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Studying scripture and preaching the Word to draw us into deeper understanding and more faithful discipleship.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

John 19:1-16a

I’ve got to admit, this passage gave me a run for my money.  I worked it and studied it and read it and re-read it and reworked it and it did not want to work with me.  I kept coming back to it and wondering “Where is the Good News?!” “Where is God at work?” And I wasn’t finding any answers.  And beyond that, it didn’t make sense.  Logically I understood the story, but there were so many elements that were right.  There were a lot of things that weren’t as they should be.  And so we’re going to look at those pieces, the ones that don’t make sense, and hope that God uses them to speak to us. 
Let’s start with Pilate. The majority of this scene is about Pilate’s interrogation and his repeated efforts to free Jesus because he can’t find him guilty of anything.  But the scene STARTS with Pilate having Jesus flogged. Pilate has his men beat him with leather straps, leather straps that likely had broken glass, or spikes, or something equally painful on the end. Pilate has him beaten. Before he’s ever found guilty, something Pilate never manages to do, Jesus is beaten. Pilate repeatedly “fights” for Jesus’ innocence and yet this coward of a man has no remorse about invoking senseless violence.  It’s not right. 
But the brokenness and the oddities and the insanity don’t stop there.  The actions and the arguments of the Jewish leaders don’t make a whole lot of sense either.  On the eve of one of the most Holy days in Jewish culture, the leaders in Jerusalem aren’t praying. They aren’t worshipping. They aren’t sharing with family. They aren’t preparing for the holy meal. They are caught up in politics and anger and violence.  They’re so hell-bent on getting rid of this Jesus-guy that they are willing to miss all that is sacred and holy about Passover.  They’ve become so lost in their convictions about what is right that they’ve gone completely wrong.  The Passover story is about God’s providence and God’s provision. It’s about God’s protection and God’s forgiveness. It’s about God fighting for the Israelites so that they might have freedom from the Egyptians. And at a time when all of that is to be remembered and celebrated, the chief priests, THE CHIEF PRIESTS, the religious leaders, are so stuck in their own fear and hatred that they can’t even see the possibility of God at work in Jesus.  Let’s set aside the complexity of “fully human and fully divine”, they don’t have to believe in the divinity of Christ to cut him a break. These priests were blinded by rage or fear or malice that they in no way could see anything godly in a man who has taught the scriptures, and healed people.  Something is definitely not right.
Sadly, it doesn’t stop there either.  Passover is a holy day. That means, for the Jews, that they had to be ritually clean to go to the temple and offer their sacrifices.  Once ritually clean, one had to remain ritually clean, which meant not entering defiled places.  Defiled places included the homes of Gentiles who didn’t practice Kosher or cleanliness laws.  If touched, a gentile’s uncleanliness would make a Jew ritually unclean, which then served as an impediment to drawing close to God.  So the chief priests wouldn’t enter Pilate’s home. They knew enough to know the law and stay out of the gentile’s home.  Ironically, they didn’t want to become unclean, because that would inhibit their relationship with God; never mind the fact that their hate and malice in their hearts was already blocking them from receiving or encountering God.  In supposedly fighting for God, they only end up clinging to the things that are against God. The brokenness of their relationship with God is only underscored by their last statement to Pilate.  In his last effort to release Jesus, Pilate asks, “Do you really want me to kill your king?” And the chief priests cry out, “We have no king but Caesar.”  That statement only serves to confirm the distance between them and God.  For the Jews, God was their king.  God and God alone.  They didn’t need Caesar as their king. They didn’t need his rule. They definitely didn’t want his men being in control of their lives. Caesar was not their king, not by choice anyway.  And yet, here, the phrase seems to roll right off their lips. “We have no king but Caesar.” So much for fighting for God. 
The things that are unsettling and disconcerting about this story remind us that when we let hate and anger, and fear and rage take hold in our hearts, it’s hard to find God.  It can be easy to convince ourselves that we are following the laws or serving God’s purposes, but what gets lost in hatred and fear is the truth that God is about love and wholeness, truth and compassion.  It’s hard to be about God when we don’t allow space for God. 
How Pilate and the chief priests act is bothersome.  They don’t do what is right. They don’t even do what might be reasonable.  But they were leaders and politicians, and leaders and politicians aren’t exactly known for their righteousness.  It probably doesn’t stretch our imagination all that much to think about a political leader doing whatever is necessary for political gain or in the name of “justice” regardless of how wrong it might be.  But it’s not just them who pose a problem.  It’s Jesus, too.  He is on trial and his life is on the line.  But Jesus does and says nothing. He doesn’t argue. He doesn’t contest. He doesn’t defend. He allows all these things to happen to him, to dictate his fate without calling anyone on the carpet or taking them down a notch.  Sure, he reminds Pilate that his power comes from above, but that didn’t accomplish anything. That didn’t fix anything. That didn’t win any arguments or set him free.  So then what did it really matter?!  It’s disconcerting that he doesn’t do anything. As one who fights for others, who speaks truth to power, who welcomes the unwelcomed, we expect him to DO something.  And he doesn’t. It’s not right.
There’s that pretty well-known praise hymn from the 90s, “Awesome God.”  It was a staple in praise sets for years, “Our God, is an awesome God, he reigns from heaven above, with wisdom, power, and love our God is an awesome God.” Most of us know those words and most of us are on board with those depictions of God. God is awesome. God reigns from heaven. God is wise. God is powerful. God is loving.  Simply stated those describe much of what we expect from God.  That song has been in my head a lot as I worked through this passage, not because this passage epitomizes that notion of God, but because it doesn’t.  For some reason, I keep looking for the God who is powerful and mighty and this passage does not provide it.  Not finding God as I would expect has made this passage problematic for me.  I want God to fight injustice. I want God to stand up against corrupt authority. I want God to defend the good and tear down the bad.  I want God to restore order to a broken and chaotic world.  Not only do I want that, but I expect that.  I’ve seen God at work. I’ve read the stories. I’ve witnessed the miracles. I’ve experienced God’s redemptive power at work in my life. And a God who sits idly by and doesn’t say anything does not fit with what I know about God. 
And in voicing my complaints and frustrations I realize I’ve joined the masses of Jews in the first century.  We expect certain things from God and so did they.  We expect God to be powerful and just and mighty, and so did they. We expect God to do something, and so did they. And when God doesn’t, it turns our theology, and sometimes our faith, on its head.  We begin to wonder if God is who we thought God was because certainly if God were just God would fix the injustice.  If God were loving God would fix the hatred. If God were powerful God would change the unchangeable.  But when God doesn’t, it can be easy to question all that we think we know about God. 
The hard part is that simply because we don’t hear God speaking in one moment, or acting in another, doesn’t mean God isn’t saying anything or acting anywhere.  God, through Christ, may have been silent in the moments before Pilate.  God may have “allowed” these awful things to take place, but God certainly was not absent from the scene. God was at work in far greater ways working on a far different type of justice with a much different notion of power.  We aren’t there yet in the story of Christ, but we know it’s coming.  We have to get through a whole host of unsettling things before we can finally witness the beauty of God’s work coming together, but we know it’s out there.  But for today, we have to wait in the absence of God’s work.  And that may not be all bad.  It’s important for us to be reminded that God doesn’t always do what is expected or hoped for.  God doesn’t follow our script. And God sees with much greater perspective.  For in our moments where we clamor to hear God and find only silence, it may be that God is working on something much greater and beautiful than we ever could have imagined. 
On this communion Sunday, we are reminded that God has done the greatest and most impossible things for us, for each of us.  God has conquered the unconquerable and offered us a share in that victory.  God has forgiven the unforgiveable and offers that same forgiveness to us if we ask.  Let us pray.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Power of Love

Mary and Martha and the Jews that surrounded them (mourners most likely) saw Jesus’ love for Lazarus.  The trouble is they mistook it to be like their love—phileo love. They loved Lazarus like a brother and knew what they would do for him. What they didn’t understand was that Jesus loved Lazarus beyond that.  Jesus loved him with agape love. The agape love was more abundant, more selfless and more unconditional than what they knew.  And if that agape love is so much greater, can’t we at least imagine what it would do what is best, what is most loving for Lazarus? If we think Jesus’ love is phileo like theirs then we can see how his initial response seems insufficient. It’s far less than what any of them would have done. But if we see from the start that phileo and agape are not even in the same league of love then we can begin to trust that jesus would have chosen whatever it was that was right for Lazarus.  And since agape love is God’s love (not like phileo love of brothers or storge love of parents or eros love of couples) then we can see that in turn it draws us closer to God. Jesus chose to do that which would draw Lazarus into deeper relationship with God. 
Let’s go back to the scripture and see what happens.  We have Mary and Martha and all those who have come to mourn with them. We now see that they are reviewing the events for what they would have done. But Jesus doesn’t act in accordance with their expectation, he acts in accordance with God’s purposes. 
Our scene starts with Jesus receiving news that Lazarus is sick and dying and in need of his help.  What’s expected is that Jesus would drop whatever he is doing to go and make Lazarus healthy again.  But Jesus doesn’t jump and run. Instead he is calm and trusting that God’s will be revealed and glorified through Lazarus. 

After two days, Jesus decides to head back to Judea, but the disciples argue with him saying that he shouldn’t risk it, that there are too many Jewish leaders who want him dead.  And he replies in sort of an odd way, Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” In essence, if you walk in the light you will have no need to stumble. Instead, trouble lurks when you walk in darkness.
Jesus and the disciples then continue on their way to Bethany and are met by Martha, who is grieving and anxious. She says, “Lord, if only you had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.  But I believe that if you ask, God will still answer you.”
Jesus replies: “he will be raised.”
Martha: “I know that eventually he will.”
Jesus: “You don’t have to wait. All those who believe in me have life. Do you believe?
Martha: “yes, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
Now, before we go further, I think we need “believe” needs clarification.  Believe to most of our ears implies consenting with your head.  To say you believe in something means you find it probable or logical.  But the Greek word for believe, pisteuo, doesn’t imply believing with our mind, it’s more about believing with our hearts.  It’s about faith and trust.  I think for us to hear it more accurately we need to substitute the word trust.  For even that which cannot be made rational in our minds can be trusted with our hearts. Let’s take a simple example. How many of us have ever flown in an airplane? Anyone ever been on one of the massive planes?  Anyone ever been on a plane and started doing the math?  There’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 seats in a row.   And 31, 32, 33, 34, 35 rows on the plane.  That’s 6 x 30 = 180, 5 x 6 = 30, so that’s 210 people, plus pilots and stewards, so 220.  Let’s say we average 180 pounds, that’s….nevermind, let’s keep the math simple, let’s say we average 200 pounds each (that includes your carry ons) that means 44,000 pounds in people weight. Then another 50 pounds in luggage, so another 11,000 pounds, plus the weight of the plane.  I have no idea how much planes weigh, but just for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s about 50,000 pounds. So now we have 100,000 pounds, more or less, flying through the air.  For all that seems reasonable or feasible, I’d never imagine 100,000 pounds could float on air.  I’d imagine that sucker should just fall right out of the air.  I know, we could do the physics to explain how and why it’s possible, but let’s be realistic, how many of us actually do that?  Like 3 of us, maybe.  The rest of us just go, the rest of us just go, “that doesn’t make sense.” BUT we trust that it’s possible otherwise we never would have boarded the plane in the first place. 
Do we see how there’s a difference between believing with our minds and trusting with our hearts? And that’s an easy example because it’s something that ultimately could be explained in a way that satisfies our minds. But how many other types of things happen that don’t make logical sense but are still trusted?
·         Taking pig veins and repairing a human heart?
·         Putting a little machine to keep your heart beating in rhythm?
·         Recovery from addiction?
·         Change of heart?
·         Love?  
That which isn’t logical can still be believed because we trust it with our hearts. 
Ok, back to the scripture—so Jesus says, resurrection and life are possible for all who believe in me, for all who trust in me with their hearts.  And then he asks Martha, “Do you trust me?” and she says, “Absolutely!” And she goes to get her sister and Mary and the entourage of mourners come out weeping and wailing and Jesus gets upset.  Some translations say he was “groaning in his spirit” or “troubled” but again, the Greek word holds more meaning than that.  The greek words mean “agitated” and “indignant”—a little more than troubled.  So Jesus is irritated and bothered by the response of the Jews. I assume because they lacked trust.  They only knew what was believable with their minds which was that Lazarus was dead—they didn’t trust with their hearts and that broke Jesus’ heart. And then the scripture says, “Jesus wept.” I’ve always assumed like the crowd does that Jesus wept because of his friend.  He loved Lazarus so much and now he’s dead and so Jesus wept. But I gotta tell you, I don’t think Jesus wept for Lazarus.  I think Jesus wept for the crowd—for their lack of trust, for the ways he had failed to make them see what was possible through God. I think he wept for the crowd’s inability to see the greatness of God’s agape love.  But they didn’t see it.  They could only see phileo and so they prattle on about how clearly Jesus loved Lazarus but if he really loved him this never would have happened in the first place.  And it’s all just killing Jesus inside.  He’s torn up and frustrated—he desperately wants them to trust him but they keep looking with their eyes and not their hearts. 
Finally, our scene ends at the tomb. A cave in the hillside sealed with a stone and Jesus asks that it be removed and still all Martha sees is what makes sense, “Are you kidding?! He’s been dead for 4 days—it’s gonna stink in there!” 
And Jesus replies, (more or less) “Come on Martha! Don’t you trust me?!  I told you God would be glorified that means God will do more than what’s logical. God does what’s miraculous!” 
The stone is move and Jesus gives God thanks before Lazarus is even seen.  “Thank you God for hearing me. I mean, I know you hear me all the time, but apparently these folks need to be reminded that you listen.” 
And then to Lazarus Jesus says, “Come out!” 
And still wrapped in the embalming rags Lazarus comes out.  God did the miraculous.  It’s not logical. It doesn’t make sense.  And we likely won’t believe it with our minds.  But we aren’t asked to.  Instead we are invited to believe and trust with our hearts, to know in our hearts, that God’s love is capable of so much more than we ever might imagine. 
God’s love is different than a brother’s love.  (A brother is  a protector. He cares about us and our well-being and would protect us from harm.  God’s love is agape love—it’s selfless, abundant and unconditional.  While it may be that God’s love will protect us, the ultimate goal of agape love isn’t simply protection from harm, ultimately God’s love seeks to draw us into the redemptive and life-giving work of God.  So even though Lazarus was sick and died, Jesus didn’t stand idly by and allow suffering for the sake of suffering. Jesus came to Lazarus and performed a miracle. He raised him from the dead. He made him part of God’s story of redemption, salvation and new life.  That’s what this story is about.  Jesus was never ambivalent to the situation.  He always wanted what was best for Lazarus and what was best was not a cure for an illness, but the gift of salvation.  Jesus sozo’d Lazarus.  Sozo means a variety of things.  For Jesus to sozo him means God delivered Lazarus. God protected Lazarus. God healed Lazarus. God saved Lazarus. God drew Lazarus into wholeness.  God sozo’d him and that was far greater than a cure.