John 11: The God who stands in solidarity with humanity

[The following is the first of many "reflections" that I will write in response to sermons given at our church, The Well. This first one was close to my heart, and I am posting it here in full. You can read the original here. Future reflections will be posted on a weekly basis on The Well's website. RSS is available for those interested.]

On June 24, 2004, I received an email informing me that my close friend and college roommate of three years, James Pyles, was killed in a car accident on the streets of Jerusalem where he was serving as a summer missionary to the Palestinian people. My world came crashing down around me in a way that I could never have anticipated. In such moments, John 11 is especially powerful.

The story of Lazarus is one of the signs in the Gospel of John that the writer uses to structure the book. They are called signs, rather than miracles, because they are meant to point to Jesus rather than attract attention to themselves. The sign itself is not important, compared to the one who works these signs. In John 11, our attention is truly focused on Jesus. Every event turns our focus toward him. The death of Lazarus was not in vain, because "the Son of God may be glorified through it" (v. 4). The responses of Mary and Martha place us before the One they trusted with their very lives. Jesus before the tomb weeps with his friends, causing us to reflect upon his compassion. And after Lazarus comes out of the tomb, we are immediately thrust into another plot to kill Jesus, since "many of the Jews ... believed in him" (v. 45) after they saw the sign. The sum effect of this chapter, and the whole Gospel of John itself, is to say: Behold your Messiah!

Once we identify that Jesus is indeed our Savior, the Son of God among us, we are forced to ask the following question: What does the story of Lazarus tell us about Jesus? As Todd made clear in his sermon, we learn two things: (1) that God weeps with us over the suffering and tragedy in this world, and (2) that someday God will wipe every tear from our eyes and death will be no more. (I follow the theological axiom that Jesus reveals to us who God truly is, and so if Jesus shows compassion, then God is one who has compassion on this broken world.)

Both sides—compassion and liberation, solidarity and salvation—are essential. We may hear of the second part but miss the first, or we might hear the first but never reach the second. In John 11, we see both, and in their proper order. So, first, Jesus shows us a picture of God that is often forgotten: the God who stands in solidarity with humanity. We see this in the Old Testament in a passage like Hosea 11, where God is weighed down with compassion for the people of Israel. God declares:

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.

I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.
For I am God, and not man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come in wrath.

God is the "Holy One in our midst," the one who stands with us and not against us. God's own heart is full of compassion. We see a similar sentiment come from Jesus in Matthew 23:37 (and parallels): "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." Jesus desires to see Israel gathered togethed as one people again; he yearns for the New Jerusalem when there will be no more divisions between people, when death will itself be put to death. The whole narrative of Scripture, since the tragedy at Eden, is a yearning for the end of the story. But not an end like we see in a movie or read in a book. The end of this story is the beginning of a new one—a story that has no end.

In order to reach that new beginning, though, we need more than a God who simply walks and weeps with us in our suffering. God stands in solidarity with us—that is true—but God also rescues us. The Old Testament often speaks of death as a "pit." In ancient Israel, they had no conception of an "afterlife" or "heaven"; for them, death was the end, the pit or Sheol. The Psalmist often implores God to rescue him from the pit, meaning that death was near at hand, and only God could save him from that dark end. Salvation, thus, is to be rescued from this pit. God does not just climb into the pit with us—which God did in Jesus Christ—but God also brings us out of the pit and into the fullness of life. In other words, salvation does not take us away from this world or this life, but instead, God's salvation brings us into the fullness of life—a fullness only to be realized when God's kingdom comes to reign and death is finally vanquished.

God entered the pit of this world in Jesus Christ, but God did not stay there. The incarnation had a goal in mind: the resurrection. Jesus came not only to weep with us, but also to bring about the new creation God has in store for us. God is broken over the state of this world, but God is powerful and gracious enough to mend our brokenness and restore peace again. This mission of God is both particular and concrete—in that Jesus weeps over this one particular man—but it is also cosmic and all-encompassing—in that God will redeem all of creation. Each man and woman is significant, but we are also part of a larger and more glorious reality.

The story of John 11 is thus the gospel in a nutshell: God stands in solidarity with each of us, with all of humanity, but God also rescues us from the pit and restores us to new life. The raising of Lazarus is a sign that points us to Jesus, but within this single event we see a mini-picture of the whole story that includes creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Death and life are brought together in this single chapter. In a way, the story of Lazarus is like the Lord's Supper: in one small moment we are given a glimpse of the large Story in which we find ourselves. Lazarus is a sign for us all, that we too will hear the voice of the Lord calling us out of the grave and into life everlasting.

In conclusion, what can we learn from John 11 regarding our understanding of suffering in this world? When someone close to us dies, we can surely rest in the faith that Martha displayed when she states regarding Lazarus, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (v. 24). But Jesus' response reminds us of an important truth. He declares to her and to us all: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (vv. 25-26). Our hope is not one that simply awaits some future time when things will be made new. Our hope is now. Jesus already defeated death in his crucifixion and resurrection. We no longer need to fear, because Jesus not only promises new life; he is new life.

When I think about James, this is the truth which I hold on to: that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Indeed, Jesus was telling the truth when he said, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up" (v. 11). With God, we are only asleep; in Christ, there is only life. For now, God stands by our side in solidarity with us in our suffering. But that is not the end of the story:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:

"Death has been swallowed up in victory."
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?"

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:51-57)


Dave Carlson said…
Nice post, Dave. I miss James (or Pyles, as I knew him).
byron smith said…
Yes and yes - both points so important: that God is in solidarity with those living in the valley of the shadow of death AND that his rod and staff are powerful to defeat our enemies, including the last enemy.