The Verb Became Flesh

 sermon on John 11:1-45
This is a hard Lent to preach with these lectionary Gospels. It feels like getting up after Shakespeare at a talent show and saying, “um, I wrote a love sonnet to my toothbrush but could only come up with 13 lines.” I mean, just what’s one supposed to say after these amazing dramatic passages? With today’s grand finale, I’m not going to touch the Psalm or valley of dry bones or God’s life-giving Spirit dwelling in you, though they’re plenty sermon-worthy. It’s just they end up as background compared to this Gospel.
And for the focus on John, again since there’s no way to hold onto all of it, I’m going to try approaching it by focusing on Jesus’ actions. Partly I’m recalling a classmate pointing out that in the Spanish version of this Gospel of Juan it is “el Verbo” that becomes flesh—the verb, an active God at work in our bodies, our lives, this world.
In spite of that activity, though, the first verbs with Jesus in this reading are passive. He listens to hear the message the sisters send. That’s a decent beginning, with the assurance that God hears our prayers and requests.
Much harder is his lack of response. Jesus waits. He does not go. Last week, we observed the longest absence of Jesus in the Gospel, 28 verses where the story continued without him. Now comes this longer timespan. In fact, deathly long. The two days Jesus remains and doesn’t go help can only makes us fret and feel frustrated. He said the illness wouldn’t lead to death, but—unless he means something very different from the reality we understand and experience—death came.
Maybe this two-day wait is preparing us for an even more difficult three days beginning on Good Friday, fearfully fretting whether we lost our bet, lost hope, if God is a loser, a failure, if we’re forsaken. Or maybe on those three days Jesus is busy conquering death and hell. More still, the wholeness of our lives can feel these long waits seeming too separated from Jesus, with no help we yearn to receive, just deafening silence.
The next verb might interrupt our discouraged isolation, even in the face of death: Jesus goes. His disciples warn that he’s probably going to get himself killed (which is precisely the truth), but he goes charging into danger to confront evil powers. He has courage, and he encourages his followers. Whether you heard and spoke it as ironic resolve or the battle cry of being outgunned in a Western, Thomas says, “Let’s go die with him.”
After Jesus goes, then he finds. That’s an important part of his engagement with our worries and suffering and our existence. Later details will be closer and more emotional, but first Jesus comes and finds us where we are.
Following that isn’t a direct verb, but is a question mark in the dialogue as Jesus inquires, prompting our response. “Do you believe this?” he asks. Do you trust me with life? Do you expect more than what you see right now? Do you know where to look for help? He challenges us with Martha to work on our theology, to keep pondering, to figure out what we believe, since that makes a difference.
That’s his encounter with one sister, but with Mary, it’s something else. He calls her, and she needs that beckoning into relationship. She needs maybe the chance to complain, to lament, to launch questions back. After all, our theological preparations involve practice trusting, but we trust in God and not in our explanations. It’s God who saves us, not our beliefs. And Mary needs that deeper, core moment. I don’t like head/heart contrasts, but she does seem to be operating at a gut level, maybe in grief of not being able to think straight. So Jesus doesn’t test her faith or question her theology. He sees her weeping and is also greatly disturbed. We, too, need this emotional God, a God who can be moved, who isn’t passionless but enters our pain, with empathy and compassion, knowing our hurt by having experienced it. Here, at last, is a God who responds to us.
The next verb is famously identified as the shortest verse in the Bible. Two words. Jesus wept. Maybe it’s the shortest because it says it all, that a God of constant sorrow is so remarkable there’s no more to say. Or maybe it’s so miserable, so tragic that we don’t want to dwell on it any more. (A side note: it portrays the paradox of our faith that a similarly brief verse of two words says, “Rejoice always” (1Th5:16). Somehow our heart, our very being is in joy even though and through weeping. Both are with God.)
To continue, the crowds rightly question how the tears of Jesus matter. On the one hand, having One who understands your crying and abides with you is such good news. But we desperately need God’s love not just to be sad with us, but to do something about it, to be able to bring us past it, to change things.
So change things Jesus will. He comes to the grave and commands that the tomb be opened. Even in her faithful trusting, Martha is resistant and protests the idea, warning (in my favorite verse of the King James Version) that “he stinketh.” That shows this is a closer encounter still. Jesus had been present with theological questions, pointing toward truer belief. He’d been present in groaning and weeping and sorrow. But now he will face death and will not be repulsed into giving it the last word.
Standing firm, the next two verbs are conversational. First, Jesus prays. Though there’s the odd sense of God talking to Godself, it reminds us that God isn’t defined by independence, as the highest authority, but is always God in relationship, in communication. The next obvious step, then, is that Jesus speaks to the dead man. Even death will not sever relationships with him. His voice, this Word of God, the active Verbo-in-the-flesh calls one he loves into new life.
Perhaps the summary is in his last command: “unbind him and let him go.” The work of Jesus, present in our bodies and active in our lives, the task of God is love and compassion, understanding and encouragement, is constantly creating and undoing all that binds and confines you—the sin and harmful relationships, the despair and lack of understanding, the grief and trauma, the injustice and illness, the identities and histories that held you captive.
As a last word of this Lenten season, he reorients you, renews your head and heart, your gut-feelings and physical potential, assures you of his presence and promise in baptism, overcomes death, and sets you free with his love. That’s more than I can say; it can only be enacted in your life.
J — The holy gospel according to John.
ALL — Glory to you, O Lord.
M&M — Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
J — But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
ALL — The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
J– Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” ALL — 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
ALL — The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
J — Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
ALL — Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
J — When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
ALL — Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.
M1 — When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him,
M2 — while Mary stayed at home.
M1 — Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
J — Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
M1 — Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
J — Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?”
M1 — She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”
M2 — And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.
J — Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.
ALL — The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
M2 — When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
J — When Jesus saw her 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?”
ALL — They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
J — Jesus began to weep.
ALL — So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
J — Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
M1 — Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
J — Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
ALL — So they took away the stone.
J — And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
ALL — The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.
J — Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
ALL — Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
J — For the Word of God in scripture,
M1 — for the Word of God within us,
M2 — for the Word of God among us,
ALL — thanks be to God.

Love, Knowledge, and Unclean Spirits

4th Sunday after Epiphany       1 Feb 15

Mark1:21-28 1Corinthians8:1-13
I like books. But I’m also kind of sick and twisted and particularly like theology books. It’s so disgusting that, when I get a quiet Friday off, I even read theology in my freetime. Pretty gross. That passion made a friend once call me theologically arrogant.

She meant it as a compliment, but it comes back to haunt me with this 1st Corinthians reading that says “knowledge puffs up,” saying my puffy arrogance could be destructive and counter to what builds up. It’s evidently dangerous territory. The story from Mark teases it out more horrifyingly. There the smartest guy in the room is labeled as having an “unclean spirit.”

Now, I’m going to ask you to work with this. Stories of exorcisms and demon possessions just seem weird to us. We picture horror movies, or an ancient culture disconnected from our experiences. But rather than quickly writing it off as so foreign, let’s slow down and enter the story.

In this Bible reading, one wisenheimer knows a lot about Jesus, saying, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In fact, he identifies Jesus better than anybody else has in Mark’s Gospel. Next, notice that this happens at a weekend worship service, with other worshippers who are there to learn about God and to praise God. So rather than picturing an ancient horror flick, a better parallel would be to look around at this place here today.

Which makes us need to ask: if the Holy One of God walked in right now, wouldn’t that be, like…a good thing? Isn’t that sort of the whole reason we’re here? And wouldn’t we be happy for a smarty-pants to be able to help identify the Holy One of God?

But, somehow the opposite, this man expects Jesus is destructive, and so Jesus rebukes him, actually tells him to shut up. I’d suggest the man in the story recognizes what Jesus is about and doesn’t want to be part of it. We could say that what he claims to know is in opposition to Jesus. And being against the Holy Spirit’s work means he’s working with an unclean spirit.

Further, there’s plenty still today that Jesus could want to muzzle. If Jesus is Lord of your life and of the cosmos, think of all the things he would want to get rid of or destroy, the obstructions and confusions to his mission that he’d remove. Rather than something shockingly demonic and terrifying or one bad apple, perceiving an unclean spirit this way is more insidious because we can all get trapped in the thoughts of our brains, leading us away from Jesus and his Spirit’s guidance.

So what is the work of the Holy Spirit? To return to 1st Corinthians, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” An unclean spirit is content in self-satisfaction, whereas the constructive work of love is in building community, in supporting each other, in reinforcing the weaker elements, in bridging differences, repairing divides. While knowledge too often can be just hot air, love makes an edifice, is literally edifying. I hope you’re hearing these many helpful building-block and construction images. With that, it’s worth remembering that the church is not this physical structure; the church is the connected group of us, the living stones formed around the solid foundation of Christ our cornerstone, united in efforts of refuge and sheltering, of reinforcement and support.

But we neglect this, forgetting to focus on the structure of relationships and to strive for mutual good. We make faith so individualized, or place it in heaven and ignore what happens here and now. So when the Holy One of God shows up in our midst and God-in-the-flesh comes up for a handshake as we exchange the peace, it’s a wakeup call. We have to pay attention to each other. Our lives and relationships matter. This is about love, and whatever obstructs love is wrong.

For an illustration of that I’d like to tell you about Marcus Borg. This past week, theology-type folks have been grieving the death of this popular teacher. A marquee name in the church, Marcus Borg was among the founders of the Jesus Seminar, a project intending as accurately as possible to uncover the “historical Jesus,” meaning not later reflections about him, but who was the guy who wandered around Palestine and said enough inflammatory things that he got killed. In some ways, this important and helpful project tries to hone in on what Jesus was really about, since knowing his engagement with culture helps us engage our own.

But along with keeping track of quotations of Jesus, Marcus Borg and his colleagues also wanted to revise or look again at some stuff like the resurrection, finding a metaphorical meaning “truer” than a literal, factual, traditional kind of meaning.

You’ve probably noticed that resurrection is kind of a big deal for us. So for the last couple of decades, this scholarship has caused a couple problematic or destructive side effects in the church. On one hand was a reaction from those who embraced Marcus Borg’s teaching so much that they looked down their noses at anybody who would still be silly enough to put creed or hope in an empty tomb. Supposing themselves to be more tolerant and realistic and cosmopolitan, at the same time they offend the honest faith of those right next to them. Like the Bible story’s smartest guy who had the unclean spirit, this side became a class of Christian elitists, puffed up with pride, claiming to know better, but too often distracting from the heart of what our faith is about and what Jesus tries to do among us.

The reverse side is those who have dug in their heels to ignore any new teaching at all. If the studies messed with their vision of God, then they wanted to stick to old Sunday School lessons and call it good. I’d say that’s not a great basis for understanding Jesus. Refusing to learn about each other prevents us from growing in relationships. So ignorance can be as obnoxiously obstructive as knowledge. Reactions puffed up in anger can selfishly resist or deny knowledge, like flat-earthers stubbornly sticking heads in the sand, putting on blinders to avoid seeing larger truths around them.

As Marcus Borg was pointing to Jesus and trying to identify him, those have been two negative byproducts. Between those entrenched sides, however, it’s interesting that he himself was insistent on engaging dialogue. He wrote books in conversation with traditional scholars. He accepted all questions at his lectures. He tried not to shame or exclude. In that way, even if Marcus Borg didn’t believe the same things about Jesus that I do, he still wanted us to be Jesus people, confronting injustice and supporting each other, inspired by God. Even when his opponents and his adherents both missed the boat, Marcus Borg was still trying to be a person of love.

That fits these readings today. If you’re puffed up in anger or puffed up thinking you know better, that divisive spirit works against what Jesus is about. If you are striving to learn from Jesus and grow in him, if you are connected into this community with the purposes of being inspired in love, then you’re probably on the right page. That is the Holy Spirit working in you, and among us, for the sake of God’s world.

Almost to conclude, then, here’s another dose of encouragement that captures this spirit on learning to love better from Martin Luther King. In one of his last sermons, he said: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”*

That gets close to the heart of why we gather here and what the Spirit of Jesus is up to. But we need to say one thing more. We’ve said our faith isn’t about how much you know (or don’t know). But neither is it only about how loving you are, as if you can keep track with checkmarks on a list. The intersection of the two may be in knowing how much you are loved by God. That is what matters and is the central reason we gather here.

Life can be a mess and we can mess up and our world can seem to be totally falling apart. The more we know the less we like what we learn, and no answer may seem right or satisfying. So the point of theology and the point of gathering here together is again and again to be able to know love, to trust through all of it that you are held in Jesus’ love. As much as the demonic powers of the world or of your selfish brain, as much as the distractions and obstructions threaten to block it, what you need to know is that Jesus clears that all away and has claimed you in love forever.

All that’s left after that is to figure out what that means.

Hymn: Although I Speak with Angel’s Tongue (ELW #644)

* “The Drum Major Instinct,” Testament of Hope, pp265-66