Even though the Gospel of Mark doesn’t have a Christmas birth narrative, it focuses our attention on what really matter most each Christmas.
- Preparation added to promise
- Three ways to prepare for Christmas—and the one which is most important
- A Christmas perspective on repentance
- How the sacrament of baptism prepares us for Christmas
For many people, the virgin birth of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke prove that Jesus is God. But for the Gospel of Mark, this part of Jesus’ story isn’t necessary. Even without angels, annunciations, and dreams, the opening verse of Mark still asserts that Jesus is the Son of God.
The Gospel of Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah as a form of promise: “The virgin will conceive a child who is to be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father, Mighty God. Promises cause us to hope.
Mark’s Gospel quotes Isaiah as a means of preparation. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way of the Lord: Make the rough places smooth, and the crooked paths straight!” Mark invites us not just to wonder, but to engage. Not just to have faith, but to be faithful. This is a corrective reminder amidst all the other preparations we make during Christmas.
Each year we approach Christmas with a flurry of preparation. Of course we prepare to give gifts. We make gift lists (see my guide), go shopping (remember the batteries!), prepare boxes for mailing, and put up the Christmas tree to display all the gifts we are giving.
We also prepare to receive. We move furniture to receive the Christmas tree. We pull out decorations. We make menus for our dinner guests and then shop for food.
All these preparations easily distract us from receiving the gift of God at Christmas, which is our identity as children of God. It is this identity that is revealed in Christ at Christmas.
There are lots of reasons to have joy at Christmas, and this identity as the children of God is the true joy of Christmas for Christians. I am reading The Book of Joy, written out of the birthday visit of the Christian Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu to the Buddhist 14th Dalai Lama. It has this line which fits well at Christmas: “According to the Arch-bishop and the Dalai Lama, when we see how little we really need—love and connection—then all the getting and grasping that we thought was so essential to our well-being take its rightful place and no longer becomes the focus or the obsession of our lives” (p. 97).
All the preparations to give and to receive can distract us from this true joy. It does so by focusing our attention on what is secondary. What is primary for Christians at Christmas is gratitude for who we are as revealed in the birth Christ. Consider these words from the book Thanks! also apt at Christmas: “In gratitude we recognize that we are not ultimately producers and consumers but, above all, the recipients of gifts” (p. 18). If we Christians fail to remember the gift of Christ, we will consider ourselves “producers and consumers,” and the “getting and grasping” of the season will consume us.
The Gospel of Mark calls us to prepare in a different way, to engage Christmas differently, to have faith and offer faithfulness so that we can receive the gift of our identity in Christ.
In the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist proclaims a baptism of repentance. We might understand “repentance” in a couple of ways. From the perspective of our Presbyterian forebears, the Scots, repentance required the elimination of the Christmas feast, which they did in 1561. In 1574 fourteen women in Aberdeen were arrested for dancing and singing carols on Christmas Eve. From 1643-1660 Christmas was outlawed in all of Britain. In 1659 the Rev. Murdoch Mackenzie searched house to house to ensure that there were no private parties celebrating Christmas.
Does repentance have to look like this? What if we took a different perspective, one that allowed us to benefit from the Scottish concern while enjoying the spirit of the holiday? I suggest that we hear John’s call to repentance in terms of remembering and returning. If so, then repentance looks like “coming to our senses,” as did the Prodigal Son, who remembered his father and returned home. When we come to our senses, we come to our self, to our true identity in Christ. I believe we can repent this way even while celebrating Christmas with festivity.
It is the sacraments that call us to repentance as remembrance and return. In the Scots Confession of 1560 it states that the sacraments were given: “To make a visible distinction between God’s people and those without the Covenant, and to seal in their hearts the assurance of God’s promise.” Like the renewal sticker on our car license plates, this seal indicates that the vehicle is owned and official. The sacraments claim us as God’s own.
Through the sacraments, we participate in a visible distinction. We remember whose we are. The sacraments seal God’s Word in our hearts, and we live differently in the world as a further visible distinction. How important that distinction is during Christmas!
The sacrament of baptism proclaims Christ’s identity. When he was baptized, Jesus heard from the heavenly voice that, “You are my child, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” So baptism also proclaims our identity in Christ: We also are God’s children, God’s beloved, and with us God is well pleased.
This gift of our Christian identity is helpful to remember as we prepare for Christmas. Mark tells us that the people of Judea and Jerusalem “went out” to John the Baptist. Even Jesus came down all the way from Galilee. So Mark calls us also make our own spiritual pilgrimage in response to John’s proclamation.
Perhaps you feel like there’s no possible way you can reflect upon the gift of your baptismal identity amidst everything else going on. Following are some suggestions for squeezing in mini-reflections if you can’t get away for a longer retreat. These “water moments” are routine occurrences throughout a normal day.
- Feeling Dry. Use your dry skin or dry mouth to remember your need for God. Psalm 42 begins, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for God.”
- Use the shower to remember baptism renews, refreshes, and gives us a chance to start again.
- Hand Washing. For some reason you need to wash your hands. Maybe you’ve been working outside or preparing a meal. Give thanks for whatever task God has given you that made your hands dirty. And if it’s before a meal, give thanks for the food you’re about to receive.
- Recreational Use. Whether you’re swimming or skiing, you can use your exercise to give thanks for your body, and remember that because Jesus became God’s Word embodied, your body is good also.
- Baptismal Waters. Touch the waters at the baptismal font, giving thanks for the church family which pledged to care for you, for the traditions which are meaningful to you, for all the things baptism means.
These are some ways we can use the Gospel of Mark to prepare for Christmas. It’s a spiritual housecleaning to parallel our physical one. In these ways, Mark calls us to engage the Christmas story with faith and faithfulness, to remember and to return, to repent from not living like God’s beloved children, and repent towards living like God’s beloved children.
Call us once again, Holy Spirit, to the waters of baptism. May these waters constantly remind us of your love for us and of our identity in Christ. And may they restore to us the joy of Christmas as we receive Christ from you once again. Amen.
Tom Trinidad, Pastor, Faith Presbyterian Church
“Christians often find themselves caught in the dilemma of wanting to mark [Christmas] in some meaningful way consonant with the spirit of the festival, but abhorring the greed, consumerism and meaningless conviviality which the culture seems to impose. . . Increasing numbers of people want to take a stand against Christmas becoming an ever more obscene display of conspicuous consumption in a world where so many want for the basics.” (Doing December Differently, pp. 13, 131)
Mid-winter gift giving has been going in the Christian church since the time of Christ, but not for the reasons we like to think. Giving gifts to emulate the Magi who gave gifts to Christ (Matthew 2:1-12), or to express Christian faith and goodwill (as in Ebenezer Scrooge), are relatively late developments. Originally, Christians gave gifts at mid-winter for the same reasons everyone else did. They were celebrating Saturnalia (a festival in honor of the god Saturn), or Kalends (the Roman New Year), or some other Winter Solstice festival (the beginning of a longer appearance of the sun).
Only later were these extra-Christian gift giving practices overlaid with Christian themes including remembering the benevolent 4th century Bishop of Myra (present day Turkey) St. Nicholas, or the 10th century Bohemian King Wenceslas. Despite objections by the English and American Puritans, it wasn’t really until the 19th century Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” and Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol that gift giving at Christmas took on particularly Christian meanings.
It is estimated that in 2016 Americans will spend 656 billion dollars on gifts, an increase of 3.6% over 2015. Forty-one percent (41%) of people report feeling pressure to spend more than they can afford. Fifty percent (50%) report feeling stress and anxiety. Sixty percent (60%) say Christmas puts a strain on their finances. It is for these reasons of history, theology, and practical finances that the quotation which opens this writing resonates so powerfully with people.
How might we honor the ancient and universal impulse to counter the winter doldrums through gift giving, yet do so with a truly faithful Christian spirit? Following are some suggestions. Consider them suggestions for mindful giving, or intentional giving, or thoughtful giving, or how to give meaningful gifts. When we don’t give gifts in these ways, other reasons creep in that rob us, and those to whom we give gifts, of the joy of gift giving.
- Check in with your feelings. Do you feel anxious or resentful about shopping for and giving a certain gift? What lies behind such feelings? Wouldn’t it be better to feel joy or excitement when gift giving? If you can’t come to these feelings, it might not be worth giving a gift.
- Check your motives. Are you giving out of guilt, a sense of duty, a fear of rejection, or to manipulate the relationship? Wouldn’t it be better to give out of affection or appreciation or gratitude? If these aren’t your motivations, work through things until they are.
- Are there alternative “gifts” you can give, something other than a shopped-for expense? Consider giving your time as a volunteer service (“I’ll watch your children, perform a chore”), or a relationship building opportunity (“I’ll pay for lunch”). Consider hand-writing a note expressing what you appreciate about someone and your relationship with them. Perhaps you can make a craft gift.
- View the gifts you give as a message of your soul or heart. Take time to discern what you want to “say” to someone through a gift. If your heart or soul doesn’t have something to say, wait to give the gift until it does. The gift will be more meaningful then.
- Give your gifts thoughtfully and extravagantly as a repudiation of our culture’s preoccupation with transactional “I do this for you so you’ll do that for me” relationships.
Notes and Gift Ideas:
The Christmas tree symbolizes only half of the Christmas story. Fortunately the other half can be found in a different tree.
- The spiritual life—how it begins and grows
- The background to Isaiah writing
- The powerful imagery of Isaiah’s prophecy—its symbols and their meanings
- Christmas and Christmas trees—sometimes they work against faith
- The evolution of Isaiah’s words—how they keep hope alive today
- How Christ the newborn King is still present in the world
The spiritual life begins when we place our hope in God, when we view and orient our lives around the presence of God. Faith deepens as this view grows longer. Spiritual maturity means living in this long view of faith, especially during trying times.
Normally God in his grace gives us some relief in the short term, but sometimes it takes much longer to understand. The visions and promises of the prophet Isaiah demonstrate this dynamic well, as does the Christmas tree.
As background to Isaiah’s teaching, remember the Kingdom of David in the 10th century before Jesus. This was the golden age of ancient Israel. They were expanding in peace and prosperity and enjoyed national supremacy. But within a few hundred years, the country of Assyria was threatening the Northern Kingdom. As part of their military campaign, Assyria cut down indigenous trees to fuel the war effort and decimate the local economy.
Writing at this time, Isaiah promises that God will abandon Assyria and embrace ancient Israel again. God will cut down Assyria’s mighty trees (their kings and warriors). Then Isaiah likens the nation of Israel to the tree stumps that surround him. He names one of those stumps after Jesse, the father of David, and envisions a shoot sprouting from the stump.
In nature we recognize cycles of devastation and restoration, death and rebirth, loss and redemption. In Colorado Springs we have begun to see the return of trees and wildlife in the burn scars of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and the 2013 Black Forest Fire. This is the image used by Isaiah.
Isaiah promises a new king and a better kingdom. He speaks of a child who has been born who will become this new king. For Isaiah’s audience, the time is close. Seven hundred years later, the people of God were once again in darkness, and they applied Isaiah’s words to the birth of Jesus. Now two thousand years later, we are still awaiting the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision, and so we speak of Jesus’ return and heaven.
What does Isaiah promise? This new king will inaugurate a new age. He will deliver us from disappointments and uncertainty. Isaiah envisions a return to an idyllic time of harmony. He uses symbols of hostility, and reconciles them: The lion shall live with the lamb, the leopard sleeps with a young goat, the cow and bear families share a meal, carnivorous predators become vegetarian, and children play with poisonous snakes without concern.
The presence of a child is itself a profound symbol. In Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve listen to the snake they bring the curse to creation. At the time God says there will be enmity between their child and the snake. Isaiah forecasts the undoing of that curse.
And children represent new life. They imply long life. This child contrasts with Noah who also brought animals together, but did so as an old man. That renewal project didn’t last. Isaiah is saying that since the harmonizer of creation is a child this time, he will usher in an age of enduring peace.
Isaiah’s promise starts with the shoot springing from the stump remaining of Jesse’s family tree. Other branches will grow. The family tree will become full again. But it will take time. Isaiah envisions complete reforestation, but not in an instant. It will begin with the branch who is King Hezekiah, the ruler after Assyria is defeated. This is God’s short-term relief.
The child Hezekiah grew up. He became a man and the king. But the kings of Judah eventually died, and the Kingdom of Judah would die with them. God’s short-term relief came to an end without Isaiah’s vision being fulfilled. It is in these situations that faith is tested and either weakens or matures.
I see this dynamic playing out for many people during Christmas. One of the reasons people experience a letdown during Christmas is because they put all the hope of the longer perspective of Jesus’ ministry on the December 25th holiday. In this way the Christmas tree is a symbol of the first half of Isaiah’s vision.
The Christmas tree appears to have been introduced to the United States by German immigrants in Pennsylvania. When a picture of the Christmas tree of England’s Queen Victoria (with her German Prince Albert) was published, the Christmas tree became a national fad in the 1840-50s. The first Whitehouse Christmas tree appeared in 1856.
Today 85% of homes have trees. In my family we hunt for and find our tree in the mountains. We cut it down and bring it home. We decorate it and place gifts around it. The green reminds us of life in an otherwise dead winter. Lights encourage our hope during the deepening winter darkness. Gift giving gets us outside of ourselves. Then we open our gifts and play with them until we are satiated. Then we undecorated the tree, take it to be recycled, clean up the dead needles, and return to our pre-Christmas lives.
Without a larger frame, the Christmas season, symbolized by our Christmas tree, represents the hopeful and joyful birth of King Hezekiah, his death, and the return to normal. It becomes a test of faith. It can end with a letdown.
But within a larger frame, the Christmas season can serve in the same way Isaiah’s words came to serve. His original audience experienced the short-term relief under the Judean monarchs beginning with Hezekiah. Isaiah’s words to them were, “Hope now, for you will rejoice soon.” But after the letdown, in the longer term, when the people were again in the valley, they heard in Isaiah’s words, “Remember now what God did in the past, give thanks, and let that thanksgiving keep hope alive today.”
Hundreds of years later the church applied Isaiah’s vision to yet another branch, Jesus, and at Christmas we continue to, “Remember what God has done, give thanks, and hope for the future in God’s Kingdom.”
From Isaiah’s vision of a new tree arising from the stump of Jesse, we have enduring hope to last us throughout our lives, through the pickups and letdowns. This is the idea behind the Jesse Tree.
But how do we keep the hope of Jesus’ kingdom alive? How do we keep it from failing as Hezekiah’s kingdom did? After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, when he is no longer present to us as he once was, how do we keep from forgetting? Isaiah promised that the “knowledge of God would fill the earth as water covers the sea.” He said “the root of Jesse would stand before the nations.” How can this be?
The answer is in the final words of this passage, that “the dwelling of the king will be glorious.” Jesus may no longer be here as king, but in baptism, we are in Christ. And by the Spirit, Christ is in us. In baptism we are anointed with the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that rested upon King Hezekiah and King Jesus: The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the reverence for God, the Spirit that enables us to delight in following God. This is why we anoint with oil those who are baptized using these very words from Isaiah.
In baptism and by the Spirit, Christ does remain before the world, because he makes his glorious dwelling—in us. This is the story of Christmas: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossian 1:27) Not only are we born again in baptism; Christ is also born again in us.
So let us enjoy our Christmas trees, for the greenery, the lights, and the gifts. And let us remember the Jesse Tree, for the enduring hope it represents to us, and through us, to the world.
Advent starts early as we begin a “walk to Bethlehem.” Join us as we engage perhaps the most prominent biblical metaphor for the spiritual life.
- Walking in the Bible
- Walking in the Light of Christ
- Where to place our hope
- Prayer after the election
When I was in high school a common question among my friends was, “How’s your walk?” Corny as it seems now, we were using a recurring biblical metaphor for the spiritual life. From its opening chapters to its last, the Bible speaks of our walking together with God.
In Genesis 3 God is found walking in the cool of the day, surprised that Adam and Eve are not to be found. Apparently the daily promenade between divine and human was routine. Revelation 21 reports that all the nations will walk with God. Psalm 23 assures us that God is walking with us even through the valley of the shadow of death. In Luke 24 the resurrected Christ teaches two peripatetic disciples before revealing his true identity at the Table. According to the popular poem “Footprints in the Sand,” it is during life’s most difficult times that God carries the surf-strolling tourist.
For the past year we “made the road by walking” through the Bible’s grand narratives, proving the adage that experience and discovery are the best path for spiritual maturity. (See all the sermons here beginning in August 2015.) And so we are walking to Bethlehem, to experience and know God, to remember we do not walk alone, and to discover the presence of Jesus even today.
As a corollary to the “walking with God” metaphor, the Bible speaks of “walking in the light.” This is the major visual of Christmas. It begins with Isaiah’s prophetic assurance that, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Anytime a light is turned on, it reveals the darkness by contrast. In the 2016 United States presidential election, a light was certainly turned on. Some wanted escape from an encroaching darkness: They saw the America of the 1950s continuing to fade. They saw the expanding government as a gathering of dark clouds. They were disillusioned by the darkness brought on through abuse of power and position.
Others wonder what darkness lies ahead: The shadows of death because they no longer have healthcare? Gay and transgendered people returning to the dark closet? Women who are afraid of the dark, but with them people of non-European descent, non-Christian people, disabled people, and people of limited means?
There is no shortage of darkness as winter approaches this year. Isaiah’s words speak to us. Isaiah’s situation was also political. The hope Isaiah promised was the birth of a child who would become a new king.
Eight centuries later, Israel was again in darkness, and the birth of a child again brought hope. But this was a different kind of king, not one who boasted military might and national supremacy, but one who more fully fulfilled the longing of Isaiah’s heart. This was a king who could more truly be called, “Wonderful counselor, Everlasting father, Prince of peace,” and even “Mighty God.”
The author of 1 John believes he has met this child who became king. He had heard of the promised deliverance from Isaiah, and claims to have seen him with his eyes and touched him with his hands. And 1 John proclaims it to us: God is light, and God has walked with us, and we may walk with God; we may walk in the light.
Everybody walks, in the metaphorical sense. We are all on the spiritual journey. But not everybody walks with God. Not everybody walks in the light. This is the case even if they appear to walk in the light. Jesus accused hypocrites of walking around in their robes in order to be seen. He says they are like people walking over unmarked graves—unclean without knowing it.
But walking with Jesus is different. With Jesus, the lame walk. The blind can see, and walk with Jesus. The dead are raised, and walk with Jesus. The prisoners are set free, and walk with Jesus. Those baptized in Christ, Paul teaches, “walk in newness of life.” Elsewhere he says “We walk by faith, by sight”—by faith in God—not by what we see in the world.
When Jesus’ disciples walk in the light, they do not stumble. Darkness does not overcome them. They do not become blind. They have fellowship with God, 1 John tells us, and they have fellowship with one another.
The hope of the United States and of this world is not in the office of the president. It is in the kingdom of God’s light. It is in the child born to us in Bethlehem, revealed to us by the Spirit, and revealed to the world as we walk in the light.
An excerpt from our prayers Sunday
Lord, this morning we pray for those among your children whose identities have been devalued, debased, dismissed, and denigrated by the political process over the past 17 months. We think of women, immigrant people, non-Christian people, men and women of the military, gays, lesbians, and transgendered people, differently-abled people, and all others who were given cause to question whether America stands for what is right, good, and true. We pray for their sense of self-worth, and we pray for their protection. We pray that the actions and attitudes of those pursuing political power will not cause them to despair that such are the attitudes of all Americans. We pray that the actions and attitudes of those who call themselves Christians will shine the light of your kingdom into our nation.
We pray for those experiencing fear and anxiety as a result of last Tuesday’s election. And we pray for those experiencing feelings of joy and triumph. And we pray for those experiencing resignation or cynicism. Intervene in all these emotions, we pray, and correct them according to the truth of your sovereignty. In our fears and anxieties, help us to trust you. In our joy and triumphs, keep us from idolatry. In our resignation and cynicism, restore our hope in you. Grant us all the faith of Isaiah who envisioned you sitting above the circle of the earth, bringing princes to naught; for scarcely are they planted, than you blow upon them and they whither. Such is your power, and therewith you deserve our faith and worship.
Death leads us to experiences of grief and anxiety. God helps us by providing the hope of resurrection.
- When death is either welcome or unwelcome
- When death is definitely unwelcome
- Ways we avoid death, and why John calls us to face it
- The hope of resurrection—what it is, what it isn’t
- The way this hope accompanies our lives
- Questions for discussion and reflection
In the ancient world death was almost always unwelcome. The mortality rate among children was as high as 40%, and the likelihood of dying in one’s prime was higher than it is now. Today we have successfully reduced these numbers, and we have also prolonged life. (Some wonder if we haven’t just prolonged death.) We’ve been so successful that, at least conceivably, death today may be something we welcome.
Death as the end of life may be unwelcome or welcome. But the Bible also talks about death as the great opposer of life. As such it is the enemy of God. And death from this perspective is always unwelcome.
The death of Lazarus presents both kinds of death at the same time. It was the end of his life, which caused grief. But it was also an attack upon God. Death makes it appear that God does not triumph over sin. This causes us anxiety. Against our grief and anxiety stands the hope of resurrection.
John 11 wants us to face the reality of death. Our natural response is to try to deny death. We have active efforts to forestall death—exercise, surgery, brain puzzles, cleansing protein drinks, for example. And we have passive efforts to avoid it—mostly by keeping busy with work or entertainment.
We even use theology to avoid death. Most of the church skips from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, rarely accompanying Jesus through his Passion Week. We have come to call funerals the “witness to the resurrection.” And too often we try to shortcut the journey of grief with theologically sounding bromides.
But John wants us to really face death, so that we can really have hope. Consider how he hammers on this death nail:
- Martha and Mary send for Jesus because of the seriousness of Lazarus’ illness
- Jesus tells his disciples plainly that “Lazarus is dead.”
- When Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been in the tomb already four days
- Mary and Martha tell Jesus, “My brother would not have died.”
- In response Jesus says, “Even though they die . . .”
- There is the stench of a decaying dead body
- When Jesus calls to Lazarus, John reports that “the dead man came out.”
What John is doing is calling us, as humans, to muster the courage to face death, both death as the end of life, and death as the enemy of life, the enemy of God. He calls us to face death squarely because he wants us to experience the hope of resurrection.
Resurrection is a large and recurring theme. Elsewhere on this blog you can search for Easter sermons, or sermons on heaven, hell, and the afterlife. Look for example here and here. In this sermon I want to limit our focus to the hope of resurrection.
It’s important to remember that we’re talking about Jesus’ resurrection, not Lazarus’ resuscitation. They are different things. Lazarus will die again. One could argue that Jesus didn’t do him any favors. Regardless of how spectacular the resuscitation of Lazarus is, John 11 is really about Jesus’ resurrection and the hope we have because of it.
If nothing else, Jesus’ resurrection proves God’s power over death as the end of life, and God’s power over death as the enemy of life. In other words, the hope of resurrection is hope in God.
The hope of resurrection is uniquely Christian hope. Jesus’ resurrection is both a continuation of his life yet something new. He has a similar body, but obviously different. Some people recognize him, others don’t. He bears the scars of his crucifixion, but he can enter and exit locked doors and appear and disappear upon will.
Christian hope is not just hope for a better earth. Nor is it a hope for heaven as the escape from earth. In other words, it’s not a hope for heaven “on” earth or heaven “after” earth, but a “new heaven and new earth.” Something familiar, but something new. In a word, the hope of resurrection is the hope of transformation.
The hope of resurrection is an act of humility. We don’t know what the future holds, especially with regards to heaven and an afterlife. The Bible only gives us symbolic representations of existence after death (despite the popularity of books claiming to know more). But whatever the future holds, we have hope that it is good because we believe it belongs to God. In humility, we don’t claim to know more than this hope.
And the hope of resurrection has a narrative quality. It moves and develops, there are conflicts and resolutions. As you grow in faith, you can look back and see how the narrative of your own life has evolved with regards to hope. Many people start their Christian journey motivated by the hope of an afterlife. Then they experience some disorientation with painful experiences, questions, and doubts. But as Lewis Smedes says, hopes may die, but hope does not. It returns, and we discover that the hope of an afterlife has evolved to the hope of resurrection.
This narrative quality of the hope of resurrection is why John 11 is told the way it is. There is a crisis, followed by prayer and waiting. The disciples don’t understand, and Jesus arrives too late. There is a stench, and Lazarus is raised. Jesus commands that he be unbound and let go. As we’ve discovered together in the past few weeks, there are many truths to be found in the narrative of John 11.
Like the parables of Jesus, the truths of John 11 aren’t limited to historicity. John 11 invites us to faith in more than the hope of an afterlife. This is a story about God’s power over death. It invites us to faith in the hope of resurrection, to help us with our grief, to help us with our anxiety, to give us courage to live our lives now. It’s a story inviting us to have life before death, because in this life, even with the reality of death, we have the hope of resurrection.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What are some of the ways you find yourself avoiding death? What does it look like in your life to face death squarely as John demands us to?
- How does the hope of resurrection address your feelings of grief and anxiety? The Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith begins, “In life and in death, we belong to God.” How does this conviction relate to hope, grief, and anxiety?
- How has your Christian hope changed through your life? Can you share your story with someone whose hope is fading?
- When you open yourself up to the parable-like character of John 11, what other truths come to your mind?
There are many ways to live day to day as a Christian, for each life is unique in its faithful response to God’s calling. John’s story about the raising of Lazarus depicts a number of options.
- Characters with whom we identify in John 11
- How giving gifts is a giving of our lives
- Walking with Jesus, and really walking with Jesus
- “The Dash” that represents our lives
- Living day by day to make our dash count for eternity
One of the ways stories teach us is through their characters. Stories introduce us to folks and we say, “I can identify with them.” This is true for parables, and it’s true for John 11.
Thomas always stands out to me, and it’s not just because we share a name and a zodiac sign (we’re both Geminis, the sign of which is the twin). I identify with Thomas because I often think like he did.
For Thomas, it’s always a little cloudy outside.
Jesus was determined to return to Judea where they had tried to stone him earlier. Thomas’ response? “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Never mind that Jesus has just assured his disciples that they walk in the light when they walk with Jesus. And more: Jesus promises they will see something that will increase their faith.
This actually is what it means to be a Disciple, another character in the narrative. Disciples walk with Jesus. They learn from Jesus how to see like Jesus sees. Disciples come to view life in the light of Jesus.
But everything appears as darkness to Thomas. He only sees death.
Then there’s Martha. She’s always quick to get things going. Once when Jesus popped in for visit, she immediately started cleaning up and preparing a meal. In this narrative, once she hears that Jesus has arrived, she immediately goes out to meet him.
Contrast that with her sister Mary. Mary is the head and heart disciple. When Jesus popped in, she sat at his feet and listened. In this narrative, she remains deep in introspection.
But John doesn’t want us to forget that later Mary did act. She anointed Jesus feet for burial with expensive perfume and dried his feet with her hair. To others this seemed like a rash act, but in fact it was founded on previous times of contemplation.
Mary understood sooner than anyone else that Jesus was going to die in Jerusalem. He wouldn’t die on this trip, like Thomas predicted, but soon afterward. So she took expensive perfume and anointed him.
That perfume represented Mary’s life, for it represented her effort and her time. When a denominational committee on which I serve meets, the chair always reminds us of “Mrs. Henderson’s apple pie.” When he was a pastor, his congregation held a fundraiser in which Mrs. Henderson baked and sold apple pies. He felt a special responsibility regarding the funds raised by Mrs. Henderson’s pies. He is urging us to be mindful of all the Mrs. Hendersons whose donations pay for our meeting. Mary’s expensive perfume is Mrs. Henderson’s apple pie. It represents her life.
In her contemplation, Mary discovered that Jesus was worthy of her life. While others walked along with Jesus, somewhat unconsciously, Mary listened and followed him. She followed him even to death where, just like Jesus promised, she found something worthy of her most treasured possessions—the perfume, but more, her very self.
The introductory lines of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden are well known: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. . .”
How that paragraph ends is quite a shocker, especially for Presbyterians: “For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’” That’s a quotation from the Westminster Shorter Catechism—the cornerstone of American Presbyterianism.
Thoreau is wearied by his contemporaries who walk unconsciously with Jesus. They say, “OK. The church says it. I believe it. Let’s go on our way.” Thoreau wanted more. So did Mary. They wanted their lives to really count for something.
On a tombstone there are two dates: The year of one’s birth and the year of one’s death. Between the birth year and the death year is a two-inch dash. This is all that remains of our lifespan in history. Mary oriented her life around Jesus. She made her “dash” count.
Read this famous poem about “The Dash.” It helps to put things in perspective. Mary contemplated how to fill her dash. Martha started filling her dash right away. The Disciples walked with Jesus to learn how to fill their dashes. Thomas, as it turns out, spoke the truth about the matter. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to save his life, he must lose it first.” And Thomas said, “Let us also go with him, that we may die with him.” He was more right than he knew.
Living day by day as a Christian means walking step by step with Jesus. It means discerning what walking “during the daylight” means for us personally. Sometimes it requires contemplation. Sometimes it means action. Always it includes giving our lives in order to find them.
One of the ministries of the church is to identify ways we can fill the dash to God’s pleasure. One ministry calls us to financial stewardship, which is just a subset of the stewardship of our lives. Deliberating how to contribute to the worship and ministry of Jesus—as Mary did with the expensive perfume—crystalizes God’s call to us to offer our very selves to God.
Other ministries entail serving the community and the world. And within the church there are always needs which, when we satisfy them, fill our dash to God’s delight. The ordination liturgy for the Presbyterian Church (USA) includes this question: “Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?” One doesn’t have to be ordained to answer that question. And those who answer yes will fill the dash with Jesus.
I think most of us would like to hear from Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead. But John doesn’t let us. The reason provides an excellent example of how to read the Bible.
- What happened to Lazarus after being raised from the dead?
- The role of Lazarus in the bigger picture of John’s Gospel
- How to apply this story to our lives today
The raising of Lazarus had become a very popular topic among both the common people and the religious elites, though they were saying very different things. The commoners marveled at this amazing sign of Jesus’ power, while the elites made plans to assassinate Lazarus.
Lazarus only shows up again one time—at a dinner thrown by his sisters Martha and Mary. Even there he is upstaged by Mary, who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair and some expensive perfume. She is preparing him for his own burial.
For all the excitement we might have to hear from Lazarus, in the Gospel of John, he is just a talking point.
John knows that we are like the multitudes who appear earlier in is gospel. Like they, we want more of that “miracle stuff.” We would follow Jesus anywhere for some more, but in chapter six Jesus turns to the crowds and says, “You follow me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your full of bread.”
That crowd missed the sign because of the bread. John wants us to see that, as amazing as it is, the raising of Lazarus is also just a sign. John doesn’t want to let the spectacular distract us from the point. And what is the point? What is John trying to tell us in chapter 11?
Is it that there is life after death? Probably not. There were plenty of Jews in Jesus’ day who already believed in life after death. Plus, John is writing to a post-resurrection community. They have already heard of and believe in Jesus’ resurrection. So life after death can’t be John’s point.
It’s just the opposite, actually: The point of raising Lazarus from the dead is that there is life BEFORE death. John 11 is a parable. Lazarus is a symbol. He’s a promise. He’s a testimony in a worship service. He’s like an illustration in a sermon. And what is the point of John’s sermon: That in Jesus, we have life before death.
Martha understood it. From her mouth we hear the testimony: “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Mary understood it. It’s why she anoints his body for burial. She understood that Jesus would “give his life for the life of the world.” (see John 6:51)
Disciples did not get it. On the way to Bethany Jesus challenges them to realize Lazarus is dead. “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
Jesus’ own prayer makes the point: “I have said this, Father, for the sake of the crowd, that they may believe that you sent me.”
And in case we might miss it, John tells us explicitly at the end of his gospel. “These words are written so that you may believe, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”
If life before death is the point of John’s Gospel, of John’s sermon, and Lazarus is a sermon illustration, what do we learn in this depiction of Lazarus? It is that sometimes we have to die in order to live. We have to enter the dark places of our lives, enter the tombs where we have buried some loss, some part of us that we’ve had to let go. There we surrender to God’s total care, completely dependent upon God. It is in this place of ego-diminishment (remember, John the Baptizer, only in the Gospel of John, says of Jesus, “I must decrease and he must increase”) where we can listen for Christ’s call. There we will hear Jesus cry our name and command us to “come out.”
And Jesus doesn’t stop there. Next he says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
There are things that bind us in this life, that bind us TO this life. They keep us from being born again (another phrase unique to John). They keep us from being truly alive. They bind us to death before death. They could be painful memories from our past, or anxious thoughts about our future. These bonds are anything that keeps us from living in the present.
And for John, life in the present is the point. Jesus says, only in John, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Or in other words, “I have come to unbind them, and to let them go.”
If we were to talk to Lazarus, he would urge us to identify the things that bind us. He would tell us to surrender to God’s care in prayer. He would obey Jesus command to unbind us. And he would let us go.