A Journey of Life and Death

“A Journey of Life and Death”

a message by Dr. Bruce Havens

based on the theme: “Lent – a Journey of Hope, Faith, and Love”

Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.

April 7, 2019


John 12:1-11

1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.

2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,

5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.

8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

 9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.

 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well,

11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

The journey of life and death is full of the unexpected.  Good things and bad things happen at unexpected times, in unexpected ways, from unexpected people or causes – both life and death come at us with the unexpected.  The marriage proposal that you didn’t see coming – at least not then. The baby that was unplanned, the baby that has disabilities, the divorce papers, the raise, the promotion, the firing, the cancer diagnosis, the heart attack, life and death in a whirling waltz of the unexpected.

This little 12 verse dinner party is as jam packed with the unexpected qualities of life and death as any 12 verses can be.

Lazarus – raised from the dead, can there be anything more unexpected?

A dinner party for Dr. Jesus the Resurrector by Lazarus’ family where one of the sisters violates every social rule and custom by touching a man who is not her husband, lets down her hair in front of men who are not her husband and breaks out the Chanel #5 and pours the whole bottle on Jesus’ – wait for it – feet, AND – wait for it… wipes it around with her HAIR.

Judas, revealed as Jesus betrayer and as a thief at a public dinner party – whoa!  Talk about UN – EX – PECTED!!!

Jesus reprimanding a disciple in public – oh, wait, ok, that isn’t unexpected -he did that all the time.

But Jesus making it sound like he didn’t give a fig about the poor, because it was “all about” him – that’s unexpected, right???

Now the crowd showing up to get a look at Jesus and at newly resurrected Lazarus – that’s not unexpected.  “The Crowd” is always showing up for a good show – even today… people will stop and watch at a car wreck let alone at a celebrity sighting or a resurrection sighting, right?

And people plotting to kill Jesus – because he saved someone’s life?  That might be the kicker of all unexpected kickers, I don’t know.  What to make of all this?  What to do about the unexpected on life’s journey to death?  Let’s talk about it shall we?

See I think God is always doing the thing we humans think is unexpected.  You want examples?  Oh, my.  Make a list…

Why would God choose to create humans at all?  And why would God create us knowing that we would be imperfect, and that we would choose to do wrong way more often than we would choose to do what God commands us to do?  Unexpected, right?

Why would God choose to forgive one of those first humans who turned out to be a murderer?  That’s unexpected.  Why would God continually go against the human preference to honor the older son with the blessing and choose the younger one – that’s unexpected:  Abel, Joseph, David all were younger sons, not the first-born.  Why would God choose another murderer, Moses to be his prophet –par-excellence to lead his people out of slavery – and isn’t it just a bit unexpected that this God would choose that bunch anyway?  Would you say it would be a bit unexpected for God to choose as “His People,” a bunch of stiff-necked slaves who would just as soon make a golden calf and dance around it than listen to the God of the Universe?  That’s gotta make the Unexpected Hall of Fame.

But what about Jesus you say?  Well, take another sheet of paper and call that sheet B and number it 1 to 100.  Unexpected that God would choose that time and place to send the Savior of the world, isn’t it?  Unexpected enough that one commentator when he heard that the Savior was from Nazareth that he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Isn’t it just a bit unexpected that Jesus would choose the poorest of the poor to be his disciples, his board of directors, his first leaders?  Not only poor, but of questionable character:  Judas we have already surfaced as a thief.  Peter had anger issues, Simon was a political activist thrown in with a group known for stirring up revolution, called “Zealots.”  Matthew a tax collector – sheesh.  Not what I would expect from the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

What about letting Mary bathe his feet with expensive perfume, worth a year’s salary for a common working man, touching him not only with her hands but her hair.  That came as unexpected to everyone who saw it.  But Jesus was always honoring and lifting up and showing the value of those others said were unworthy of equal love, equal value.  Women were healed and blessed and spoken to in ways that violated the status quo of the day.  Lepers were touched, foreigners and those of other religions were welcomed, blessed, and included by Jesus.  On and on, Jesus did the unthinkable, the unexpected to show that God’s love wasn’t limited by our often racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic attitudes toward anyone we don’t think worthy of our concern.

That comment about the poor?  Jesus is actually referring to a verse from Deuteronomy 15:11, that points out that since there are always poor and need in the land, God commands us to open our hands to them – in other words to give.  So Jesus wasn’t excusing our selfish refusal to help others just because we think it is their own fault they are poor.  He is both applauding Judas’ concern for the poor [ hypocritical as it was ] and reminding those present then and now, that if we are in relationship with Jesus we better be prepared for the unexpected.  We might understand that verse in John as Jesus saying, you can expect to be called to care for the poor, but you can’t expect me to be there in bodily form for much longer.

And then there is the resurrection of Lazarus itself.  I can’t explain it and I can’t ignore it.  It is a promise that wherever Jesus is the unexpected will happen.  Poor and powerless people will be honored and lifted up and valued.  Jesus fed, healed, welcomed – and gave new life. I’m not sure why we find that so unexpected though, because that is what God does.  God gives life and God gives new life.

In that same vein we should not call Jesus’ crucifixion unexpected.  He spoke and acted in ways that defied the power of the political, economic, and religious systems.  He welcomed and ate and drank with those the religious system called unclean.  He overturned the tables in the Temple threatening the economic system of the powerful.  He was called King of the Jews and the political system would not pause a moment to crush anyone who did not bow down to Caesar.  Jesus was not crucified for being a spiritual threat he was crucified by the religious and political powers because his vision for God’s love threatened their economic status and power.  That was the sin he died for.  God did not kill Jesus.  People did.

We may find it something we didn’t expect when he turned the most basic human act – eating and drinking – into a reminder of his unexpected presence, and his unexpected victory over sin and death.  So when we pass this bread and this cup watch out for something unexpected.  Watch out for people sharing with each other, passing it without charging them a fee.  Watch out for people eating and drinking together who are different races, different political parties, different economic classes, differently abled and different genders and orientations.  What an unexpected thing – people serving one another who are so different you would imagine they never would cooperate!

And watch for one other thing – what unexpected thing is God waiting to do in your life – through your life – for blessing?  How will God use you to bless someone else in an unexpected way?  You know what they say:  expect the unexpected.  Especially when it comes to God.  AMEN.