a sermon on John 11:1-53
he theologian and bishop Charles Gore (1853-1932) once told a friend that he always felt that when he read the Gospel according to John he was paying a visit to a fascinating foreign country, whereas when he read the epistles of Paul it was like coming home. That’s a great way of saying something about which scriptures are personally most formative, and which remain puzzling or even strange, and I’d have to confess that personally I do often find that time spent in John’s gospel is not quite my homeland. Whenever someone asks which gospel they should read first, I inevitably send them into Luke, which includes many of the best loved stories and parables. Personally I am most powerfully drawn to the Gospel according to Mark—I think it is my homeland—in part because Mark draws his portrait of Jesus with such a compelling urgency.
But John’s telling of the gospel, and specifically the way in which he sketches Jesus, can often leave me scratching my head. In the other three gospels Jesus is often shown in a posture of searching and discernment, which is what his forty days in the wilderness is all about. All through Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is shown getting tired or even overwhelmed by his own calling, and having to slip away into a quiet and deserted place in order to pray. In those three gospels, on the night of his arrest he prays in a kind of agony there in the Garden of Gethsemane, hoping beyond hope that this walk into death might not be necessary.
In John’s telling, Jesus already seems to know the answers before he even asks.
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Here in tonight’s reading, for instance, are these words: “And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’” And that is typical of how Jesus prays in John’s telling of things: his will is already in such complete union with the Father, that the only reason to pray is to demonstrate that reality to the disciples and bystanders. In this sense there are times when he doesn’t seem quite human. There is nothing surprising that this Jesus once walked on water, but it might be tougher to believe that he actually got his feet dirty walking on the earth.
But then John will surprise me, and tell something about Jesus that is remarkably down to earth and ever-so-human. (If you were here last Sunday, you might recall that in his healing of the man born blind, Jesus spits on the dry earth and makes a bit of damp mud to apply to the man’s eyes… can’t get much earthier than that!).
In this story this evening, we heard that word has come from the home of his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus that Lazarus is dying, and that at first Jesus is in no hurry to rush to his rescue. In fact, Jesus is shown as being utterly confident that there is good reason not to rush, for in this way “the Son of God may be glorified.” “Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” John tells us, “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
When he finally does make the move toward Bethany, it seems that all is still very much as he knows it should be. In his exchange with the grief-torn Martha, Jesus is confident and apparently utterly in charge. He knows what he is doing…
Yet there is this shift that comes when Mary comes out to speak with him, and suddenly John is able to let us see this other side of Jesus.
“When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said 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 greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.”
“He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” “Jesus began to weep.” And just a few verses later when they come to the place where the body of Lazarus is entombed, John notes that Jesus was “again greatly disturbed.” The language of the King James Version captures the original Greek of the text with an even deeper poignancy: Jesus “groaned in the spirit, and was troubled,” and “again groaning in himself [He] cometh to the grave.”
This is no emotionally remote character, utterly in control of the fates. He is disturbed and troubled right to the very depths of his self, and he weeps in sorrow. Though John is fundamentally committed to proclaiming that Jesus is “the Word made flesh” and that his human life is at one with God, he almost can’t help but let us see the very real and emotionally vulnerable man.
It is an important glimpse, however brief. John very quickly moves back to his primary task—his primary contribution as a gospel writer, in fact—of proclaiming that the Word has indeed become flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. The stone is rolled away from the tomb, and the command uttered: “Lazarus, come out!” And he does come out, life again returned to his body. To the utter joy of some, the consternation of others, and to the hostility of those threatened by this Jesus, Lazarus is alive. And this is a different thing from resurrection, by the way… this is a restored or resuscitated human body, which will grow old and again die.
It is all too much for the chief priest and Pharisees, for the movers and shakers of the official religious institution of the day. People will follow this Jesus, and the delicate balance they’ve established with the occupation forces of the Roman Empire will be threatened. These officials know that their Roman overlords will not take kindly to a populist movement led by some miracle-working peasant; something must be done to stop him. Plans for disposing of Jesus begin to be put into motion; plans, John tells us, that even include a plot to kill Lazarus (John 12:10). As the story moves toward its culmination, the points at which Jesus enacts his “signs” of the presence of the reign of God are also moments of division. The crisis is rising.
And of course, this is more than just a “sign” or a theological statement about the nature of the Incarnation. Jesus’ tears and troubled, groaning spirit also remind us that there was a real life at stake here, that of his friend Lazarus. Whatever else “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” might have meant to John as he composed that extraordinary statement, for us it also means that even as the reign of God was and is made present in the person of Jesus, there are yet tears and troubled hearts. Yes, there is a deeper hope, and yes there are those wondrous moments of gracious restoration and of being made whole. But part of the cost of discipleship is that we care; that we actually love one another and befriend one another. And there is risk in that, because in caring and relationship and deep friendship, we make ourselves vulnerable.
Yet strangely, that vulnerability is at the heart of the proclamation of the Incarnation of God in Christ; that we have been called his friends, and that the deepest expression of that friendship is in his willingness to lay down his life for us.
The Lenten walk toward the story of the cross continues…