Daily thoughts from our minister.
No Lack of Courage Here!
I have preached many sermons and taught many Bible classes in which I may have said something about the blindness or clueless statements or actions of the apostles. I will likely continue this practice, but I must repent of the attitude with which I did this in the past. In recent times I have gained a deeper respect for those bumbling questions, misguided blurts, and the need for Jesus to explain himself over and over . . . and over.
These were courageous young men (and there were women with them as well). Some of them may have not yet turned twenty when they began following Jesus. Of all the words we might use to describe them, cowardice is not one of them. Of course, they misunderstood things. Of course, they wanted to be closest to Jesus and have the most responsibility. They asked strange questions sometimes.
They saw things that were beyond their imagination. They heard things that pushed their thinking in new directions. They may have failed at the very last hurdle, but they did follow Jesus all the way to the cross knowing the danger. Eventually, they all experienced violence at the hands of the Jews, Greeks, Romans, and those beyond the empire – nearly all of them died martyrs.
What would have given them such courage? They got it from their teacher. After the events that caused Jesus to leave Jerusalem for the safety beyond the Jordan, he got word that his friend, Lazarus, was sick. He decided to go back toward Jerusalem to Bethany. The disciples knew well the danger that would put them in. Jesus tells them that he is clear-eyed and can see perfectly well what lies ahead.
That they did not can be seen when Jesus uses the term “asleep” to describe Lazarus and then has to tell them “plainly.” The tension, puzzles (as in Jesus’ delays – four days total), and confrontations are clearly building to unexpected actions and reactions. The incomplete, immature, and misguided faith of the apostles is about to hit a week that will rock the world forever.
It starts with the death of a friend and going back toward the danger to be with him and his family. It will conclude with the death of the one who led them there. Of course, we know that is not the end of the story.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." But when Jesus heard it he said, "This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it." Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go into Judea again." The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?" Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any one walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him." Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep."
The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
O God, give us the courage to follow Jesus toward the danger. Help us, O God, to continue learning what it means to follow Jesus. Help us, O God, to trust that you can see clearly when we cannot. Give us the light of life and of wisdom so that we can do the work of loving and caring and healing in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Note: Every sentence of the Gospel of John is dripping with meaning. Meaning that looks back toward creation. Meaning that looks ahead beyond the grave. Meaning that encompasses the message of the Old Testament. Meaning that caused the writers of the New Testament, guided by the Spirit, to tell us the story of Jesus and those early followers of his teaching. There is meaning for those who witnessed the scenes firsthand and for us.
If you have been following my stumbling attempts to meditate and pray over this text, I expect you have seen many other trajectories which could have been emphasized. Every day in this book is a ten-course meal from which we can only choose one because there will be another feast tomorrow.
The last four verses of today’s reading are simply too dense for commentary. Let these three lines settle on you for a bit in the context of the Gospel of John – “Where have you laid him?” “Come and see.” “Tears flowed from the eyes of Jesus.” (Jesus wept.)
Both Mary and Martha approached Jesus with the same enigmatic statement, “If you had been here. . .” This is no doubt a statement of faith mingled with profound grief and a flood of emotion. Martha’s response to Jesus’ comforting assurance that Lazarus would be raised is the most profound misunderstanding in the Gospel (including the accidental prophecy of Caiaphas coming up). It is on the lips of this woman in the depths of grief that we have John’s version of the Great Confession – “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Mary’s encounter was one of worship. She had no words only the sounds of weeping. Jesus’ comfort to her was, “Where is he laid?” Her response was the same one that Philip gave to Nathaniel when he had found the one Moses wrote about, “Come and see.” Now we have the light of the world, the resurrection and the life going to see where the dead man was laid.
Then . . . tears. Not the noisy weeping tears of Mary and those who were there. This is a different weeping – quiet. Perhaps the kind of tears that come upon you unexpectedly when you see the pain of another person. Jesus knew what he was going to do – there was no uncertainty in him. He was weeping at the pain that loss causes those who were created in his image. Those to whom death should never have come in the first place – but here it is and the God of the universe is filled with pity as silent tears run down his face.
The responses that follow are the exact ones that we have from people today. There are those that see this for what it is – “See how he loved him!” Then there are those whose response was uncaring, unmerciful, incapable of seeing what is happening right in front of them – a cynical response that even after Jesus had raised Lazarus did not result in belief but in hardened hearts.
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.] When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world."
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying quietly, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you." And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus wept. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
Help me, O God, to learn that I do not need to feel your presence at all times but to know that you see me. Help me to remember that death pains you as it pains us but that death is not the last word. Help me, O God, as one of your children to be an assuring presence for others when they are having their worst days. Thank you, God, for those that see and face the pain of illness and death daily – give them strength. Help me to live what it means to believe in The Resurrection and the Life. Amen.
You Know Nothing at All
“Take the stone away.”
“Lazarus, come out.”
“Unbind him and let him go.”
The power of the resurrection and life that had come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ can be seen in these three statements. They are spoken aloud for the sake of those who could hear and for ours. It is another example of the power that words have to confirm the truth of what we see and what we do. Why, do you suppose that Genesis records for us that “God said”, when there was no one to hear. Words said aloud benefit the hearer and they create something that was not there before. In the case of the raising of Lazarus – belief. At least in some.
For those turned against the healing and the light that Jesus brought into the world, the more wonderful the signs the stiffer the resistance. The raising of Lazarus is the seventh and final sign recorded in the Gospel of John. It is now decision time in the Gospel. After the raising of Lazarus all there is left to do is be anointed and ride into Jerusalem as the long-awaited king . . . only to be rejected.
Imagine seeing someone walk out of a tomb after four days and the response being, “I’m going to go tell the religious hierarchy about this! This is surely not permitted!” Even more astounding is the response of the Pharisees and chief priests. “We can’t have someone going around making the blind see, feeding the mobs, healing the lame (on the sabbath!), and raising the dead. They may see though our façade and start believing in him.”
It was upsetting to them that God broke into the world in such a way as to challenge their system. They would lose their status. They would lose their country. They would lose the source of their wealth and influence. If this doesn’t sound familiar and cause a little discomfort, we haven’t been paying attention to John’s witness thus far.
It is appropriate at this point we read what might be the most ironic statement in human history. Caiaphas, the high priest “that year” (perhaps a dig at the corrupt nature of an office intended for life was passed around year to year) spoke up with all the wisdom a corrupt, self-interested religious leader could muster, “You know nothing at all!” What followed was an accidental prophecy of eternal proportion.
Once again John’s commentary, through the eyes of belief, lets us know the meaning of what Caiaphas said. Caiaphas himself did not know. John’s commentary, looking back over the decades since Jesus’ resurrection graciously adds, “and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” (That’s us!)
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb; it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you hear me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out."
The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go." Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him; but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, "What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish." He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death.
Jesus therefore no longer went about openly among the Jews, but went from there to the country near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim; and there he stayed with the disciples. Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover, to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, "What do you think? That he will not come to the feast?" Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if any one knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
Abundance and Generosity
We arrive at the last week of Jesus’ life at home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. (I wonder if it is the same visit recorded in Luke 10:38-42.) There is still a buzz about the raising of Lazarus. Martha is busy serving. Mary is anointing the feet of Jesus. Judas is counting denarii. The crowd is clamoring to see the dead man walking. The chief priests are plotting to kill Lazarus.
The scene in and around the house of Mary and Martha (and Lazarus) is a picture of the various responses to the abundance and generosity of God. Saying that “God owns everything” is nothing more than religious rhetoric if it does not feed into our actions. The economy of God is different than ours. Our economy has to do with work, earning, saving, and planning. The economy of God has to do with being led in a world of abundance and generosity. Jesus says that one of these will be preeminent in our lives, ‘You can’t serve God and mammon.”
Here in the house, Mary confirms with her actions after Lazarus was raised what Martha confessed while he was still dead. Martha said that Jesus is the Christ, Mary anointed him as such. There are other meanings to be taken here – preparation for his death, worship, or service. Service is remarkable given the foot-washing scene to come later.
It is at this point we bump into one who has been following Jesus but is still stuck in the economy of the world. The reaction is quite incredible. Judas sees a woman anointing the feet of Jesus and his response is to think it is wasted. In the economy of God, nothing done in service to others is wasted. Things are wasted in an economy of limited resources. If there is abundance there is no waste from those things that come from a pure heart.
We are again indebted to John’s commentary to let us know what we have just witnessed. Judas was a thief. He saw an opportunity for profit slipping away. Jesus’ response comes from the economy of God. He reminds us that there will always be enough to help the poor and that they will always be available. It took wisdom on the part of Mary to see this.
The response of the chief priests is even more shocking. Their response to the generosity of life given to Lazarus was to seek to kill him. Had they forgotten that it is God that gave them life in the first place? Why? Because he was a threat to them!
It will be important for us to keep these different economies and the divergence of responses in mind as we move into some intense teaching by Jesus to his disciples.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, "Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, "Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me." When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came, not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus also to death, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
Even the Greeks!
Word was out. The one that raised Lazarus from the dead was coming to the feast! The one who changed water to wine, healed a blind man, fed 5,000 people, walked on the water, healed the sick, and caused the lame to walk was coming to the feast. This group had decided that he deserved a royal welcome – they announced him with the words of Psalm 118 and Zechariah 9.
Yet again, John lets us know what it meant, even though it was not clear to him when it happened. The crowd was a witness concerning the raising of Lazarus. The Pharisees were at a loss. Once again, we have an accidental prophecy – “Look, the world has gone after him.”
The very next words we read tell us that some Greeks were there to worship. They may have been (probably were) proselytes or at the very least “Godfearers” (as Cornelius in Acts). What is important here is that even they wanted to see Jesus – the world, indeed!
Philip is still playing the role of introducing people to Jesus (recall 1:45 when he found Nathaniel). Jesus tells them, “Watch this! And follow me.” This hints at what John said in his introduction in 1:12-13, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
An invitation to all who would believe and follow – even the Greeks! He is still putting the pressure on his opponents. Access to the kingdom of God is open to the whole world. Jesus is the king – the king of all who believe and are willing to die to themselves and live for him.
The next day a great crowd who had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!" And Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it; as it is written,
"Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on an ass's colt!"
His disciples did not understand this at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that this had been written of him and had been done to him. The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. The Pharisees then said to one another, "You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him."
Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Philip and they told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.
Was it a voice or was it thunder? I don’t know why some people heard the words while others did not. Maybe it had something to do with whether they had come to believe or not. Maybe it had to do with where they were standing.
Once again, we are hit with extremes. Jesus is troubled but purposeful. He knows that the end is near, and his goal is to glorify his Father. He could have said, “save me!” But instead, he said “Father, glorify your name.” We say this from the comfort of our church buildings in sweet chords that move us. Sometimes it feels like we are asking God to glorify his name while we sit back and watch.
When Jesus said it, he was heading straight into the vicious teeth of “the ruler of this world” and the pain and death that was on offer. It is certainly possible for God to glorify his name without us, but the invitation is to be involved. This is not an invitation for the faint of heart. The voice that they heard was for the benefit of those who could hear it – and understand it. To be sons of light it is necessary to walk through and overcome the darkness. To drive out the prince of this world and walk in the light of life.
Here again we read that Jesus is the crisis (judgement) of this world. The way is to be “lifted up.” Here again John helps us to understand that Jesus was talking about his death on the cross. There is enough here, however, to also see that the “lifting up” was to glorify the Father and to exalt the son. This is the folly and wisdom and scandal of the cross. In order to be lifted up it was necessary for Jesus to be lifted up. There is still resurrection to come. There is still his ascension from this sphere. But in order to draw everyone to him it was necessary for Jesus to be exalted in the most cruel and humiliating way imaginable.
The creator of the universe is troubled! The giver of life knows that he is about to die. The voice is for us. The cross is for us. Jesus’ death is for us. His being lifted up, in both senses, is for us. No wonder he hid himself away for a while. Even for God, there is a lot to process here.
"Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show by what death he was to die.
The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Christ remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?" Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light." When Jesus had said this, he departed and hid himself from them.
Light that has come into the world and shattered death and darkness, thank you for what you have done. O God, give us the faith to follow. Give us the wisdom to understand what it means when we sing or pray for your name to be glorified. What it meant for the Son, and what it means for us. Help us to believe in the light so that we may be children of light. Amen.
Words of Light and Life
One final plea from the savior of the world. This is the last public teaching we have in the Gospel of John. After this last word of encouragement to listen to his words and believe he would take his closest followers and give them some intense teaching right before he was arrested and crucified.
I have been in conversations in which the more I tried to communicate the more evident it became that the receiver was incapable of hearing. In trying to close the gap it only widened further. I have also been on the other side of this. Once my mind is set to something, everything I see and hear only confirms me in my belief. Evidence does not matter. Character does not matter. Responses of others do not matter. My eyes have been blinded and my heart has been hardened. I cannot believe. It is only when I let go of my stubbornness that I am able to hear, and see, and grow. It still happens to me.
Jesus’ sayings in this text again take us back to creation. John has woven together Jesus’ public ministry to end where it began – “I came as light into the world.” “His (God’s) commandment is eternal life.” Did you hear that – God’s commandment is eternal life. God’s will is eternal life. Jesus does not need to judge, he came to save by reversing all that destroys us. It is God’s commandment that judges us.
Not in the sense of law, but in the sense of whether or not we believe his word. If we believe his word we will see. If we believe his word we will be healed. We will become children of God. We will walk in the light. We will have eternal life. Law and rules and regulations will no longer be necessary to keep us from harming others because we will share in the life-giving message of Jesus. No need to look over our shoulders or condemn others – or ourselves. The truth will set us free.
Though he had done so many
signs before them, yet they did not believe in him; it was that the word spoken
by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Lord, who has believed our
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" Therefore they could not believe. For Isaiah again said,
"He has blinded their
eyes and hardened their heart,
lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart,
and turn for me to heal them."
Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke of him. Nevertheless many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. And Jesus cried out and said, "He who believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And he who sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If any one hears my sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me."
God, help us to run from the fear of unbelief and toward the faith that leads to life. Help us to not chase after the praise of men, but rather be willing to suffer from those who believe they have a right to judge the servant of another. Be with us, O God, as we continue in reading this powerful witness of the apostle John, who allows us into the most intimate and personal time your son spent on earth. Help us to soak up the gift given to us in those hours before you allowed Jesus to be lifted up so that we, in turn, might be raised up. Amen.