Homily, March 19

Read John chapter 11 here. 

  1. The raising of Lazarus – next of our extended scenes from John’s Gospel. 
    1. Following Nicodemus’ visit and Photini, the woman at the well. 
    2. I learned in seminary that there’s a view that the Jesus of John’s Gospel is very unemotional, impassive – doesn’t seem to suffer or struggle, even on the cross. 
      1. I wonder if that’s true to John’s Gospel or to how we read John’s Gospel.
        1. Humor and wordplay that we easily miss because we’re not looking for it; emotion too? 
    3. But even if you see John’s Jesus as a very stoic figure, this story a big exception, because it contains what is famously the shortest verse of Scripture: Jesus wept. 
    4. So let’s talk about feelings, emotions, in this Gospel story. 
  1. Mary and Martha’s Feelings
    1. Interesting overlap between John and Luke – many differences, but both have stories about Jesus’ friendship with sisters Mary and Martha. 
      1. Luke 10: Martha is busy preparing a meal for an honored guest; Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening.
      2. Lots to say about that story – mention it because dynamics of sisters seem to match John’s account.
        1. Martha: trying to hold it together and make sense of things, come to some sense of peace that will help her move forward.
        2. Mary: overwhelmed with emotion, weeping at Jesus’ feet. 
    1. Both sisters start their dialogue with Jesus the same way: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 
      1. Tendency to read it backwards from resurrection – Lazarus’, and Jesus’. Sad, but calm. Anticipating grief resolved and transformed. 
      2. What if we read it as angry? Even as bitter? 
      3. (Read it a couple of times)
    1. If you attend funerals with any regularity, part of this passage may be familiar.
      1. Jesus’ dialogue with Martha is a funeral gospel.
      2. Appropriate and powerful.
        1. Martha is a lot like us, when we’re dealing with a death. 
        2. Strives to trust in resurrection. But also – like us – she grieves an immediate loss. 
        3. Swanson: “[Martha] sees to the heart of things: of course she trusts that the dead will be raised… She expects that God will regather all the faithful and balance all accounts… But she also knows that [an eventual] general resurrection has no immediate impact on the fact of bereavement.  Lazarus, her brother is dead.  Trust in God’s ultimate balancing of accounts does not dull the slicing agony of losing him.”
        4. [breath pause]
      3. Martha’s bereavement is unexpectedly reversed. But her feelings, in this moment, are so true, so real. 
      4. Jesus’ response – pointing to a life beyond this world. A life in God beyond earthly death. 
      5. Martha’s response – she doesn’t say, Yes, I believe that. She says, I believe in You, Jesus. Her trust, her hope, her comfort is not in abstract ideas or doctrinal teachings but in her friend, whom she also knows as her Messiah. 
  1. Jesus’ Feelings. 
    1. There’s a LOT about Jesus’ emotions in this passage!
      1. He loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. A close friendship – attested in two quite different gospels. 
      2. Other than that, through the conversation with Martha, he sounds pretty calm: Johannine impassive Jesus. 
      3. But then Mary throws herself at his feet, weeping, and the group that gathered to console the sisters are also weeping, and things get interesting. 
    2. NRSV, verse 33: “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” [repeat]
      1. Sounds like a fancy way of saying he was really sad. 
      2. David Bentley Hart: “He groaned in his spirit and yielded himself to his turmoil.” 
      3. Richard Swanson: “Jesus snorted in disgust in breath, and shuddered.” 
        1. Quoting Swanson at length: “The word [translated as groans] … is generally translated so that the audience is given a glimpse into the tender inner workings of Jesus’ heart.  He feels bad that Lazarus is dead.  He even cries. What a guy. But the word does not refer to tender inner feelings. The word, [embrimaomai],  refers to the snorting of a warhorse. It should generally be translated as “snorted in anger.”  Inner feelings, especially in the face of bereavement, are surely difficult to express, and even harder to translate, but the word will carry with it a note of anger, disgust, even.” 
          1. (1) Suggests that translations that smooth this over are editing the Bible to match their ideas of who Jesus ought to be and what he ought to be feeling. 
          2. (2) Anybody who’s lost a loved one knows that people’s emotions around a death can be quite complicated and intense! 
        2. Swanson continues: “Jesus snorts in anger, maybe even in disgust.  Why? One possibility is that [being] scolded by Martha… drove him over the edge.  He was angry, and the storyteller shows us the anger… Another possibility is that Jesus is angry with himself.” 
          1. (1) Swanson says there’s a prefix on the word that points it inward. 
          2. (2) “Such a reading would give us a Jesus who has just now realized the real-world, real-sister impact of his choice to delay,  It is a fine thing to do things so that ‘the Son of God may be glorified.’  It is another thing to crash two sisters hard into raw grief that he could have prevented.”
    1. Circling us back to the beginning of this passage and Jesus’ decision not to rush to Bethany, upon hearing that Lazarus is ill.  
      1. Church’s teaching: Jesus fully human and fully divine. 
        1. Does that mean his knowledge, understanding, and decisions are always perfect? 
        2. Or was part of the point of becoming human, for God to understand us better by living a limited, uncertain, vulnerable life like ours? 
        3. Did being fully human mean for Jesus, as it surely does for us, that sometimes we don’t understand the implications of our choices and actions? Sometimes we regret things done and left undone? 
      2. The story invites us to assume Jesus always planned to resurrect Lazarus, to raise him from the dead. 
        1. He’s healed the sick before. Time to go big. 
        2. How to interpret his delay: Either he knows about the sisters’ grief and doesn’t care, because his agenda of escalating miracles is more important; OR … he doesn’t really understand the stakes until he’s face to face with it. Until he sees Martha’s anger and Mary’s tears. 
      1. Which Jesus do you prefer? Which Jesus is easier to love, to trust? 
        1. For me, it’s the Jesus who has a great plan… and doesn’t fully recognize its costs until he sees his friends in pain. 
        2. And I think the plain reading of this passage fits this understanding of Jesus. A Jesus who learns, changes, and grows – as fully human, and fully divine. 
        3. This is why – in that famously brief verse – Jesus weeps. The enormity, the absoluteness of loss, when experienced from the human, earthly side of things, has just dawned on him. He finally knows – finally feels – what it’s like to lose someone, for good. He weeps. 
  1. Let me say one more thing, briefly, about where this story fits in our trajectory towards Holy Week. 
    1. We have switched the order of our Gospel passages for this week and next week, so that our kids can work with the story of the Man Born Blind in All Ages Worship next week.
    2. For John, this story leans heavily towards the cross. Listen to the verses that immediately follow it: 
      1. “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 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.’ … So from that day on they planned to put him to death…” 
    3. Jesus enters Jerusalem for Passover, greeted by excited crowds, in the next chapter. We are close to the endgame. 
    4. Orthodox churches observe Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday –  because this miracle, and the reaction against it as told by John, so clearly pivot the Gospel towards its final and necessary chapter. 
    5. I’m a little sorry to disrupt that escalation by moving this story earlier. But maybe it’s not so bad. 
      1. Palm Sunday and Good Friday can come at us fast. 
      2. Not always time to take in how quickly and completely the tide turns against Jesus. 
      3. So this year, at least, we are taking a little extra time to know where all this is leading. 
      4. Next week we’ll hear about another disruptive miracle next week, with an awareness of the deepening shadow of fear and judgment hanging over Jesus. 
      5. Let’s continue the journey, friends. 

Richard Swanson on Jesus’ snorting in anger: