Sunday, March 30, 2008

Leaning on Jesus

Leaning On Jesus

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Mountain View Presbyterian Church Las Vegas, Nevada

Second Sunday of Easter, March 30, 2008
John 13:21-30

Once, at a Bible study I led on this scripture lesson, there was a sort of universal moaning response to this passage from John. It was something like, “I thought we had already been through this in Lent, do we have to do it again?”

This is an understandable reaction. Lent seems to be the right time for thinking on the ways in which Jesus gave himself for us, and the realities of our own shortcomings in trying to live up to his gift. But now we are in the seasonal weeks of Easter, the season of the resurrection. Why this return to dreary consideration of betrayal and denial?

We might start our answer by considering whether there is a difference between those who deny and one who betrays. When I spent a summer month studying art in Italy one year, I recall seeing a large, room-sized Renaissance fresco in what had once been a monastic dining room. The theme of the Last Supper is a common one for such ancient dining halls, and that was the subject here. I found it particularly fascinating that each disciple seated at the table was on the side opposite from the person viewing the painting, so that they faced into the room; all except one. The odd man out was dressed in dark colors, had a brooding and calculating look on his face, and, while all the others seated with Jesus in the painting sported tiny golden halos, this fellow’s head was shadowed by a dark circle. He was placing his hand into a bowl in which Jesus’ hand was also placed. It didn’t take too long for anyone familiar with John 13 to figure out who this was meant to represent. But who really is the villain in this little drama? Is it Judas? John says that Satan entered into him. Isn’t the contest here really between Jesus and Satan, not Jesus and Judas? Why is he so easy to single out, so that the shortcomings of the rest of the disciples fade from memory?

In the translation I read, John says that the disciple “whom Jesus loved —was reclining next to him.” Literally, the phrase is “was reclining on Jesus’ bosom.” In other words, he was very close to his master, reclining in him, in the same way that Jesus later says that he is in the Father and the Father is in him.1 Seating arrangements at meals were very important in the dining rooms of the ancient world, as reflections of status. Even Jesus spoke about it once at length.2 Two of his disciples once went so far as to ask to be seated to his right and left when he came into his glory.3 He encouraged them through his teaching not to try to sit too high in the pecking order, but instead to take a lower seat. One highly respected scholar4 of John’s gospel has suggested that the beloved disciple was seated, reclining, on Jesus’ right, so that when he tilted his head back, it was at Jesus’ chest. And it may very well be that the other place of honor, next to the master, on his left, was reserved for another important disciple, one whom the others trusted so fully that they made him their treasurer: Judas, the keeper of the common purse.

That whole scene at the table is filled with subjects for contemplation. Think on the towel that Jesus used to wash the dusty feet in the gospel just prior to our reading; the ironic contrast between that act of selfless love and the self-absorption characterizing betrayal. It is one thing to betray, but to do so in light of self-giving love describes a treachery we hardly wish to see. Jesus saw it. He knew that if he was to save humanity from what we are capable of being, he had to face the darkest and most treacherous parts of us, and offer that same selfless love no matter what the consequences for himself. Think of the common dish into which bread was to be dipped, a symbol of community, of shared resources and common bonds, broken by treachery. But who was it that was treacherous?

What was the night like after the betrayal? There had been other betrayers-in-waiting sitting at that table, they all abandoned him. We are so blessed, as a nation, as people of the church, I’m afraid that sometimes we are tempted to think it means we are also blameless, beyond culpability. Judas is not meant to present a figure beside whom we all may feel relieved at our relative innocence. Maybe you recall Eddie Murphy’s rather somber comic routine years ago when a terrorist in Rome shot the Pope. Murphy shouted, “You really want to go to hell? Shoot the Pope!” The implication seemed to be that was something that could get you a front row seat in hell, like many of the editorial cartoons I remember following the events of September 11.

People of all times have frequently named their children after biblical figures, yet we never name our children Judas, though we might name them Peter, Andrew, Mary or Thomas. Why is this? Well, it seems obvious, doesn’t it? Who wants their child named after someone with a front row seat in hell? Judas betrayed Jesus, of course, while the others did not. Or did they? In the end, none were to be found with Jesus in his hour of need at trial, none. They all denied him. Jesus even warned Peter beforehand that he would deny him, and despite his strong protests to the contrary, that is exactly what he did. What is the point of trying to establish a pecking order of badness? The figure of Judas is immensely popular for preaching because he seems to provide a level of wickedness about which we much less-wicked people can be usefully warned. While it may feel good to have a scapegoat, someone worse off than we are in some way, the fact is, all the disciples can be counted among Jesus’ betrayers in one way or another. John is not particularly hung up on Judas as a villain, Satan seems to occupy that place, and Satan works through a weak person in order to do battle with the Savior of all.

The point of this sermon is not to drag us backward through Holy Week and Lent. It is to help us look forward through the eyes of the cross and the resurrection to see in Jesus’ words of farewell to his disciples that new life in him was a gift which came at a cost; and that new life is meant to be lived in a community characterized by the sort of grace-filled giving that Jesus modeled when he washed the disciples’ feet. In the end, Jesus is raised to save those who betray him, no matter how they have done it, nor how often, nor under what circumstances. In the end, we all lean on Jesus, as his beloved disciple did in the scene which John painted for us, because, in the end, all are equally dependent upon him for a grace-filled love that saves us.

Jesus summons believers in the community not to the giving up of life, but the giving away of life. The grace that Jesus embodies is grace, not sacrifice. Jesus gave his life to his disciples — and not just in his death but in washing their feet and myriad other ways — as an expression of the fullness of his relationship with God and of God’s love for the world. Jesus’ death in love was not an act of self-denial, but an act of fullness, of living out his life and identity fully, even when that living would ultimately lead to death.5

What price would someone need to come up with to entice us to betray him? How would Satan enter into our hearts and make us instruments of opposition to Jesus? How has it happened already? What would Jesus say to us?

Well, in the end, our focus today is meant to be an Easter focus. We are not meant to look mournfully at the shortcomings of disciples but rather at the persistent gracefulness of Christ. He persisted in grace, in giving, even though it came at a tremendous cost, an ultimate cost.

One preacher said about this passage,

“Whatever Judas’ degree of guilt and whatever his motive, it is important that we note how Jesus identifies the traitor. He points no fingers, mentions no names, doesn’t even try to talk him out of it. All he does is feed him. When we would expect condemnation and rejection, Jesus is nurturing. Jesus dips into his cup and offers it to Judas, whose feet he has just washed and dried with a towel wrapped around his waist. It’s not what we would expect from somebody who is being betrayed, is it?”6

No, it’s not. But then, Jesus was never the Messiah that many people thought he should be. It’s only in knowing him after he was raised from the dead that we have come to recognize him as the only Messiah we would ever want.

John concluded his account of the dismissal of Judas, into a time in which all the others would abandon him as well, with the chilling sentence, “And it was night.” But it would not always be night. That is why the celebration of resurrection is real, because while the night seemed to have come to hold sway, the very opening lines of John’s gospel come true in Jesus’ resurrection with astounding force: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”7


1 John 14:11.
2 Luke 14: 1-11.
3 Mark 10:37.
4 The Gospel According to John, Raymond Brown, Anchor-Doubleday, 1970, p.574.
5 New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Abingdon, 1995, p.734.
6 “Judas and Jesus,” a sermon preached April 2, 2000 by Dr. Dan Ivins, First Baptist Church, Silver Springs, Maryland.
7 John 1:5.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, March 23, 2008



© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada

Easter Day, March 23, 2008
Matthew 27:62—28:15

One of my favorite Sherlock Holmes sayings usually comes early on in those stories. After some build-up about a case which the famous detective may at first seem to reject as already closed, there comes a point where something happens which gets the mystery of the story underway, and he is heard to say with some delight, “The game is afoot!”

Closed is exactly what the Jerusalem officials thought the case of the Jesus movement was after his humiliating death. Closed, done, over with, of no further interest. Yet the God of creation is never really closed out of our world, no matter how things may look to us. What appeared closed was opened. A plot the officials worried the disciples might hatch by stealing Jesus’ body turned out to be the explanation they themselves offered for his disappearance from the cemetery. While it appeared that all had been said and done about him, it turned out more had been said than done, and the game was afoot, Jesus was loosed in the world in a way that was beyond comprehending.

In John Masefield’s imaginative drama, The Trial of Jesus, there’s an interesting exchange between two legendary persons. Longinus, the traditional name of the Roman centurion who was in charge of the crucifixion, the one who is supposed to have said, “truly this was the Son of God,” (Mt 27:54) returns to the court of Pilate to give his report. There he is drawn aside by Procula, Pilate’s wife. She asks him, “Do you think he is dead?” Longinus replies, “No, Lady, I don’t.” “Then where is he?” she asks. He says, “Lady, he’s let loose in the world.”

Footloose, that’s what Jesus was, and is, defying all our attempts to keep him in some safe place.

I have sometimes been puzzled by one hymns that many of us often mention as one of our favorites, titled “In the Garden,”1 which includes lines like this: “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses...” It makes the resurrection sound like a sort of ode to Springtime and contemplation, to peace and tranquility. Not in this gospel: we may well come to the garden tomb seeking Jesus, but we are likely to miss the condition of the roses when God delivers an earthquake!

The scenes in today’s gospel are filled with irony.

  • The religious leaders are afraid the disciples will form a plan to deceive others, yet by the end, it is the very deception they feared which they themselves employ to discredit the anticipated testimony of the disciples;
  • they, along with the Roman governor Pilate, are obsessed with security: “Make it as secure as you can!” he instructs them. Yet it turns out that Pilate’s arms are too short to box with God, who turns human attempts at security into keystone cops farce.
  • The very guards who were supposed to secure the tomb shook as violently as the earthquake itself and “became like dead men.” So that they, who were supposed to be living, became more dead than the former occupant of the tomb.

Several years ago a German movie was produced, telling the story of the role of St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig in the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Over the years, freedom prayer meetings at the church crescendoed until the night of October 8, 1989, when 70,000 people filled the streets with candles and prayers. In the movie the security officer testifies about his desire to use force, but his inability to do anything other than stare out at the immense crowd in front of his headquarters in frozen amazement: “We were prepared for everything,” he said, ... “everything except for candles and prayers.”

While Jesus was footloose in the world that thought him dead, the guards whose job it was to keep death secure and in place were dead in their tracks in a world which thought them to be alive.

When Clarence Jordan died, he had to be buried in a plain box on a hillside near his farm. Jordan, Civil-rights crusader is also known as the author of the Cotton Patch Gospel, a Southern dialect version of the New Testament. In the 1960s Jordan, a white pastor, founded an interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia farms. He was shunned by the culture all around him for his trouble. Threats were made to his life. In 1969 he died of a heart attack. No local funeral director would help, so he was buried in a plain box. His friend, Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, officiated at the funeral. When he was finished, it was time to lower the casket, and Fuller’s two year-old daughter stepped up to the grave and began to sing the only song she knew. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...” Later, Fuller reflected on the appropriateness of that birthday thought on that particular occasion. Jordans work has outlived him and is still footloose in the world.

It’s not that we don’t have to take death into account. The truth of it is, there will come a day for each of us when death will take us into account, whether we take it into account or not.

I remember walking into the kitchen in the home of some friends, and seeing these words taped on their refrigerator door: “Eat right, get exercise, stay slim, die anyway.” In our health-obsessed society, a column in the newspaper about weight loss or exercise or reducing stress will always find a broad readership. Yet still we die. Unless we have done something about death, what have we accomplished? Longer lives? So we can spend more time in nursing homes, or additional years struggling to survive on Social Security?

Once, when he was traveling by car in the South part of England, Will Willimon, pastor of the chapel at Duke University, discovered his car was having mechanical difficulties. As he awaited the arrival of a mechanic, he wandered into the cemetery of the nearby village church. He described his experience there this way:

“Over in one corner of the cemetery there was a beautiful, low, brick wall enclosing fifty graves. The grass had nearly choked the plot. A large granite slab, set in the wall, bore the words, ‘WE SHALL NEVER FORGET YOUR SACRIFICE.’ Here were fifty graves of young men from New Zealand. They were all around the ages of 17 to 25 and all from New Zealand. Who were these and why did they die here, in this little English village, so far from home? There was no clue at the churchyard as to who they were or the circumstances of their deaths. I wandered down into the village. I found the town’s museum and inquired there. The attendant at the museum told me, ‘Strange that you should ask, I have no idea, but given a few days I could certainly find out.’ As I was not going to be there for a few days, I asked a couple of other people in town. No one knew. I surmised that they were soldiers who were stationed in this little town during World War I. Victims of the flu epidemic in 1918. And no one knew. The impressive inscription in granite was a lie. We had forgotten their sacrifice. No one could remember.2

No matter how we may promise not to do so, we forget. If someone’s name is on a building or on a chair at a university or on a monument or buried in session minutes or locked away in a vault along with their last will and testament, given enough time, we will forget. Who can list even one of the important people in the world in the 7th century? Standing here right now, I can’t think of one, although I am sure there were many. But we forget. The present business of the living is more pressing.

I wonder if, as they made their way to the cemetery that early morning, the women were speaking of Jesus, trying to recall for each other the way he phrased things, the sound of his voice, a certain look in his eye. I wonder if they recalled how he ate, and the way he greeted his friends. I wonder if, for them, as for so many of us, they found that their dead friend’s memory was already starting to slip through their fingers. I remember trying to recall the look on my own mother’s face the night that she died, and sometimes I can just about see her, but most of the time it is a blur. We forget, not because we are bad or faithless, but because neither our memories nor our very own selves are made of eternal stuff.

We require something outside ourselves to remember us, something outside of friends and family who will also perish one day, along with their memories. Jesus needed this too. Matthew says the angel spoke to the women, “He is not here; for he has been raised...” Been raised, as in, he was really dead and God acted to bring him out, to raise him up. This is not some linguistic hair-splitting, but an important theological distinction. Jesus was truly dead, had given himself to death, and passed beyond any ability to raise himself. God raised him, and it is in that which our hope lies.

Raised, and loosed in the world. That is the miracle of it. Footloose and already handing out marching orders to those who would follow him. “Go to Galilee,” he said. It turns out that if we want to continue to see him, we can do so only by following him, by doing his bidding, by becoming his disciples. It is in the going and doing that we come to know Jesus. We don’t have videotapes of his eloquent speeches or photographs of his healed patients, just the fellowship of those who follow, and it is in our fellowship and in our ministry in his name that we know him; and in which he sets our feet free too.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 C. Austin Miles, 1913.
2 “He has Been Raised,” a sermon preached by William Willimon at Duke University Chapel Easter Day, 1996.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Best Things In Life Are ... Borrowed?

The Best Things In Life Are...Borrowed?
© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Palm Sunday: March 16, 2008

Matthew 21:1-11

Today’s gospel brings back a specific memory to me. From our time in Israel, I remember the narrow, winding path from the Mount of Olives down toward Jerusalem which is the traditional trail along which generations of Jews made processions into the city and Temple courtyard on great feast days. The gate through which they passed on their way into the city — the Golden Gate — is now bricked up and permanently closed, but it is easy enough to see which way the procession used to go into the area of the Temple courtyard. On our way down that little narrow road we saw one feature that I suspect every tourist sees there: Men seated on donkeys along the way, eyeballing the passing tourists. Some unsuspecting travelers will immediately snap a picture, only to find that donkey-sitting is, for some, a career, not a hobby. Posing for pictures for tourists is a cottage industry all its own. It is done for money. By offering enough money, the tourists themselves can be photographed sitting on one of those donkeys. But if you go, don’t try to click off a picture without offering to pay a little something. These donkeys aren’t part of the scenery, they are part of a family’s annual income.

Recall with me for a minute the items in our Palm Sunday reading which were borrowed. First of all, Jesus instructed his disciples to borrow a donkey on the Mount of Olives, where they were to offer the rather limp explanation to anyone who objected that “the Lord has need of it.” I’d hate to be told to try that line if I was preparing to borrow one of those modern-day Mount of Olives donkeys, much less the first century version of someone’s automobile. Of course, for the disciples, the explanation worked.

But a donkey is not the only thing borrowed by Jesus for the occasion. He also borrowed the words of the Old Testament prophets as an explanation for the reason he needed a donkey: “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey...’” He borrowed the cloaks of the crowd on which to ride, he borrowed the hosanna songs which belonged to the original Messiah — king David — whose title he also borrowed for the occasion and ever after. Then, he borrowed the crowds to announce his arrival in town, those who answered the questions of the city dwellers about the man who came to town on a donkey by saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” When he went to eat his last supper with his disciples, it was in a borrowed room. Finally, he was crucified under the borrowed title “King of the Jews,” a title that did — as it turned out — truly belong to him more than to any other human being, but which expressed far too little about him. Even so, his borrowed title was good enough to sustain a trumped-up charge justifying his execution, but far too little to describe who he really was and is.

It has been said that the best things in life are free. I think Jesus demonstrated that some of the critical things in his ministry were borrowed, and none of them were free at all. The donkey was someone else’s cherished possession; the borrowed words of Old Testament prophets were spoken by the prophets at great personal cost, and remembered by Israel also at great cost; the cloaks belonging to folks in the crowd may have been the only outer clothing they owned; the first man called “messiah,” King David, in his time had been the apple of God’s eye, but his messiahship came at tremendous personal cost. No, these things were borrowed, but they were far from free. They came at great cost.

Ultimately, Jesus’ own use of these symbols of his messiahship was anything but cost-free. He paid for his calling with his life, and that life turned out to be the purchase price of salvation for all of us. In the beginning of his life, he was laid in a borrowed manger, and at the end he would occupy a borrowed tomb. In between he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,”1 as he spent his ministry relying on borrowed quarters, borrowed beds, borrowed food. Clearly, Jesus chose to own little or nothing of the world in order to carry out his God-given mission without distraction. That was certainly the case on Palm Sunday.

One person has written, “When the crowds cry, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ and ‘This is the prophet,’ they use the right words, but they still miss the point. They have all the notes and none of the music. They have the theology straight, but they still end up rejecting Jesus and calling for his death.”2

Knowing the truth and doing the truth are clearly two different things. Some only borrow the truth they need for the time they need it, abandoning it once it becomes too costly or makes too many claims on them. Though Jesus borrowed the things he needed to sustain himself and his ministry materially, he never abandoned those things which he owned: his sense of calling, his determination to carry out his ministry, his love for those he met, his perfect obedience, even when that obedience called for the sacrifice of his life. These things he did not borrow, and these things he owned in every sense of the word.

If it is true that when we look at Jesus we will see the face of God that human beings are permitted to see, we will recognize from Jesus’ own lifestyle that “[he] manifests a God whose very being is not acquisitive, but is self-giving...[that] the ultimate power is the power to renounce power.”3

We may be given to the sort of thinking that goes: “If only I had control over my life, my education, my family, my employees, my boss, my situation, my mortgage, my possessions, my career, if only I were in charge of a few more aspects of my life, then things would be perfect, or if not perfect, at least better. But then we see the example of Jesus, who owned no bed, no donkey, no title, no educational credentials, who did not control his disciples in any sort of external way or with any compulsion, who had to be born in borrowed quarters and be buried in a borrowed cave. We see Jesus owned nothing, borrowed only what he really needed, and since he came along, nothing on earth has ever been the same. What use, then, is our compulsive, endless need to be in control?

This sort of reflection may serve to remind us that it may be a mistake to memorialize the parade held in Jesus’ honor on Palm Sunday, inasmuch as it paid homage to someone who strikes us as the antithesis of the American dream. On this big day, he wore something borrowed, rode something borrowed, received a borrowed title, and went to a borrowed room. It may also serve to remind us that at times when our lives are clearly out of our control, when we seem to have lost the rudder by which we thought we had been steering our own existence, when our borrowed lives are nearing their end, when we recognize at long last that our possessions — which we had begun to believe were ours — have never truly belonged to us but only been at our disposal for a time — borrowed, as it were — just when we are filled with the dread feeling that life is reeling out of our control, then we are close to Jesus, so very close that we know what it is to let go and live as he lived. We may at long last recognize that we are dependent creatures, and that it is OK, that God can be trusted to have plans bigger than our abilities to control them.

The best things in life may not be free after all. But at best, it appears, they are borrowed. Borrow this and make it your own: Jesus went into Jerusalem during that week of weeks and died for you and for me. More than that, he went there to give glory to God, and as it turns out, God gave glory to him for his trouble.

May our own praise of God be so productive! Hosanna to the Kings of kings!

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder,all rights reserved

1 Matthew 8:20.
2 The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume VIII, Eugene Boring, Abingdon: 1995, p. 404.
3 The Death of Jesus, by Raymond Brown, p. 27.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Dead or Alive

Dead or Alive

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 9, 2008

John 11:1-45

Jesus began to weep.

Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent. Does it feel like Lent to you? It does to me, I can tell you, as I look over the events of Holy Week to come, the Last Supper, the trial of Jesus, the crucifixion. Most years in Lent I have found myself running through scripture dealing with death, its anticipation and its aftermath. Last week I read where the Psalmist encouraged us to “number our days” so as to recognize that they will eventually end. Today we have the story of the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, whose day numbering appeared to be finished, an extended story taking place all around tombs and mourners and sounds of weeping. It’s Lent for sure in a passage like the story of the death of Lazarus.

There are so many striking things about this story, but here is something that strikes me about our gospel reading today. It is the connection between two verses that stand side by side; we often read them as though the first belongs to the material that went before, and the second belongs to the material that comes after, but that’s not the only way to read them:

When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the people who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus began to weep. So the people said, “See how he loved him!”

We most often connect his request for directions with the phrase “come and see.” Then we connect “Jesus began to weep” with the comment “See how he loved him.” But there is a good chance Jesus’ weeping is brought on by the phrase “Come and see.” Here’s why:

“Come and see” is a phrase used four times in John’s gospel. The other three times they were words used to invite others to join in the call to discipleship, to take up that calling. In the first chapter of the gospel,1 Andrew and another person -- some say it could even have been Lazarus himself, others say it might have been John -- anyway, Andrew and another person approached Jesus for the first time, calling him rabbi, asking where he was staying. Jesus responded “Come and see,” and they were brought by that phrase into their calling as disciples. Then, the next day, after Peter and Philip had joined up, Philip ran into Nathanael and told him about Jesus of Nazareth. Nathanael uttered the famous “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” to which Philip replied “Come and see.”2 And he did, and he entered into the circle of discipleship with Jesus. The third time happened when Jesus had been speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar, and she ran back into the city saying to everyone who would listen, “Come and see...!”3 and John says that many people from her city believed. Discipleship was breaking out all over.

So “Come and see” is an invitation-to-discipleship phrase that in the story of the raising of Lazarus turns the invitation back to Jesus. “Where have you laid him?” Jesus asked, and the people replied, “Come and see.” And he wept. They took it as a sign that Jesus loved Lazarus, which I am sure is true, but John invariably operates on two or more levels of meaning in his gospel. I am equally sure that another reason Jesus began to weep, perhaps the main reason, was that a tomb containing a dead man along with an invitation to “come and see,” that is, to complete his calling, was for him a concrete realization of the coming death and entombment that he would face. And he began to weep. It is, as one great preacher once said, as strong a commentary on “And the Word became flesh” as can be found.4

Anyone who wonders if God knows what it is to be frail dust need only reflect on the Christian assertion that Jesus was God in the flesh, who wept at the tomb of his friend, and wept at the prospect of his own coming death. Hundreds of years before Jesus’ time, the psalmist recognized this quality in the very nature of God:

For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.5

God knows. God remembers. The old translations made John’s famous phrase even more compact than we find it in our modern version. Where most newer translations say something like, “Jesus began to weep,” the old versions said simply, “Jesus wept,” instantly providing every English-speaker on earth with at least one scripture verse we could quote from memory. And if we can know only one verse, this one isn’t a bad choice. “Jesus wept.” Just think how broadly applicable it is. Jesus was reminded that he too must one day die: “Jesus wept.” On a sign at a roadside location where a loved one perished in an automobile accident: “Jesus wept.” Painted on the side of a building that burned, claiming the lives of those inside: “Jesus wept.” Nailed on posts along the roads homeless refugees must take when fleeing from fighting or famine or both: “Jesus wept.” A note included along with the latest college or job rejection letter: “Jesus wept.” Alongside empty streams once filled to the banks with fish, now poisoned by human carelessness or greed: “Jesus wept.”

But Jesus’ weeping was about something other, or at least more than his grief over the death of a friend. Remember, he delayed an additional two days going to see him. Is that what a friend does, wait until days after a friend has died and then go to the tomb in order to weep for him? Something else is going on here.

It is typical of John’s gospel to use stories as signs, events pointing to truth larger than the stories themselves. Jesus wept immediately after those all-important words were uttered, “Come and see.” The very call to trust that had been extended to others, to those who became his disciples, to the people of Samaria, is now extended to Jesus himself. Jesus truly became as we are, aiming to live in faithful obedience amid the overwhelming presence of suffering and death. Lazarus is in the tomb, actively decaying. Come and see how you too will be one day, dead and decaying. At the prospect, Jesus did what any human person would do. He wept.

For Jesus to call Lazarus out of the tomb, for him to call any of us out of death, is for him to enter into it. A few verses later he will say of his coming trial and death. “And what should I say —‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”6 It is for the tomb that Jesus came. Come and see, Jesus, come and see how it will be for you. He was invited to consider his own tomb, and Jesus wept.

The death of anyone we know is an unhappy, even tragic circumstance. But the death of the obedient Jesus is a gift of God to the world that “received him not.” It is the gift that has made our faith possible. And it was born in tears, Jesus’ own love-filled tears. He went to raise Lazarus knowing, as John discloses a few verses later, that the raising of Lazarus from death was the last straw for the religious authorities, who determined after that that they would have to have Jesus killed. And possibly Lazarus too,7 lest he tell the tale more broadly.

Once, years ago in another city, I was called on to do a funeral service for a non-church member. The circumstances surrounding this death were horrible, each worse than the one before as I heard about them one by one. A young woman, mother of two small children by her former husband, had found the grief of living too overpowering to bear for whatever reasons, and had chosen to take her own life. She died with a photograph of her two children in her arms. That is how her current husband found her. He not only was robbed of his wife, but also of her two children whom he had cared for as if they were his own, since the court returned them to the custody of their father who had abandoned them in the first place. Tragedy compounded.

The grief of that family was overwhelming. How could it not be? Not even knowing what a church really was, they nevertheless turned to the church in abject need of some ministry, some word of hope however bare that hope might turn out to be.

And Jesus wept. He did. I believe he wept as he received that woman in the loving embrace of heaven, and I believe that no matter how strong their grief, it could not surpass the grief of Jesus over the tragic loss of that life. Why did he not spare her? Why did he not go to Lazarus two days earlier and prevent his dying in the first place? Why doesn’t God step in front of speeding cars before they run people over, fix all the illness and death we see in the world around us?

We don’t know. We do know that God created a world in which people are at liberty to do what they will do without God stopping them, and a lot of what we do to each other is not very pretty. We may sometimes question the wisdom of this plan for our free will; still, it is the world we live in whether we question it or not. Yet we also know something else. We know that Jesus’ own life was a total and perfect gift he chose to give, his crucifixion providing the bridge by which we may cross into the life of his resurrection.

Apart from trust in God, wrote one preacher,8 the world is a cemetery. But because of the gift of the life of this one man, there is in the world the power of resurrection to eternal life.

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 John 1:39
2 John 1:46
3 John 4:29
4 "Jesus Wept," by Fred Craddock, Journal for Preachers, Easter 2000, p. 36, source of several core ideas behind this sermon.
5 Psalm 103:14
6 John 12:27
7 See John 12:9-11
8 Fred Craddock, John Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1982), p. 85.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Where Is Jesus?

Where Is Jesus?
John 9:1-41

Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
March 2, 2002
© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder

In the late 1970’s Annie Dillard, writer, naturalist, novelist, moved into a small cabin overlooking the Puget Sound in Washington state, hoping to do some writing. During the course of her time in that little community there was a horrible private airplane accident in which a small child was terribly burned. Like the disciples in the story from John’s gospel, it set her to thinking about sin, punishment, suffering and whether there is any operative relationship among them. Here is part of what she wrote:

“His disciples asked Christ about a roadside beggar who had been blind from birth, ‘Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ And Christ, who spat on the ground, made mud of his spittle and clay, plastered the mud over the man’s eyes, and gave him sight, answered, ‘Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.’ Really? If we take this answer to refer to the affliction itself — and not the subsequent cure — as ‘God’s works made manifest,’ then we have, along with ‘Not as the world gives do I give unto you,’ two meager, baffling, and infuriating answers to one of the few questions worth asking, to wit, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?

“The works of God made manifest? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we’re all victims? Is this some sort of parade for which a conquering army shines up its terrible guns and rolls them up and down the streets for people to see? Do we need blind men stumbling about, and little flame-faced children, to remind us what God can — and will — do?

“...Who are we to demand explanations of God?...We forget ourselves, picnicking; we forget where we are. There is no such thing as a freak accident. ‘God is at home,’ says Meister Eckhart, ‘We are in the far country.’”1

Our own questions about sickness and healing, sin and punishment, are like Annie Dillard’s, like the disciples’. “Who sinned,” wondered the disciples, “this man or his parents?” “Wrong question,” replied Jesus. Do you realize how many people go around in this story asking questions? The story is absolutely filled chock-a-block with people poking around this poor man’s business, asking him and his family pushy, hard-nosed questions.

For beginners, the disciples want to treat him like some unconscious hospital patient, surrounded by a gaggle of medical interns on rounds with a resident. Speaking entirely about him rather than to him, as though he were invisible, they ask Jesus to hold a theological round table on the nature of sin, over this needy, still-living carcass. “Look at this picture,” they say. “Just who is the sinner here?” they want to know.

No sooner has the mud been washed off his now-seeing eyes, than the man is accosted by ceaseless questions. First from the busybodies in the neighborhood: “How were your eyes opened?” they want to know. Nothing like a “Good for you!” or “Praise God for this miracle!” is spoken by these folks. Just an unsmiling assault of inquiries. “Now see here, we can’t have undocumented recoveries of sight going on around here. Next thing you know, people will want to start thinking for themselves. Can’t have it. So out with it, who did this, where is he, does he have a license?”

The man born blind offers what eventually becomes his litany of response, which begins to sound pretty much the same after many repetitions: “All I know is, I was blind; now I see. See?” Not good enough. We’ll have to take you off to the local constabulary. They’ll sort this out.

Once there, there are more questions. “Look son, we don’t want any trouble. Just tell us how it came to be that you got your sight. Be square with us and the judge will go easy on you. We know it happened after hours in a non-registered clinic, totally against regulations. So give us the full scoop. What went on during this caper?”

The man born blind begins to wish somebody would feel just a fraction of the happiness that he feels about being able to see after all these years. But, all right, he’ll answer their questions, even if they seem a little silly. “All I know is, I was blind; now I see. See?”

No way. The officers at the station house try to explain the matter to this simpleton. “Now look here, boy, the person who did this mud pack thing with your eyes, he did it completely without regard to the ordinances regulating these things. So we’re wondering just who he thinks he is.”

Answer: “Well. I don’t know who he is. I wish he would come along and answer for himself. Do you suppose he is a prophet?”

The constables are interested now. Unauthorized healings after curfew; the populace going around saying they have found a prophet. Could this be the quiet little blind man they have seen for years begging at the city gate? No way. He is some impostor, just looks like that blind fellow, perhaps it’s his twin brother. They go ask his parents.

But his parents are as baffled by the whole episode as everyone else. “Is this your is it that he can see now?” They might as well ask a brick mason how to do gall bladder surgery. The parents are clueless. And not just a little bit afraid. They even answer a question the constables didn’t ask: “Nor do we know who opened his eyes,” which makes us suspect they do.

That reminds the constables of another matter they wanted to clear up with this man. Just what about this healer who goes around willy nilly after hours healing people up? Who is he? “Do you admit that he is, by definition, a criminal?”

By now the man born blind is growing weary of responding to questions he does not know how to answer. He tries his familiar answer one more time: “All I know is, I was blind; now I see. See?” But now they don’t care anymore how he received his sight. They have decided to pursue questions about this healer who gave him his sight. They repeat themselves with the banality of those who, in passing, ask how we are doing but will not stay around for the answer. “How did he open your eyes?”

Now the man born blind gets a little testy. “I have told you. All I know is, I was blind; now I see. See? But you don’t see. If you want to hear this story so much, maybe you want to become his followers so you can hear it from him for yourselves.”

They are enraged by this. “Never mind who he thinks he is; who do you think you are, speaking to us this way?” And they run the man born blind out of town.

Finally, the man born blind is found sitting by the side of the road, bewildered. The greatest thing in the world has happened to him, the one thing he was sure could never happen. He has received the gift of sight. Yet all anyone can do is carp and split hairs about city code violations and regulations concerning the town curfew. When Jesus returns to the scene in verse 35, we want to say, “Where have you been? This guy has been put through the ringer because of you.”

But rather than curse him or berate him, the man born blind is given another gift. He looks into Jesus’ eyes and like the Samaritan woman at the well, he realizes he is gazing into the eyes of the Messiah. To be able to see this is a gift far greater than mere eyesight. This is the meaning of Jesus’ opening remark about the works of God revealed in him; it has to do not so much with seeing per se as it does with seeing the Messiah, which soon everyone will be able to do, sighted or not.

We can be so much like the people of this story. It is often so difficult to believe that God is among us, and our questions about God’s presence can either help us see or contribute to our blindness. There are so many times when people of faith are left only with memories of God’s presence in between times of actually sensing that presence. This story is about such times. The man’s insistent truth-telling serves as a model for us. When questioned about what Jesus has done for us, we never have to confess more than we know to be true. It is likely that will be enough. Time after time he was questioned, and each time he responded, “All I know is, I was blind; now I see. See?” It is not a confession that tells everything there is to know about Jesus, but it was enough. And it was true. In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince,2 the prince says at one place, “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly.” And that is true too.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder All Rights Reserved

1 Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard, Harper Colophon Books, 1977, pp. 60-62.
2 Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Gallimard, Paris, 1946.