I suppose, as I get started, I had better do a quick check and address the elephant in the room. I know some people at Advent think I do not know what a pulpit is, so the fact that I am standing in this one may have caused a heart attack or unnecessary fear that you have been left behind. What? You don’t think I don’t hear the comments? Some have been said right to me? Some have been reported to me to get others in trouble, but that’s a different issue. Yes. We know what a pulpit is. Yes. We are aware that some love the pulpit. But there are other forces at play here. For everyone that loves the pulpit, there is an Adventer that doesn’t. As often as I get comments of “I wish you would preach from the pulpit” I get “I’m so glad you and Holly don’t.” What she and I wish, of course, is that everybody would divide into two different services. It would be great if the pulpit lovers all came at one service and the “not in the pulpit” people came to another. Feeding both groups would be so much easier for us. But, no. We have people at both services in both camps. What’s worse, as I have shared with pretty much everyone who has shared this particular concern, younger visitors overwhelmingly prefer clergy amongst them. Pulpits give them the impression of us preaching at them. And, let’s face it, the preachers in the Church have made a lot of mistakes and incarnated the perceived hypocrisy rather than our Lord’s ministry. Our balance is to figure out how to feed you and how to feed visitors, especially those adamantly opposed to the “at them” setting. We exist for people not yet a part of us, but we still have to nourish and strengthen those who are already here. So, if you are visiting, and you are inclined to presume that I am preaching at you, I ask your patience. I am often a stroller as I preach, and, as many at Advent will share, I am in life’s struggles and faith’s struggles with you.
Our reading today is another long pericope from the Gospel of John. As long as they have seemed to you, Holly and I have wondered if they are going to end as we read them during the service. As a preacher, of course, the length causes some significant challenges because there are so many topics upon which to preach, all of which have applications in the lives of those at Advent. So today, I will highlight a couple of those topics, hoping to cause further pastoral conversations this week, while focusing on two significant issues to us a parish body.
Before I get to the real teaching, those at 8am told me between the services that I needed a sermon illustration to drive the points of this story home. Clearly, I had not used one during the early service. When I shared what would have been my illustration, it was clear I did them some disservice by not sharing. That means you all get the illustration.
When I was interviewing and exploring a call at Advent, I was asked by several members on the Search Committee and Vestry if I believed the Bible. I understand there as an undercurrent to their questions, but I answered it as if the questions were the real questions and not covering for something behind them. I told those who asked that of course I believed the Bible. When I answered a little too nonchalantly or too blasé for their tastes, follow up questions ensued. Some heard the story of my own Lazarus moment.
I was asked by a fellow priest if I would cover for any pastoral emergencies while he was on vacation some years ago. Naturally, I agreed. That meant he would owe me when I went on vacation! Anyway, a few days after Darin left, there was an emergency. I received a call in the middle of the night from the old Episcopal hospital in Davenport telling me I need to come quickly to give Last Rites. I threw on my clothes and headed in to the hospital. When I got to the floor, the charge nurse greeted me at the elevator explaining the situation. Gib had a severe brain bleed—I guess you doctors and nurses call them acute aneurisms. Gib had only hours to live, at most, and she was glad for the wife’s sake that I had gotten there within a half hour or so. The nurse walked me into the room, introduced me to the wife, and then left me to do my job.
Now, you all know me pretty well. Whatever descriptions you might use of me, “unable to speak” would not be one of them. A strange thing happened as I introduced myself to the soon-to-be widow, grabbed my oil, and got my prayer book opened. I found myself on page 462 unable to speak. Don’t bother looking; it’s the Ministration at the Time of Death. I could see the words; I knew the words. And I could not shape my mouth to say the words. I kept trying and trying and just could not spit out the words. I’m sure Gib’s wife had to think she got the only uneducated priest in all of Iowa—that’s how incompetent I was. After a few minutes, I began to wonder if maybe God was binding my tongue. I can read; I can usually speak. Was I having a stroke, was I having an aneurism, or was God up to something?
I closed my book and prayed to God for discernment. I needed clarity about my role. What I felt was that I needed to pray for Gib to be healed. Then the real wrestling match began. The nurse had made it clear she had been worried I would not arrive in time. The soon-to-be widow made it clear she was worried about whether I would even bother to come – remember, I did not know them. I had done the faithful, obedient thing. I had dragged myself out bed to be with strangers as he died. But I had this feeling.
The wrestling match with God probably only lasted a few moments. Lord, this is wrong. She is about to become a widow. What will I say to her when Gib dies? How will I ever bring her or the family comfort? The feeling would not leave. So, I spit it in God’s teeth. OK, Lord. I’ll pray for His healing, but it’s on You when He dies. You are going to have to do some extra work here when I muck this up.
And I prayed for Gib’s healing.
I remember the generalities of the prayer to this day, even though the specific words escape me. I reminded God that we were in the season of Epiphany, the season when we celebrate His manifestation to the Gentiles of His Son our Lord, Jesus. I asked God to show those who worked in that hospital, those who were being cared for by the hospital, and even for sorry priests like me to be reminded where true healing was to be found. I prayed that Gib would be raised to His glory.
Wouldn’t you know it, Gib sat up and said “I gotta pee.”
Now, at the time, I confess I was not processing what I had just heard or just seen. As he struggled to get out of bed, his wife was trying to hold him on the bed. It was not quite WWF at this point, but I was sure someone was going to get hurt. Gib would not calm down no matter how many times she and I tried to calm him or answer his questions. So I did the only thing I could think of. I left the wrestling match and went looking for help.
I found the charge nurse down the hall in the corner rooms. I told her to come quick because Gib was trying to go pee. I was fairly certain he should not be walking with that acute brain bleed. She needed to help calm him down before someone, either Gib or his wife got hurt. The charge nurse looked at me, so disappointed and so condescendingly, and said, “Father, I know you want to believe things like that happen. They just don’t. Maybe they did, but now they don’t.” We argued for maybe two minutes, and I finally convinced her to come to Gib’s room. She was clearly only doing it to placate me. The whole walk there she was clucking at me about needing to get with the real world and not get my hopes up. Well, she was doing that until we turned the corner and she saw Gib’s wife laying over Gib on the bed and Gib shouting at her and trying to throw her off the bed.
You laugh. It was the craziest and most remarkable turn of events I have ever witnessed. I had been called to the hospital for Last Rites; I half expected one or both to be seriously injured in this battle of wills. Maybe I would be doing two rites. The nurse hit the button on the wall and yelled stuff with “Stat!” at the end of every instruction. Clearly, the voice on the other ended did not expect such instructions in that room with any demand for haste attached to them. A team of nurses and doctors came rushing in within a couple moments, the first group pushing me aside and a later group asking me and the wife to leave the room. A neurosurgeon (I later learned) asked me what had happened. I told the guy I had prayed over Gib and he needed to pee. Gib was simply bound and determined to get to the bathroom. I had asked him to wait until I could get a nurse, but he was confused. He could not figure out how he got to Genesis nor why he was there, and he was not letting anyone put a catheter in! I had to be wrong. He’d read the pics himself. Gib was a dead man. It was a question of when, not if. No one could be healed from that big a bleed in the brain.
Meanwhile, in the background, Gib was telling people to get off him, to leave him alone, and to take him to the restroom. God had come powerfully among us in that room. In those first few moments, I did not recognize the significance of the event. I was more worried about them getting hurt. Heck, the healed man just wanted to pee. And the cynicism of doctors and nurses was, for a time, shattered.
Our story from John today is the seventh sign or miracle attesting to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. John weaves these miracles throughout the Gospel bearing his name because he wants to put the evidence before readers and hearers. We have to decide who this Jesus is. Is He a hippy born out of time? Is He just another good guy who had some charisma and was able to tap into the human psyche? Is He who He claims to be, the Son of God? CS Lewis once famously wrote that the Gospels force us to choose whether Jesus really was God Incarnate / Man divine or a nutcase. There is no “meh, I guess He’s fine.” You either accept His claim and His authority and His promise, or you reject Him. John understood that about His Lord.
Think of the miracles that have come before. They testify to Jesus’ authority over nature. He turns water into wine. He calms the waves and the storm and walks on water. He feeds thousands with a few loaves and fishes. Other miracles are more focused on His authority over what you and I think of as natural, but the audience would have understood as supernatural or “belonging to God.” The man blind from birth last week and the crippled man by the pool come to mind. Jesus heals the latter on a Sabbath, seemingly violating God’s law. But the witnesses and we are forced to ask and answer the question, “Would God do such a work through a blasphemer?” The man born blind from birth causes the disciples to ask whether his suffering was due to his sin or the sin of his parents. Most would have assumed that the blindness was a curse from God for some heinous sin. Jesus’ ability to heal, and do so on a sacred day or to declare that there is no sin, would have caused an ANE audience 2000 years ago to see Jesus as having authority over things that belonged to God. Apart from God, how could He do those things?
And, lest you think Brian is being too simplistic about their purpose of John’s recording of these miracles, look at how he ends his Gospel: (20:31) Jesus did many other signs but these are told that we might come to believe that He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and that through believing in Him we might have life. Even later, John confesses that Jesus did many more signs, but 20:31 gives the purpose for the signs that John chose to include. So why did John include this one? What does it have to say to Adventers in Nashville some 200 years later?
In fact, this lesson has much to say to all of us. I will touch upon a few areas because I hope to provoke some specific conversations before I get to the corporate message. Look at the beginning of John’s Gospel. When Jesus gets news of Lazarus’ illness, how does he respond? We might well expect Him to run to Lazarus, His friend, and do another work of power by healing Lazarus. Instead, Jesus stays two days longer where He was because He knows that the Lazarus illness leads to God’s glory rather than death. At first, we might think that Jesus is being a bit callous. He could save some significant grief; yet He lingers to allow the disease to run its course before He acts. But it is one thing to believe that Jesus can cure a disease. Death? Who has an answer for that?
What happens next? After two days Jesus says it is time to return to Judea. You may have forgotten, but His disciples have not. Teacher, you do know they just tried to stone you a few weeks ago, right? Had this been our only story about Thomas, what would we call him? Thomas the Courageous? Thomas the Valiant? When Jesus says Lazarus is dead and that this miracle is for them, Thomas encourages the disciples to go with Jesus so that he and they may die with their Lord. Not quite the picture of a doubter, is he?
Next we are given one of those little tidbits that have lost their meaning to us. Lazarus had been dead four days by the time Jesus arrives. Many cultures in the ANE believed the soul hung around the body for three days after death. I suppose we might use Miracle Max language in the Princess Bride to describe this problem. Lazarus is not mostly dead; he is all dead. It’s time to go through his pockets and look for loose change. No chocolate coated pill will restore him at this point. But Jesus can and will. The implications for us are amazingly hopeful!
Jesus greets the sisters. In the first meeting, He makes what I would argue the greatest of the I AM statements in John’s Gospel. Part of the elites’ problem with Jesus is His constant use of the Great I AM statements. Every time we hear Jesus speaking of being the light, the truth, the way, and etc., Jesus is equating Himself with God. For faithful Jews, such a claim is blasphemous. Yet, John has already recorded six miracles which testify to the truth of Jesus’ claims. This one will simply be the exclamation point at the end of that sentence.
What happens next? I find this section perhaps the tenderest in all of Scripture. There is much nurturing and love and grace extended by God to His people, but it is in this passage where God addresses our greatest needs and greatest fears. How does Jesus respond to the death of Lazarus? Everyone knows He weeps. That’s the shortest verse in all Scripture. But in our excitement as kids to memorize so easy a verse, do we really pay attention to the significance? Jesus weeps over the death of Lazarus! Jesus knows this death will lead to God’s glory, that He has power over death, and still He weeps! Why? Because this is not what He intended for us when He created us in His image. You and I were never meant to know the sting and pang of death; we were never meant to experience the feeling of loss and loneliness. We were never meant to experience the fear of death. Jesus feels the same at our death when you and I as parents feel sad at our children’s trials.
Think I am exaggerating? Look a couple verses before that. The NIV translators use the “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” translation. It’s a nice sentiment, but it fails to capture Jesus’ emotional response here. Jesus has an angry snort response to the death of Lazarus. Think about the significances of that verb for us. The Creator of heaven and earth is angry about the death of those whom He loves! If you and I accept Christ and call Him Lord, that makes Him our friend. How do you think He will respond to your or my death? We see a template here in John’s Gospel. When we wake to see Him as a friend and not a stranger, He will have been angry at our death and wept, even though He knows He has the power to redeem us and call us to life. Can you imagine what at your feelings will be at that moment? We claim to be grateful for what God has done, but will we truly understand all that He has accomplished for us prior to that moment when He says to each of us “Come out!”? That will be the moment our eyes are finally opened; that will be the moment that the scales fall from our eyes!
Last, and not least, Lazarus is resuscitated. After four days of death, Lazarus’ life is breathed back in to him. We say resuscitated because Lazarus dies again some years distant. He is only called back to this life. He is not given a resurrected body because Jesus has not yet been resurrected. Yet Jesus, as the Son of God, and God are glorified in this act. Many of the Jews that had come with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in Him.
All these little bullets are nice teaching points, and I hope that we get to have a conversation this week on the ones that touch you personally. For those who struggle with the Resurrection, I understand. We want proof; we want Gib’s in our own lives. Jesus acknowledges the difficulty of having faith in such instances. You believe because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe. Jesus understands our fears, our worries, our needs, and our unbelief. Still, He loves us; still, He snorts in anger at our own deaths.
I wonder, though, would we really believe and accept Him were we to see with our own eyes. Some of us, no doubt, would. But how many of us would refuse to see? How many would be like me in that hospital room with Gib and his wife and miss the significance of the event because of the urgency of the situation? Worse, how many of us would respond as did those who heard the story, who met a revived Lazarus, and still refused Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah?
That last question, I see, causes a bit of squirming. Good. We should be. If we continue to read John’s Gospel, we learn that it is this miracle which causes the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Temple priests, and others to come together to plot Jesus’s death. It is in the light of this miracle that Judas approaches the Sanhedrin and others and seeks to betray His Lord’s life. Feeding 500 men, besides women and children? Bah, that’s no big deal. Changing water into wine? A parlor trick. Healing on the Sabbath? Wrong, but tolerable. Calling someone back from death? Ho now, He needs to die. It is the demonstration of His power over death that causes all those enemies to unite against Him. It is His power over death that causes the enemies to work for His death. This God Man whom we claim as Lord and proclaim as the Messiah for the world is rejected by the world. We know this. We see this. We live this. Every time we stand in privation expecting God to provide, we hear the scorn or derision of others. Every time we serve others in His name, we hear the mocking laughter of others. The language of doormats and idealist follow us as attacks and mockery. Every time we stand over a grave and proclaim our alleluias, we hear the clucking tongues calling us simpletons. If Jesus is who He claims to be, all those worldly measures have, in the end, no significance in our lives. If Jesus is who He claims to be, we can set about any work He has given us to do confident that, even if such work leads to our death, still He will redeem us!
As a parish we are struggling with this battle. We have secular expertise which causes us to trust in the things we understand, the things we know, the experiences we have had. But we claim to follow a Lord who can subdue chaos, who can turn the common into holy, and who can call life from death. Whom do we trust? What do we trust? Our answer has repercussions. We know this. We fear this. Even if we do not name the fears or the repercussions, we know our answers have consequences. Who is He to you? Who is He to us? Perhaps more immediately, what has He given us to do? How do we live into the reality that is proclaimed in the Gospel, that Jesus is Lord and in believing in Him we, and all those who believe, have eternal life in Him?
Notice that the answering of that question causes personal threats to rise. Again, if we had read further in our narrative today we would read that the same authorities who wish to put Jesus to death want to kill Lazarus, too. Lazarus’ big crime is that Jesus has raised him from the dead. If the authorities were to kill Lazarus, their power would be re-asserted over the Lord’s. When you and I choose to follow God, when you and I choose to pick up a cross and follow Him, we should expect to have others wanting to do us harm. We should expect that those in the world will want to humiliate us, show us to be hypocrites, maybe even to kill us. Why? Because the world, and the powers and principalities of the world are at war with Him and all those whom He claims. It really is that simple. There is a cost. Perhaps that cost will be our reputations. Maybe that cost will be our “financial security.” Maybe the cost will be respect or relationships? Perhaps that cost ultimately will be our lives? But I ask you again, what would you give to Jesus knowing that one day He would stand over your grave, snorting angrily at your death, weeping that you experienced death, and yet still powerful enough to call you to life?
I recognize that my sermon today has been heavy. I think it is a bit heavier because I have distanced myself from you in this pulpit. Please do not think I am not in the midst of these same wrestling matches with you. Like many of you, Jacob is definitely one of my spiritual forefathers! These questions are asked in the midst of struggles, personal, corporate, and even wider. And I have seen God raise a Lazarus in my midst. Because of that, though, this—pastoring-- is not just an academic exercise to me. It is a vocation, a way of life, in reality, the only way to abundant life.
We live in an age that claims to be smarter and better and stronger and whatever other superlative you wish to use. In terms of technology and explaining the way things work, we certainly are. But deep down, deep in the innermost marrow of our bones and heart, we are really no different than those about whom we read this day. Before our own encounter with the Risen Christ, we have every reason to fear death. We have every reason to wonder at our own significance. We have every reason to wonder whether this is all that there is. We may live and drink and party hard for fear that we might die tomorrow, to coin a popular Roman phrase, and most in the world would consider us fun-loving, good to be around, or some other shallow nonsense. But it is at the grave, at the encounter with death, when we really discover who we are and what we need. And even then, still He is gracious. Still, He gives us the choice to follow or to reject. And in the end, our choice is what determines our outcome. For those who reject Him, what hope is there really? But for those who choose Him and His Cross, not even death can separate them from Him? And here’s the better in the Good News: as cool and as awesome and as whatever else you and I think it is to see a Lazarus or Gib brought back from the dead, how much better will the Resurrection be? What words will we have for an endless life without mourning, and endless life full of joy, an endless life of abundance? That, my brothers and sisters, is the Sign to which these signs point. That, my brothers and sisters, is the time to which you and I should really look forward, when we are raised to that New Life Feast to which He has invited the world! That, my brothers and sisters, is the glory upon which our Lord is focused when first confronted by the messengers bearing the news of Lazarus’ impending death, that is the glory upon which He is focused when our Lord accepts the Cup in the Garden of Gethsemene, and that is the glory upon which He is focused when the crowds mock Him as He dies on the Cross for them, and that is the glory that only is beginning to be revealed to us when He burst forth from that tomb on Easter morning!