March 29, 2020 From Tears to Joy/From Despair to Life
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
In 1848 Danish existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote a book with the title: The Sickness Unto Death. Under the name Anti Climacus, Kierkegaard introduces the book with a reference to John 11:4: “This sickness is not unto death” or in our translation “this illness does not lead to death.”
Anti-Climacus says: “While the human conception of death is the end, the Christian conception of death is merely another stop along the way of eternal life. In this way, for the Christian, death is nothing to fear. The true “Sickness unto Death” does not describe physical but spiritual death. And this is something to fear.” He goes on to say that this sickness unto death is called despair. An individual is ‘in despair’ if he or she does not align him – or herself – with God or God’s plan for the self.
Spiritual death, despair, is when people do not align themselves with God or God’s plan.
This seems to be a fine summary of our Gospel reading. Spiritual death is the true sickness unto death. For a Christian, death is nothing to fear. It does not take a lot of imagination to see the influence of John’s Gospel and the Apostle Paul in Kierkegaard’s thinking: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
Kierkegaard says, “death is not to be feared” and yet the same Kierkegaard says elsewhere, “Even life’s highest and richest moment of enjoyment is accompanied by death.”
I recently mentioned to someone that as one gets older, death seems to become a constant companion. When you are young you don’t spend much time thinking about dying. Sure, there may be fleeting moments when the somber thought enters your mind, but these thoughts don’t last long. As you get older though, death and thoughts about your own mortality become more prevalent. It is as if the dark shadow of death is always lurking in the background like a predator waiting for a weak moment before it makes its move.
I think this is perhaps the reason why psychoanalysts agree that all human fears, including fear of separation, essentially go back to the fear of death.
I am always pleasantly surprised how relevant God’s Word is for our time. The time we live in today is enveloped by despair, death and reports on deaths. One cannot escape the reality of death when you are constantly reminded of how many people have succumbed or will die of COVID-19. The numbers keep rising and our fear rises with them.
Our time is also an emotional one: I find myself tearing up when I see Italians, at the end of the day, singing together from the balconies, thanking health-workers with signs and applause. We are angry for we have lost control, some accuse Chinese-American people for the virus, all of us are sad and many are weeping and mourning. It is not uncommon to see kind actions of love toward others.
A close reading of John 11 reveals the chapter to be quite an expressive, some may say, an emotional one. There are references to love, “Lord, he whom you love is ill;” anger, “The Jews were just trying to stone you;” accusation, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died;” sadness, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved;” and of course weeping, the short but moving sentence, “Jesus wept” or “Jesus began to weep.”
John furthermore touches upon another aspect of life, also one that we can all relate to, confusion. Jesus says: “Our friend Lazarus is not dead – he is sleeping.” The disciples concluded: “Ah, he will be all right then!” In these we sense at last traces of hope! Fear, confusion, tears, but also hope! But then Jesus says: “No, Lazarus is dead!” That dreaded final word! He is dead!
The Gospel is not shy to speak to our deepest fears, fear of dying, fear of separation. John addresses the deepest vulnerability of our species, death. In this sense the Gospel is pretty sobering and very honest.
So, let’s admit it before we go on: human beings are not invincible – we are pretty vulnerable, even more so at the moment. As a species we are able to do rather remarkable things but these accomplishments do not make us less vulnerable. We are able to create, build, think, anticipate and plan. We are a species that can think big and build impressive things but ultimately when everything is said and done, we are and remain fearful and vulnerable. Yes, we are able to love, but also to accuse, to be angry, happy and sad, but at the bottom we are always on the brink of despair!
However, John’s Gospel presents Jesus as a very unique solution to abolish our fears of death, despair and separation. And the solution is presented to us in the form of Jesus raising his friend, Lazarus, from the cold, smelly prison of a tomb! A loud voice cried: “Lazarus come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet still bound with strips of cloth, his face wrapped in cloth! And Jesus said to them: “Unbind him and let him go!”
Of course, once again, as always is the case in John’s Gospel, there are a few themes that we need to explore in order to find the deeper theological meaning:
- Jesus’ reference to day and night and those who stumble during the night and do not stumble during the day means more than physical stumbling and falling. It means something more like: “if you refuse to walk with Jesus, if you refuse faith and discipleship, you run in the darkness and are in danger of a much worse sort of fall.”
- Jesus tells Mary: “You brother will rise again.” She thinks of the resurrection at the last day. Jesus’ response is that resurrection is not limited to an event in the future: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? And Mary says: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” Note again the reference to I am. The Greek words for I am are the same as the ones used at God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush. In other words, John is saying that Jesus is God’s revelation to us and in Jesus, we receive spiritual life – now! The physical life is only a feeble reflection of that true life which Jesus gives his followers! Lazarus was raised but he physically died again – but Christ gives life, and he gives it now and no one and nothing can take this life away. Not even death!
- Martha says to Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for so long that there is a stench of decay. Jesus answers, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” This means that the power of God, which rules over death and decay, real and spiritual death and decay, is to be made visible now.
- Jesus calls with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” The deeper meaning is that the mighty call of Jesus calls people to life! The same Jesus is still calling us to life!
The raising of Lazarus actually goes beyond the raising of one man. John informs us that “Many of the Jews had seen what Jesus did and they believed in him.” They too are raised from their spiritual death and despair.
John is a wonderful Gospel, my favorite. At the same time however it poses a great challenge because it is very spiritual. It is much easier to read Matthew’s Gospel, or Paul’s letters or James’ letter. They tell you what to do! Love your neighbor! Give food to the hungry! Help the poor! Now these are extremely important instructions. God without any doubt calls us to care and help!
John challenges us to believe that Jesus is the One sent by God, to embrace the theology that in Jesus there is spiritual life that is much more important than physical life. It is not easy to get our arms around the theology that Jesus drives out our fear and despair.
The challenge throughout the Gospel of John is to see with spiritual eyes, to embrace with spiritual hands, to trust Jesus with your whole being and to unconditionally rely on Him who is the Truth, the Life and the Way!
Kierkegaard, seemingly influenced by John’s Gospel, provides us with more food for thought: “Whether you are man or woman, rich or poor, dependent or free, happy or unhappy; whether you bore in your elevation the splendor of the crown or in humble obscurity only the toil and heat of the day; whether your name will be remembered for as long as the world lasts, or you are without a name and run namelessly with the numberless multitude; whether the glory that surrounded you surpassed all human description, or the severest and most dishonorable human judgment was passed on you — eternity asks you and every one of these millions of millions, just one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not, whether so in despair that you did not know that you were in despair, or in such a way that you bore this sickness concealed deep inside you as your gnawing secret, under your heart like the fruit of a sinful love, or in such a way that, a terror to others, you raged in despair. If then, if you have lived in despair, then whatever else you won or lost, for you everything is lost.”
As human beings our lives play out between the realities of life and death. We spend a lot of time and energy to take care of our physical bodies. We sleep, we eat, we train, we enjoy traveling and being with friends. We live life to the fullest. We enjoy the many blessings and we appreciate the beauty of life. But we are constantly aware that death is our companion. This cold companion causes fear and at times even despair.
John’s Gospel introduces us to Jesus who offers us light, peace and true life so that we can live without fear and despair. The story of Lazarus shows us that Jesus is indeed the One who gives true life. The One who raised Lazarus from the dead is still the One who raises people from spiritual death and despair.
Jesus shows us that these are not empty words: He himself gave up his life and was raised! This message speaks to us today and always.
As we are getting closer to Easter, and in spite of what is going on in our world, let us rejoice in the life we received in Jesus Christ our Lord and let us not fear or despair! Amen.