Tuesday, 3 November 2015
Sermon November 1, 2015 John 11:1-45
“Unbind him, and let him go.”
In considering today’s Gospel we are without a doubt in miracle territory. Lazarus was well and truly dead. He had been in his tomb for not one or two or three days—but four long days in a hot climate. Martha is very clear about the condition of the body, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” It is reminiscent of the opening line of A Christmas Carol:
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it…Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Well Old Lazarus was dead as a door nail. There was no doubt whatever about that. And yet Jesus does the surprizing audacious thing—he raises Lazarus from the dead. Indeed there are many surprizing things about this event. First we have Jesus rather nonchalantly waiting to answer the request from Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, to come to Lazarus’ aid when he was ill. He delays going to see Lazarus. He seems to be saying, “I will delay until he is dead so I can really show everyone that the power of God is in me and I can perform the miracle and raise him”. The next surprizing thing is that Jesus weeps. He sees the distress that Lazarus’ death has caused Mary and Martha. When he sees it he weeps. There are only two times recorded in the Gospel that Jesus weeps.
This is one of them. Did Jesus not expect that Lazarus’ death would cause Mary and Martha distress? Jesus is able to know people so fully and here he is seemingly callous about the distress he will cause by delaying his return. That is until he is face-to-face with Mary and Martha’s distress and he is moved and brought to tears. Finally the great surprize is the act of raising Lazarus from the dead. Many surprizes—indeed it all amounts to many surprizes wrapped in a puzzle inside a mystery. All in all it is a miracle indeed.
What are we then to make of this miracle? Do we accept it, as improbable as it is, on face value and add it to the list of miracles in the bible? After all we are modern enlightened twenty-first century people who are supposed to believe in science and not in miracles. What do we do with all the miracles recorded in the bible and especially all the ones that Jesus is recorded performing. Then there is the central mystery of the Gospels—Jesus triumph of death on Easter Sunday. The miracle of Lazarus is nothing compared that that. Do we have to believe in the literalness of the miracles that are recorded in the bible? Do we try and mythologize them a la Rudolph Bultmann who tried to interpret biblical events existentially? Do try to understand them in an historical context. Do we accept them as a matter of faith and say, well, if I don’t believe it all then I can’t believe any of it and what then would I base my faith on?
How to understand biblical miracles is a challenge for many modern Christians and it is a challenge that I have struggled with for many years as part of my faith journey. My approach at this point in my journey is not to be concerned about the literal facts. Did Jesus actually change the water into wine at the marriage at Cana? If so, why did he apparently make enough for ten wedding parties?
If Jesus drank wine why was there ever a prohibition movement? Was it red or white and was there ever any wine like it before or since? Did Jesus really walk on water coming out to the disciples in a boat on the Sea of Galilee? Did Peter actually also walk on water until he lost his nerve of his faith? More controversially, was Mary actually a virgin or was that a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young girl? What each of us believes and how we understand these events is a matter of faith. I do not want to try and convince you about the facts one way or the other and whether or not they happened the way they are recorded.
What is important for me is the truth that is contained in the event and not the truth of the events. How are we to understand the truth of the message that is contained in the scripture passage? In today’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus what can that say to us here today?
The key for me is the last statement of Jesus, “Unbind him, and let him go.” This is exactly what Jesus is saying to each of us. We are to unbind ourselves from the things which bind us hand and foot and prevent us from living the full life that Jesus calls us to. There are many things which bind us and prevent us from living the life that Jesus calls us to live.
One way of looking at the things that bind us to our present life is to think of it as sin—those things which prevent us from living fully in Jesus Christ. We may look at other people and believe we are better than them. We put all our attitudes that we don’t want to recognize in ourselves on others. They are the problem and I do not have that problem. They are the ones causing trouble in our church and not anything that I am doing. If only those people would become Christians like I am then the world would be more as God wants it to be and how Jesus calls us to follow him.
If we are to love our neighbours as ourselves we first have to love ourselves. If we are to do that we need to be able to acknowledge the aspects of ourselves that we don’t like and don’t want to acknowledge. If you think of someone who really gets your goat—who really annoys you, what is it about that person that causes you to react so strongly? Once you have identified those characteristics look at yourself. Could it possibly be, in any way that those things are parts of you that you don’t really want to recognize?
For me one of the most powerful examples that Jesus showed us is the case of the woman caught in adultery. Are any of us in a position to throw the first stone? Are any of us without sin? I know I am not. Although I certainly at times have an impulse to cast that stone and am willing to join in with the other stone throwers. Of course when I feel this way I can easily feel I am justified.
Jesus calls us to love one another and love ourselves. We need to start by truly loving all those unloved, disowned parts of ourselves and bring them to Jesus in acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. In that way we can start to become the people that God intends us to be. Amen.