Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 10, 2011

2011.04.10 “Questions at the Tomb” John 11: 1 – 45 – “Fearless: The Courage to Question” Series Lent 2011

Central United Methodist Church

“Questions at the Tomb”

Pastor David L. Haley

John 11: 1 – 45

April 10th, 2011

“I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”  – John 11:  25 – 26, The Message


     Someday I hope to write a book about the things I’ve seen, including my experiences with the big D, death.

      Working my way through college in an emergency room, serving almost 2 decades as a firefighter/paramedic, serving as a hospital chaplain and a fire and police chaplain, and 37 years as a pastor, have given me the opportunity to confront death in many ways. Almost every one I can remember, vividly.  Some I can tell you about, some you wouldn’t want to hear. When I used to run, sometimes I was figuratively running from what I’d seen.

      I was once diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I apologize to you, family and congregation, if I am sometimes brusque and non-compassionate, but it’s partially because the things I’ve seen change people, in ways not always for the better. Dealing with the big D, death, can do that to you. 

      Today we confront the big D with Jesus, when a friend of his named Lazarus dies. In the Gospels, with his disciples so often clueless, Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary were the best friends Jesus had, and their home the only home he had.

      So, upon news of Lazarus’ death, Jesus, and his disciples go there. Like every death scene, it is full of emotion, as much as any scene in the Gospel. And then the inexplicable happens: Jesus raises Lazarus back to life.  It is a story that raises many questions, but that also provides much comfort, as we endure the deaths of those we love or face our own. As we have discovered throughout this series – “Fearless: The Courage to Question” – it is in asking the questions that we discover answers even though they may not be always the answers we want to hear.

      The first question that arises from this story is, “Why, when hearing of Lazarus’ impending death, if he could do anything to prevent it, would Jesus delay?” Wouldn’t that be like the ambulance crew saying, after you’ve just called 911 for crushing chest pain, “Let’s give this a few minutes and make it really interesting.” Who’d want that? 

      For that matter, why does it seem like God sometimes “tarries,” delaying the answers to our prayers, our healing, our rescue from the fix we’re in? In reality, a delayed answer feels like no answer at all.

      Personally, I can’t say, other than to say, as Jesus said to his disciples, that there may be revealed in our waiting, a greater good than we can understand at the time.  

      After all, what kind of Christians would we be if God were a rescue God, always bailing us out? We know what happens when parents do that to children. As tough as it may be to live, I believe it is for our greater good and God’s greater glory that we don’t always get immediate answers to our questions, don’t always get bailed out.  St. Paul, writing to the Romans, put it this way:

      “We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.” (Romans 5: 3 – 4, The Message)

      Second question that arises from this story is, “What made Jesus cry?” When he arrived on the scene, saw the swollen faces of his friends Martha and Mary and saw their tears, it says that Jesus wept. (John 11:35) Others said, “See how much he loved him.”  But was that it?  What made Jesus cry?

      Perhaps Jesus, being human, was moved by Martha and Mary’s tears, and like them, mourned the loss of his friend Lazarus, just as we mourn the deaths of our friends. Perhaps Jesus, being divine, hated the ruin and sorrow that death brings to life, not least in the stench of his friend Lazarus. Perhaps Jesus, being human, is confronting in the death of his friend Lazarus his own death, soon to come. In John’s Gospel, full of irony, this is the irony of this story: calling Lazarus out of the tomb, means Jesus must enter it. The verses following this story, which we did not read, make this clear: the following generated by the raising of Lazarus prompts the religious leaders to plot Jesus’ death (11: 45-53).  

      Or perhaps, being divine, the tears Jesus displays in this story speak powerfully because they show us, Jesus, God incarnate, sharing the plight we share: our weeping, our anger, our dying.  God is not outside our sorrows but shares them, is with us, in them. Just as Jesus wept, surely God must weep at the world, and with us in our inconsolable sorrows. “Blessed are those who mourn, said Jesus, for they will be comforted.”

      It’s been my experience through the years to observe grief and tears in various cultural forms. I’ve seen Greeks throw chairs, venting grief in anger and rage. At the news of a loved one’s death, I’ve seen middle-eastern women faint and fall in the floor. I’ve often seen men particularly, after a lifetime of not being emotionally, become emotional, shedding tears, upon a near brush with the big D, death, such as after a heart attack or near miss with death. Only in our culture do we, both men and women, feel like we have to apologize for tears. Not so. You never have to apologize when you cry in front of me, your pastor. Personally, I’m finding the older I get, the more I tear up: when I sing the National Anthem, when I think about my family, when I think about the blessings I’ve had in my life, when I contemplate my own death.  Even Jesus wept.

      Third and final question asked by this story is the one asked by Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary: “Lord, IF ONLY you had been here, our brother would not have died.”  Others present say the same in a different way: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

      It’s a question we still ask. When life goes badly, when disaster strikes, when death intrudes, we ask – in its various forms – this question: “What if?” or “If only?”  WHAT IF I’d joined the military, instead of going to college? IF ONLY I’d married that other person.  IF ONLY I’d been a better parent.  WHAT IF I’d had (or didn’t have) more children. IF ONLY I’d left a little earlier, or taken a different route, the day of the crash.  IF ONLY I’d said, “I love you.”

      We can’t live that way, and we know it. For one thing, if we changed one thing in our life, pull one thread, EVERYTHING else changes. For example, given that my grandfather, my father, and now my son all served in the military, I regret now that I didn’t.  Instead, I was the first one in my family to go to college. And, those were the Viet Nam years, so if I’d joined, I might not be standing here today, and my family would likely not exist, because, who knows, I might’ve been killed, and that would have been the end of that. I’ve always liked what Soren Kierkegaard had to say, “Life is understood backwards, but we have to live it forwards.”  No “WHAT IF’S” or  “IF ONLY’S.”  It is what it is.

But it was by asking their honest questions that Martha and Mary got their answer, the same answer we prize so much.  “I am, right now,” said Jesus, “Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?” (John 11:  25 – 26, The Message)

      As Fred Craddock notes, “The church clings to these words like few other sayings of Jesus. The scene of Jesus with two grieving sisters, weeping at the grave of their brother and his friend, has offered comfort and hope unmatched by any other resource, biblical or otherwise.  Most Christian funerals allude to these words or this scene.” (Fred B. Craddock, “A Twofold Death and Resurrection,” The Christian Century, March 21-28, p. 299.)

        What Jesus is saying is huge and important, but we often miss it, or as Martha did, misinterpret it. What he’s saying is, resurrection life does not have to wait until we die to begin, it’s not only for the next life, it does not have to wait for some future resurrection at the last day: it begins when we put our trust in God, who alone transcends death.

Like Nicodemus, we are so unprepared or misprepared for God’s kingdom that nothing short of rebirth can help us see it. Like the Samaritan woman, we are parched for living water but seek to satisfy our thirst by lesser things. Like the man born blind, we are spiritually blind until Christ opens our eyes. This week, we acknowledge that like Lazarus, we are dead: stinking dead. And like him, we have no hope of anything other than demise and decay, except through the power of Jesus Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life.

      And so the final chapter of my book and my life will be the same as yours: of death not only as something to confront in the death of others, not only to endure in the deaths of those we love, but as something we all face.

      In 1928, the playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote a play entitled  “Lazarus Laughed.” The play picks up where the Bible leaves off.  As the curtain goes up, Lazarus stumbles out of the dark, blinking into the sunlight. After the grave clothes are taken off he begins to laugh a gentle laugh; nothing bitter, nothing derisive, an embracing, astonishing, welcoming laugh. The first thing he does is to embrace Jesus with gratitude. Then he embraces his Martha and Mary and the other people gathered there.

      He has a clear look in his eye.  It’s as if he’s seeing the world for the very first time. He reaches over and pats the earth affectionately. He looks up at the sky, at the trees, at the neighbors as if he had never seen them before, as if overwhelmed by the incredible brightness of the way everything is.  The first words he utters are, “Yes, yes, yes,” as if to embrace life discovered all over again.

      Lazarus makes his way back to his house and soon the whole village is in wonder. Finally somebody gets the courage to ask the question on everybody’s mind. “Lazarus, what is it like to die? What lies on the other side of this boundary none of us have crossed?”

      Lazarus begins to laugh even more and then says:

      “There is no death, really. There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy. Death is not the way it appears from this side.  Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos. It is, rather, a portal through which we move into everlasting growth and everlasting life. The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the One who gave us our birth. Not because we deserved it but because that generous One wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear in the next realm. The grave is as empty as a doorway is empty. It is a portal through which we move into greater and finer life. Therefore, there is nothing to fear. Our great agenda is to learn to accept, to learn to trust. We are put here to learn to love more fully. There is only life. There is no death.” 

      With that his laughter fills the house in which he is staying, which becomes known as the “House of Laughter.” Night after night, there is the sound of singing and dancing.

      Soon, the spirit of Lazarus who has come back with the message that there is nothing to fear begins to spread through the whole village. The quality of work began to rise. People began to live more humanely and generously with each other. There is not the occasion for conflict there used to be. In fact, a joy settles over the whole community because someone has come back saying there is nothing finally to fear.

      But not everyone is pleased. The Roman authorities quickly sense that one who lost his fear of death is, in fact, a threat to the control they like to maintain. After all, how do you intimidate someone no longer afraid of death?

      So they move on Lazarus. They tell him to quit laughing. They tell him his house can no longer be the occasion of parties. All he does is laugh all the more. “The truth is,” he says, “there is nothing you can do to me.  There is no death. There is only life.”

      They arrest him. They take him to Caesarea where he appears before a higher official, who’s not able to do anything either. And so Lazarus is taken all the way to Rome.

      The play ends as Lazarus stands face to face with the Roman emperor, the most powerful man on earth. He says to Lazarus, “You have a choice. You’ll either stop this infernal laughter right this minute or I’m going to have you put to death.”  And Lazarus laughs. And says to the emperor, “Go ahead and do what you will. There is no death. There is only life.” (Rev. John Claypool, the Chicago Sunday Evening Club’s 30 Good Minutes, “Easter and the Fear of Death”, Program # 4024, First air date March 30, 1997)

      “I am, right now,” says Jesus, “Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all.  Do you believe this?”


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