Throughout my studies at seminary, professors drilled into our heads that the key to being a good, effective, and faithful pastor lay in mastering the art of being a non-anxious presence. It got mentioned so often, in fact, that it almost began to sound that it didn’t matter how good you were at translating Greek or Hebrew, or how much Scripture you could quote, or how moving and informative your sermons were. None of that really seemed to matter if you couldn’t learn how to maintain a non-anxious presence, especially during a crisis. For some people, I suppose it comes naturally. Those are the ones who get the job to stand out at the end of a pier in a rain-jacket, drenched and shouting into a microphone while clinging to a lamppost for dear life as the hurricane comes roaring in. For most of us, however, it is a tough skill to come by.
I remember one scene during a television special this week that showed the destruction and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy where a reporter was interviewing a couple in New York City who had lost not only their home but their entire neighborhood. You could see the couple was obviously dumbstruck. Surveying what looked like a war zone, they kept reaffirming each other that they would be fine, they would rebuild, that at least no one had been harmed. It was very matter-of-fact, the reporter calmly and expertly able to get them to open up about something so sad and scary. But then suddenly, right in the middle of the reporter’s questions, another couple from the neighborhood walked by and interrupted the scene. The two couples had not seen each other since before the hurricane hit, and emotions poured out like a storm surge right on camera. It caught the reporter, too, by surprise and it was pretty quickly evident that she was not going to remain a non-anxious presence. She covered her mouth with her interview notes and began to sob along with them. By journalists’ standards, it was probably a no-no to become involved in such a way but a helpful reminder to me that I’m not the only one who struggles with this.
And we read in in John’s gospel that apparently Jesus struggles with it, too. For all our lessons in seminary about the importance of being a non-anxious presence, how puzzling to learn that Jesus, the Son of God, apparently doesn’t really “have it” either. Just look at him! He’s sobbing, emotional…unable to keep his disturbed feelings in check. It’s really quite phenomenal, especially considering that when he first learns about Lazarus’ illness, he doesn’t rush right there to see what was happening. He lingers two extra days before coming to Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters live. In other words, he wasn’t anxious to get there, but he certainly becomes anxious on arrival!
In the portion of this story that we read this morning there are two separate verses where this anxiety comes through, and they’ve gotten a lot of attention over the years. One of them, translated as, “Jesus wept,” is one of the shortest verses in the Bible, and it’s often one of people’s favorites. (Our version today translates it as “Jesus began to weep,” indicating ongoing action.) In verse 33 we see Jesus is also “deeply moved” and “greatly disturbed in spirit.” Other English words that have been used to translate the two Greek verbs that occur here include “very agitated” and “troubled” and even “angry” and “indignant.” Interestingly, compassion and sorrow do not seem to be directly associated with either of these emotions in the Greek—ones you might expect to occur if you realize Jesus has just lost a close friend. However, even if it’s true that our Lord becomes momentarily like that television reporter who, caught up in the emotion, breaks down at the sadness and loss around her, it is clear that Jesus does not retain that all-important non-anxious presence. Something about the scene at Lazarus’ tomb, with all its weeping and wailing and public mourning disturbs him and moves him to tears. We can almost glimpse him in the camera’s eye as he covers his mouth, sobbing, becoming a part of the scene rather than removed from it.
Jesus, as it turns out, is anxious in the face of death. Jesus is an anxious presence because, as God’s Son, he is anxious in the face of what death does to us—how it rips apart our families and lays waste to our dreams. Jesus is anxious about how death robs us of chances for reconciliation with those who need our forgiveness and how it ruins our plans for the future. He is anxious and deeply moved, for example, in the midst of Hurricane Sandy as families are torn apart by waves and washed away. He is anxious and overcome with emotion as he stands by the bed in hospice as a husband says good-bye to his wife for the final time. He is anxious and greatly disturbed in spirit as the next set of coffins from Afghanistan greets their loved ones on the tarmac.
Jesus, however, is mostly anxious because of what death does to our faith and our relationship with God, how it drives us to doubt and despair. Yes, Jesus looks around the scene at the tomb and realizes that here, of all places—at the home of some of his closest friends—he would hope to find total control, total confidence in God’s ability in Jesus to avert the disaster. Instead he finds emotions run amok and his friends somewhat angry with his own delayed arrival: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus still looks around at any scene of death and gets agitated with how it overwhelms us.
Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we can actually find great comfort in Jesus the Anxious Presence. It’s not simply a sign of his humanity—that he understands and can relate—but a clue that in him God is finally meeting death head-on. The last thing we need is a Savior who shows up at the tomb and says, stone-faced and with removed demeanor, “Now, there, there, Mary and Martha. Your brother has just passed on.” No, Jesus’ emotion here is an honest reaction to God’s last enemy. Jesus’ anxiety is a real expression of feeling from a God who has gotten real with us. Death is truly awful, and although there may be times when we pray for its quick arrival so as to hasten the end of suffering, death is never the destiny that God intends for his creation.
And so Jesus comes to the tomb of Lazarus not to prevent death, which is what he’s requested to do. He comes not to minimize it or “theorize” it away, which is what we often are tempted to do in our feeble attempts to avert the anguish we feel. He comes neither to endear death nor make it somehow palatable, as a natural part of the passing into another realm. No, at the tomb of Lazarus—and chiefly then on the cross—Jesus comes to conquer death. Jesus comes to be victorious over it. Jesus comes to step into death himself and experience its utter desolation—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—and then, resurrected, step out of the tomb himself for us and never stop walking.
One of the biggest challenges of faith is that at this point we still only have a foretaste of that great victory. The cross proves to us that death has been conquered—and in our baptism we have been joined to that triumph—but we have not yet reached that day when, as the prophet Isaiah says, “the LORD God will swallow up death forever, when he will wipe away the tears from all faces.” We’re still waiting for it, like that line in the new Mumford & Sons song that echoes, over and over, “I will wait, I will wait for you…I’ll be bold as well as strong…” For now we still live with the pain of death, which means we will slip into many moments of anxiety, much to the chagrin of my seminary professors. But we have a promise that we are held by the one who has come not to prevent this last enemy but who has conquered it.
Here at Epiphany this is beautifully exemplified by the design of our columbarium, the place where we lay our loved ones to rest. I’ve seen quite a few columbaria in my life—being as how I hang out at churches a bit—but I’ve never seen one designed so intentionally as a circle. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of the architecture, and then I stood in in the middle of it for the committal of one of our own blessed saints. As we read the spoke the words of the liturgy, I realized it felt like we were all standing within the embrace of God, the two sides of the circle forming two outstretched arms—brick-solid and unmoving—to shield us and our loved ones until that day.
I have no idea if it was designed with that with that idea or not (it probably was), but that’s how it strikes me. It evokes both love and the mighty triumph of the resurrection at the same time. And whether their remains lie there literally in that columbarium or somewhere else, between those arms is where the saints always rest. It is the place where all our blessed loved ones wait for Jesus to call them out of death and into life. We remember our saints there once again today: Ethel, Stephen, Pat, Brenda, Tommy…and Catherine and Bill. They, like all those who’ve been baptized find themselves in the wide embrace of the Risen one who gathers us for that great, eternal day.
And it will be said on that day, “Lo, this is our God—this one who resuscitated Lazarus, this one who raised Jesus—we have waited for him, so that he might save us. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation!”
|Photo by Meredith Sizemore photography|
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.