Tag Archives: lent

Lazarus: Miracle and Motive

Listen to a podcast of the sermon “Lazarus: Miracle and Motive”

The lectionary text on Sunday is about Lazarus.  The Gospel of John tells us of the illness, death and raising of Lazarus.  This Sunday is exactly why I am not a lectionary preacher.  All too often, the lectionary cuts off stories just when they start to get interesting.

(A note to non-preachers: the lectionary is a tool used by preachers in many denominations to help guide worship.  It is a three-year cycle that offers four different Biblical texts from the gospels, the epistles, the Psalms, and the Hebrew Bible.)

It doesn’t just cut off the story before it gets interesting, it cuts off the story before the most important part is revealed.  The raising of Lazarus, as it is found in the lectionary, is about the power of Jesus.  The story, in typical John fashion, has Jesus almost floating around in his divine cloud, then raising his dead friend with only words.  The one glimpse of Jesus’s humanity is revealed in words of the story, “Jesus wept.”

To me though, the story of Lazarus is not so much about the power of Jesus.  The story of Lazarus is about how people react to this miracle.  The lectionary selection ends with, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (John 11:45, NRSV).

It sounds like a happy ending.  Jesus raises his friend.  Everyone rejoices.  Many people believe in him – “Woo Hoo!”  Here’s the problem: that’s only part of the reaction.  Ending the story here is irresponsible, and I think is symptomatic of a much greater problem we have in the church (and our culture) today.

Everyone likes the happy ending.  I can understand that, but focusing on the happy ending without also seeing the dangerous ramifcations of what Jesus accomplished simply capitulates to a christianish way of knowing Jesus.

Read more of the story – the part that the lectionary (and thus thousands of churches on Sunday) cuts out:

But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation,and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death. (John 11:46-53, NRSV)

Here we see the other reaction to Jesus.  In Lazarus, we see Jesus’s greatest earthly demonstration of his power.  We see Martha recognize Jesus as the “Mesiah.”  We see many come to believe in Jesus.  We see Jesus offer life, and ultimately, we see those in power respond with death.

It can be difficult to understand their motive.  Why would they want Jesus dead?  He offers life.  Why would they respond with death?  It is hard to understand. Didn’t they understand what they were doing?  Why would they respond with death?  Didn’t they understand that Jesus offered life? Didn’t they know his power?

The answer is: Yes.  They understood, and that is why they were scared.  Their response was motivated primarily by fear.  They feared Jesus because his was a power they could not abide.  They feared Jesus because he was threatening their way of life.  He was threatening their comfort, their position, and ultimately their power.  The Chief Priests were in power because they had capitulated to the greatest power that the world had ever known – the Roman empire.

They killed Jesus because he offered life, and they knew that the only thing that Rome had to offer was death.  They killed him because he offered life.  They killed him because they understood what his message was, and now they realized that he had real power behind him as well.  Until Lazarus, he was just another reformer.  He was just a vagabond with some followers stirring up trouble here and there.  After Lazarus they knew his power.  They knew they were in trouble.

It is unfortunate that in most churches on Sunday, no one will hear this part of the story, because hearing this part of the story makes us answer the question: What is our response to Jesus?  Who are we going to be like, Martha – calling Jesus the Mesiah, or the Chief Priests – fearing what Jesus might do if he were allowed to live.

Before you jump to an answer, let me offer this: If you don’t have a little bit of fear, then I think you might be christian-ish, or as Kendra Creasy Dean would put it, you might be Almost Christian.  I say this because I think the Chief Priests had it more right than most people give them credit for.  Jesus is dangerous.

Jesus has the power to turn your life upside down.  Jesus offers life, but he also offers a cross.  He offers life, but only to those that would turn their life away.  He offers comfort, but only to those that mourn.  Jesus came to afflict the comfortable.  He came to turn sons against fathers and daughters against mothers.

If we don’t have at least a little bit of fear about what discipleship really means, than I’m not sure we really get it.  Following Jesus can lead people into dark places – uncomfortable, dirty, smelly places.  It can lead us into danger, and bring us into contact with dangerous people.  Following Jesus calls us to our pews and our hymns and our rituals, but it also demands that we go out into the world.  Jesus calls us to love.  And love can be difficult sometimes.

Following Jesus means that we have to love, and its okay if that scares you a little.  It should.  It means that you’re paying attention.  It means that you have your eyes wide open to the cost of discipleship.  It means that you didn’t stop reading the story of Lazarus with the “Woo Hoo!” moment.

The Church, by and large, on Sunday will end the story of Lazarus with a happy ending, but they will forget to see the danger of what Jesus did.  Jesus revealed that his power was of God, and those that held onto Earthly power reacted in the only way they knew how.  But here’s the part the chief priests didn’t understand: they thought the death they gave him would be the end of him.

They thought the cross they hung him from would break him.  They thought the tomb they sealed him in would keep him.

How wrong they were.  And how wrong we are if we think that the power of Jesus is something that shouldn’t be feared.  I hope that when the Church hears Jesus cry, “Lazarus, come out!”  all the people heed his words.

Church, Come out!  Come out of your comfort zone.  Come out of your fortress.  Come out of your “good old days.”  Come out of your sin.  Come out of the lies that tell us how to succeed, consume, spend, buy, then donate and be happy.  Come out of your slumber, and go into the Kingdom.  Come out of your slumber, and go into your  mission.  Come out of your slumber, and go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Go knowing that it can be dangerous.  Go knowing that Christ is with you.  Go knowing that the Holy Spirit will sustain you.  Go knowing that love is the only power that lasts.

Follow The Fat Pastor on Facebook

Follow @FatPastor on Twitter

scare

4 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Sermons

Take up something for Lent

I’ve been reading a lot on facebook today about people giving something up for Lent.  Several have said their FB “goodbye,” because they will be giving up facebook.  Thousands (millions?) will be giving up chocolate, french fries, cofee, swearing, late-night snacks, food during the day, or somesuch other thing.

They will do it in the name of fasting.  The idea of giving up something for Lent has taken on a certain cultural cache.  It is a strange phenomon in our culture of overindulgence.  On the surface, I see it as a good thing.  Self-denial, even of menial or luxuriant things, is a much overlooked virtue.  So I applaud all of those that, in the name of God or their faith, are trying to give up something for Lent.

I just want to add a word of caution.  Don’t let your giving something up for Lent replace an actual relationship with the living God.  And don’t let your sense of piety over giving up something for Lent keep you from taking a hard look at what God really wants us to be doing.

This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.  (Isaiah 58:6-7, The Message)

Just be careful.  It is great to do something for God.  It is great to remember the sacrifice that Christ made for us.  Just do it for the right reasons.  Don’t get caught up in the cultural trend of giving something up without also trying to take something up.  We give things up to make room to take things up.  Give up something that is getting in the way of your relationship with God.  Give something up that is getting in the way of the Kingdom.

Give up chocolate.  Give up chocolate that is made on the backs of the working poor.  Give up choclate that enslaves children and puts them in dangerous working conditions. Give up Hershey.  And take up Fair-Trade chocolate.

Give up facebook.  And take up a pen and piece of paper and a stamp, and write a note to a teacher, a friend, a loved one, someone sick, or someone lonely.

Give up TV.  And take up conversations.  Take up stronger relationships.  Take up the Bible.  Take up prayer.

Give up oppression.  Give up resentment.  Give up fear.  And take up justice.  Take up reconciliation.  Take up love.

Mark your forehead with ashes – not to take up shame and guilt.  Mark your forehead with ashes – and take up your inheritance as a child of God.  Take up your task to do the work of Christ.  Mark the start of your journey to the cross, so that when you get to Easter, you can look back and know that this Lent, you did something with God.  Then sing “Hallelujah, The Kingdom has come.”

If you liked this post, you might find the podcast “Pulpit Fiction” interesting.  Go to the Pulpit Fiction homepage for commentaries on the Biblical text throughout Lent – and every week of the year.

40 Notes in 40 Days – An old-fashioned exercise for a digital age.

Follow The Fat Pastor on Facebook

Follow on Twitter

14 Comments

Filed under Christianity

Jesus, Pilate, Barabbas, and centuries of violence

As we approach Easter, my church continues to work through Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours that Changed the World.  This Sunday, we will be looking at Jesus before Pilate.  As found in the gospel of Mark, the story goes like this:

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Gospel of Mark 15:1-15 New Revised Standard Version

Here we have an incredibly powerful narrative of Jesus, Pilate and Barabbas.  If used properly, this story can be a mirror to our own souls – forcing the reader to ask the question, “What do you wish me to do with the man?”  In this dramatic scene, the people are given a choice.  The Gospel of Mark presents this choice in clear and uncertain terms.  Barabbas is describes as a rebel who murdered someone during an insurrection.  He was an enemy of the state – and he used violence to achieve his goal.

Barabbas was resentful of Roman rule and wanted, like so many Judeans at the time, to be free of Roman rule.  For centuries Judea had been under the thumb of one world superpower or another.  Rome was just another in a long line of foreign rulers.  The people longed to be free of oppression.  Barabbas had followed one path toward freedom.  We don’t know if he lead a great uprising, or if he was just a part of a troublesome skirmish, but the details of his crime are not important.  He is presented as a symbol.  He is the path of liberation through violence.

More than this though, he is the way of the world.  His path is the same path as the Romans.  Though he had the goal of overthrowing Roman rule, his means were the same that Rome used.  His path of violence was, in many ways, the only one that people knew.  It was the way of the world – it was the way of “might makes right.”  He wanted to make a new Kingdom, based on God’s law and God’s people, but he used the tactics upon which the Kingdom of Rome was built.  They were the same tactics on which the Kingdom of Perisa was built, and the Kingdom of the Babylonians, and the Kingdom of the Pharoah.

Jesus presents a different option. He was trying to build the Kingdom of God, which can only be built with peace, grace, humility and self-sacrifice.  Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies, to sell their possessions, to leave their families and their status and their well-being and their comfort.   Barabbas said, “Pick up your weapon and follow me.”  Jesus said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”

As we read the Gospel account of the people choosing to set Barabbas free, we must remember that the choice is ours.  Everyday we stand in that crowd.  Everyday we hear the chief priests – the pompous, the powerful, the comfortable, the talking-heads, the radio hosts, our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors – egging us on to set Barabbas free.  Everyday we must choose between the way of the world and the way of God.

We work either to build kingdoms of men, or the Kingdom of God.  Every time we choose to work for the good of others, every time we seek out a closer relationship with the outcast, every time we sacrifice our comfort or status for the sake of love, we reverse the decision that was made that day.  When we pay a little more for fair trade coffee, when we make an effort to recycle our trash, when we pick up our Bible and spend some time with God, when we ask a friend if it’s okay to pray for them, when we go to worship instead of sleeping in, when we witness to our faith through word and deed, we reverse the decision that was made that day.

Don’t let evil ones tell you that the decision was made by the Jewish crowds.  Don’t let them get away with pawning off this decision on them, because we are there making the same decision everyday.  Don’t let Pilate off because he tried to “wash his hands of this.”  It’s not that easy.  Jesus’ blood isn’t washed away with water and a towel.

This text has been misused to justify violence against millions for centuries.  It has been misused by people who want to avoid the question, “What do you want me to do with this man?”  Don’t let Mel Gibson’s movie tell you that it was the Jews that killed Jesus.  Don’t believe the lies.  Too often, depictions of the gospels in drama – called passion plays – get lazy.  They allow and sometimes encourage the viewer to side with Pilate, the reluctant Roman, and denounce the actions of the Jewish mob.

Don’t forget that the road from Oberammergau to Dachau is only a short drive in a car, and throughout history has been shorter than that in the hearts of those looking for someone to blame.  Read about the history of Oberammergau.  Read about Hitler’s visit in 1934.  Read about the changes they have made since 2000, and wonder why it took so long.  I live close to the longest running passion play in America, and yet its website is conspiculously free of anything about the link between violence against Jews and passion plays.

There are those that have deeply emotional responses to passion plays.  Part of my faith development includes a powerful experience with a passion play.  They are designed to emit emotional response.  There is a basic human response to the suffering of an innocent that should invoke emotional response.  All I am saying is, be careful.

If you see a passion play this year, do so with your eyes wide open.  Be honest with your own feelings.  Those emotions you feel – are they about the sin you see in yourself?  Do you have a contrite and broken heart because you see yourself in the crowd?  Do you see yourself in Pilate, trying to wash your hands of a something that you had the power to stop?  Or are you angry with those that killed Jesus?  Are you quick to blame others for sin in which we all participate?

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity