Monday, October 29, 2018

Anniversary Sunday

John 11
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?

I don’t want to burst your bubble, but the answer is ‘it depends.’ If you’re talking about the Bible in English, and specifically the King James Version of the Bible, then yes, “Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the Bible.

If, however, you are looking at the original Greek, the answer is found at Luke 20:30 which says “the second.” You can see why we don’t like sticklers. There is nothing memorable here, a snippet of a verse that recounts the story of the widow who married six brothers before finding herself in a rather awkward situation in the hereafter.

I can share all this because “Jesus Wept” has it’s own Wikipedia page, sharing details like the controversy over the shortest verse and equipping you to be uniquely tiresome at your next dinner party. But this is fun, because the entry reminds us that, “Jesus wept” is commonly used to express exasperation.

So, as you go on and on about that thing your minister told you about “Jesus wept,” it would be entirely appropriate for someone to say “Jesus wept, what kind of sermon is that?” As we try to escape this homiletical funhouse mirror, I should say that some describe Jesus wept as a “minced oath,” that thing you might say that your mother claimed as still swearing—like ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God.’ So “Jesus wept” instead of taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Whatever it is, it’s only the shortest because we want it to be, the verse that everyone can claim to have memorized, the verse that packs a punch because it’s at the very centre of an important narrative in the unfolding story of Jesus in John.

I say Jesus in John because the story of the Raising of Lazarus only appears in John, and has the important role in the story of being the seventh sign, the seventh miracle that John wants to mark for us and make us take note. So we will. But before we do, we should review the story of the death of Lazarus.

The story of the raising of Lazarus is the longest single story in John aside from the passion story. It begins with news sent to Jesus, some miles off, that Lazarus is sick. Mary and Martha send word that their brother is ill, but Jesus decides to remain in place longer, explaining to his disciples that “this sickness will not end in death.”

When Jesus finally arrives at Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. A crowd has gathered to mourn Lazarus, and support the sisters in their grief. Martha meets Jesus first:

21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

You might say everything that follows this brief exchange is just an add-on, details to fill out the story. But God has more to show us, so we continue. Mary confronts Jesus next, making the same argument, and this time Jesus wept. Voices in the back ground swell up, ‘could he have not prevented this may from dying, he healed others?’

Jesus insists that the tomb be opened, and the practical people object: ‘four days, Lord, he’s been in there for four days.’ Then Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” He is speaking, of course, to us as much as Martha and Mary and the anxious crowd. The stone is rolled away, Jesus prays for Lazarus and then says in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The dead man comes out dead no more.

Before I take you back to the seven signs, I want to go back to “Jesus wept.” While it may not be the shortest verse in the Bible, it is the shortest verse to provoke the most discussion. Why did he weep? Is this the human Jesus showing us his humanity? His dismay over the seeming power of death? His empathy for Mary and Martha?* Shame for the delay and hurt he may have caused them? Whatever the exact reason, the tears transfix us, and open our heart to Jesus in a new way. This is no bystander, or simply-God-in-disguise—these are real tears.

So seven signs in John: turning water into wine, healing the official’s son, healing at the pool of Bethesda, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, healing the man born blind, and raising Lazarus from the dead. There were other signs, because John tells us this at the end of his Gospel. But these are the seven he shares, the seven that show us everything we need to know about the glory of God made know in Jesus.

Good number, seven. My resident scholar tells me that seven is the number of completeness, wholeness, the last day when God rests, the end. There’s even a verb for it in Hebrew she tells me, and if you want to know more you can ask her over coffee. She’ll even parse it for you, if you ask nicely.

So seven signs to completeness, seven movements that take us to the end of this part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. We know it’s an ending because a verse later we’re building up to an arrest. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, Jesus has upset the existing order of things and officialdom has taken note. Suddenly everyone is at risk because Jesus has overcome the one thing the occupying Romans hold over everyone: the power of life or death.

Note too that the signs build: the first is light-hearted, water into wine, hardly a threat to anyone outside the temperance movement. Healing the sick, feeding a crowd—none of these threaten the overseers, because in fact they lighten the load. Itinerant preachers and miracle-makers who decrease demand on the Imperial bread supply are hardly a threat. But reversing death, that’s a threat, because Rome was built on the fear of death—for slaves, opponents, rebels and the like.

But Jesus wasn’t busy defeating death to make a point. He wasn’t trying to start a revolution, or defeat Rome in a direct way. He was simply marking the end on one era and the beginning of another. You see, seven is the number of creation, and completeness, and the raising of Lazarus is the end of death in the classical sense, the sense that nothing could be done. But Lazarus still dies, not that day, but some time later.

So the raising of Lazarus may mark the end of an assumption, but more would need to be done. Rob Bell says “the old creation had a death problem,” from the Garden to Jesus and back to the garden, when we find the tomb is empty and death is no more.

Call it the eighth sign, a new creation, which Bell also notes is happening right here in the midst of us:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne shall lead them to springs of living waters: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.

An anniversary is an opportunity to gather the saints in light, to call them to mind and give thanks that so many paused to spend time in this place, to enrich our lives, to show us—through their very lives—the glory of God. A congregation is a special place in creation. It is more than a meeting or a service, it is the body of Christ and a living monument to the power of God to transform lives. It is another sign of the new creation that surrounds us and blesses us each day.

Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Some seek signs but we are surrounded by them: the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Texts for Preaching B.


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