The Story of Lazarus Is A Test (John 11:1-45)

If given the option, human beings like to prepare for death.  “Bucket list” is a popular term.  If you know you’re going to die, create a “bucket list” of things you must do before you kick the bucket.  One person might want to travel, another might want to see great museums, or sample fine cuisine.  Or you may want to spend us much time with your family and friends as possible.  The point is you get it in before you die.  It’s everything you never made time for while you were alive.  Whether through carelessness, bad timing, or the wrong priorities, the reality of death brings your priorities into focus.  Sadly, you’re now able to do what’s important to you once the clock is ticking its loudest.  And that’s only one aspect of preparing for death.

We prepare legally and financially.  What will happen to our families?  How will they be cared for in our absence?  The issues of care, survivorship, and wills are first and foremost in our minds.  How will estates be divided?  People spend years preparing for the dissolution of their property prior to their death.  Those who do not prepare bequeath to their children costly legal battles and often acrimonious disputes over grandmothers china.

Believe or not, people put in a degree of religious preparation.  I read in the Guardian, just two weeks ago, the extensive preparations for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.  You want to talk about a big deal?  That’s going to be a big deal.  To a smaller extent, we do the same things.  We pick the hymns to be sung, scriptures to be read, pallbearers to be asked, speakers to be called, and flowers to be picked.  We prepare for the funeral.  In short, getting ready for a funeral, a celebration of a life well-lived is full time job.  But here’s the thing, no one, no matter how prepared you are, how ready you believe yourself to be, how checked off and completed your bucket list appears, is ready for death.  For the living, death is a pop quiz you didn’t see coming.  The dying simply die.  Their journey is over.

We, on the other hand, have prepared for death like the methodical, well-ordered, rational people that we are and have no idea what to do next.  There is no preparation for what comes after death if you’re still alive.  There are no more bucket lists, no more wills to execute, candles to light, or hymns to sing.  You cannot prepare for absence.  The story of Lazarus is a test.  What will you do next, how will you respond, the day after, when Lazarus is in the tomb?

As Mary and Martha, the dead man’s sisters, cared for him in his final hours, Jesus was nowhere to be found.  They knew their brother was dying.  Their preparations were well under way.  The family tomb was opened and cleared.  Anointing oils were readied.  Lazarus, in his final hours of agony, was made as comfortable as possible.  And they waited.  They waited for their friend Jesus to arrive.  Jesus arrived three days later.  He wasn’t in Bethany when Lazarus died.

Two days earlier the women sent for Jesus.  Beyond the disciples who traveled with him, Lazarus was the closest thing Jesus has to both a disciple and best friend.  The message was unmistakable in its urgency and clarity, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”  Lazarus was dying.  Whether Jesus knew he’d been ill or this was unexpected, John doesn’t tell us.  That doesn’t matter.  The reality of the situation counted for everything.  He was sick and there wasn’t much time.  How Lazarus got to this point wasn’t important.  They wanted and needed Jesus.  He had a responsibility to go.

But he didn’t.  Here’s where we begin to see glimpses of Jesus’ humanity we’ve never witnessed before.  Jesus waits those two days. It seems, like some of us, Jesus is not prepared for Lazarus’ death.  Call it denial or unpreparedness, Jesus is unwilling to go to his friends.  This seems strange at best and hurtful at worst.  His only explanation was to says, “This illness isn’t fatal.  It’s for the glory of God so that God’s son can be glorified through it.” I don’t know about you but those aren’t comforting words.  I’m not sure he would have told Martha and Mary that their brother’s illness wasn’t fatal.  As Lazarus lay dying, that’s an extremely presumptuous claim to make.  Have you ever known someone who always manages to bring any conversation back around to themselves?  Jesus does this here.  Lazarus is dying and he says, this is really for me and my glory.  I’m going to be real honest now.  That makes me uncomfortable.  Who is this really about?  Who is the star of this show; the man who is dying or Jesus?  Is Lazarus a human prop?

The disciples are afraid and unprepared.  There is a price on Jesus’ head.  Jesus is marked for death.  In fact, once he goes to Bethany it will start an irreversible chain of events that will end at the cross.  If the disciples return to Bethany, a place so close to Jerusalem, there is a good chance Jesus will be arrested and stoned by the Jewish authorities.  Do they go back to save Lazarus’ life and risk their own?  By this time it’s too late.  Lazarus is already dead.  John, ever the poet, has Jesus use the world sleeping; as if he can be awoken.  We are left this impression:  whatever has happened to Lazarus is not permanent.  Mary, Martha, and their community in Bethany have been fooled by this great day after April Fools’ joke.  It’s all hoax.  Again, the cruelty of going through the reality of death to only be told it wasn’t real seems unbearably cruel.  I am made to feel uncomfortable.

You can imagine their anger, fear, and frustration.  Their beloved brother is dead and Jesus arrives after three excruciatingly painful days.  There is a struggle between Mary and Martha to see which one will yell at him first.  This is the first real indication of what comes next:  anger.  They were mad at Jesus.  “Lord,” they said, “if you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.  Even now I know whatever you ask God, God will give you.”  As Mary and Martha saw it, rightly or wrongly, Jesus had the ability to stop Lazarus from dying.  They do not understand why Jesus didn’t intervene.  He still has the power to do something, doesn’t he?  This is what she’s asking.  Isn’t that the big suffering question?  Why does God not intervene to stop illnesses in the ones we love or stop tragedies like head on collisions between church busses and trucks in Texas earlier this week?  Mary and Martha are asking a question for which there is no preparation.

The second indication of what comes next happens when Jesus sees the scene.  It’s hard not to start crying when you see someone else crying.  Jesus saw their tears.  He took in the size of the crowd.  When they brought him to the tomb, the whole thing got real.  Theoretical death and tomb death are two different things.  You can riff about sleep as a metaphor for death with your disciples until the cows come home.  When you’re standing at your best friend’s grave, it’s another matter altogether.  How do I know this?  Because the Bible says this: Jesus began to cry.  It’s the shortest verse in most translations of the Bible:  Jesus wept.  But that’s what it means, “Jesus began to cry”.  You cannot prepare for how grief will impact your life.  Even the son of God grieves loss and was unprepared for the pain he would experience.  I’m not sure Jesus weeps from the cross.  We never get a clear indication.  He is pain, agony, and torment.  But tears like this are different.  This is a one of a kind experience.

The people who were watching Jesus’ interaction with the women said “See how much he loved him!”  Imagine that, showing so much emotion for someone who has died that the people who are still gathered (three days after the actual death) can tell tangible grief and love versus a put on show of fake grief and made up emotion.  As someone who has led countless funerals, I know what “see how much he/she loved him” looks like and “see how much they want you to think they loved him” appears.  That’s the third thing.  Jesus’ tears alone showed how much he loved Lazarus.   He’d didn’t need to make a big show, sit with the family, and make himself front and center.  The people could tell how he felt without Jesus uttering a single word.  That response, to me, gives a clue to Jesus’ regret at causing Lazarus pain over those last three days of his life.  Jesus was saying; I am sorry.  Jesus says two things:  I’m sorry and come forth.  Will we accept Jesus’ apology?

So we come back to the first question.  What are we to do now?  The time for preparation is over.

You and I; we are Lazarus.  We are entombed in darkness, living without hope, and in need of being freed from the graves in which we’ve been placed.  Will we go forth and be unbound?  The miracle, the response in this story, is in our feet.  Jesus didn’t drag Lazarus out of the tomb. Lazarus walked.  He might have stunk to high heaven but John says he walked out under his own power.  We walk out and God unties us.  God lets us go.

Don’t Stick the Cotton Swab All the Way In Your Ear

There is one basic lesson in ear hygiene.  Do not stick the Q-tip completely in your ear!  The Q-tip isn’t a wax backhoe.  It’s designed for the less sensitive, easy to reach, exterior parts of the ear.  Despite this easy to remember maxim, we humans persist, do we not, jabbing our cotton swabs of death into battle against the brown foes of wax and gunk.

Q-tip rules are ones we learn at a very young age.  This is not the kind of thing society has deemed relevant for the syllabuses of 9th grade health classes. “Today we’ll be talking about how a man has a ‘you know what’ and a woman’s got a ‘thing a mabob’ and the proper method of cleaning your ears with a Q-tip.”  Ear cleaning with cotton swabs should be learned before we know anything about human reproduction, beer, flip-flops, constipation, colors, or osmosis.

On whatever day they taught Q-tip usage I was absent.  I blame my parents.  I was completely home schooled in cleanliness.  I was trying to get advance placement credit in toenail clipping and it wasn’t going well.  If memory serves, I might have skipped to prep for the “Big Toe Final”.  Honestly, I can’t be sure.   I did so much Tinactin in middle school.  How could someone who played no sports at all have athlete’s foot?

Why does it matter that I was absent from ear cleaning day at hygiene home school?  On Monday, I broke a cotton swab right off, plumb clean in my right ear.  I know what you’re thinking.  How did this happen?  Surely, someone with my good looks, bald head, and sock collection knows the one basic lesson of ear hygiene:  don’t stick the q-tip completely down your ear.  I got greedy and cheap.  I bought bootleg Chinese Q-tips on the black market.  Sure, I wanted to save a few bucks. But the narrow diameter of the swabs appealed to me.  They looked like they could bend further and go deeper than the usual, safety tested American models.  These babies could reach places where no cotton swab had ever swabbed before.

My right ear beckoned.  Before I knew it, I heard a snap.  I pulled the Q-tip out and the cotton was gone.  The plastic tubing was broken.  I was deaf as post.  Panic soon set in.

I called for my wife, using both a tone and term of endearment reserved for the direst emergencies.

“Baby, baby, get my Swiss Army knife army and pull out the tweezers!”

“Why?” she asked in a manner more casual than I thought the emergency deserved.

“I think I broke the Q-tip off in my ear and it’s headed to my brain, you got to get it out!”

“Don’t you know,” she said, “you’re not supposed to put it all the way down your ear?”

No, I was out that day.  Same thing happened when they gave out brains.  I thought they said trains and I feared locomotives.

Barrister Jack: He’s Back for More

Jack Koffi <barr.jackwf@gmail.com>

Reply
|
Today, 13:11
You

My dear friend Richard Griswold ,

how are you and your family? I have received your message counselling my offer to you, am sorry to hearing that your blind person. I contacted you for a bussiness for you to help me out, I want you to know that this deal is for real and not scaring jokes, I am a respected person in my country and with great personality so I would not engage myself in this as a joke. Please all I want from you is your sincerity, honesty and understanding in order for us to achieve this aim. For more information about the transfer of this Fund $3.2 Million to your account, I will prefer that you will send to me your full information such as:
(1) Full names:
(2) Private phone number:
(3) Current residential address:
(4) Occupation:
(5) Age and Sex:
(6) Marital Status:

This will enable me go to the concerned Authority to legally and officially present you as the sole next of kin to my deceased client in order to expedite the necessities for the immediate release of the deposit to your account.

Thanks you for your understanding
Barrister Jack Koffi

REPLY

My dearest Jack Koffi,

I have eagerly anticipated you latest reply.  I am sure you are a great personality in the wonderful country of  Togo.  I want you to know I am for real blind, partially deaf in my right ear, and living in a mental institution because my parents are no longer able to care for me in the manner in which I’ve grown accustomed.  This is for me.  3.2 million would really help me acquire the new toaster I’ve promised the other residents.  The toast here is horrible.  If I, a bind and partially deaf person will help you, I will need to call you on your personal phone number, know your current address, and how much sex you get.  If you tell me, then maybe, as my therapist says, I’ll feel better about telling you.  The phone here usually rings and the guard tells me I have a call.  No one give me the number.

My wife lives with Jesus in heaven.  She had the fever and a pox when we made the crossing.

Why do you refuse to use my codename Pancake for our international money operation?  See, I can’t even trust you with something as simple as that?

Love,

Pancake

Have You Met Barrister Jack?

Dier Folly <dierfolly@>
1:26 PM (22 hours ago)

to
Dear

Hi i am Jack Koffi, I am contacting you to assist me retrieve his huge deposit Mr. Stevenson
left in the bank before its get confiscated by the bank . Get back to
me for more detail’s reply to my private email address
(barr.jackwf@gmail.com)

Barrister. Jack Koffi, (ESQ

Reply|

Yesterday, 18:38

barr.jackwf@gmail.com
Sent Items
Barrister Jack,

I got your email. Are you in France? I love France. If I could see, I would go but I can’t. You want my help with money. I got it! What do you want me to do? I got you on this! Email me the details and I will help you with your awesome detail money swipe thing. Does it matter that I am blind? Are blind people prohibited from helping out with your deal? I can help with money. I can really count. It’s just that I’m blind. I type good but that’s because my computer listens to me talk. So hit me up my money brocephus. Can I have a code name? Will you call me pancake? What is a barrister?

You new money switching pal,

Dickie Bryant

Re: More Details My good friend Richard bryant .

Reply|

Today, 09:58
You
Inbox
You replied on 29/03/2017 16:17.
My good friend Richard bryant .

To begin with, I thank you for your kind attention paid to my confidential mail as well as your commitment to co-operate with me upon clarification of this case.

I am the personal attorney to my late client Mr. Stevenson bryant , who used to work as a Contractor and have spent most of his life in my country (TOGO). I contacted you in this matter base on the fact that you bear the surname with my late client and since I had sought for the relatives without success, instead of this fund being confiscated by the Finance Firm or being claimed by some unscrupulous person, I decided to contact you in this matter to be able to have a good share of the money, at least it’s better than letting it go down the drain.

My reasons to choose you:

1. I want us to engage in business partnership. 2. You will stand as the relative and then put claim over the release of the fund by sending an application to the bank from your country for processing and approval . (I will provide you the application) 3. Based on this, all I needed is your honest, seriousness, capability and co-operation so I can present you to the bank and then establish your legality in the court as the relation to my late client. You have to furnish me with your full information such as

(1) Full names:
(2) Private phone number:
(3) Current residential address:
(4) Occupation:
(5) Age and Sex:
(6) Marital Status:

This will enable me go to the concerned Authority to legally and officially present you as the sole next of kin to my deceased client in order to expedite the necessities for the immediate release of the deposit to your account.

Yours Sincerely
Barrister Jack Koffi (Esq.)

Jack Koffi <barr.jackwf@gmail.com >

Re: More Details My good friend Richard bryant .

Reply
Today, 16:17
Jack Koffi (barr.jackwf@gmail.com)
Sent Items
Dearest Jack,

Yes, I do feel as if we are good friends. I will, although I am blind and cannot see or read anything you send me without my mother, father, or other good friend reading back to me, I will listen to what they say. As they read it to me,because I am blind and live in world of total darkness, I will imagine your words of trusting clarification floating through the air. I will listen, because I cannot see or read.

Is Togo in France? I’ve never been to France or seen a map.  What does the color red look like?

Bryant is my middle name. My last name is Count Baron von Griswald. I am of German nobility.  My father manages gold deposits for a Swiss hedge fund in Geneva.

My sex is never. I never have sex. The girls here do not like the sex with a blind guy.

My home is residential.  I get to see my family when a judge allows it on certain weekends.

You’re going to give me money? Do you think I can have an eye operation and see again? What will you spend your money on?

Your good friend,

Richard Bryant Baron von Griswald, (aka Pancake)

Old Man Lazarus (A Poem) John 11:1-45

Old Man Lazarus,
frail these recent days,
bordering on the apocalyptic,
a thinning darkness clamped down,
more sensitive in his mind,
his place in the cosmos unsound,
assured that he’s dying,
again at the completed end,
of his second time around,
his first tomb eagerly awaits,
present tense to be past case,
death certainly doth portend,
now with Jesus long gone,
for whom might he send?
Mary and Martha,
personalities known,
by the arbitrary sound,
of English words,
paired forever,
with the nature of their being,
to listen and serve,
a common sense theology,
can never be proved,
but invented and seen,
between the counterpoints,
of life and death,
pleasure and joy,
major and minor,
yet never falling prey,
to the cult of empty significance,
and forgotten resurrections.

–Richard Bryant

I Shall Not Want (Psalm 23:1)

What makes you happy?  What brings you a sense of true joy and contentment?  For many of us it may be opening our eyes, going outside, taking a deep breath, and looking around on a day like today.  Others locate their happiness in relationships; perhaps among their family and friends.  Those are the places we are supposed to find happiness.  When push comes to shove, at the end of the day, when nothing else is available and resources are scant; happiness is available to us in immeasurable units.  In the back of our minds, that’s we’ve be taught and led to believe.  I’m not sure we believe it.  Most of us, on our best days, despite countless protestations to the contrary, live as if happiness is measured in things you can actually count.   We would deny it until we’re blue in the face but our actions run to the contrary.  Despite all we’ve read about simplicity and materialism, we still believe that “stuff” makes us happy.

I need to tell you the truth here.  I’m pointing the finger at myself.  I’m a stuff junkie.  I’ve tried to break the habit on numerous occasions but it’s hard.  The stuff I can’t get rid of isn’t the good stuff; the things with emotional resonance and sentimental value.  It’s the clutter, albeit clutter that I can justify in one way or another.  For example, fancy writing instruments.  How many pens does a grown man need?  The thing is, each one has a story.  I know where I bought the pen.   I even know how long I had to save to buy several of them.  There are a couple of them I wouldn’t dare write with.  I just look at them and thank God I get to be the custodian of something attached to American history.  Despite the value of these pens, I’ll be the first to admit, they’re stuff, clutter moved from multiple houses and across the ocean.  My happiness, though it is, shouldn’t be tied in up in pieces of plastic, I never use.  There are things like my pens in all of our lives.  They appear to make me happy.  But my happiness, as it has been reshaped by the world (and we’ve allowed this to happen), is both flawed and false.  In truth, none of us knows what makes us happy.  We have so many things competing for the limited amount of time we’ve reserved for joy in our lives.  Maybe it’s time we open up more space on our schedules for happiness.

When you step back from the sheep and shepherd metaphor, the 23rd Psalm opens with a powerful statement about the relationship between happiness, need, and want.  It’s hard for modern readers to grasp the work of shepherds or the difficulties of raising sheep.  I lived in Irish sheep country for two years.  The shepherds I knew were unsentimental, hard scrabble men with little time for the romanticized version of their work presented in scripture.  Like their 1st century peers, modern day shepherds are invested in the survival and protection of their flocks.

For the shepherd in the 23rd Psalm, handling sheep is more than a job.  I don’t feel comfortable saying God’s calling is to be a shepherd.  Calling a God a shepherd is a way, for us as humans, to try to grasp and understand, in a limited way, what God does and who God is.  When you start talking about whom God is and God’s job description, that’s when I wait for the Indiana Jones moment, for the floor to drop out from under me and boulder to start rolling from the ceiling.  That’s very dicey ground on which to stand.   God is too big for me to put into one vocational box.

So we say that God’s sort of a shepherd.  It’s like saying, “the best thing we can come up with in order to describe how God looks after the universe is to compare it to the work of a shepherd.”  God isn’t a shepherd but the best way we know how to describe it is to use that word.  If we talk about it this way, we may see something we’ve missed.

The second half of the first verse contains four words:  “I shall not want”.  When it comes to any understanding of happiness, generosity, joy or contentment; those four words answer questions and statements we are afraid to ask.

Why am I unhappy? I shall not want.

What happens when Mama gets sick? I shall not want.

What happens when there is no money for the light bill?  I shall not want.

When I cannot see God? I shall not want.

I am afraid.  I shall not want.

I will never have enough. I shall not want.

Despite the presence of death, I shall not want.

Those words are both a promise and an ultimatum.  The world will come this far and no further.  We do not want what the world has to offer.

Here’s what those four words ultimately mean:  we shall not want for life in the face of death.  So let me give you a huge spoiler alert:  the tomb will be empty.  Death loses!

This is the difference that Christ makes.  When we place Christ at the center, want (or happiness) is never about what we possess.  It’s the opposite.  It’s about letting go of everything.  Christ, though he was God, did not make a big deal about the fact he was God, divested himself of all power, so that now he’s basically a slave in a human body, and that slave in a human body died on a Roman cross so we might be free from what the world calls want.

That’s when all the pieces fall into place and this single verse makes more sense than all the imagery about green pastures and still waters combined.  Christ changes our perspective on happiness and want.  Why shall we not want?  Because we know who’s let everything go and why he did it.

One of the questions Jesus was regularly asked (and the disciples after the resurrection) by the religious authorities was “by whose power do you do these things?”  Whether it was a healing, preaching, or teaching, they wanted to know who gave them the authority to stand, in public, in God’s name, and act accordingly.  That’s just another way of asking, “How are you so happy and content?”  “How do you have the nerve to be so without want?”  “What do you know that we don’t?

We know this:  whether we’re asking ourselves in the bathroom mirror or someone poses it to us we have the opportunity to proclaim the resurrection in four simple words:  I shall not want.

It’s OK To Be Afraid

I don’t know what will make me feel better, safe, or more secure.  I do know that hashtags encouraging me to pray for London, watching candlelight vigils, or holding my hands in the shape of heart do nothing for my soul.  These actions leave me cold and numb.  The global Kum-Ba-Yah crowd has again assembled to tell the world how we are not afraid of bearded, knife, wielding, erratically driving men knocking us off in groups of 10 or less in the name of Allah.   It’s my hunch, these services and songs leave the terrorists (would be and active) pleased with what they see.  Other than statements of non-fear is anyone on the same page at these gatherings?

We must be a little afraid, or we wouldn’t be pretending so hard that we’re not afraid.  Resistance to terror has now become daily living.  We stand up to terror by being afraid and still going to work, crossing, bridges, and going shopping; at least that’s what we’re told.  Let me tell you a secret, even on a good day, when I know a terrorist isn’t trying to run me over, I’m a little scared to cross the street.  I know people drive like drunken idiots.  I’m scared and afraid, just a little, on the sunniest and happiest days of my life.  When I lived in Northern Ireland, I lived with a little bit of fear that I might be blown up because some radical faction of the IRA who never signed on to the peace process had a problem with the police and I would die at the wrong place at the wrong time.  This fear stayed with me when I went to the grocery store, to the university, and to pick up our children from school.  I lived with fear and my “normal” life.  The fear wasn’t in my head.  The bomb threats were real.  The car searches occurred.  My life didn’t stop.  However, the fear was always present.

So I’m kind of frustrated when civic leaders and religious figures  tell us it’s not OK to be afraid.  We will not cower to the terrorists.  No, I don’t believe in cowering but I do believe in admitting when I’m scared.  Scripture is full of examples, in fact, of people doing both.  Asking me to deny my fear in the face of tragedy is telling me to deny my humanity.  If I deny my humanity, the terrorists win automatically.  I think fear is an appropriate response to people being killed in the street.  If we weren’t a little scared, we’d all be insane.  We need appropriate amounts of fear to survive.  Fear shouldn’t control our lives but we can’t ignore the realities we face by pretending danger doesn’t exist.