Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Short Death

I wonder if Lazarus was surprised.  I wonder if Lazarus had any sense of time as he lay in the tomb.  I wonder if he knew that he had been dead only four days when Jesus revived him.  Many questions come to our minds when we read the story of the Raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45, the gospel lesson appointed for the 5th Sunday of Lent.  It seems a strange choice, this story of resurrection amidst the season of Lent, but then again aren't death and life always colliding in our walk with Christ?

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.  These questions supplement other fine sets of questions, specifically getting at what is at stake for law and gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this case, Jesus, is prominently and authoritatively defeating death.  This is obviously a gospel function.  Indeed it is the sign extraordinaire that Jesus is the divine Son of God.  It is the sign that both causes many to believe in him, and his enemies to decisively move towards his elimination.

The prominence of illness and death is the presence of the Law here.  All will die.  Death leads to decay.  Decay leaves behind only dust.  These facts of life are an announcement of how much we need Jesus, thus they are the presence of the Law.  Also the words of both the sisters, and the words of the Jews are also words of Law as they articulate our natural fears. The sisters say, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  The Jews say, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying!"  The sisters speak of our fear of abandonment by God.  The Jews speak of our doubts about God's saving power.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no call to obedience here.  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to say "follow Jesus." We do not have that call here. The call to believe is not that word.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text? We have several choices in this text since the Word is speaking to a number of listeners.  We could identify with Lazarus, the one dead.  We too, as St. Paul says, are dead in our trespasses and sins, and Christ comes to make us alive.  We could also identity with the sisters who are grieving and wondering why Christ did not come and save their brother from death.  We too might wonder why God allows suffering and death to come to our loved ones and so we identify closely with these two women.  Another possibility is that we identify with the scoffers and skeptics who doubted that Jesus was who he said he was.  All these are good possibilities, but we will have to choose one.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The couplets we employ in thinking about this text will depend on whom we identify with.  If with Lazarus, then a couplet could be dead/alive.  If with the sisters, then we might think in terms of grieving/rejoicing.  If the bystanders who doubt, then our couplet might be doubting/believing.

5.  Exegetical work:  Raymond Brown,in his classic commentary on John's gospel speaks for a number of scholars when he notes that this story is really the fulcrum of the gospel.  He says, [This miracle] is so close to [the realm of the divine] that it may be said to conclude the ministry of signs and inaugurate the ministry of glory." (The Gospel According to John, p. 429)  Peter Ellis, quoting C.K. Barrett, notes that Lazarus' experience is really the experience of all Christians: "The pattern of the life of all Christians is determined by the movement from death to life experienced by Lazarus." (The Genius of John, p. 186)   Luther's contemporary, Desiderius Erasmus, also speaks of Lazarus' experience as one common to all Christians:  "[Jesus] could have brought [Lazarus' resurrection] about with just a nod that the buried man returned to life and came out, but the great shout is the mark of the great power whereby the sinning soul that is far from God's sight, entombed in the darkness of wrongdoing and decaying in the filth of its sins, returns to life and comes out into the light of truth." (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. IV, p. 426)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  There a number of fine analyses archived under 2005, 2008, and 2011 at study.  Under 2011 for the 5th Sunday in Lent, Gospel A, Bill White centers on the disciple, Thomas, for his analysis, pointing out how we, like Thomas, can see only death when it comes to following Jesus.  Jesus, however, sees death and life for us as we follow him.  White thinks that this story is not about Lazarus' death and resurrection, but Christ's.  This might prove a very fruitful path to follow in preaching this text.

Blessings on your proclamation!