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.
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