The raising of Lazarus

John 11:1-45 (Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11)

There’s a thin line between laughing and crying, isn’t there?  We know that to be true now, perhaps more than ever!  There’s also a thin line between grief and anger: as anyone who has ever shouted out curses toward God can tell you.  

When Jesus saw her [Mary, sister of Lazarus] weeping, and the Jews 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 Jews said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:33-36).

We know that Jesus isn’t weeping out of a regret that he hadn’t come to Bethany soon enough.  Bethany was a day’s walk away from where Jesus was when word first reach him that Lazarus was ill, and Jesus remained there two days, then spent another day walking to Bethany.  Lazarus was dead four days when Jesus raised him, so he was dead by the time Jesus first received news of his illness. 

Witnesses comment on Jesus’ deep love for Lazarus.  Then, out comes the grief of knowing that his friend suffered; and that those who loved him suffered also.  Yet the Greek word embrimasthai, which is often translated as “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (vs. 33) can also describe anger.  And, that makes sense, for as one scholar puts it, “Jesus is angry to be face-to-face with the realm of Satan, represented by death.”

The raising of Lazarus is a sign; and remember what I said about signs in last week’s devotional: signs point to something larger than themselves.  This account points backwards to the prologue to John’s Gospel: glory (vs. 4), light of the world (vs 9), believe (vs. 15, 26, 27, 40, 42, 45), the one coming into thee world (vs. 27).  And, this text is littered with additional favorite Johannine words: love (vs. 3, 5), last day (vs. 24) come, see (vs. 45) and even an “I am” (vs. 25).

Yet, the account of the raising of Lazarus also points forward.  The glory that is repeatedly mentioned here is not a glory that comes to Jesus because of the spectacular nature of the miracle (and spectacular it is!).  Rather, this sign accelerates the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, which will result in his death.  The death of Lazarus points to Jesus’ own death: there is the “glory.”

In fact, a dangerous storm is very much on the horizon in this part of John’s Gospel 

… some of them [the Jews] went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.  So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.   If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”  So from that day on they planned to put him to death (John 11:45-48, 53).  When the great crowd of the Jews learned that [Jesus] was [in Bethany], they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus (12:9-11).   As one scholar ironically points out, “Apparently, being brought to life by the one who is the resurrection and the life can get a person killed!”

So, this passage is a distillation of the major themes John’s Gospel: looking backwards to the promises of the prologue and of Jesus’ public ministry, and forwards to glory of Jesus’ death and resurrection; to the righteous anger of Jesus in the face of the destruction wrought by death (the result of sin, which he will overcome); and as a revelation of Jesus’ love – here focused on Lazarus – yet representative of the love Jesus has for all of us who are in a relationship with him (disciples who “believe”).

Rather profoundly, this text is the bridge between Jesus’ public ministry and the Passover and Passion.  In this respect, the story of Lazarus is the first section of our bridge from Lent to Holy Week.

“The blue sky above never leaves”

John 9:1-41(Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14)

He was walking along, minding his own business.  Jesus was strolling.  It starts as simply as that.  But, that’s often the way that profound changes come, isn’t it?  I bumped into a Lutheran pastor in my hometown in Scotland who was visiting from Chicago.  Four years later I married a woman I met in Chicago; and now we’re at St. Armands Key Lutheran Church.  You have, or know, similar stories I’m sure.

The account of the miracle of Jesus giving sight to the man who was blind is pretty concise and straightforward.  But that’s the point: this is a sign, and signs point to something larger, more important than themselves.  The detailed story that flows out of the miracle is interesting.  But, it too points to something deeper (and more interesting) than a back-and-forth between the Pharisees and the man who was formerly blind and his parents.  (Jesus even disappears from the story from verse 7 all the way to verse 35!)

There are greater, deeper things revealed by this Gospel text:

Life turns on a dime.

The man is healed through grace: he doesn’t ask to be healed – it is a gratuitous act of love on Jesus’ part.

Sin is not the cause of illness or disease.

The infirmity of the man is taken by God and worked for the good – in this case as a sign.

Religious traditions, such as the Sabbath Law, are secondary to the working out of God’s love.

The blind man heard Jesus before he saw him: he heard, and trusted the word he heard.

First the man heard the voice, then saw the man (Jesus), then saw/believed that he was from God.

Just beyond this week’s text (10:1-21) Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd, whose voice the sheep recognize, trust and follow (discipleship).

Trusting the word led to the restoration of sight.  Apparently believing is seeing, not the other way around! 

Seeing is revealed to be a spiritual sight: it is recognizing Jesus for who he is.

In the words of one scholar, “As a sign that He is the Light, Jesus gives sight to the blind man” (Raymond Brown).

Do you remember how it was only a few weeks ago that we first began to hear about a novel virus discovered in China?  A small bottle of hand sanitizer was the only addition to our shopping lists.  And now, we’re experiencing social distancing.  In-person worship has ended; schools are canceled; the Dow is in freefall.  

Some rogues on television are saying that this is a punishment from God.  Yet we learn that, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (vs. 3).  Some wonder if the danger we face is worth the cancelation of in-person worship.  Yet we read, “Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes… Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath” (vs. 14 and 16).  All around us, dark clouds seem to be gathering.  Yet Jesus promises, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (vs. 5).  And, many ask where is God’s love? Yet we hear the eternal promise, “… the sheep hear his [the shepherd’s] voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:3, 11, 14-15).  

People of faith – looking at the world and at life through the eyes of faith – live with a profound hope, resting in a profound truth: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23).  This hope, this faith, this love, this light, is what underlies a statement such as that found in the book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy: “Those are dark clouds,” said the boy.  “Yes, but they will move on,” said the horse, “the blue sky above never leaves”
Pastor Kenneth Blyth

“What a difference a day makes”

John 4:5-42 (Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95) 

The contrast between Nicodemus (the central character of last week’s Gospel text) and the Samaritan woman at the well is stark indeed.  Makes me think of Esther Phillips’ 1975 hit song:

What a difference a day made.  Twenty-four little hours brought the sun and the flowers,
where there used to be rain…

● Nicodemus is a man of power and influence, a respected religious leader, an insider.

● The woman is a powerless social and religious outsider.

● Nicodemus cannot seem to understand what Jesus is teaching him, nor who Jesus truly is.

●The Woman at the Well hears Jesus, understands him, and accepts him as savior.

What a contrast!

The woman clearly understands the divisions that exist between Jesus and her people, the Samaritans (“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” vs. 9).  The Samaritans were the Jews left behind during the Babylonian Exile, whose life and faith thereby diverged from those taken away.  An obvious division centered on the location of the dwelling place of God: Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim.  By the time of Jesus, the animosity was well-established; hence the statement in the verses preceding this week’s text, “… he [Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee.  But he had to go through Samaria” (John 4:3-4, emphasis added).  As verse 9b puts it, rather diplomatically, by way of explanation, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”

The Book of Acts (Chapter 18) tells of the conversion to Christianity of Samaritans through the ministry of Peter and John, following groundwork laid by Philip.  In John’s Gospel, that relationship of conversion begins with Jesus.  True, there is an initial misunderstanding: Jesus speaks of himself as the Water of Life, and the woman (quite naturally – they’re standing by a well!) thinks he’s speaking of H2O.  Jesus quickly clears up this misunderstanding: 

Everyone who drinks of this [well] water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (vs. 13-15).

If she were Nicodemus, the comeback would more likely be, ‘How can water possibly do that?!’  Instead the woman begins to accept Jesus as “the gift of God” of which he speaks in verse 10.  And, her use of “sir” as a form of address grows increasingly more respectful as the dialogue proceeds (vs. 11, 15, 18).  

Then it’s the turn of the disciples to get the wrong end of the stick (“They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman” vs. 27), and Jesus has to ask them to “look around/lift up your eyes” (vs. 35) and see the Samaritans as human beings yearning for a saving relationship in Him (salvation).  And, the Samaritans (arguably) recognize more profoundly that anyone else in Scripture who Jesus is: 

 … we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world (vs. 42).

This is the only instance in all of the New Testament in which Jesus is called ‘savior’ during his public ministry.  Apparently, the powerless, the excluded, the outsiders can recognize something that powerful, connected insiders cannot.  What a difference a day made.  Twenty-four little hours brought the sun and the flowers, where there used to be rain…
Pr. Ken Blyth

Did Nicodemus learn his lesson?

When we see someone whom we like or love mess up, our heads and hearts fill with a whirlpool of thoughts and feelings.  In addition to, “I hope they’ll be okay,” there’s often a thought along the lines of, “I hope they’ll learn from this!”  In other words, a mistake can be a learning moment, that leads to an older-and-wiser version of the person.  Such a hope is the basis of so many well-known phrases: 

●Learn from your mistakes.

●Fool me once, shame on thee; fool me twice, shame on me.

●The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

●By seeking and blundering we learn.

●You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.

In the case of Nicodemus (John 3:1-17), we’re not sure if he ever learned the lesson that Jesus was teaching, but he came pretty close: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God (vs. 2).  However, there’s a lot he doesn’t get; and, that’s okay because John’s Gospel is filled with a pattern which scholars call sign/dialog/discourse.   Jesus provides a sign, and then folks ask him about the sign in a back-and-forth, and then Jesus teaches them a deep truth.  Often, in the dialog exchange, someone fails to understand (after all, if they understood there’d be no need for the following discourse).  

Misunderstanding is a opportunity for learning; and the Gospel text invites us into that learning.  This is clear in verse 11:

Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.

In this instance the first “you” is first-person singular (directed toward Nicodemus) and the second is second-person plural (directed toward us).  But what it is that Nicodemus doesn’t understand?  Firstly, Nicodemus is too literal: he hears the Greek word anōthem as being born “again” (hence the confusion about an old man leaving his mother’s womb a second time – John 3:3).  Instead, Jesus clearly means to be born “anew” or “from above.”

Nicodemus’ confusion about water is more understandable (“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” vs. 5).  After all, Christian baptismal theology took centuries to fully develop, so how could a first-Century Jewish leader understand such an allusion?  On the one hand, Jesus could simply be referring to the repentant cleansing that John the Baptist taught.  Or, Jesus could be referring to himself.  Some scholars point out that in John 4:10 Jesus is the Living Water (“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water”.)  And, elsewhere this Living Water and Spirit are rhetorically brought together:

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified (John 7:37-39).

So, what Nicodemus doesn’t understand is who Jesus truly is (not just from God, but actually God-in-the-flesh); nor the life-giving relationship that comes from knowing Jesus and receiving the Spirit that Jesus will give after his resurrection and ascension (the Paraclete).   

Jesus tells Nicodemus in verse 19 (just beyond the end of today’s text), “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”  In John’s Gospel “light” describes belief in Jesus, and “darkness” unbelief.  Nicodemus has come to Jesus “by night” (vs. 1).  So, as one scholar puts it, Nicodemus has been judged by Jesus in His very presence.  

And what is belief?  What is light?  In what way are we to receive Jesus’ testimony (as described above)?  By receiving, believing, and trusting in the revelation contained in the one of the most familiar and oft quoted passages in all of Scripture, John 3:16 and 17: 

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Pr. Ken Blyth

Be true to yourself!

Sixto Rodriguez was a Detroit-based folk-rock singer-songwriter in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Both of Rodriguez’ albums flopped, after which he entered into obscurity, working as a day laborer and contractor.  Meanwhile, an American tourist visiting South Africa shared an album with friends, and Rodriguez became a phenomenon during the apartheid era.  Consistently outselling Elvis and the Rolling Stones, he inspired an entire generation of South African musicians, almost single-handedly launching the counter-cultural movement in that very conservative and isolated country.  The rumor was that he died a tragic death, and so there was amazement in South Africa when it was discovered in 1990s that he was alive and well.  He subsequently toured the country giving sold-out concerts to adoring fans, before returning to his humble Detroit home.  Only when an Oscar-winning documentary (Searching for Sugarman) shared his amazing story did his wonderful music become known in America.

The wilderness account in Matthew’s Gospel can be interpreted in so many ways.  Jesus’ being “led up by the Spirit” (4:1) points to the intentionality of Jesus’ testing.  That Jesus fasted “forty days” (vs. 2) points us to the Old Testament and to the forty days in which Noah await deliverance from the flood (Genesis 7:4 etc.); the time Moses spent on Mt. Sinai while God delivered the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27-28); Elijah’s journey in 1 Kings 19:7f, and so forth.  But what is at the heart of this Gospel account?  One scholar suggests this: That trusting in God to allows God to be God, and one to be oneself.

The three “tests” Jesus faces tempt him to use his power for his own benefit: satisfying his hunger (vs. 3-4); overcoming his vulnerability (vs. 5-7); and glory without the cross (vs. 8-12).  Were Jesus to give in to the Tempter, God’s love, power, grace and mercy would be unnecessary (God could not be God), and Jesus could not be himself (our savior).  Trusting in God to allowed God to be God, and Jesus to be the Messiah.

What of Rodriguez?  Did his “descent’ into obscurity and humble living lead him to self-pity or self-destruction?  No; he raised a family and lived a life consistent with the message of the songs he wrote: love, justice, community.  In simple living, running several long shot runs for mayor, and serving his community, he lived the life he sang about.  In short, he remained firmly, resolutely, true to himself.

A consequence of sin is inauthenticity- not being the person God created us to be and calls us to be.  That is something to be aware of, as we journey through Lent.
Pr. Kenneth Blyth

Scary stories

Did you ever, as a kid, sit around a campfire sharing scary stories, only to return to your tent in complete terror?  Or on the way back to your cabin be confronted by a ‘friend” jumping out of the bushes pretending to be an axe murderer?   (With friends like that…)

Imagine just how scared Peter, James and John were on top of Mt. Tabor.  Just six days earlier Peter had made his great confession of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).  Jesus’ sonship is central to Matthew, and so 16:16 is something of a climax.  However, no sooner has Peter declared this sonship for all to hear, than Jesus begins to speak of death:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (16:21)

and to speak of the cross that must be carried by his followers:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Scary stuff to a group of men who didn’t yet understand what kind of Messiah Jesus was to be.  And then Peter, James and John are on top of a mountain and Jesus is transformed before their very eyes, and Moses and Elijah appear alongside him, “and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (17:5b-6).  You bet they were!

The men wonder if this is the end of which Jesus spoke – is this the moment of death?  Are they doomed?  Again, as elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus reassures them: “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid” (17:7).

With all the allusions whirling around in this Gospel text, it’s easy to lose sight of something simple and wonderful.  True, Mt. Tabor sounds very much like Mt. Sini where Moses met God, and where Moses face shone brightly as a result (Exodus 24:16-17, 34:29).  And true, Moses and Elijah are together just as the climax of Malachi’s prophecy described (Malachi 4:4-5).  And yes, Matthew describes Peter calling Jesus Lord rather than Rabbi and being very differential toward Jesus (“… if you wish, I will make three dwellings here…”)  because Matthew is focused on sonship, not on teaching moments.  Yet, note the wonderfully simple response of Jesus to the immense fear his friends were experiencing: 

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid” (vs. 7).

The touch that healed the leper (8:3) and raised a dead child (9:25) now touches his friends. This is not a moment of death, but of life.  This moment is not doom-ridden, but hope-filled.  Jesus has preached about the kingdom of heaven using three powerful parables (13:44-50) and now the disciples can see how near they are to the kingdom.  

The touch of Jesus, and the promise of the kingdom, describes a life without fear: a life lived in hope 
Pastor Ken

Matthew 17:1-9 (Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21) 

Who is my God?

On September 19, 1796, the American Daily Advertiser published The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America on His Declining the Presidency of the United States.  This was a valedictory to his “friends and fellow-citizens.”  Moses’ valedictory is found in Deuteronomy, of which this week’s text (30:15-20) is the final paragraph.  Some scholars see this book as akin to an ancient treaty (suzerainty); or it may simply be Moses’ last will and testament.  Regardless, this section stresses national unity and common loyalty – to each other (community) and to God (faith).
The verbs are powerful: obey, love, walk in his ways, observe (vs. 16).  Yet, there is a warning: idolatry will lead to separation from the land which God gave to the people he chose – this is death.  Instead, “choose life!” (vs. 19) – the imperative verb revealing power and urgency.
True, “idolatry” can refer to a straying towards other gods, in the sense of other divinities.  Or, it can refer to “extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone.”  In other words, anything that acts in one’s life like a god – giving life, meaning or purpose – demanding one’s complete loyalty heart, soul and mind – becomes one’s god.  We may try to have our cake and it by having more than one god.  Yet, as Luther pointed out, while a person may keep two dogs, the one that is fed and exercised most will ultimately become the stronger of the two.  
A Christian must ask a simple question: who or what is my God?  And the related question: what is compromised by my choice?  And ultimately: am I losing my authentic self and life-giving relationship with God in the process?
Pastor Ken Blyth

Revolution or collaboration?

Matthew 5:13-20 (Psalm 112:1-9 [10], 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16] 

Launch a revolution, or become a collaborator?  Engage in guerrilla warfare, or act like Benedict Arnold?  Resist, or accommodate?  That’s the context in which Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Mount, part of which we encounter in this week’s Gospel.  At Matthew 5:13, we’ve come to the end of Beatitudes (“Blessed are…”), but the sermon continues.  

Israel is occupied by the Romans.  The temple, the capital city, the land promised to the Hebrew in their exodus, is defiled.  How do the people relate to God now, in this awful context?  As E. C. van Driel points out, there are two extreme examples offering a response to these very questions: revolt/resist is typified by the Zealots; and cooperate/accommodate by the Sadducees.  The Pharisees seem to have retreated into an isolationist position: withdraw from the political sphere, and live solely in the religious sphere by being scrupulously attentive to faith teachings, rules, and behaviors.  Jesus shares his authoritative teaching on the subject in his great sermon, (and here I continue to mirror van Driel):

5:38-39: Turn the other cheek

5:40-42: Be extraordinarily generous.

5:43-44: Love your enemies.

A stark contrast to the teachings of the Zealots!  Yet the Pharisees don’t fare any better:

5:20: “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pharisees argue for a spiritual withdrawal from the world into a pure community. Yet Jesus admonishes that a city on a hill can’t be hidden, nor should a lamp be placed under a basket (5:14b-15).  Instead the city should be seen by all the world, and the light ought to illuminate the house for all to see.  Yet, Jesus isn’t arguing against the Old Testament; he is fulfilling it, brining it about, completing it in himself.  And he’s doing so for all to see.  After all, what use is there for a hidden Messiah (or, for that matter, a secret disciple!).

What accounts for the difference between the perspective of the Pharisees and Jesus?  The Pharisees look toward a day when God’s reign would come (an eschatological perspective); whereas Jesus sees that reign having begun in him (a kingdom perspective).  For Jesus, acting as if the Kingdom has come means radical love, hospitality and generosity.  It is in living out the Kingdom life that the believer shows the world that God is doing a new thing.  This is how Israel confronts an empire (as van Driel puts it).  This is how Jesus challenges Israel to be Israel (as N. T. Wright powerfully states).  

Israel’s vocation revealed in Isaiah (42:6) as a covenant to the people and a light to the nations, is the vocation of all believers: to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:14)