Sunday, August 30, 2015

Come Out, Now Live

Come Out, Now Live
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 30, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 11: 38-44
Jonah 2

My anthem from today, my song: "God Is. . . and I Do"

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

8 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” [1]

I chose the Jonah passage to compliment this, the raising of Lazarus story for obvious reasons. Many people look at the Jonah, being swallowed by the whale, and inside the great fish for three days before being spit out on dry land to be a parallel to Jesus being in the tomb for three days, and you could also make the parallel of course to Lazarus in the tomb. . . We know the story of Jonah, and perhaps this prayer that he speaks from the belly of the fish is one of my favorite passages in all of the Bible. . . I get it . I understand it. . . It has always spoken to me:
“I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3     You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
4     Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
howa shall I look again
upon your holy temple?’
5     The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
6     at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
7     As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8     Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
9     But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. [2]

Jonah says this because he has run away from God, and despite the running he is being delivered by God, but the best part of this story is that it is only chapter two. We get to know where the story ends, where it goes from here. He goes back to Nineveh where God had been sending him all along, and then God does what Jonah was worried he'd do, he forgives Nineveh and spares them. . . and Jonah is bitter about it. He becomes disillusioned to the whole thing, forgetting how he himself too has been spared. . . Wouldn't it be nice to know what happens to Lazarus, the rest of the story, having been brought back from the dead to live, to have to live in this slow moving, world of time and tears? Wouldn't it be nice to know what happens next? Wouldn't it be nice to know what Lazarus thought about Jesus, life, death, and salvation?
Because it tells us Jesus loved him, and it tells us that he had been dead for four days. It tells us that there would probably be a strong odor. It tell us that a large stone sealed him inside the tomb. It tells us that Jesus was greatly disturbed again, as he had been just before he began to weep in what we read last week. It tells us that he asked that the stone be moved away, it tells us that Jesus said to Lazarus, crying out to him in a loud voice, Lazarus come out! And it tells us that Lazarus came out, covered in strips of cloth, and that those strips of cloth should be taken off of him, unbinding him, so that he can be let go. He is let go, and the story is over. At least this story. . . we do find the name Lazarus again later in the gospel. . . Jesus dines with Lazarus again and his sisters, and it is then that Mary anoints Jesus with the perfume, and Judas gets angry, and we hear his name one last time when it says that he needed to fear for his life as well because the Jews wanted him dead too, like he represented the power of Jesus, and the high priests and scribes were desperately trying to keep all of that under wraps because they were afraid of how the Romans might react. . .
But other than that, it's all we get. . . don't you wish there was more. I wrote the poem in the bulletin with this idea in mind:
Wouldn’t it be great to talk to Lazarus,
To get to hear from him, what he felt,
What it feels like to die, to fall headlong
Into the abyss, and be raised from it,
To be called from his tomb, his shroud,
The stink of his own decay, to come out,
And live. What would life be like for him?
Wouldn’t it be great to know, if only
He’d been asked, or followed, we’d know,
And we’d be invited into the tomb, and out
Again, born a second time, to follow
The shepherd and eat the bread of life.
If he’d written a gospel, what would it say?

And it's not just Lazarus. . . I've often wished we could hear more from the other recipients of Jesus' miracles. . . . like that blind man, or like the man crippled who was hanging around those pagan baths, or the married couple from Cana, or the woman whom Jesus saved from stoning. . . but we don't, and that is basically the case in the other gospels, too. If there was one demographic of biblical New Testament characters who don't get enough air time it would have to be the people whom Jesus heals. It is so much the case that people are always trying to bend the stories together to get more information about them.  Mary Magdelene is a huge example. Her story is quite interesting because she is almost the opposite, we only have the after story for her, but people have used their imagination to connect her name to a healing or  an earlier encounter with Jesus, often the woman saved from the stoning.
Perhaps it is just wishful speculation, inspired by this great desire we have to know more, to feel more, to be able to hear direct from those who experienced Jesus in a truly profound and personal way, but there is a movement within Biblical Scholarship that is trying to show, prove, and make the claim that the Gospel of John, this fourth Gospel, was actually penned by Lazarus, and not John the Disciple, son of Zebedee. . . most of it is connected to the description: disciple whom Jesus loved. . . because earlier on in this story it says how much Jesus loved Lazarus, and refers to him as the one whom Jesus loved. . . and there is other evidence that has to do with geography, the closeness between Bethany and Jerusalem. They point to pieces of stories from the other gospels that connect Lazarus and Mary and Martha to Simon the Leper, connecting them as his children. . .  much of the evidence is really compelling. . . it is certainly as compelling as the very fleeting evidence that we have that John the son of Zebedee is the actual author, either. . . They work to disprove that tradition by claiming that the gospels being given names of authorship comes late in their usage, and that granting them an Apostolic connection would have been a big deal. . . you may wonder why an apostolic connection would be important, but to be honest it is still the reason that there is no agreement of union between the Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches. . . . but the truth is, with the Roman persecution of Christianity going on, there is not much that is definitively known about those first one hundred years, so anything is possible. And to be honest it doesn't really matter who the author is. . . that would be worth arguing over, but it is interesting to take into account the idea that Lazarus could be the author because of what it would mean to the interpretation.
Think about it, if you were Lazarus, and you had been raised from the dead, if you had tasted death, and been born into new life, it would make sense that you would write a gospel like John's, one with a real emphasis on believing and being granted life, one that emphasizes being born again. One that seems to center around you being raised from the dead, as this one does, because in many ways this is the turning point of the gospel, the high water mark of Jesus and the anger of the Jews before he enters Jerusalem. It has seemed that their anger has been growing with each miracle, culminating to new heights with this one. You'd probably see the world in a much more black and white way, and there is that here, there is you either believe or you don't, there is not judgment there, it isn't ragging on people who don't believe, but it states constantly and frankly that some people believe and some don't, that some are in Jesus' flock and that it would seem that some are not, that some recognize Jesus' voice and others just don't, they just never do. It's all here. It also makes sense that Jesus' language and talking would be on a different plain like we've seen, that there is a great spiritual quality to what Jesus says, that there is a great promising quality to what Jesus says, and that there is no doubt in the writer's mind that Jesus is certainly Lord, and all that he claims to be, True Bread, the light, the word, the Good shepherd, the true vine, light coming into the world of darkness, the way, the truth, the life, the resurrection and the life. It makes sense that the writer could be Lazarus. . . or at least someone just as touched by Jesus, because the promise and the connection is there in spades, written by someone who has felt the truth in their own life very deeply in a changing moment.
He makes some serious claims here as well, about life and faith, believing and eternity. . . And he makes it known that all of those promises apply to us as well.
He writes in John 20:30-31
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

So that You. . . we are the promise, we are invited and so have the ability to be touched, believe, and receive life in the same earth shaking way as Lazarus does. . . . So that leaves us with one important question, having thought about the intense point of view of this fourth gospel, having thought about what that point of view could mean, it leaves the question: what gospel would we write? What is our point of view? What truth would we seek to share with the world? What would it look like, and how bold and confident would it be? It is interesting to think about for sure. . . . amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 11:38-44). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
a Theodotion: Heb surely
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jon 2:2-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.