Thursday, January 5, 2012

5 January: The end has come, but life goes on

Opening Sentence
Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:10, 11

Collect of the Day
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Psalter: Psalm 2, 110

Lessons: Jonah 2:2-9; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 11:17-27, 38-44

Every time Jesus showed up at a funeral, he had the peculiar habit of bringing the deceased back to life. What began as a funeral ended as a wedding feast.

This was precisely the point John was trying to make by structuring the first half of his Gospel around the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry. What began at a wedding in Cana came full circle at a funeral in Bethany. Jesus had been setting the stage for the raising of Lazarus ever since he turned water to wine.

To understand the story fully, however, we have to go back further, much further, to the day when the Israelites languished in exile in Babylon. For it was during that dark period of Israel’s history that the prophet Ezekiel had a vision: a vision which looked at first like a gloomy vision of death, but which was transformed by the Word and the Spirit of God into a glorious vision of new life (cf. Ezekiel 37:1-14). Ezekiel envisioned the day when the people of Israel would be gathered again in their homeland. To describe this great homecoming, he used imagery that was breathtaking, or more accurately, breath-giving. “Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”

These hopeful and uplifting images seen and described by Ezekiel so many years before literally reverberated in the words of Jesus throughout the first half of John’s Gospel.

“Truly, truly I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out.”

“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

The language of Ezekiel and the language of Jesus are unmistakably one and the same. For the Israelites in Babylon, Ezekiel’s vision was symbolic of their return from exile. Though they were at the time “dead” in Babylon, God promised through the prophet that the day was coming when they would be “alive” again; restored to their homeland. In previous chapters, Ezekiel spoke about the renewal of the covenant, cleansing from sin, of God gathering his sheep as when a shepherd seeks them out when they are scattered, and, finally, of giving Israel a new heart and a new spirit. Not for Israel’s sake, but for the sake of his holy name, God would act to rescue and vindicate his people, and thus vindicate his holiness for all to see.

Through Ezekiel, God spoke to his people, “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

This is the language of restoration, of gaining back that which was lost. God himself, who breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils in the beginning, was going to do so again. The renewal of the covenant would mean the new creation; and the word which came to be used to describe this great reworking, this world-ending, creation-transforming act which God promised to do among his people to manifest his glory was RESURRECTION!

Even after their return from exile, the Israelites whose hearts were truly seeking after God knew that Ezekiel’s vision was more than a mere metaphor. There was a deeper meaning behind all the symbolic language. No exile would be permanent. Even death itself would be swallowed up by life in the great and glorious day when God would act to restore all things.

As John writes his Gospel, he brings together this long history of hope and expectation, expressed in symbols but expected to be reality. From the wedding at Cana to the funeral at Bethany, everything Jesus said and every sign he performed had been leading up to this moment. He spoke the very language which the people of God ought to have understood.

“You must be born again.”

“I am the light of the world.”

“I will raise them up on the last day.”

“[He] who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. . . The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”

“I am the good shepherd.”

“Before Abraham was, I AM.”

Every time Jesus opened his mouth or performed some sign, however, somebody wanted to kill him. The people were so bound up in their sins, so enslaved by their human traditions, that they could not receive the Word of God. Instead, they rejected the Word made flesh as a blasphemer.

“I am this. I am that.”

Didn't he know that was taking the Lord’s name in vain?

By the time he got to Bethany, Jesus was in no mood for sentimentality. Our polite English translations which say he was “deeply moved” really understate it. The Greek term means, literally, “indignant.” Even his disciples were still clueless. When he told them they were going back to Judea, they tried to stop him.

“Lord, last time you were there, they tried to kill you.”

When it became obvious they would not prevail, they resigned themselves to a tragic end. What were they expecting?

“Let us go also, that we may die with him,” Thomas said.

What was Mary expecting?

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

What were the people expecting?

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

There is one unanimous expectation: DEATH!

Among the cast of characters in this story, Martha stands out as the one who seemed to hold on to a glimmer of hope. She confessed her belief in “the resurrection at the last day.” She even confessed her belief in Jesus as the Savior of the world. All of this only compounded her grief, however, because even her expectations were clouded by the shadow of death. Like her sister Mary, she complained, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

It is no wonder “Jesus wept.” He wept not in grief over Lazarus, as the people presumed. He wept in grief over all these lost sheep who still were not getting it. The disciples, Mary and Martha, the crowd: their focus was uniformly on DEATH. It was the valley of dry bones all over again. Lazarus lay in the tomb, but the dead were outside grieving.

Martha was right about one thing.

“Lord, by now there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”

Death does have a way of stinking up the place, of casting a long shadow over people's hopes and expectations; of closing their eyes in blindness; of shutting them off in a cold, dark, smelly tomb.

When Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he meant it literally.

“You believe in the resurrection on the last day? Woman, you are looking at the resurrection. Open your eyes and behold the living end!”

In Jesus, the end has come, but life goes on.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? Did I not tell you a time was coming when the dead would hear my voice and come out of their tombs? Did I not tell you that everyone who believes in me has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day? Did I not tell you I am the good shepherd, that I call my own by name and lead them out?

"Lazarus, come out!”

Called by name, hearing the voice of the good shepherd, the incarnate Word of God, Lazarus came out of the tomb, still bound up in the grave clothes of the old life.

“Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus declared. Take off those inhibiting reminders of what used to be. Put off those shackles which tie him to the past. Let him come forth a new creation.

Here begins the unbinding not only of Lazarus, but of the whole mystery of God’s redemptive plan, seen thus far in tiny glimpses through the signs Jesus had performed, but only revealed fully and completely in Jesus himself. Here is the turning point, the radical re-orientation, whereby those who believe can begin to understand that Christ draws them to himself not by what he does, but by who he is: the Bread of Life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life.


Shine, Jesus, Shine