Sunday, April 15, 2012
This Week's Sermon: "Easter Hill"
A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (2 This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” 5 Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. 6 When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, 7 he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.” (CEB)
“The Lazarus Mission: In Search of the Meaning of a Miracle,” Week One
The clouds of dust built up and billowed around our parched and tired bodies. Donning latex gloves, the dozen or so of us on the site began reaching our hands into giant buckets of stucco and plastering that stucco against the walls of the tiny, two-room house being built. It was the suburbs of Tijuana, Mexico, in the middle of June, and in the heat of the early summer, American missionaries from all over had migrated across the border to build houses for Amor Ministries all around Tijuana. After mixing enough cement to form the foundation of the house, wooden frames were erected, along with a roof and proper windows and doors that lock. And the walls? As my senior pastor said afterwards, it used to be we would even paint the walls, if we had time. The family, who usually had previously been living in a shack, would choose the color, and one year, the entire neighborhood, everyone who was receiving a new house, picked varying colors of pastels, yellows and lavenders and baby blues to paint the outside of their houses. After applying the final coats of paint and leaving the mission site, one person remarked that from a distance, the newly-painted homes looked like Easter eggs. And so, that neighborhood was christened “Easter Hill.” And though named that for the beautiful colors, the implications of death and rebirth, of loss and renewal, were not lost on anyone, either.
This Sunday marks the start of a new sermon series for us that we are beginning as a celebration of the church season of Easter, as well as of the earthly season of spring—which means that for both Christians and non-Christians alike, this is a time of growth and renewal and, most importantly, of new life! Having just heard the most famous resurrection story the Bible has to offer on Easter Sunday, we will be spending four weeks going verse-by-verse through the second-most famous resurrection story—the story of the raising of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, a story that is only found in the Gospel of John. It is not the only resurrection miracle that Jesus performs—there is also, in the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the girl who is dead, and Jesus says that no, she is simply sleeping, before commanding her to awaken. But the raising of Lazarus is told in such rich and lavish detail that it has come to occupy a unique place in our collective memory as an exceptionally well-known and well-loved story. This week, to kick off the story, we begin with Jesus first hearing that Lazarus has fallen ill—not that Lazarus has died—but that he is sick.
And that distinction matters, because at this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus has preached of Himself as a giver of eternal life by being a direct conduit between us and God—He tells the Samaritan woman at the well that He can provide her with living water, rather than simply the water she came to draw, and He has referred to Himself in the feeding of the masses as the bread of life itself. But as far as the miracles that Jesus has performed so far in John’s Gospel, from the turning of water into wine and giving sight to a man born blind, Jesus has performed healings—not resurrections. And while the story of Jairus’s daughter being raised by Jesus comes fairly early in each of the other three Gospels, the raising of Lazarus is the very last miracle that Jesus performs in John’s Gospel before the beginning of the Passion narrative—the raising of Lazarus is Jesus’s grand finale, it is the massive display of fireworks in which He is going to bow out.
Which in turn creates a paradox—it is common for Jesus to use His miracles as tools for teaching, for demonstrating God’s power and grace, and raising someone from the dead would certainly do that. But Jesus’s opening line in this story is, “This illness is not fatal!” It is as though He has downgraded Lazarus’s illness from, say, terminal heart disease to a case of the sniffles. One I would need the help of many dedicated doctors to recover from, but for the other I simply need chicken soup and vitamin C!
So there are two potential ways of resolving this paradox—one is that Jesus is simply in denial. After all, He has just received disastrous news about a very close friend of His, and so naturally, Jesus is taking a page out of the Gospel according to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and is in the first stage of grief. But as we will learn next week, this is not the case, for Jesus is in fact the one to break the news that Lazarus has died, even before He has arrived on the scene.
The other option is to recognize Jesus’s boast for what it is—an assurance that not even death itself can hold a candle to the greatness and glory of God. Recall what I said just a moment ago—that this was supposed to be Jesus’s grand finale. Well, the previous ten chapters of story have been building us up to this, bit by bit, piece by piece—the first miracle doesn’t even involve a healing, it just involves some water at a wedding. Then, two chapters later, Jesus heals a centurion’s servant, but that is done from a distance, we don’t actually get to meet the servant. Then we finally get into the face-to-face healings. And now Jesus is playing His trump card. The challenges have grown in each passing miracle, and Jesus responds gamely each time. In fact, He even ups the degree of difficulty by waiting for two days before saying to His disciples, “Okay, let’s go see Lazarus now.” If you think of Jesus as a doctor—which is probably how a number of people did in fact view Him back then, as a sort of itinerant doctor—what sort of an on-the-job doctor, upon being presented with a terminally ill patient, would say, “Yeah…I think I’m gonna take a long weekend. See you on Monday?” Jesus is so completely courageous, so unafraid of this newest challenge, that He is fine making it more challenging!
We seldom have such a luxury in our own lives, to take challenges as they come at us with such grace, poise, and confidence. If we can find a way to make something less challenging, we often will. We take shortcuts. We use the Cliffs Notes. We download pre-written sermons off the internet. But when it comes to mission, to being a church in today’s world, there are no such shortcuts. There is no neat-and-easy how-to manual. We have to simply take the plunge together and hope and pray that the work we do in our communities and on behalf of others might actually result in a resurrection, in some sort of renewal, in their lives. And that kind of faith does not always come easy, even for a Christian.
But in this story, it does for Jesus. And there’s a reason for this—because He can foresee not only Lazarus’s resurrection, but His own. And a crucial detail about Christ’s resurrection, that we heard read last week on Easter Sunday, was that He had left the shroud, His burial cloth, behind. Quite literally, Jesus knows that the power of God’s love is so great that He is able to leave the trappings of death far behind Him in favor of clothing Himself in life, and in love. That is the sort of resurrection that is still possible. It is the sort of resurrection that the colors of Easter Hill represented—gone were the grays and browns of dirt and urban decay, replaced by the vibrant colors of new life. The burial clothes of abject poverty had begun to be shed by this community in Tijuana in favor of something new.
Here’s the catch, though—new life is precisely that—new. It is a foundation to build upon, not a story to end. And so while this may indeed be the last hurrah of Christ’s pre-Passion ministry, it is not simply the end of ten chapters of buildup and suspense. It is a beginning—for Lazarus, for Mary and for Martha, for the disciples, for all those in the crowd that will soon gather around a tomb that, like Christ’s own, goes from containing a body to being miraculously empty. And in Tijuana, the job wasn’t done, the mission wasn’t completed, simply because the houses were built. The ministry of mission, and of justice, and of love continues—just like the resurrected Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson
April 15, 2012