Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Raising of Lazarus - One Image, Two Pictures

Fifth Sunday in Lent – Year A
Ezekiel 37:1-3(4-10)11-14; Psalm 130; Romans 6:16-23; John 11:(1-17)18-44
Sunday, March 9, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

As we approach the end of our Lenten journey, we can look back over the last four weeks at the Gospel lessons from John – the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus’ healing the man born blind, and today, the raising of Lazarus – and see that John has been painting an intricate picture. But this is no ordinary picture. This picture is not like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or his Last Supper. Those pictures depict a specific person or a specific event at a particular point in time. Regardless of where you stand, what you see is what you get, even if you don’t understand particular elements, such as Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

This picture being painted by John is a little more mysterious. It does not present a single view of a single subject. Rather, depending on where you’re standing when you look at the picture, you see something different. It’s rather like the beautiful picture that René Rowland did – the one hanging in the hallway just to the right of the sacristy. If you look at the picture up close, all you see is a collection of squares made of fabric of differing patterns, laid out in no particularly discernable arrangement. There may be some sort of patterning in the way the cloth squares are laid out, but what it means is not readily apparent. Overall, it makes a pretty abstract image, although one that is beautiful in its own right. But, if you step away from the picture and look at it from a distance of 15 to 20 feet, what you see is completely different. From that distance, the picture becomes one of two serene figures: Mary, Mother of Our Lord, and the infant Jesus, leaning against her chest, apparently sleeping.

The same physical image, revealing two different pictures, depending on the position of the viewer. In this fantastic image created by a number of squares of fabric, we see close-up, an abstract image. From a more distant perspective, we see a beautiful image of holy mother and holy child. Without the close-up, seemingly abstract picture, we would not have, when we step back a little, the beautiful picture that delights our imaginations.

So what are the different pictures revealed in the one image of John’s Lenten Gospel lessons? First, let’s consider the “close up” picture – the one that we see when we stand very close to the Gospel lessons, examining the words as they are presented on the page. How do the pieces of the stories of Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and Lazarus all fit together? Just like René’s artwork, looking at the image presented up close merely seems to reveal an abstract collection of pieces. There may be some discernable pattern in the way the bits of the various stories are laid out. And, in fact, there is. Within this abstract mass, we begin to see that John has provided a picture of who Jesus is. In the Nicodemus story, Jesus talks about the Son of Man, subtly implying that he is that person. In the story of the Samaritan woman, Jesus says in no uncertain terms that he is the Messiah. In the story of the man born blind, Jesus again talks about the Son of Man and this time definitively states that he is indeed the Son of Man. And then, in today’s story of the raising of Lazarus, we have the most abundant and most definitive statement about who Jesus is. He himself says “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

And throughout this close-up picture of who Jesus is, the other principle characters provide increasing witness to and verification of who Jesus is. Nicodemus is a bit ambivalent. The Samaritan woman is willing to accept that Jesus may just be the Messiah. The man born blind does accept that Jesus is the Son of Man based on the proof of the miracle of his healing. And in today’s Gospel account, Martha responds with “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” – the strongest and most extensive affirmation to date, based solely on her knowing Jesus and not on any visible proof such as the performance of a miracle.

But what do we see in this image when we step back to get a different perspective? Like René’s artwork, looking at the image from a distance, from a different perspective, we see that the various, seemingly abstract pieces viewed together create a new, altogether different picture. It is a picture that reveals something of human life, and more specifically, of the life of the faithful. In the story of Nicodemus, Jesus talks about birth, new birth, new life, through being born of the Spirit. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well shows some of the conditions we may face in life – potentially being ostracized, being a social outcast, being alone. But this story also shows that through our lives of faith, reconciliation is possible. And not only reconciliation with the other, but also reconciliation with our selves. The story of the man born blind shows other conditions that we all face at one time or another in our lives – infirmity and dis-ease, be they congenital, or be they brought on through the inevitable effects of aging. But this story also shows that healing is possible, that our Lord desires for us health and wholeness. And in today’s lesson, we see what awaits all mortals – death. But this story also shows us that death is not the end, but only the beginning; that through Christ, we are promised new life.

In this fantastic image created by the selections from John’s Gospel that we have read during this Lenten season, we see close-up, the revelation of who Jesus is. From a more distant perspective, we see who we are, as human beings and as people of faith. We see birth, we see what troubles and hardships may beset us in our lives, and we see death. But more importantly, we see what our lives can be like by placing our faith in Jesus. Both pictures are part and parcel of the same base image. Without the close-up, seemingly abstract picture of who Jesus is, we would not have, when we step back a little, the beautiful picture of who we are and who we can become through Christ.

While the whole picture, both the close-up and the more distant, provide a fundamental truth about our Lord and our lives of faith, our lives in him, it is the components that we add to the image today that are of critical importance in completing the image. For today we remember some of Jesus’ last moments before he begins his final journey to Jerusalem, where he will be arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. In these last moments, we are witnesses to Jesus’ last miracle, and with the exception of private conversations with his closest disciples, we hear his last public proclamation of who he is. To understand this last miracle, we need to understand this last public proclamation.

When Jesus approaches Bethany, he is met by Martha. Rather than words of compassion from Jesus, or words of relief from Martha, she instantly lays into him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” In other words, “Because you delayed coming, Lazarus is dead. So do something to fix it.” There is a definite edge of complaint and even accusation in her opening comments. But like any good teacher, Jesus uses this as a teaching moment. He engages Martha in a practical and theological discussion about resurrection. And then just as she is beginning to understand what resurrection means, he hits her with the truth about who he is – truth with a capital T – “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” As biblical scholar Gail O’Day notes, “Jesus’ self-revelation as the resurrection and the life is the decisive eschatological announcement of this Gospel” (O’Day, 693). It is probably the most significant thing that Jesus says in the entire Gospel According to John. The whole Gospel story has been building to and is built around, this very point.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He also tells Martha the significance of his statement. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” He is affirming his sovereignty over the present and future lives of those who believe in him. He is saying that physical death has no power over believers. For those who believe, the future is not determined by their death. Rather, the future is determined solely by their faith in Jesus. This is “the most far-reaching promise anywhere in the Gospel of what relationship with Jesus offers those who embrace it” (O’Day, 694). O’Day notes that these “are not idle words of hope, because they name the greatest threat to full relationship with God: death” (O’Day, 694). These words “invite the believer to a vision of life in which one remains in the full presence of God during life and after death” (O’Day, 694).

Jesus’ proclamation that he is the resurrection and the life sets the stage for the miracle that is to follow shortly – the raising of Lazarus. But even with all the theological groundwork he has just laid with Martha, she is still a little skeptical. When Jesus tells those at the tomb to take away the stone covering the entrance, Martha protests that Lazarus has been dead four days and that there would be a stench (or, as put so poetically in the King James Version, “he stinketh”). Jesus chastises Martha, saying “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” and then proceeds to reveal it. The stone is removed, and after praying to God, Jesus commands, “Lazarus, come out!” In her commentary, Gail O’Day eloquently describes what happens next. “Lazarus arose still dressed in the clothes of death, dependent on the voice of Jesus to achieve his freedom from death” (O’Day, 692). Jesus has proven that he is indeed the resurrection and the life. And Lazarus has proven that all we need to do to gain our freedom from death is to listen to Jesus’ call to us.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we see once again dual pictures created by one image. Close-up, we see Jesus’ proclamation that he is the resurrection and the life. We see the truth of Martha’s affirmation that Jesus is “Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” In the final days of his life, we witness the truth about Jesus, the truth that the Gospel has been building to, the truth that the Gospel was meant to proclaim.

And as we step back to gain a different perspective on this image, we see not the abstract concept of Jesus being the resurrection and the life. We see not the miraculous event of a man, dead four days, brought back to life by a simple command from Jesus. At a distance, we see a wholly different, a wholly beautiful picture. We see our own resurrections.

Granted, no one since the time of the New Testament has been resurrected as Lazarus was. No one has verifiably died, been buried, and then been brought back to life. We trust that such resurrection will eventually occur, before the Judgment Day. As we proclaim every week in the Nicene Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” For the time being, resurrection of those who have physically died does not occur on a regular basis.

But that does not mean that resurrection does not occur on a daily basis, for those of us who still live, who live lives of faith in Jesus. He made a promise in his proclamation “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” This is a promise that we who believe remain in the full love and care of God not only after death, but also before death, during life. This being the case, Lazarus is the archetype for our own lives. Yes, we will die. Our only hope for eternal life comes through Jesus, as he promised to Martha.

But our hope is not limited to the time after our own death. The hope and the promise also apply to our every-day lives. In our every-day lives, we all face dark times, moments of personal death – illness, defeat, rejection. We are all subject to sadness, depression, loneliness. We all succumb to anger, frustration, bitterness. These are moments of personal death that beset us, either occasionally, or on an ongoing basis. These are moments in which we may feel as if we are wrapped in a burial shroud, separated from the world, walking through it, but feeling somehow disconnected from it. At their worst, such moments, which can extend into days, weeks, even years, may cause us to feel as if we are in a tomb, completely cut off from life around us.

If this happens – when this happens – we have two choices. We can go it alone and live in a shroud of darkness, just as Lazarus is wrapped in a burial shroud. We can live in a tomb, sealed off from the rest of humanity. Or we can turn to Jesus, who calls us to come out of the tomb, who calls us to life in him, who through his own death and resurrection, makes all things new, who gives new life.

As we prepare to wrap up our Lenten journey, as we prepare to make that final trip with Jesus to Jerusalem and into Holy Week, as we prepare to face the cross, let us remember that the image before us may not be what it seems. During these final days of Lent, take a close look at who Jesus is – the resurrection and the life – and then step back and see how who he is forms the picture that is your life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

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