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Death be not proud

Lent 5, 10 April, 2011
Sean Winter, Professor of New Testament at the Centre for Theology and Ministry in Melbourne and teacher in the United Faculty of Theology

John 11.1-45

There is something strange and unsettling and back to front about the readings that are set for this Sunday of Lent. Given that the Lenten journey traces out a path marked by temptation, hostility, suffering, and death; given that Easter Sunday makes no sense without Good Friday, it is peculiar to say the least that the texts for today lead us so directly to the place of resurrection. We should probably be walking around in the dry bones for another couple of weeks before we hear Ezekiel's story. Perhaps we would do well to spend a little more time hearing what Paul has to say about slavery under sin and being dead, before we land, relieved, on the wonderful claims of Romans 8. Surely the gospel drama is at the stage when we are walking with Jesus to Jerusalem to face his passion — our faces, like his, set with determination to be obedient to God in the face of suffering.

Yet John's gospel loves playing with time, with the order of things, whether that be chronological, liturgical or theological time. Past, present and future seem to blend together in this gospel — each part of the life of Jesus is seen with the clarity that all the other parts provides. This is a gospel in which suffering looks very much like triumph; where the cross takes on many associations of a resurrection; where Jesus speaks as if the reality of God's victory over sin, and suffering, and death are already present in the world prior to the death and resurrection of God's beloved Son.

There is no greater irony in Christian ministry than those times when you walk in front of a coffin into a funeral service reading the words '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'. And yet we know what Jesus means — because for us, this side of the first Easter, even in the season of Lent, the truth of the life of Jesus, the truth of our own baptism is felt, and seen, and understood. God brings life from death. This is who God is. This is what the story of Jesus tells us. This is the good news of the gospel. With John Donne we affirm 'Death be not proud, though some have called thee, Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so.'

And yet, in our attitudes towards death and dying, we often find ourselves taken hold of by other thoughts, other emotions, other kinds of response. Many people have puzzled over why it is that Jesus delays his journey to be with Lazarus, his dying friend. It doesn't seem especially pastorally sensitive, either to Lazarus, or to Mary and Martha. There is symbolism here, of course. Jesus speaks of light, and darkness. But a part of the intention, and a large part of the drama that follows, is due to the fact that Jesus wants everyone to see and realize and grasp the utter finality of death. 'Jesus told them plainly: Lazarus is dead'.

It is this aspect of the story that, I suggest, presses hard on a sore point of our lives and our culture, a culture marked in many ways by death avoidance. In his recent book on Christian funerals, Tom Long marks out in detail the ways in which Western later modern societies have developed numerous strategies that enable people to deal with death at a distance. Death often happens in the controlled environment of the hospital, rather than the everyday environment of home. We pay others to care for, touch, dress, prepare, carry, and bury our dead. There is a scene in the film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral', the funeral, where the lover of the deceased stands up and instead of reading the usual poems about how the dead person will always still be there, reads instead Auden's poem 'Stop all the Clocks' which ends with the devastating lines 'I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong'. The sense of shock is palpable, as those who gather realize with new clarity just what death is, what death does, how death comes. And for anyone who has lost someone close to them, you will know what desolation comes with death.

So please don't imagine that here, in this scene, we have anything other than a lifelike account of the chaos that death brings. Please do not picture Martha skipping down the road to meet Jesus, confident in the knowledge that because Jesus is here everything will be OK. Her first words are words of accusation, her second words are words of conventional Jewish faith. Take seriously the possibility that Mary just cannot bring herself to face a friend who would not come to be with the one he loves as he lay dying. And watch, watch now what Jesus does.

Because what he does is extraordinary. What he does reminds us that our easy notions of following Jesus through Lent are not as straightforward as we might imagine. Jesus sees Mary's weeping, and we are told that he is moved, disturbed, troubled, that he weeps.

But our translations let us down here. In the interests of not causing a fuss at a funeral, they have toned down what the text actually says. And as a result, layer upon layer of misunderstanding has grown over the story of Lazarus to the extent that it becomes a story like any other story: Jesus is with us in our grief and our suffering. But Jesus is not with anyone here — neither Mary nor Martha nor the Jews. Because he is angry, and he is distressed, and when he weeps he does so not because he loved Lazarus (the Jews in the story get this wrong) but because....

Well this is how one great theologian has put it 'His weeping is ... a resolute No, to this reality [of death]. Looking at this death and its terror more soberly than anyone else, He is already on the way to banish it from the world.' (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, p.227).

Jesus' anger and weeping is born not just of the pain of death, and is not just overcome by the promise of life after death. It is because of the apparent victory of death, its finality, its capacity to capture and enslave, the way death all too easily declares itself to be the final word. This death is overcome not just by the promise of life, but by the miracle of resurrection. I am the resurrection and the life, says Jesus. And death by those words is defeated and in that promise and through the life, death and resurrection of the one who says them, is defeated.

And it is this that takes him to the entrance to the tomb. This word of defiance and hope and truth that he hurls at the stone. And Lazarus comes out. You see, however pastorally insensitive he may be, this word is for us. It is neither an abstract speculation, nor a straightforward historical description. That death is defeated — this is a truth that is there to make people get up, come out, and walk. It is there to put flesh on the bones of our reality, your life and mine.

The truth is that this is the truth that the gospel story offers to us. That the God whom we know in Jesus is the God who promises not just to help us to cope with death, but who has swallowed up death in victory and holds before us a vision of a time and a place where death will be no more. The story of Jesus here prefigures the story of Jesus — another death, another garden, another tomb, other grieving women and graveclothes. And it invites us to consider now, before we get there, what we will make of that story. Will we hear it, encounter it, participate in the Easter liturgy in ways that try to step around the finality and reality of death. Or will we let death confront us, and hear the gospel story as the decisive confrontation with death. Will our Lenten journey, our life journey be marked by the hope that death is not the end. Or will we seek to live out the truth that in the resurrection of Christ, death is defeated and, as a result, the whole of life is to be transformed?

If any of us find ourselves in graves this morning, then the word of God and the command of Jesus are for you. Come out, Rise up, and Live!


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