Thursday, April 03, 2014
April 6, Lent 5, The Walking Dead, # 8 in A Series on Sin
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
This sermon is the last one in my series on sin, thank God. So this is the last time I’m asking my question of our scripture lessons: "What can you tell us about sin?" The gospel lesson answers, "Not much, that’s not what I’m about." Right. The theme is life, life in his name, and hearing his voice, and that even the dead will obey the voice of the Lord. If there’s any sin in the story it’s incidental.
But the story does have death in it. The death of Lazarus, or I should say, the deadness of Lazarus. His actual death is not described. But his deadness is. He’s four days dead. All that’s left of him is his dead flesh: his spirit has left his lungs, his soul evaporated, his mind extinguished. His body has begun to stink. He is nothing now but bones and teeth and slowly rotting meat. Das Fleisch. He has gone from flesh and blood to flesh and rot. So death here is not simply inertness, but the power of corruption and decay.
Which is connected to sin by our epistle reading. Romans 8 says that "We who are in the flesh cannot please God," and that "the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God," and that "the body is dead because of sin." So if we interpret scripture by scripture, we could say that there is sin implicit in the gospel story because there’s flesh in the story. The word "flesh", throughout the Bible, in metaphor and fact, is both a necessary reality of our embodied existence and a moral problem.
My own flesh is 60 years old, and I can feel the beginning of my body’s decay. I’m not an elf, like in The Lord of the Rings. Their physical bodies don’t die. They always stay youthful and strong and beautiful. This week the eye doctor confirmed that my vision is getting cloudy because of my age. I think my hearing is going. I used to have such nice feet and now my toes are getting crooked and my toenails thick and yellow. It’s not my death I think about so much as my body’s decline. Is this because of sin, as it says in Romans 8? If Adam hadn’t sinned, would we all be like elves? If I were not a sinner would I be youthful even at 60?
Right now I have both life and death in my body. Vitality and entropy. At present life is the stronger, and my body can handle all the daily dying and decay of cells and tissues. But eventually and inevitably I will get my final disease, and death will be the stronger. But this is also true for dogs and they’re not sinners. Elephants expire; they’re not sinners. So why for us is death because of sin?
We cannot answer that from out of biology or anthropology or even philosophy. The best we can say is that God has declared it so, that your death is because of sin. God has made a judgment out of something natural. And we do feel it that way, as a judgment. We are the only vertebrates, it seems, who experience death as unfair, and a cause for existential complaint.
So we resist our deaths. All animals try to stay alive, but we resist our deaths to a degree distinct among mammals. We resist the judgment of God on us. It’s circular. We resist our deaths, and yet the very meaning of death is our resistance. Your flesh resists the Spirit of God, your mind resists the righteousness of God, your freedom resists the sovereignty of God, your fear resists the love of God, and your self-regard resists the Lordship of Christ. In that resistance is your death, and your death is the very thing that you’re resisting most of all within your life, just by your will to live.
Resistance can be good. The sculptor requires the resistance of the stone, the cellist requires the resistance of the strings, and the athlete the resistance of physical limits against which to excel. Non-violent resistance is good. Turning the other cheek is resisting in love. James 4:7 says to "Resist the devil and he will flee from you." It is natural to resist incursions into your field of freedom. Copyrights, trademarks, private property, the sanctity of contracts, and the rule of law are forms of resistance. And even though the Lord Jesus submitted to death and did not resist it, yet he did resist getting arrested before the time of his own choosing. Your freedom, which is so important, requires at least some measure of resistance. Remember Masha Alyokhina from Pussy Riot.
But resistance can be tragic heroics, willfulness, refusing to see, not-believing, knowing better, and disobedience. Resistance can be abandonment, depression, guilt, fear, and passive aggression. Resistance can be prejudice and pride, or anger, or sloth, or any the Seven Deadly Sins. Resistance to God, resistance to love, resistance to the life of God. The whole story of the Bible is both the story of God’s salvation and the story of our resistance to God’s salvation. The goodness of God to Israel and the resistance of Israel to God. The Messiah comes to his people and his people resist him. The Holy Spirit is given to the church and the church resists the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Where is your resistance in your life? What are your defenses and your boundaries, the space you protect to preserve your independence, the commitments you’ve made to define yourself, the vows you’ve made to keep you going? The Jews are very wise on Yom Kippur to repent of all their vows. The purpose of Lent is to remind you that it’s futile to resist. Repentance means not resisting the judgments of God, so that nothing is left to keep you standing straight but faith and hope and love.
The great resistance is death. It’s a passive resistance, unlike the active resistance of disobedience, and yet it is its own kind of disobedience as the dead are deaf to obedience. Death means no response. Before you die, even when you’re very sick, medicine can do all sorts of things for you to extend your life. As Mary and Martha both said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." We spend 25% of our health-care dollars on the last six months of life, but once you are dead, even the most brilliant doctor can do nothing for you. Death is the great "No," the great negation, the final disobedience, a resistance which is passive and aggressive and absolute.
Except against the Word of God. In the beginning, when God created the heaven and the earth, the earth was formless and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. Formlessness, no form, no thing, nothing, no life, all death, all passive aggressive resistance, all negation. When God spoke, things came to be, because the negation could not say No. It could not resist the Word of God. And this Creator was fully present in this man Jesus, and in a human voice but with the same authority he spoke to the stinking flesh, and he said, "Lazarus, come out," and deadness could not resist him, the dead guy obeyed him. He was like one of the zombies in The Walking Dead, except that this walking dead man was obedient to the Lord of life, and he was coming alive, and so they did not smash his head but they unbound his face and hands and legs to give him the freedom of his life in Christ.
There is a picture here for you. Not that you are zombies or the walking dead, but the life eternal which belongs to Jesus is coming alive already in you. When you listen to God’s voice, when you seek the Lordship of Jesus, when you share the life of God in Christ, your eternal life has begun already. In that sense you will never die, though your body decay and your soul evaporate. Your life itself, in some mysterious way outside of human knowledge and control — your life is safe within the bosom of Jesus like he’s a mother kangaroo and you are in his pouch until he comes again.
Jesus let his good friend die. You can’t be resurrected without your dying first. What must die in you is the whole system and complex of your resistance which is your flesh, both body and soul. So the Lord God overcomes your resistance. But even now, before you finally die, even the resistance of your flesh and all that it represents is being engaged in love by the Holy Spirit.
Do you know how the filament works in an incandescent light bulb? The filament is a wire made of tungsten which resists the flow of the electricity, and against that resistance the electric current turns to light. The wonder of God’s love is that the energy of God’s Spirit makes gracious love shine even in your dying flesh. The love of God for you is not just for what’s beautiful and lovable about you, but God loves also what is broken in you and weak and ugly and unlovely. God loves even your bones.
God engages your resistance to generate a loveliness that is sweeter than nature itself could ever know. (Une pièce de resistance!) It’s a sad song but a sweet song because it is a love song. I invite you to believe that God has made a song about you and your life and to imagine that God sings your song whenever an angel happens to mention your name.
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.