I don’t like the book of John.
I wish I did… I really do. I want to like it. But so often when I read it, I find myself asking a lot of questions of the books portrayal of Jesus. John’s Jesus is so starkly different from the Jesus we meet in the other Gospel narratives. Luke tells the story of a Jesus who is upsetting the status quo, ministering to the most marginalized, and taking people out of their comfort zones. Matthew depicts a Jesus who is the emergence of the Kingdom of God here on earth. John portrays a Jesus who is singularly focused on convincing people He is the true Son of God – the Messiah who has come.
For some reason I can relate to a Jesus who is overturning tables in the temple more easily than one who is proving His Godhood. It’s something that I am currently struggling with, but this passage in chapter 11 makes me especially uncomfortable.
To Wait or to Grieve?
It seems, in the NRSV, that Jesus allows Lazarus to die for the purpose of using it as an opportunity to prove who He is. That’s what we’ve always been taught, right? That Jesus had to let Lazarus die for the good of the Gospel? I mean, that’s right there in verse 15!
When I read that verse, it literally makes me feel nauseous. Is that really how Jesus operated? Did he allow those closest to Him to feel pain and loss, just so he could show them who he really was? Is that how God works?
The short answer is… I don’t think so. At least, that’s not how Wesleyans believe God works. We believe that God is more concerned with loving us than with showing us God’s power. Hence, it’s a little easier for us to lean into the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke than it is the Jesus of John. In this passage, Wesleyans tend to emphasize the fact that Christ grieved and wept with the family and friends of Lazarus as an act of love. We don’t emphasize the intentional waiting of Jesus to allow Lazarus to “fall asleep”.
Yet the sermons that I have heard on this passage that emphasize one of the above points without recognizing the other have been rather unconvincing. Our congregations must be invited to wrestle with and question what it means for Jesus to have waited. To hold in tension the choice to wait with the love shown in grief.
The placement of this text in the Lenten season is another invitation to raise our eyebrows and lean forward in our pews. In a season where the Church is being reminded of our death – “From ashes to ashes, from dust to dust” – we have a passage that turns all the difficult work we have completed over the last four weeks on its head. Have we been on a journey of becoming comfortable with our own mortality, only to now have the plot spoiled by Lazarus in the second act?
Maybe. But maybe we should instead view this “spoiler” as a foreshadowing, or a call to anticipate. We are, after all, just two weeks away from the “big reveal”, and Lent can mirror Advent in some ways – reminding us to wait and anticipate what is to come.
Through this season, our congregation has been going through N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. In it, Wright refers to the resurrection of Jesus on Easter as a small glimpse of what is in store for the whole of creation. The Kingdom of God enters into the cosmos through Christ, with the promise that one day it will be fully fulfilled.
If we use that definition of the resurrection of Jesus being a “glimpse” of what is to come, then I think we can define this moment in John 11 as a “flicker”. Death is all around us, but there is a flicker, a short foreshadowing, of what is coming soon.
The book of John, and this passage in particular, invites us to encounter a Jesus that might make us fidget. If we want Jesus to look like us, to be made in our image, then John seeks to remind us otherwise.
Christ was fully man, but he was also fully God. He was a glimpse of what is in store. A reminder that God is at work among us, and it may not look exactly like what we have in mind. It may make us uncomfortable and sometimes we may not even like it. But our role in that is to continue to ask questions, to discern as a community where God is leading us, and to move forward doing work for the Kingdom.
May God bless you and your congregations as you examine this “flicker” together this Sunday.
 N.T Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2011).