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Come and give your life away

December 14th, 2011 No comments

“Come and give your life away” (John 11)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
October 9, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Jesus wasn’t there
Jesus wasn’t there that day that Lazarus died. He wasn’t there to stop the illness from spreading. He wasn’t there to keep death at bay.

Mary and Martha had sent word to their good friend Jesus that their brother Lazarus was sick. Jesus could heal him, they knew. If he could heal a man born blind, if he could restore the crippled man’s legs, if at nothing more or less than his powerful word, the official’s deathly ill son was healed, surely Jesus need only say the word, and Lazarus would be well again!

They sat at his bedside and comforted their brother and prayed for him and reassured him: we’ve sent word to Jesus. It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright. Dear God, let it be alright. They prayed, and they hoped, and they waited. . . and they waited. . . and they waited by the bedside of their sick brother who was only getting weaker.

I never knew my grandmother on my dad’s side, but I’ve heard enough about her that I’d like to think I know something of her. She was diagnosed with cancer in her late 50s. Family gathered around to give support and comfort, and to reassure. “It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright. Dear God, let it be alright.” And she and my grandpa and the family prayed and prayed and hoped and hoped and waited and waited. . . and they waited at the bedside of my grandmother, who was only getting weaker.

I think a lot of us here know what it’s like to pray and to hope and to wait and wait for something beyond our power to control. The “waiting room” probably has the most self-descriptive label of any room in the hospital. We gather there, and we wait, not just as time passes by, but as life hangs in the balance. We reassure ourselves, “It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright. Dear God, let it be alright.”

We gather, and we pray without ceasing, and we hope with every bit of courage that we have, and we wait, and wait, and wait in that waiting room or that doctor’s room or that lab, waiting to hear the doctors words or the surgeon’s report.

What great relief there is to hear the words, “He did great in surgery.” Or “It looks benign.” Or even “20 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything, but today, today we have options.” What relief, what gratitude, what reminder of God’s constant and eternal care over each and every one of God’s children, and of God’s protection and provision over us all.

But I know how many of us know what it’s like to pray and hope and wait, only to hear the words, “I’m sorry, there was just too much damage. There was nothing more we could do.” Or “The best we can do now is to make you as comfortable as possible.” And then we’re left to grieve as we can, and to try and make sense of all our questions and numbness and shock as best we can – the great let down, the great dashing of all hope after all that praying and hoping and waiting, and we wonder, wouldn’t it have been better not to risk hope in the first place? Wouldn’t that have made things easier?

If you had been here. . .”
Mary and Martha and Lazarus had sent word to Jesus and waited and hoped for him to come, knowing, believing that he could make Lazarus well, but Jesus wasn’t there in Bethany that day, and Lazarus died, and Mary and Martha were left to grieve and to make sense of what had happened.

When Jesus finally arrives at Bethany, both sisters greet him with exactly the same words, first Martha, then her sister Mary, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” which, translated, I think means, “Lord why didn’t you save him? Why did you let him die?”

And how many of us modern-day Marthas and Marys have said the very same thing in our heart of faith? It takes faith to say those words, after all, faith to acknowledge that Jesus could have saved Lazarus, tremendous faith to acknowledge that it is God who finally holds the keys even to life and to death, and we simply wonder why it had to be death. The person who does not believe has no reason to ask that question.

It’s always shocking to hear Jesus cry out from the cross later on, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Surely he of all people should know that God hasn’t forsaken him. Why this moment of weak faith?

Yet these are precisely the words of faith, the words of the Psalmist, who said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”

And those who heard Jesus’ cry knew the rest of the Psalm as well: “You who fear the Lord, praise him. . . for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”

Every anguished cry to God, every “If you had been here,” even one as shocking as Jesus’ heart-wrenching cry from the cross, which breaks us out of our neatly-packaged views of faith, is a prayer of faith and courage and hope, and if it belongs anywhere, it is before God.

God desires our honesty, even the honesty of our grief and confusion. No amount of rationalizing anything can change what has happened. We sit, we pray to God for everything to be alright, we hope, and we wait, and wait, and wait for a word of reassurance, and for what? Death comes in spite of all this, in spite of every effort and every prayer.

Why, we ask. If only, we say, and our hearts are left vulnerable, exposed, disappointed, exhausted, let down.

Jesus didn’t show up in Bethany that day that Lazarus died. If only he had. That’s the longing these two sisters feel in their hearts, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” “Lord why didn’t you save him? Why did you let him die?”

Resurrection and Life
But then, having said that, each sister begins to perceive something more. Each sister begins to perceive that what is happening is bigger than a story of illness and death, and a friend’s tragically late arrival.

Martha is the theologian of the two, the one who is able to put it into words. “Even now, I believe that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” There in the depth of tragedy and grief, she believes, she perceives that there is yet possibility, though even she for all her intelligence cannot imagine what that might be.

It’s kind of like the odd way we talk about things at funerals. We gather at the graveside to say farewell to one who has died, and there, with every possible reminder of death around us – a whole cemetery of tombstones, the weeping of our loved ones and our own tears, the casket or urn containing the remains of what used to hold such joy and love and warmth, but are now simply a random collection of molecules going back to the earth, there, there we dare to say that death is swallowed up in victory. We even dare to taunt death just a little bit with the words of Paul, “Where O death, is your victory? Where, O Hades, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55).

It’s something we believe to be true, especially for some future time, but we say this even though for us the sting of death is still very real, and we can hardly imagine what this conviction means for us as we grieve. Our pastors give words of comfort and remind us that death isn’t the end of the story, and we agree, but with the shock of death still upon us, we, with Martha’s mind, cannot yet imagine what this means for us.

It’s like Martha’s reply to Jesus’ promise that her brother will rise again. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. I know.” Have you ever noticed how at a funeral visitation, the immediate family receives friend after friend offering words of comfort: “He’s in a better place now.” “She’s with Jesus now. Suffering is over.” And time after time, the family nods, and says, “Yes, I know. I know,” but the tears keep coming.

Martha knows and believes and understands and accepts this common confession that the dead will rise. She knows. But God didn’t just give us brains. God also gave us hearts, and so often no amount of knowledge or self-preaching will comfort the hurting heart or fill the void we now sense in the soul, or answer the questions and longings of our hearts.

It is Jesus who speaks to the head and to the heart. “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. I am the resurrection and the life.”

It’s not just a nice comforting idea to take the edge off your grief. It’s right here, standing before you, loving you, embracing you. I am resurrection and life eternal now already. “Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” Mary replies.

There, in the depth of her grief, she has caught sight of faith and hope, and yet, she still does not understand that he is the resurrection and the life. Later, at the tomb, she protests when Jesus orders the stone removed, saying, “Lord, no, there’s a stench, for he has been dead four days!” She believes; she just does not yet understand.

Mary’s response is much different. She doesn’t have Martha’s quick wit or her talent for thinking through meticulous theology. Her intelligence is of a different sort, one of emotion, one of intuition. She simply falls at the feet of the one who could have saved Lazarus, but chose to delay his arrival. She has no more words. She simply embraces his feet with the same hands that will later anoint them.

She is grieving, but she knows where her grief belongs, and she looks up, and finds that he is weeping too. He was late, yes, but he wasn’t playing light with Lazarus’s life. He also is deeply troubled and angry at death. He is hurting too. He is weeping also. And that says more about life and death than any theologian could ever write. Jesus wept with Mary. Jesus weeps with us.

And I imagine there were still a few tears in Jesus’ eyes as the tomb was opened and the smell came out and as he gave thanks to God, and as he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, Come out! And God was glorified amid the tears; God was glorified even amid something seemingly so irredeemably painful. Even amid death’s stench, “I am the resurrection and the life!”

Come and Give Your Life Away
My grandmother died in 1980 after a very painful journey with cancer. There was no last-minute intervention, not even an intervention that came four days later. Twenty-five years later, as my grandpa was dying of Parkinson’s and congestive heart failure, one of my aunts asked him if he was looking forward to seeing his wife again. A tear came to his eye, and he nodded. Even after all those years, the sting of death had not been erased.

But at my grandfather’s funeral a few years back, I heard a story I hadn’t heard before. My uncle recalled how they had prayed and hoped and waited for good news, for a change, and it didn’t come. But later on, he said, he discovered that there was a change. It wasn’t in my grandmother, but in my grandfather. His language for when the cows got out had changed. Instead of being left to his grief, he found new life and gave life by volunteering his cooking skills honed years ago in CPS camp, by cooking at Swan Lake Camp in South Dakota.

I don’t believe God caused or desired by grandmother to have cancer, and I wouldn’t exactly call it a happy ending, but I do believe that God was glorified even amid something seemingly so irredeemably painful.

The Lazarus story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending either, you see. Jesus had revealed God’s glory and he had invited Lazarus to be a part of that glory as well. But you know, glory is an odd thing in John’s gospel. You see, Jesus refers to his death as his glorification.

Indeed, the raising of Lazarus so enraged and threatened the folks who were running things that they began to plot his death in earnest, and not only his, but Lazarus’s death as well. Jesus would shortly die; and Lazarus before long as well. Jesus may as well have called out to Lazarus, “Lazarus, make room for two in there! I’ll be coming soon!”

But that’s not what he said; he said, “Lazarus, come out! Don’t just stay there until the resurrection on the last day. I am the resurrection and the life now already! So much for ordinary dying from disease and illness and cancer and accidents. So much for praying and hoping and waiting and making every effort to postpone death until the last possible minute. Now you can come with me to Jerusalem, to the cross. We’re going to go and give our lives away!”1

Jesus asked Martha to believe that he is the resurrection and the life, and those who believe in him, though they die, will never die. Jesus was there in Bethany that day that Lazarus was raised, and Lazarus wasn’t the only one raised to new life that day. Everyone who believed in the resurrection and the life got a taste of life eternal. Everyone who believes in Jesus the resurrection and the life has a foretaste of resurrection life now already.

And when you have eternal life, you have no more reason to fear death, no more reason to obsess over delaying its coming as long as possible, no more worrying about tomorrow, no more running away from illness.

Rather, you have every reason to go and give your life away.

Go and give your life to Jesus.

Go and live as he lived, even when it makes no more sense than opening a dead man’s tomb.

Go and love as he loved even when everyone has only hatred.

Go and weep and rejoice with him.

Go and give your life to following him, even when death is stinking to high heaven and everyone thinks you’ve got it all backwards. Follow him, and you’ll find the fragrance of God’s glory, and everyone around you will delight in its hope and life as well.

Jesus is here today for new life. If you want to cheat death, go and give your life away. Go and give your life away.

The road to life runs smack through the cross every time. Go and follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to the cross, and give your life away. Because you’ll find it again, my friends. Entrust yourselves to Jesus, and you’ll find it again.

He is the Resurrection and the Life.

Notes:
1 Paraphrased from Frederick Niedner, “A Generation Ago,” The Christian Century (Feb. 26, 2008), 21.

Categories: Sermons Tags: ,

Locked In

February 18th, 2011 No comments

“Locked In” (Luke 16:19-31)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
February 6, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A story of the great beyond

There are lots of Jokes about Saint Peter and the “Pearly Gates.” You’ve probably heard your fair share or even more than you’d care to hear. But one of my favorites goes like this:

There was a long line at the Pearly Gates, and Saint Peter was poring over Book of Life of the Lamb who was Slain, and scratching his head. Well, there was a righteous fellow who’d lived a good life, done all the right things, and he had waited in line for hours. When he got to the front of the line, he asked St. Peter what the hold up was all about.

Peter replied, “Well, this happens from time to time. We’re having some trouble finding rooms for everyone, but I think I know what the hold up is. I’ve sent a couple of angels to investigate.” Soon the angels got back and said, “You were right, Peter. Jesus is out on the other side of heaven, hoisting the sinners and tax collectors over the back gate again!”1

Well, people were telling stories about the great beyond, about the “heavenly hereafter,” in Jesus’ day as well. It seems that rabbis – teachers such as Jesus – were especially fond of reciting these clever and imaginative stories.2 Surely Jesus was familiar with the ways such stories can communicate truths of eternal significance, and he told one about a nameless rich man and a beggar named Lazarus who meet up with Father Abraham in the great beyond.

Clothed in linen, Clothed in sores

Behind a high gate, there lived a rich, prosperous man. And every day, this rich man dined on the finest of foods – the freshest of the vine and garden, the most tender of the flock. And his closet was filled with fine linens from Egypt and purple cloth made from thousands upon thousands of seashells. He wore the Armani suits of the first century – the kind that presidents and CEOs keep in their closets, by the dozen. He shopped at his suburban shopping center. He had the finest chariot in town. He was living the dream; in everything he did, he prospered, there behind his high gate.

Now just in front of this gate, you see, there was another man. And his only clothes were the sores that the outcast dogs licked as they awaited his death. He was in constant torment, longing for a cool sip of water to quench his thirst, aching for the food the rich man so casually threw away. Lying there, just beyond the gate, he was conveniently invisible to the folks who mattered, just like our 1.2 billion hungry neighbors today, or the 30,000 children who starve to death each day.3

Surely this man’s parents would have chosen a different name than Lazarus, which means “the one whom God has saved,” had they known his future of suffering, lying there day after day, just outside the rich man’s gate.

Locking our gates

Of course, the rich man had no knowledge of this poor beggar’s name. He had made a name for himself so he didn’t have to pay attention to the likes of this beggar, if he could even see him all the way down by the gate.

Did not the rich man’s wealth prove his righteousness and the poor man’s torment prove his own wickedness? Who would dare to intervene with the divine judgment being visited upon this man in his agony? Certainly none of the Pharisees who were listening in to this parable, that’s for sure!

Fortunately, we have gates for such things – gates to separate the righteous from the wicked, lest their contagion spread. We have walls to keep suffering out and comfort in, so it doesn’t have to trouble those who have more important affairs to keep in order. The rich man couldn’t busy himself worrying about which anonymous Lazarus had let himself in to freeload off of the abundant table this time. That’s why we have gates, isn’t it?

No, the rich man had no time for this beggar Lazarus, who was so thin and miserable that as far as anyone was concerned, in the grand scheme of things, he was of no more consequence than the chaff that the wind blows away – here today and gone tomorrow. We lock our gates to keep the insignificant things out.

Locked in

But it turns out that the gates we build have an eternal significance. The rich man and Lazarus both died, the story goes. And the rich man’s life – everything he thought was important – crumbled away beneath him as the wall, the gate he had put up, became “a chasm driven down unimaginable depths.”4 The wall he had erected to guard his comfort and security, you see, had become his own eternal prison. He tried to lock the likes of Lazarus out, but he locked himself in. Permanently.

Shane Claiborne tells the tragic story of a friend’s family whose house caught fire. Their house was so heavily fortified with locks and bars that those inside could not escape – not even through a window, and everyone perished, “in part because they had so effectively locked themselves in.”5

Security becomes our prison. Gates and fences lock us in.

Next week in the evening, Katherine and I will show you pictures of a place called Masada, which means “Fortress.” Herod the Great fortified Masada on the top of a mountain along the Dead Sea. And this mountain is surrounded on all sides by deep chasms and valleys. Now Herod, you may have heard, was a tremendously paranoid man, and he had thousands upon thousands of gallons of water hauled up this desert mountain6 – more water than there was for the Temple in Jerusalem. He had grain bins and reserves for grapes. If ever he were in trouble, he could flee to his Masada. It was the fortress to end all fortresses, this Masada.

The fortress was later taken by a group of extremists during the Jewish rebellion against Rome. When Rome came to lay siege in the years to follow, legend has it that they committed mass suicide, locked within the walls of their own fortress, shut in by their own gates.

As we were leaving Masada, this fortress, Patty Shelly, our guide, said she likes to take groups to Masada, so we can see the tremendous fortification, and the tremendous effort people go to feel secure, to build these fortresses, these Masadas. And then she read Psalm 18:2, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress (“my Masada”), and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” And, as we were looking up at Masada, she said, “The Bible envisions a different sort of security.”

Whose hell?

It’s the poor man Lazarus, who had no gates to keep him comfortable, no fortresses to guard his security, who got the angel ride to Father Abraham’s bosom, where he finally enjoyed the security and comfort that he could once only dream of as he stared through the rich man’s gate.

As for the rich man, he was buried and entered Hades (or Sheol in the OT7), the land of the dead, where the flames of torment engulfed him in the daily agony he had never before even paused to consider in his comfort – the agony that daily tore at the poor man Lazarus just across the gate, the tormenting hunger in his bones and the sores constantly burning at his skin as he had lain at the rich man’s wall.

Though Jesus doesn’t use the word here, hell is the strongest word we have to describe that kind of agony,8 and we are left to ponder whether the suffering hell of the innocent – the hungry, the bleeding, the children, the heirs of Lazarus – or the suffering hell of the complacent and wicked is more troublesome to our sensitivities and frightening to our souls.9

Now the rich man was evidently religious – he called out to Father Abraham; he knew Moses and the Prophets – the Scriptures – as well as any Pharisee. And as a rich man, he had surely made a name for himself, but now it was he who was lying just beyond the gate and begging for a drop of water, while Lazarus, who “had lived nameless in the shadows of misery,”10 was now seated securely next to Father Abraham, and was called by his name, Lazarus, for truly it was he “whom God has saved.”

Since we’ve been back, people have often asked us if we were scared at all, being in the Middle East, or in communities where tensions run high. As I’ve thought about it, I wonder if I should be much more scared of my own comfortable neighborhood in North Newton.

“Jesus warns that we can fear those things which can hurt our bodies or those things which can destroy our souls, but we should be more fearful of the latter.”11 Is there any scarier place for a follower Christ to be than in a nice, safe, comfortable neighborhood, detached from the hungry, the thirsty, stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, from those who lie suffering on the other side of whatever physical or psychological gates we have created?12

Every time we lock someone out of our hearts or our compassion, every time we are too repulsed to care, too frightened to love, too self-righteous to embrace, too proud to forgive, we lock ourselves into our complacency, trapping ourselves with the rich man in the grave of isolation.

In Israel and the West Bank, we were reminded of how we’ve been building our gates and walls for millennia: Jericho, Dan, Megiddo, Jerusalem, Berlin, Arizona and Texas, and in countless human hearts. And the more gates and complacency and fear for comfort we have, we have to wonder how much farther away from God’s tears we are moving and how much closer to gates and chasms of the rich man’s hell we are stepping.13

Lift up your heads, O ye Gates!

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man ends on a bleak note. The despair of the endless chasm dividing the rich man and Lazarus invites us to rewrite the ending for ourselves, to heed the call of Moses, the Prophets, and the Risen Lord.

Jesus doesn’t desire his followers to share in the rich man’s fate; Jesus is in the business of lifting people like Lazarus out of whatever hell they’re in. Jesus is in the business of casting out the hell that burns so strongly within his enemies with love and forgiveness.

Jesus, you see, is in the business of walking through gates. Paul got the message when he wrote that Jesus, through the cross, has broken down the dividing wall between us. In Revelation’s vision of God’s future, Jesus has the keys to the gates of Death and Hades (aka Sheol, the abode of the dead) in his pocket, ready to to speak comfort and redemption to those who have suffered and died (Rev. 1:17-18).

Jesus mentions Hades just a couple of other times, most notably when he says to good old Saint Peter, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).

Now often we think of the church fending off the gates of Hades, the church resisting the demons attacking us from the skies. But gates are defensive structures, designed to keep adversaries out. Maybe what Jesus has in mind for us is to be raiders of the gates of Hades, persistently attacking Hades’ sin, violence, starvation, and suffering with endless love and compassion.14 The gates of Hades can never withstand the onslaught of God’s grace.

In our meeting last week, we heard about how followers of Christ at the homeless shelter are joining Jesus in loving people out of their own personal hells. Or think of how many more Lazaruses – more “people whom God has saved” – God is creating every time MCC sends a container of school kits or a box of canned meets right through the gates separating. Most importantly, think of what happens every time God gives us the strength to fling open the gates we’ve placed between us and “those whose suffering would disrupt our comfort.”15

That’s what God’s future looks like, you see. In the New Jerusalem, in God’s kingdom, “the gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night.” Let’s pray for the courage to embody a little taste of God’s future today, for God’s sharpened word to disturb us a little, to overwhelm Hades’ gates with God’s grace, to walk through the gates of comfort and into “a world where people hunger and thirst, and claim them in love as our brothers and sisters, which, of course, in God’s sight they are,”16 to learn to know their names and share their tears.

And we trust that Jesus will give us the boost we also need to get over the gate.

Notes:
1 Adapted from Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President, 290.
2 Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Commentary for Teachers and Preachers, 195. Craddock says there were at least seven versions of this story alone among the rabbis. It appears that Jesus likely borrowed a popular story and modified it to make his point.
3 Ronald Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 5th ed. (2005), 2-3.
4 David Buttrick, Speaking Parables, 218.
5 Claiborne and Haw, 291.
6 It had a capacity of 1.3 million cubic feet of water storage.
7 Sheol is the abode of the dead in the OT, where all go (Eccl. 9:2-6, 10). Hades (interestingly enough from Greek mythology) is the LXX rendering of Sheol. The KJV misleadingly translates it in multiple ways, including hell, grave, and pit. NIV comes closer with using “grave” throughout. NRSV is probably best, leaving it as Sheol.
8 I use the term rhetorically, but not lightly. Jesus’ use of hell is itself by definition rhetorical, and serious. Gehenna (translated hell) was a burning garbage heap in the Hinnom Valley outside Jerusalem, which became a metaphor for judgment. Bodies were also thrown into the valley by various conquering armies to be burned. Perhaps for us today, “Auschwitz” captures some of the rhetorical and emotive freight of “Gehenna.”
9 The question, however, is not rhetorical. Are we more troubled by the suffering of the innocent? Or are we troubled by the implications of this story for those of us who are rich? This is a story of reversal of comfort and suffering. Lazarus experiences the rich man’s comfort. The rich man experiences Lazarus’s hell. While the parable, like our modern “St. Peter at the Gate” jokes, does not set out to articulate a detailed vision of the afterlife (it’s rather inconsistent with the NT vision, much like our jokes are), it does make the claim that wealth, security, and gates are not morally neutral but hold eternal significance.
10 Claiborne and Haw, 291.
11 Claiborne and Haw, 292.
12 Cf. the very dire consequences of detaching ourselves from the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned, Mt. 25:44-46.
13 Claiborne and Haw, 293.
14 The interpretation of this passage is much debated, with good arguments all around. Such is the gift of metaphor. One might also argue that rocks don’t move and can’t attack a gate. I would say the gates won’t prevail against the church (not the rock), because the church is built on the bedrock of confession. Or is “gates of Sheol/Hades” a metaphor for the “power of death/evil?” At any rate, Jesus seems to take the offensive against evil; the church is called to do the same.
15 Claiborne and Haw, 293.
16 Buttrick, 218.