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Disturbance of the Spirit

Sermon - 3/09/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 11: 1-53

Almost feels like I was in another world last week.  I suppose in some ways, I was [Dan had spent 10 days in Israel].

The lectionary passage for this Sunday comes from the 11th chapter of the gospel of John.  It is a rather long story, a familiar story I think, so rather than read the entire story, I'd like to summarize parts of it, focus on some key verses, invite you to follow along in your own Bible or in the Pew Bibles:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But 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.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9Jesus 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. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

28 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.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The 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. 32When 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.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ 51He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53So from that day on they planned to put him to death.


The story concerns some good friends of Jesus that appear frequently in the gospels at various points, Mary & Martha, we hear about them often.  And their brother Lazarus.  The three of them lived in the town of Bethany, which is just outside of Jerusalem.  Jesus has received word that Lazarus has grown ill.  So they requested that He come to heal him.

But Jesus decides to linger, to wait a few days.  He's in no rush, and even says something to the effect that he's going to wait until Lazarus dies so that He can reveal the true glory of God.

When he finally decides the time has come, he says Lazarus has fallen asleep, and his disciples -- as is classic in the gospels -- don't understand, they misunderstand Jesus.  He's fallen asleep, what's the rush?  And Jesus says 'No, he has died.  So we must go to Judea'.  The disciples resist going to Judea, where Jerusalem is, because they know that Jesus' life will be in danger.  When Jesus convinces them to go, one of them says 'Alright, let's go and die with him', you know, this courageous view that is short lived.

And so we see from the very beginning there is a shadow of death that hangs over this entire story.  When Jesus arrives at Bethany, Martha comes out and meets him, and says 'Oh, Jesus, if you had only gotten here earlier, then maybe you could have done something'.  Jesus responds with a very famous verse, verse 25:  "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?"  Martha says 'Yes, I believe, I believe you're the Messiah', though as we see later in the story, she doesn't quite understand what that means. 

And so she goes and summons Mary, and Mary comes out to greet Jesus.  And with Mary comes all of the mourners, all of her friends and supporters, the 'wailers' who share in her grief in a very traditional way of wailing to support Mary in this time of grieving.

And when Jesus hears the wailing, and he sees the grief of Mary, then we are told:  "He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved".  He said 'Where have you laid them?'.  They said 'Lord, come and see'.  And then the most famous verse in scripture that everyone likes to memorize to show that they can memorize a verse of scripture:  "Jesus wept" J.  And the people respond:  'See how Jesus loved him'.

And then we are told once again that Jesus is 'greatly disturbed' when he comes to the tomb.  There's a stone there, and he tells them to take it away, and they protest 'Lord, the stench will be overwhelming', he's been dead now for 4 days.  The 4 days is significant, not just because of the stench, but because the belief was that the spirit remained with the body for 3 days.  So after 4 days, you know, he's no longer 'partly dead', he is now 'wholly dead'.  There's no hope for him.

Jesus insists, they remove the stone, he gives a prayer of thanksgiving to God, and he commands Lazarus to come out.  Lazarus does.  Jesus tells them to unbind him from the cloths in which the dead are buried.  And then many of those who witnessed this believe, some, though, report him to the religious authorities.  The religious authorities begin to plot the death of Jesus in response -- they can't tolerate this kind of behavior, it will cause unrest, the Romans will come in and destroy us all, so better than 1 man shall die than the whole nation.  So once again we come back to this theme of death -- to death, to life, and then back to death again in the text.

Here's the question I invite you to ponder for this morning:  we are told that Jesus intentionally delays going to help his friend Lazarus.  Waits for him to die before he goes.  So why, then, does Jesus become greatly disturbed in spirit when he's confronted with the grief of Mary and Martha?  Why does he weep, when he knows that he will raise Lazarus from the dead?

The New Interpreters Bible says these versus are among the most difficult to understand in then gospel.  Commentators have struggled to interpret the words about Jesus' emotions ever since they were written.  All kinds of explanations have been made about what causes Jesus to weep and be disturbed.

I want to suggest to you this morning a way of understanding this text and the emotions of Jesus based not so much on what John wrote about Jesus' emotions nearly 2,000 years ago, but what we see happening in the homeland of Jesus and Lazarus today.

It is surely one of the greatest ironies of history and religion that precisely there where the three great mono-theistic religions converge -- Islam, Judaism, and Christianity -- we see a constant state of disturbance of the spirit.  Most recently manifested in the massacre of the 8 Jewish students at the yeshiva, which is a religious school in Jerusalem.  Having just returned from Jerusalem -- you can see me here at the end of a line of 15 clergy from around the United States who are part of this trip -- returned just 2 days prior to that massacre, and after the outbreak of violence in Gaza.

I want to share with you three other disturbances of the spirit that I witnessed and experienced while there.

One of the most frequented sites in Jerusalem is the newest, perhaps the hardest to see.  Yad Vashem, the memorial to the holocaust. 

It is an enormously powerful experience to walk through this monument to the 6,000,000 Jews who perished under Hitler's final solution.  If you had an entire day there to spend (we didn't, we had all of 2 hours), you could not begin to take in all of the stories that are told of individual lives.  Stories of tragedy and heroism in that well laid-out journey through humanities greatest horror, committed against our fellow human beings.

But by far the most powerful experience for our group was found in a separate exhibit that takes but a few minutes to experience.  The children's memorial:

A candle-lit cavern of mirrors in which the names of one and half million children are read in a continuous loop, in a very solemn tone, as you pass through.  More than one in our group was visibly shaken by that experience, moved to the point of tears as we came out on the other side.  Not because of that sense of the loss of innocence, but that overwhelming sense of the loss of the innocent.  So many lives.  So many children.  Can any of us fathom the pain and agony of a parent, of a single parent, unable to protect their children from such wholesale slaughter, let alone millions of parents?


To understand modern Israel, and its reason for existence, and its need for security, you need only to visit Yad Vashem and the children's memorial.

The second disturbance of the spirit in our group touring the holy land occurred after those Qassam rockets fell on citizens of Ashkelon, resulting in the death of one person.  And what is particularly significant in that event is that this is the first time that the militants in Gaza have been able to reach deeper into the territory of Israel.  Ashkelon, 20 kilometers away from the Gaza Strip, has no protection -- they have not built bomb shelters as the communities closer to Gaza have to protect themselves.  They are very vulnerable to these attacks.

And then the response, the counter-offensive, launched by the Israeli Defense Forces while we there, resulting in over 120 Palestinian deaths, nearly half of those were innocent civilians.  Collateral damage, folks just in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

It was not the newspapers which brought the reality of this new, violent confrontation home to our group, but our return to the old city, where we had just been two days prior, where I took this picture of children playing in the street:

Blissfully unaware of the troubles yet to come.  And what we found, then, when we returned later was not an ancient city full of tourists and shoppers, but a nervous city full of soldiers:

Hundreds of young men and women carrying loaded packs and machine guns.  What was striking and disturbing to us was not just the sudden appearance of so many soldiers, but their age.  Young kids mostly, 18 or 19 years of age, casually chatting with one another with their weapons at their side:

As if hundreds of well-armed soldiers in the holy city amidst tourists and shoppers was perfectly normal:

And maybe in this troubled land, it is.  The locals hardly seemed to notice.  But we did.  And we were very disturbed, as much by its apparent normalcy as we were by our own 'dis-ease' to be found in their midst.

The third disturbance was wholly my own, though I think some others in the group shared it to some degree.  I find it emotional just talking about it.

I lived for 3 years in a divided city, Berlin.  Many of you know that's where I met the love of my life, pictured here gazing at a section of the wall from Berlin:

We found this at, of all places, in the center at Chapman University when we went to take our daughter down to school last Fall.  They have this monument there to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  It's in a very beautiful setting, but the wall was anything but beautiful, I assure you.  Very ugly, very disturbing.  And very much hated, despised, by people on both sides in that city and throughout Germany.

When we came back from Berlin in 1981, we thought we'd never live to see the day that the wall would come down.  And of course, the unthinkable happened.  Through a grass-root revolt of East German citizens after glasnost and the period of openness from the Soviets -- a revolt, by the way, led to a large degree by Christian pacifists in East Germany -- overwhelmed the wall when they discovered the guards were not going to shoot and kill them.  And hence the celebration that began in 1989 and led to the unification of Germany.

When I had the chance to revisit, to go back to Berlin in 2003, to walk through that area that had previously been forbidden, where no one could walk except those East German soldiers, I as a foreigner who was only a short term resident of that city, had tears running down my cheek.  I can only imagine how that felt for the Berliners, for the people of that city and nation.


Walking through the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem brought back all of those emotions that I associate with the Berlin wall.

Even though I know that this wall was constructed for a different purpose.  "Good fences make for good neighbors", we were told repeatedly by those on the Israeli side.  The security barrier -- and by the way, 97% of it is not a wall at all, but just a fence -- is necessary to end the terrorist actions, the suicide bombings, and undoubtedly has saved hundreds if not thousands of lives since its construction.

But even as that may be, the reality for the neighbors on the other side, is that they are increasingly angry and bitter as the hardships caused by that wall mount day after day:

And even though the type of terrorist attack that we saw this week in Jerusalem has been dramatically reduced in the short-run by the wall and the fence, I fear that the devastation caused in the long run will ultimately be much worse.


These are the disturbances of the spirit that I and others in our tour experienced as we traveled through the holy land.  And the biggest impression I took away from that experience was perhaps that for all its wonder, its beauty, its incredible history and awe, the holy land is such a conflicted land.  Where can one find hope?

As you leave Yad Vashem you see this verse of scripture:

Pay attention, you should recognize it:  "I will put my breath into you, and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil" -- from the lectionary text (I didn't select it), read this morning, from Ezekiel 7, this vision of the dry bones brought back to life.

That Israel even exists today is one of the great miracles of our time.  It truly is, and I celebrate it.  But it's not enough.  A greater miracle is desperately needed if it is to survive and to prosper along with its neighbors.

The simplistic solution I sometimes hear for the complexity of modern Israel and its neighbors is that if they would all turn to Jesus, their troubles would end.  Never mind the inherent anti-Semitism that is behind such a statement, Jews and Muslims in the holy land have not taken to well to Christian crusades in the past.  And I don't think that's going to change any time soon.

But I would like to suggest that the way of Jesus, as outlined in this text in the story of Lazarus in the gospel of John, does offer something for all people of faith -- including Jews and Muslims, but especially for us as Christians -- who seek reconciliation and peace in our world.

Jesus knew that Lazarus was going to die, just as we all know that death is inevitable.  We also know that the world is full of violence.  We all know that the way of death is destructive, horrendous, terrifying.  We know that this way is all too common and too easily chosen by the weak and powerful alike.  We know this surely as Jesus knew this and experienced it in the same land.  So note that in this story when Jesus comes to the place of death, when he comes to the tomb of Lazarus, when he is confronted with its pain and despair, when he hears the wails of the mourners and sees the grief of Mary, he weeps.  And more importantly, he becomes disturbed in the spirit.

Only the English translation does not quite capture the full meaning of the Greek.  It's not just out of compassion he is moved, but rather out of anger that he is disturbed.

And still I ask:  angry at what?  Disturbed by what?

In John's gospel, there is always multiple-layers of meaning in each story that he tells.  And in this exchange between Jesus and the two sisters, we see this is not just about the death of Lazarus, it is about so much more for which Lazarus is but a symbol.  There is a much larger reality at stake here.  Jesus has come not just to reverse the death of one man, but to reverse the effects of death itself.  It is not just Lazarus he unbinds, but the life that conquers death that he brings out of the tomb.

Thus, Jesus is angry not just that Lazarus has died, but that death and the ways of death are still so prevalent.  That the way of life found in God is still bound by the stone of the tomb.

And this is the way of Jesus that I believe that we are called to follow, the way to emulate: 

To be angry that the terrorists target the innocent to die for their cause.

To be angry that the collateral damage of retaliatory attacks result in even more innocent deaths.

To be angry that Hamas celebrates the killing of innocent Jewish teenagers.

To be angry that the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza are intolerable, and in fact are a crime against humanity.

We should not just be angry, we should be outraged that our government has not done more to bring and end to this carnage.

We should be outraged that we cannot curb the proliferation of arms sales in abroad and at home.

We should be outraged of the dubious wars fought overseas while so many needs at home -- for the uninsured, for our children, our schools, the homeless and hungry -- remain unmet.  We should be outraged.

Like Jesus, we should be greatly disturbed in spirit that so many are needlessly dying while war profiteers make millions on the weapons that do the killing.

To believe in Jesus as the resurrection and life means that we do not accept this way of the world.  We do not accept this way of violence, of retaliation, of revenge killings. 

We refuse, however, to turn our anger into hatred.  We do not stand at the tomb of Lazarus and ask "Who is responsible for this death?" that we might seek revenge.  No, we stand at the tomb of Lazarus and ask "How do we remove the stone?".  How do we let loose life and hope into our world, that death will not have the last word.

We believe that there is an alternative to an 'eye for an eye' and a 'tooth for a tooth' that is found in each of our traditions.  Life, greater than death.  Love, stronger than hate.  Compassion, justice, and affirmation for our common humanity is the way of peace, and the will of God for our world.

May it be, for the sake of the children, and for us all.


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