Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Clear Revelation

John 11:32-44

In my high school days, I fancied myself something of an actor. Aside from trying to be a character in my other classes, I did one-act plays, readers theaters, duet plays, and school plays including a part as “Trapper John” in the play “M*A*S*H”. I loved drama and I loved knowing I had evoked some emotion, any emotion, from the audience, but I always had a hard time really “letting go” and fully expressing the characters I played. I always held back and felt silly if I ever thought I overplayed a part. When I could hear the audience laugh or when they came to me after a performance and told me how the character had “touched” them in some way, well, there was no better feeling.

After high school and as I struggled to find my place in life, I had flights of fancy about going to Hollywood to become an actor. I had it all worked out as to how I would go about it and how I would eventually get “discovered”, but I never really had the guts to take such a risk. How it would have turned out I’ll never know, but I’ve often wondered what sort of a person I would have become if I had become a successful movie star and had become obscenely wealthy and lived in a giant mansion and had the world at my beck and call, if I had allowed myself to be assimilated into that culture. As I walked the “red carpet” on my way to winning an Academy Award, people would swoon as I walked by. They would be begging for just a hand shake and would be willing to spill blood for a photo with me. See? Like I said, I had it all worked out and played out in my mind.

As I look at the direction of Hollywood, the movies and the TV shows that are far more explicit than I believe to be necessary, I sometimes wonder if I would have had the moral courage to draw a line between what I would or would not do for a good part in a blockbuster movie, maybe a leading role that would be good enough to warrant consideration for that coveted Academy Award. I would like to believe I would do as well as I needed to, but I’ve also had my doubts.

I doubt because even though I am painfully aware of my own faults and weaknesses, I know we humans also have a way of being conditioned by our environment. Regardless of what part of the country we hail from, no matter whether church or no church was a part of our upbringing, irrespective of whether we were raised rich or poor, conservative or liberal, we get used to certain things a certain way to the point that these things, whether questionable or not, soon become normal and, depending on whom we hang out and keep company with, perfectly and socially acceptable.

What I have observed over time is that we become trapped and enslaved to certain standards and practices as we become accustomed to them, more often than not without our willful – and informed - consent. Even, and perhaps especially, Christians get used to certain things a certain way or behaviors that don’t seem to hurt anyone else so much so that it becomes hard to see how destructive certain behavior can really be not only to the people around us but also to subsequent generations. And the longer such things endure, the more normal and generally acceptable they seem to become.

The one example that comes crashing to mind is our typical American Christmas practices. Out of one side of the mouth comes, “Christmas is all about family and friends.” Never mind that there is no, repeat NO, biblical standard by which to measure such a practice and belief. Yet we will defend that notion to the exclusion of just about anything or anyone else, including worship, as we teach our children and grandchildren to exercise their freedom to see to themselves first and foremost. And we continue to celebrate in such a gluttonous fashion because it is the “tradition” in which we were raised OR the “tradition” we have observed and adopted for ourselves.

Then out of the other side of our mouths, we will declare that age-old, yet very clever, “Jesus is the reason for the season”, and teach our children and grandchildren to hate and to despise those who do not agree with us. We also teach our children and grandchildren that it is not necessary to offer simple courtesy and basic respect to those who are standing in the same lines at the same stores and spending just as much money on toys they don’t need or food they cannot possibly eat – though they will give it a try because, after all, Christmas comes but once a year. But because these “strangers” will not wish us a “Merry Christmas” but would choose a more generic “Happy Holidays”, we write them off as inconsequential heathens unworthy of our respect and consideration. This is what Christmas comes to mean to our children and grandchildren because they are surrounded by it so much so that it soon becomes perfectly normal and acceptable. And HEAVEN HELP the preacher who says differently!!!

In reading John’s Gospel and the story of Lazarus, what struck me most is when Mary first sees Jesus, comes to kneel at His feet and declares that had Jesus been present, Lazarus would surely not have died. It’s hard not to read such a passage in a more literal sense because Mary knows who and what Jesus is to them. She knows Him to be the Source of Life, and she also knows perhaps that Lazarus had a special place in Jesus’ heart to the point that He would not have allowed Lazarus to die. If only He had been there.

Jesus then has them roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb after which Lazarus is summoned out of the tomb by Jesus. Once Lazarus is out, what also struck me was that Scripture says Jesus ordered those around Him to “unbind” Lazarus from the strips of cloth in which he had been buried. The “death shroud” that “bound” Lazarus in the tomb, perhaps signifying the difference between death and sleeping.
What is so striking about the language of “binding”, “bound”, “death”, and “sleeping”, and the significance of Jesus’ presence is Lazarus’ own state during all this. It is told to us at the beginning of chapter 11 that Lazarus was “sick” even though Jesus uses the term “sleeping” to describe Lazarus’ state, which is the same language used to describe those who pass from this life and await the Day of the Lord throughout the Bible, particularly in Paul’s writings and in the Revelation. We can speculate as to exactly what takes place between this life and the Life after the Resurrection, but it is not exactly useful for us because that time in eternity is unknown to us and is clearly and completely within the realm of the Holy Father. We don’t need to figure it out. What we must be mindful of is the life we lead up until that point of departure.

Though we can sometimes recall our dreams, we are almost entirely unaware while sleeping. We have no control over what happens, how well or how poorly we sleep, how we dream, how we toss and turn. During that time of our sleep, our lives and our bodies no longer respond to our will. We are completely outside of ourselves and virtually “shut down” so that our bodies can recover from the toil of the day and be refreshed for the day to come. It is quite remarkable, really, to consider the very essence of the miracle in how our bodies work and function without our willful input.

Being aware, however, is part of the admonishment Jesus puts on Peter in Mark 14 at Gethsemane. Recall that moment in Jesus’ life when He was perfectly aware of what was about to take place but before He could move from that moment, He needed to know what the Holy Father would ask of Him. He had His own desire, but He was not about Himself. Prior to going into the garden to pray, Jesus had told Peter, James, and John that His “soul is extremely sorrowful …”, so they had to have known something was troubling Jesus even as it is clear they still do not appreciate the reality of what is about to happen. After His time of prayer, Jesus found Peter and the others sleeping. In verses 37 & 38 the significance of the necessity of being awake and aware is expressed by Jesus: “Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.”
This is not a warning from Jesus; it is a statement of fact. He is acknowledging our human impulses and social tendencies. We cannot simply go through life on “auto pilot” and give ourselves over to fate or social standards as the means by which we determine what is in store for us or how we should live. The reality of “it is what it is” is no longer good enough for Christians who are called to think and pray through things, not simply become a part of it merely because we are surrounded by it.

In John’s account of Lazarus’ resurrection, clearly what we are being shown is the same thing those witnesses then were being shown: that Jesus is the Resurrection, the Life After Death. Simple enough. What we may be reading past, however, is the reality of Jesus’ presence in our lives NOW to determine whether we are truly alive or if we are little more than “the walking dead”; zombies relegated to wandering the earth and feeding off the lives of others, being completely unaware of anything other than what is right before us, operating on conditioned responses and impulses and focused entirely on our own needs and pleasures ... and little else.

Living for the Lord is anything but incidental beyond the moment of justification, that moment when we have received spiritual assurance of our Holy Adoption. It means being aware of the prevailing culture we are surrounded by and being aware of how our lives intersect and affect others, intentionally and prayerfully in a positive, spirit-filled way lest we forget who we really are and become merely another face in the crowd. It means “watching and praying, lest we fall into temptation”, as Jesus warned Peter, recognizing that though we have been set apart by our Holy Adoption, we are still very much human. And it means the difference between whether we are “bound by a death shroud” or freed by command of the Son of the Living God, the Risen Christ.

It is, quite literally, the difference between life and death.

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