument with John
Christ Church Norris Green 13/3/2005 (Communion Service)
Ezekiel 37.1-14, John 11.1-45
Sometimes the readings seem to speak for themselves. It seems unnecessary to add anything to them. And today's readings are two of the greatest examples of that, I think.
Ezekiel's wonderful vision of the valley of the dry bones, dead in the desert, the flesh of God slowly covering them, the breath of God slowly entering them, the Spirit of God bringing them springing and dancing to bold new life - an army reborn; a glorious vision of Israel reborn.
And then John's lengthy but compelling retelling of the day Jesus brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead. The friend he loved; the friend he wept over; whose friendship helps us see Jesus as fully human, even while he performed a miracle which also made him seem fully divine.
So I'm not sure what to add to these great stories today. Tempted to re-read them and just sit down, let them speak to you direct. But I shan't. What instead I think I will do, for a short time, is have a little argument with the gospel writer John.
The problem I have with John is that he doesn't let the story speak for itself. He's very keen to tell us his own ideas about what was going on. Well, I suppose I have to accept that; because that makes him very much like a preacher, and all preachers do that - stop the story speaking for itself because we're so keen to talk about our own ideas about what is going on. That's what preachers do. Perhaps because that's what people want them to do, or have let them get away with for years.
Perhaps the problem I have with John here is that he is very keen to paint a very precise picture of Jesus. And it's not a picture I'm one hundred percent sure about.
John's picture of Jesus is of the man who knew precisely what he was doing one hundred percent of the time. The perfect faultless person, whose every move John could easily explain so that it all made perfect sense.
Here's John's story, briefly. Martha and Mary send a message to Jesus to tell him that Lazarus is sick. Jesus stays where he is for two days. He does this for a reason - because he knew Lazarus was dying and wanted him to die, so Jesus could perform a miracle to persuade his disciples that he was divine.
So Lazarus dies, Jesus shows up, a very large and influential audience gathers, and Jesus says very loudly so they could all hear, a prayer - making it clear that he is talking to his Father, and that what he is about to do he's about to do so they will believe in him. Then, sure enough, in full view of all of them, Jesus brings Lazarus back to life.
Forgive me my flippancy; I'm hoping through it to make a serious point.
John's gospel is full of what today we would call spin. And the spin he puts on this story is to say that Jesus behaved like this just to show them all that he was divine.
I'm not so sure he did.
I wonder, you see, if Jesus was more like that Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. Let's go back to his story for a while.
The hand of the Lord was upon me, Ezekiel said,
and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord
and set me down in the middle of the valley;
and it was full of bones.
Here is the testimony of a man who in one sense doesn't know what he is doing. He knows that he is following God - very closely. He knows that it is the Spirit of God who is leading him- very consciously. He knows that he is where he is because that is where God wants him to be at that particular time - very clearly.
But he doesn't know what will happen next. He's following God by instinct; by faith; by having his heart deeply open to the promptings of God's Spirit. In that way we might assume that he is prepared for anything. But he doesn't know what will come next.
Now it is my turn to put my spin on the story of Jesus and Lazarus. You see, unlike John, I prefer to suggest that Jesus was doing precisely what Ezekiel did all those years before him: walking in the Spirit, following God by instinct; trusting the Father by faith; having his heart deeply open to the promptings of God's Spirit.
What he did at Lazarus' grave was miraculous; no doubt. What he did at Lazarus' grave sent a very clear message to everyone who saw it, that he may be human but he is also undeniably divine - no doubt about that either. But I'm not sure Jesus knew what he would do until he got to the graveside. Just as I'm certain Ezekiel didn't know what he would do in the desert till God gave him those words of life to say over those bones.
This is the reason for my disagreement with John: when Jesus heard the news about Lazarus' illness he stayed where he was for two days.
Now, to me, that doesn't sound like the actions of a man who knew precisely what he was doing.
On the one hand that sounds like the actions of someone like me or you, who put things off, say we'll get round to them tomorrow, tell ourselves it can wait, and then regret it when two days later we discover that we can't make that sick visit any more because the person we thought was just a bit ill turns out to have passed away. I like that it makes Jesus sound like me or you, because I firmly believe that he was just like me or you, that's how we can relate to him, that's how he can relate to us.
On the other hand Jesus staying where he was for two days might have been a decision he took after spending time in prayer - asking the Father what he should do now. And it was the Father who told him to stay where he was awhile. I like that it makes Jesus sound like Ezekiel, who quite rightly, in Spirit-filled faith, kept asking God what he should do now, waited on God for his next step. And me or you, when we're walking with God quite closely, that's what we do too. We don't know what's around the corner. But we know where God wants us now, and for now, that is enough.
John suggests that Jesus knew Lazarus was dying - and wanted him to die, so he could perform a miracle to persuade his disciples that he was divine.
I suggest that that portrays Jesus as something he was not - a superhuman who knew precisely what was coming, and who could make cold, calculating, heartless decisions about what to do next.
I suggest that Jesus didn't know Lazarus was dying - not just then, anyway, not at first, not till two days later when things had become much clearer to him.
And I simply suggest that to underline this very strong concern I have - to be clear how fully human Jesus was. Not superhuman - but fully human.
There is another part of this story which seems to show how fully human Jesus was. It is summed up in those deeply moving two words, the shortest verse in the bible, the most human reaction a God could ever make to a human catastrophe: Jesus wept. It wasn't when he realised Lazarus was dead that he wept; it was later, when he was on the way to the village, with Martha, and Mary ran out from the house to meet him, followed by the others who were in the house, and Mary fell at his feet, and said, "Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died!", and she wept, and all the people who were with her started weeping too - it was then that Jesus asked, "Where is he?" and it was then that Jesus himself broke down and shed the tears of a man who had lost his friend.
I value that small scene so much because there, again, Jesus did what we would do in a similar position. If you are superhuman and you know precisely what is coming and you can calculate everything in this situation so clearly that you have no doubt about it, then you do not weep. If you are like that then you're not human at all. You haven't got a heart.
Jesus wept; which showed he had a heart. I'm so grateful to him that he did, because, again, that makes Jesus sound like me or you, and I firmly believe that he was just like me or you, that's how we can relate to him, that's how he can relate to us.
So, am I saying that Jesus was not divine? Not at all - there's no doubt he performed this great miracle and there's no doubt that persuades us he was divine.
I'm just disagreeing with John a bit. Because John seems very keen to spell out just how divine Jesus was, just how much he was in control of everything just then. And I think that misleads us today.
The wonderful thing about Jesus is also the most difficult to explain - that he was fully human and fully divine. He can't be less than either of them. And he can't be more. The tears of a man who had lost his friend, were the tears of a God who would conquer death.
I understand where John was coming from. He was writing in the first century when there were still a lot of doubts about who Jesus really was; and it was a lot easier for his detractors to see him as a wayward preacher, a quack miracle-worker, than as the Son of God. John had to tell his story the way he did to underline what the believers knew to be true - Jesus was the Son of God.
Today we have different arguments with the world. And maybe today people find it easy to dismiss Jesus if we only talk about him as God, because they're not that sure about God anyway. But they may find it less easy to dismiss him when we talk about him as the God who is fully human - like we are, who knows what it means to live by faith day-to-day - like we do, who maybe gets his timing wrong occasionally - as we do, who cries at the terrible loss of a friend - as we would. And who conquers death - something divine which we can share in, if we come to him in faith.
The trouble with John is, you can't get hold of him that easily to have a word with him about what he said; the trouble for me is, if you didn't like this sermon you can tackle me over a cup of tea afterwards.