Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, November 1, 2015
God’s New Creation
[Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44]
Let us pray. Living and creative God, the world is filled with your energy. You are the breath of life. Enter into our thoughts and imaginations this morning and revive those inner places that feel dead. In Jesus’ name, we pray; Amen.
Our Scriptures for All Saints Sunday are two of my very favorites in the whole Bible. Let’s look at them in chronological order. In John’s Gospel, Jesus raises one of his closest friends from the dead. It may be the most dramatic story in the New Testament and one of the most intimate.
Jesus is very close to Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus. The sisters send word to Jesus their brother is ill and urge him to come quickly. Jesus deliberately delays and doesn’t hurry, “so that the Son of God may be glorified.” Jesus arrives in Bethany too late to heal Lazarus. Let’s enter this conversation with Mary and Jesus.
Mary expresses her deep faith in Jesus’ power to heal; however, she’s also deeply disappointed he did not arrive in time. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Put yourself in Mary’s shoes. There are times in our lives when things don’t work out the way they should. If only I had done this; if only she had done that; if only we had known; if only I had NOT done that; if only…if only…if only.
That’s where Mary was. If only God had showed up in time. Jesus hears her words and sees her weeping. The Jews with her are also weeping. Jesus sees, notices, and FEELS all of their pain and grief.
Bible commentators wrestle with what the Greek word, “embrimaomai” means. Our English translation says Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He also wept. In Greek cosmology, the gods do not empathize with human beings for that would be a sign of divine weakness. Jesus weeping reveals a God whom the Greeks could not even imagine.
Most of the time when the word -- “embrimaomai” – is used there is an element of “anger” in its meaning. What might Jesus be angry about in this encounter? He is not angry at Mary or the Jews who are weeping for their friend, but feels compassion for them.
The best interpretation of Jesus’ anger is that he is angry at the effects of death. Jesus in fact assures Martha that he himself personifies resurrection and life. Jesus’ anger is directed at his adversary, “death” – the enemy of all humans!
Jesus, as the Son of God, quickly moves to exercise his authority over death itself. Acknowledging the horror of death and its effects on those he loves, Jesus says: “Where have you laid Lazarus?” Arriving at the tomb, he says: “Take away the stone.” Jesus crosses a new threshold in his earthly ministry.
Martha still doesn’t realize what Jesus is about to do. She replies: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Jesus was a healer – but death – isn’t that a whole new enemy? No one conquers death but God! Imagine the hush which must have come upon them all.
Jesus says to Martha: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Who is this man? No more questions. They do as he asks.
Jesus looks up and prays: “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so they may believe you sent me.” With a loud voice, Jesus cries: “Lazarus, come out!”
The dead man walks out. His hands and feet are bound with strips of cloth and his face is also wrapped. Jesus instructs them: “Unbind him and let him go.”
This is no simple healing. Jesus confronts everyone’s ultimate adversary: Death. This is not Jesus’ last confrontation with death – but his first in the company of close friends. The greatest battle for Jesus would come when he faced his own death on the cross. This story prepares the way for Jesus to withstand the indignity of a death by crucifixion with divine fortitude and a spirit of forgiveness.
This story also sheds light on our encounters with death. Is death the final answer? As Christians, we believe Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Through him, we also have life, but to be honest, life begins now, not later. I want you to think for a minute. Are there parts of you that feel dead? Have you given up hope that God has a creative purpose for your life here and now? If so, I want you to hear Jesus call out your name.
All of us have to endure the “indignities” of a physical death at some point in time. It happens differently to each one. Sometimes people go quickly and tragically, without time to prepare for the loss. Other times people die slowly. The indignities of being bedridden and not being able to take care of our bodily functions bring families unspeakable grief. But in Jesus Christ – we have a “hope” that defies all these indignities.
Let’s fast forward to our second lesson: Revelation 21:1-6. The Apostle John who wrote the story of Lazarus’ resurrection finds himself in a real pickle at the end of his own life. He is exiled to the island of Patmos where there is no source of water. All water is carried in from the mainland. He is cut off from the church communities in Asia Minor. The Roman Empire is persecuting Christians mercilessly.
God gives John a vision of the new heaven and new earth. He sees the holy city coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. The NT often talks about the Church as the Bride of Jesus Christ, who is being prepared for union with God.
John declares that God’s home is among human beings and that we belong to one another. God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. Listen to this declaration: “DEATH WILL BE NO MORE: MOURNING AND CRYING AND PAIN WILL BE NO MORE.” No funeral homes in that city.
God assures John: “See, I am making all things new.” God asks John to write down these words, because they are trustworthy and true. God assures John: “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
I’m not sure we can fathom this vision, but it’s a vision of our DESTINATION as children of the living God. It’s a vision of the Church’s destination to be the Bride of Christ. There’s no greater hope than to know we belong to God for eternity. Death does not exist in God’s new creation.
If this is true, what are the implications for how we live our lives now? I believe God’s new creation is already unfolding here and now and we are part of it. The reason Jesus asks us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper regularly is to remind us of this deep and intimate connection. We are, as the church, not as isolated individuals, the BODY OF CHRIST. And if we’re the body of Christ, the body of Christ is already being resurrected. Together we can be a community of love, a community of healing, a community that knows death is not the final word.
It’s our communal identity that makes us strong, but it is rooted and grounded in the life-giving love of Jesus Christ. As Heather, Luke and I talked about their joining this faith community, I asked them to let us be a hedge of protection around them and their family, so that we can pray for them and encourage them to follow Christ. Likewise, as they bring their gifts and talents here, they will help us be faithful to Christ. They bring youthful energy and imaginations to this community and we offer them wisdom and experience. It’s a win-win partnership of faith.
I’m reading a book, called Faithformation2020, which talks about “Designing the Future of Faith Formation.” It opens with a definition of “hope,” by Vaclav Havel, who says:
“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world…it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world… [Hope] is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons….Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed….Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Let’s get our eyes off the ground. Let’s see as John sees, knowing Jesus is the resurrection and life even if we can’t see evidence of it yet. This book about faith formation encourages us to “plant dates” – knowing it takes 10 years for a date tree to produce its first fruit:
Let us plant dates
even though those who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
This is the secret discipline.
It is a refusal to let the creative act
be dissolved in immediate sense experience
and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren.
Such disciplined love
is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints
the courage to die for the future they envisaged.
They make their own bodies
the seed of their highest hope.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s new creation is already being born in us. Jesus calls you to come out of the tomb. Jesus asks all of us to take off one another’s grave clothes gently, carefully and compassionately. As Jesus breathes life into you and me; let this loving Christian community unbind us. Let us pray.
John Roberto, Faithformation2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation
, (Naugatuck, CT: LifelongFaith Associates, 2010), p. 1.
Marjorie Thompson, “Tears as Anguish, Tears as Gift,” The Way of Blessedness
, (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2003), p. 37.