February 18, 2018 – “Grief”

Today’s text is from John 11:17-44.

This is the beginning of the end for Jesus. This is the final sign in the Gospel of John. We’re only in chapter eleven today – there’s still ten chapters left in the book, and yet this is all she wrote for Jesus’ ministry in John. In John’s narrative timeline we’re perhaps just over a week away from Easter. And yet this is the final sign.
Raising someone from the dead. Giving someone life who was deader than dead – Jewish belief held that after three days the soul left the body. We’re on day four since Lazarus died. There’s no hope anymore. We even hear that sentiment from his sisters: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
This is the paramedics arriving too late, medicine not able to keep up with the disease, all our efforts defeating us as death takes over. This is the funeral. The sisters know it. The family knows it. The neighbors know it. The community knows it. They’re in pain. They’ve devastated. They’ve just lost a loved one, a family member.
Interestingly enough, we’re told that Jesus is deeply moved in spirit by the mourning of the family and sisters. We’re told he’s troubled. We’re told, in the shortest verse in the English Bible, that Jesus cries.
And then, one final time before Jesus reaches Lazarus’ tomb, we’re told Jesus was deeply moved once again. The Word made flesh – Jesus as both God and human – cries and is troubled and is moved at the death of a loved one. That sounds about right.
That’s what death does to us. It moves us. Troubles us. Breaks our spirits, hearts, minds, bodies.
I must admit, I didn’t have the fortitude to discuss death the last time we witnessed it en masse as a nation – when forty-nine people were murdered in Las Vegas. We saw it again last Wednesday.
On Ash Wednesday. When we were all reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And then we heard that children were murdered. And as a nation we grieved. We offered our thoughts and prayers – like we’ll be doing later today. And then we wondered why and how such evil can exist. We wondered how such evil can be eradicated. We wondered why this is the new normal.
Perhaps, like Mary in our reading today, we cried out to Jesus and said if only Jesus had been there this wouldn’t have happened. If only society and culture hadn’t changed so much in the past few decades this wouldn’t have happened. If only guns were regulated more this wouldn’t have happened. If only mental illness were addressed more this wouldn’t have happened. If only there were more guns. If only there were less guns.
For some reason it would seem – given the national discussion around mass shootings – that this is where we end the story. No resurrection. No hope. No new life. Just lots of death. Suffering. Pain. And there’s just nothing we can do about it. So, we pray, we weep, and we simply hope God will take care of the rest.
Thank God the story doesn’t end there.
Verse 37: “But some of the people said, ‘Could not Jesus, the one who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man from dying?’”
Verse 39: “Take away the stone,” Jesus said.
Verse 40: “But, Lord,” Martha said, “it’s been four days since Lazarus died. He’s already decomposing. The stench of dead flesh will be overwhelming.”
Verse 41: Roll away the stone.
Verse 43: “Lazarus, come out!”
This story does not end in death. It does not end in prayer. It does not end in defeat and agony. It ends with new life. It ends with resurrection. It ends with the beginning.
It doesn’t end with Jesus crying and wondering what to do next because Jesus came into this world to bring about new life. It doesn’t end with Jesus worrying about whether or not it was the Sabbath, or what laws he may or may not be trampling over, it doesn’t end with Jesus worrying about whose feelings he might hurt tossing tables in the temple and literally creating a whip, it doesn’t end with Jesus being frightened of having a conversation with a foreigner, it doesn’t end with Jesus withholding an ounce of grace or mercy or forgiveness or love based on perceived sinfulness, it doesn’t end with death. It does not end with death.
It doesn’t end with death because Jesus takes action. Prayer alone doesn’t bring about new life. Jesus’ words and action bring about new life. The Word spoke a word and change was effected and new life was given.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, “God will never allow prayer to become a substitute for working intelligence.” God will never allow prayer to become a substitute for working intelligence. Thoughts and prayers aren’t going to protect our children by themselves – our actions are also necessary. Claiming now isn’t the time for a conversation about the health care system in this country or the regulations on guns isn’t going to protect our children. Admitting defeat isn’t going to protect our children. Entrenching our views to one side of the aisle or the other isn’t going to protect our children. Doing nothing sure as heck isn’t going to do anything – ending the conversation with weeping – ending the conversation at verse 35, “Jesus wept”, cannot be not where this story ends.
Because we know full well that it was never the right time for Jesus to provide abundant life. Whether at the temple, or with the Samaritan woman, or especially healing a blind man on the Sabbath – and now, after giving new life where there was once death, death itself awaits Jesus.
Death awaits Jesus because the people didn’t know what to do with this abundant grace and mercy and forgiveness and light and love from the very presence of God as one of us – so we killed it. We ended the possibility that we ourselves might have to change. We ended the possibility that we ourselves might be part of the problem. We witnessed God incarnate and said that was too radical of a love and life and grace for our tastes and so we killed the Son of God.
To give up hope, to admit defeat, to bury our heads in sorrow that nothing will change, to weep and cry and live our lives in pain and suffering is not where this story ends. It’s not where it ends! But in order for death to turn into life – in order for us to beat our swords into plowshare, our spears into pruning hooks, we must act. Weep, yes; pray, yes; comfort, yes; but we must also walk toward the very thing that threatens to kill us and bring about peace and love.
Verse 35 is not the end of this story. The story does not end with the acceptance that seventeen people dying is just the way things are because the powerful demand it be so. Or because the time just isn’t right to talk about it. Or because our systems of culture and society are simply broken beyond repair.
Our journey to the cross demands we act. Because the only reason Jesus is put on that cross is because he dared to act when no one else would. Because he dared to show compassion when others withheld it. Because he dared to love when others feared. Because he dared to choose relationship over law. Because he dared to pray and then act and speak and bring about new and abundant life.
This story does not end with us weeping on our knees in defeat. For God truly hears our prayers, God truly sees our tears – and God truly heals us. President Trump recently spoke these words from 2 Kings – a text that beautifully parallels our reading. Jesus prays and God listens. Jesus weeps with the family. And Jesus heals.
But it took more than prayer. It took a defiant Jesus standing up to the powers of sin and death – it took a defiant Jesus with the powerful watching from afar – it took what was really a simple act, three words, to bring about new life.
Three words are all it takes to defeat the powers of death. As a nation, as a people, as children of God – we too are empowered to act boldly. We too are called to pray bold prayers and effect bold change; to proclaim that prayer is not a substitute for action – that we must lead, act, legislate, teach, and dare to change what has become far too normal.
But most importantly, to our leaders who quote scripture, we demand action. For in Jesus Christ, action followed prayer. For even when you are deader than dead, when you hear the voice of your Savior, the Good Shepherd – when Jesus Christ calls you by name, you are given new life.