Dare to believe! (a sermon on John 11 – the raising of Lazarus)

“So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
(John 11:53)

If you don’t recognise this verse, it’s taken from the end of the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to St John, where the ‘they’ who planned to put someone to death were the ‘Scribes and the Pharisees’ (the religious leaders of first century Palestine) and the person who they planned to put to death was, of course, Jesus!

The verse comes at the conclusion of one of the most remarkable stories ever told about Jesus – namely, the story of Jesus’ raising of His dead friend, Lazarus!

Lazarus is raised from the dead! It’s like a scene out of one of those mummy movies where a corpse, bound in bandages comes staggering out of his tomb, with children screaming and women fainting! I think Steven Spielberg could have a lot of fun with the tomb scene in ‘Lazarus, the movie’. What would be harder, I suspect, is this epilogue, where the clergy gather to plot to kill Jesus in the aftermath of His miracle.

It’s hard to believe that Jesus’ great gift of life could result in His death. Mind you, I appreciate that for many people, what’s hard to believe in this reading, is not so much the ending of the story, but the whole thing! It all seems a bit unbelievable..

I can understand why people might struggle with this story. Dead people coming back to life is not a part of our experience. We might wish things like this happened. Indeed, anybody who has lost someone they truly loved has wished a million times that they would come back. It just never seems to happen. And there is another good reason for thinking that the story of Lazarus’ comeback might not be an exact account of the original event. It’s the fact that this story, as we have it in the Gospel of John, was written down a long time after the events described actually took place!

That’s the scholarly consensus anyway. Most scholars agree that the Gospel of John was the last of the four great accounts of the life of Jesus to have been written. Mark’s gospel was probably the first –written within twenty-something years of the events described, whereas John is thought not to have been written until the beginning of the second century – seventy or more years after the event described!

Over seventy years, memories fade and stories get embellished. This would explain too why John’s gospel stores are so long as compared to those in the other gospels.

If you compare, for example, the Gospel of Mark (which, as I say, is thought to have been the first Gospel written) the stories there are short and sharp. Jesus almost seems to be on speed as He moves from town to town, healing dozens of persons in one spot, then immediately jumping into a boat, landing somewhere else, healing more people, driving out demons and doing some teaching – all in a day’s work!

The stories in John are long – very long – in comparison:

  • the story of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3)
  • the woman at the well (John 4)
  • Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9)
  • And now this story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11)

Could it be that these yarns were originally stories of relatively unspectacular events that, over time, became increasingly embellished and so evolved into tales of the miraculous and extraordinary!

You may be familiar with the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ (apparently also known as ‘Russian Scandal’, though I don’t like the Western Imperialist overtones of either title so I’ll just refer to the game as ‘Whispers’). In Whispers, you have a circle of people who pass on a message. The first person whispers the message to the second, who whispers it to the third, and so on, and by the time the message gets all the way around the circle, the final version invariably bears little resemblance to the original!

Was the story of the raising of Lazarus (along with other stories in John’s Gospel) like that? Was it perhaps initially a story about Lazarus catching a cold, and when he saw Jesus he suddenly got better? After all, how could a story that took place seventy years before it was written down really bear much resemblance to what originally happened? That just doesn’t sound plausible!

And it doesn’t sound plausible if the transmission of the Gospel stories worked like Whispers, and yet that’s not how it worked. For one thing, the early Christians didn’t whisper their story. The proclaimed it very loudly, for all to hear!  Even more importantly, the game of Whispers only works because the people who are doing the whispering are telling an unfamiliar story. No one player knows the story before it’s whispered to them. It’s not their story, and so they are likely to forget lots of details.

This was not the case in the transmission of the Gospel stories. The Gospel stories were performed, regularly and loudly, and I imagine they were regularly performed by the very characters who appeared in the stories!

I’m sure that Lazarus himself would have retold his story often to the church in Bethany. I imagine Mary and Martha would have too – standing up and giving a dramatic, blow-by-blow account of everything that happened on that fateful day.

The people who were featured in these stories were the same people who went on to retell their stories, and John himself was said to have lived to a great age (the only disciple who wasn’t martyred) which is presumably why nobody felt there was any need to write these things down until after he was gone.

I’ve been letting my imagination play with this idea for a while, wondering what it would have been like to have been a part of one of those early Christian communities where there was no Gospel reading, but rather a Gospel performance – a dramatic retelling of one of the stories of Jesus, retold by someone who was part of the original event! I think it would have been fantastic – almost as good as having been there yourself!

Of course, I don’t want to discount the possibility that the retelling of a story could lead to that story being embellished over time, but the opposite is often also true. That is, it’s often not until a story has shared around quite a few times that all the facts come to light and the full story is made known!

I think of the saga of my friend, Morde Vanunu – the man exposed Israel’s stockpile of nuclear weapons hidden under the Negev desert! When Morde’s photographs of the Dimona nuclear reactor were first published in 1986, and when he was then suddenly kidnapped and shipped back to Israel, I remember the stories that were first published about him – stories about him being a sophisticated spy, on the one hand, and others about him being a treacherous criminal who was selling out his country for money! Over time though, as the different players in the drama were able to make their contributions to the larger story, the greater truth started to emerge!

I think a lot of stories work like that, with different perspectives being added over time – perspectives that complete the story rather than embellish it.

I think of what we hear on the ABC about Syria. We generally get one very partial perspective on the situation there. Over time, more truth emerges (whether or not the ABC chooses to publish it). Eventually, I believe, the full story will come out about Syria, about Manus Island, about 9/11, etc. Often it takes time to get the full story!

I suspect these stories in John’s gospel developed like that. They grew over time, and as they were publicly performed again and again, I think they grew in truth, because the very characters who were a part of the original stories would hear their stories retold and would then contribute something, and so that story would be enlarged for the next time it was performed!

Of course, not every character in every story would have participated in those performances. It’s obvious that the woman at the well (featured in John chapter 4) was not involved in any of the church’s early performances. If she had been, we would know her name. The same is true, of course, of ‘the man born blind’ (John 9).

We know Nicodemus’ name! Does that mean Nicodemus ended up joining the early church? That’s likely, I think, and, if so, it’s likely that he stood up at more than one church meeting and shared his story of his encounter with Jesus!

This is how the Gospel of John took shape, I believe – through the repeated public performance of the stories of Jesus, eventually written down for posterity once the original characters in the story had all passed on and were no longer available to retell their stories for themselves.

If this is a reasonably accurate account of the way today’s story about Jesus and Lazarus reached us, the important question to ask, from my point of view, is what were the original performers of this story trying to get across to us?

I won’t read through the greater story again now, but when you get a chance, read through the entire story (that covers the entirety of John chapter eleven) and imagine that Mary was performing this story to a gathering of the early church (perhaps with Martha and Lazarus interjecting at regular points). My question is, when the performance is over, what has she left you with?

In truth, the first thing I get form this story is emotional exhaustion! It’s a story full of passion, though the emotions evolve over the course of the story.

Initially, there is frustration, as Jesus, who has been called to the side of His sick friend doesn’t take the illness seriously and seems to deliberately delay going to him!

When Lazarus then dies before Jesus gets to him, there’s a mixture of emotions on display. Mary seems to be angry with Jesus, and so has to spend some time by herself before she can bring herself to see Him, and there’s a broad sense of disappointment in Jesus and disillusionment, though the over-arching emotion is one of grief, which Jesus taps into, and we actually see Jesus weeping (John 11:35),

It’s in the midst of His grief though, Jesus commands the stone to be rolled back and for Lazarus to ‘come out!’ (John 11:4), and suddenly all that grief gives way to joy, and to shock, and to more confusion!

As I imagine myself listening to Mary perform this story (or to Martha or Lazarus or John) I get two strong messages coming through to me.

The first is that Jesus cares. Jesus cares about the big things – the resurrection of the dead, the coming of the Kingdom and the reign of justice – but He also cares about Mary’s hurt feelings, and he cares about His friend, Lazarus.

The other thing that comes through very powerfully for me here is that Jesus is a very difficult person to deal with. It’s often hard to make sense of what Jesus is saying. He does things that are totally unexpected, and it is absolutely impossible to get inside Jesus’ head! And it’s this discomforting side of Jesus that helps us make sense of why the clergy of Jesus’ day became so determined to kill Him!

If you’re familiar with prison culture, you will know that persons who are about to be released invariably tell their mates about the antics they are going to get up to once they get out. I haven’t yet spent time inside personally, but I’ve been told countless times that there’s always boasting going on from persons about to be released – boasting about the drugs they are going to score and the crimes they are going to commit as soon as they get out! I don’t doubt that a lot of this is just bravado, and yet an extraordinary number of persons who have been in custody do reoffend almost immediately upon release, and so find themselves back behind bars within days.

It seems to be human nature that we easily become institutionalised. We find it difficult to deal with the unfamiliar and prefer our environments to remain the same, even when that environment is a prison!

We are all capable of being like this, whether we live in a real prison or one of our own making. We stay in relationships where we are brutalised because we fear being on our own. We stick it out in a job that is destroying us spiritually because it’s familiar and because we are not sure what else we can do. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t! If we don’t have freedom, at least we have security!

Jesus offers freedom, change and new life, and that’s very confronting! We see those who engage with Jesus in this Gospel story enter into a sort of dance with Him where they have to learn to live on trust, with all the uncertainties that carries with it. Conversely, those whose desire is for stability – those who are invested in keeping things the way they are – feel impelled to shut Jesus down!

It is hard to believe that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead – for sure it is – and yet I have no doubt that Mary and Martha and Lazarus himself believed it happened! The question is whether we dare to believe!

Do we dare to believe in a world where dead people come back to life? Dare we entrust ourselves to someone whom we know cares for us, but who is difficult to understand and impossible to predict? Do we dare believe in Jesus?

first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 2nd, 2017

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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