Sunday, April 6, 2014

The End of the Story

also posted at ThinkTheology.org
I was on the phone earlier this week with my pastor, and I mentioned that I was writing a homily on John 11: the raising of Lazarus.

"No sweat," he commented. "Everybody knows that story!"

Exactly. Everybody knows the story. We know the ending even before we begin to read the chapter. We can even picture our favorite movie or TV version of the story when Lazarus comes out of the tomb.

Sometimes, it's the most familiar stories that are the hardest to write about. It's a similar problem for movies like Titanic: how do you tell an interesting story when everybody already knows that the boat's going down to Davy Jones' Locker?

You have to slow down and focus on the human element. We all know the Titanic went down, but there were a huge number of tragic human stories that we don't normally think about. Titanic was such a huge success, as a movie, because it told very human stories about the tragedy. We learned to care about the characters, which made the we-already-know-the-boat-will-sink ending take on a new significance.

We all know the ending of the story in John 11: Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead, and many will put their faith in Him as a result. But like any true story that we already know the end of, we need to slow down and consider the human element in order to begin to see it through their eyes.

John invests several verses at the beginning to make it very clear that Jesus had a well-established and deep friendship with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. John reminds us that it's the same Mary who once poured perfume on Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair. Unlike other miracles, when Jesus met the person for the first time (the man born blind in John 9 or the invalid at the Bethesda pool in John 5), these were close friends. Jesus had a great deal of affection for them, and they knew they could count on Him.
Yet Jesus waits, because like the rest of us, He already knows the end of the story.
But His disciples don't, and they get worried that Jesus isn't taking the situation seriously enough. At the same time, they aren’t in a hurry to go anywhere near Lazarus' place, and questioned the wisdom of going there in light of previous bad experiences.

You can imagine their (short-lived) relief to hear that Lazarus was "asleep"; now there's no need to take the risk of going there. You can almost hear the sudden "you coulda heard a pin drop" silence when Jesus bluntly tells them that Lazarus is dead, and they were about to embark on another road trip.

Two incredible little tidbits are found here in John 15:14-16:
  1. Jesus is setting out on a journey to heal Lazarus, yet He includes the fascinating phrase: "I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe." Lazarus will benefit from Jesus' miraculous ministry, yet Jesus is also "glad" that this will result in God's glory (John 15:4) and that by it, His disciples would believe (which is incredible because, after all, they already believed to some extent, or they wouldn't be His disciples).
  2. Thomas, who we so famously refer to as "the Doubter", utters what sounds on the surface like a very defeatist, fatalistic comment: "Let us also go, that we may die with Him." But hold on a second: is this a statement of fatalism, or is it instead a statement of loyalty and identification with Jesus that is so profound that Thomas is the guy rallying the troops to follow even if death is the cost?
So they set out.
Jesus already knows the end of the story. The fearful-but-loyal disciples are following along, expecting to join Lazarus in death in the very near future.
Enter the sisters:

Jesus arrives in Bethany, and Martha rushes out to meet him. She says two important things that show her belief in Jesus: she remarks that Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had gotten there sooner, and that even though he was dead and buried, she believed that Jesus could still do something about it.

Was she complaining? Chastising Jesus for taking so long? Or were both statements born of her deep faith in Jesus? We simply can't tell from the printed word what Martha's tone of voice or facial expression was. But anyone who has buried a loved one knows the sense of mourning and bereavement that her family was going through; she was in pain.

Jesus' words about being the Resurrection and the Life bring a simple but profound response from Martha: In words reminiscent of Peter's famous declaration (Matthew 16:13-16), Martha replies: "I believe that You are the Christ (the Messiah)." Even in the midst of her grieving, she can make such a profound statement of faith.

Mary comes running to Jesus after Martha tells her that He's arrived. Mourners follow her as she rushes to meet with Him. Again, we do not know her tone of voice as she says, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died," but we know that she is an emotional mess, as is the rest of those who came with her. They are all in tears.
Jesus already knows the end of the story. Yet the sight of such grief and mourning causes Him to begin to cry, too. Their emotional pain touched Him deeply.
But there were also the naysayers and critics in the crowd, questioning how this Galilean rabbi could heal the sick and yet not prevent Lazarus' death. After all, Jesus was known to heal even from a distance (Luke 7:1-10).

So, here we have several groups of people standing around Jesus, with the recently deceased Lazarus entombed nearby:
  • the disciples, still unsure if they would see another morning themselves, yet probably moved by the sight of Mary and Martha’s grief; after all, they knew the family, too
  • the sisters and their circle of mourning friends, grief-stricken and in tears, still daring to hold on to faith that Jesus could still intervene
  • the doubters, also in teary-eyed mourning, unable to keep themselves from becoming cynical about this so-called rabbi
And Jesus already knows the end of the story. 

But first, He prays to His Father. Out loud, so those around Him could plainly hear. "I know You have heard me… I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, so that they may believe that You sent Me."

And now Jesus reveals the ending: Lazarus rises from the dead and exits the tomb. There is shock on the faces of some, tear-stained cries of joy from others, deepening faith in the disciples, and the glory-to-God response of the Jewish people who began to truly believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah they'd been waiting for.

Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life. The One with tears rolling down His cheeks, even as He uttered the words "come forth". The One who knew the end of the story before the beginning, yet was still deeply moved by the emotions of His friends. And the Jesus who could raise the dead, and by so doing, glorify His Father by proving that He was, indeed, the promised Messiah.
"Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in Him" (John 11:45).

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