Tuesday, June 4, 2024

From Chaos to Christ

https://www.freeimages.com/photo/cloud-break-1409678

Guest blog by Joe Kerwin, an elder at Pilgrim Church in Beverly, MA, who was honorably discharged after six years in the Marine Corps. Currently, he works for the Massachusetts state library system. The author of many poems and a worldwide traveler, he wrote this poem in the Kalahari Desert in Africa while on a mission’s trip. Joe would like to dedicate this poem to Pastor Ron Rossi of Grace Ministries, Saugus, MA, who talked with Joe “every Thursday night for two years solid” right after Joe became a Christian.

You slimy little devil, you’re slippery as an eel,

elusive as a parasite, a master of appeal.

 

Amazing, how you twist every single evil thought,

and make it look attractive, even though it’s really not.

 

By eluding comprehension, you make lies appear so real,

With the lure of easy money, you said, “just another deal.”

 

You keep me so confused with false hope, another lie.

You had me so convinced I was benevolent and kind.

 

Your reign of terror came with awesome wicked power.

Your evil had me hate every waking hour.

 

Late night was the time that you really liked to play,

with torture you would tell me, “You won’t live to see the day…”

 

Satan, you’re so evil, binding every noble thought,

making all that pain seem to me, as though it’s really not.

 

That fear that often came on, all throughout the night.

Your cold hard hand upon me, till I lost the will to fight.

 

Hell, you took my life, and you scarred it deep with gashes,

then pushed my life aside, like a pile of old burnt ashes.

 

You’ve had your chilly hand on my heart and on my soul,

for many, many, years, I was just your little troll.

 

My life was such a mess, I never could be free,

because I felt this awful curse would always follow me.

 

Thank you, God, for the saint You sent to me that day,

who said, “I know a Person who can show a better way.”

 

So, I knelt right there upon the street, before Jesus that day,

and asked for Him to take all my sin and shame away.

 

“See ya later, Satan! Your jig is about up!

Your deceit is stripped away! I’m wise to all your stuff!”

 

As I rose straight to my feet, in shock and in surprise,

my confusion now was gone, the clouds had left my eyes.

 

I felt no longer pain and guilt, I left the road I’d trod.

I said, “Goodbye!” to all my fear. I said, “Hello!’ to God.

 

I skipped on down a brighter street, yelling that I’m free.

That’s when I saw Satan, glaring back at me.

 

With eyes so full of hate, he slithered last away,

and scowled, “There goes my prisoner! Now he is a saint!”

 

Joe gives God ALL the glory and honor for restoring him back to sound mind and body! 

Sunday, May 5, 2024

We Fall for The Fall Guy

 

google image

We saw the movie The Fall Guy because the previews looked hilarious. However, even though the film had its funny moments, it was much more serious than we expected. The movie highlighted the biblical theme, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). In the New Testament, the “meek” (praus, prautēs) signifies the humble or mild or gentle. They (not the haughty) will inherit Jesus’s kingdom because Jesus’s kingdom is attained by love, humility, gentleness, mercy, purity, peacemaking, and perseverance in righteousness (Matt 5:3-12). In The Fall Guy, it is the lowly as well who win. The “lowly” are the stunt men and women who do all the extreme sports action behind the scenes with little appreciation and credit. In this movie they fight the powerful and prominent who presume they can destroy others without any repercussions. The stunt men advance by their stunts and their ability to receive and to endure suffering for their art.[1]

The ultimate “meek” person in real history is Jesus, through whom the Apostle Paul appeals to the rebellious Corinthians: “I myself Paul appeal to you through the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor 10:1). Jesus is humble (prautēs). Jesus also describes himself as “gentle and humble in heart” in Matthew 11:29. Mildness or gentleness is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:23). It is the way Christians should live (Eph 4:2), the way to restore someone “detected in a transgression” or to correct an opponent (Gal 6:1; 2 Tim 2:25). Wherever “meekness” occurs, “love” is never far away, as in 1 Corinthians 4:21 where “love in a spirit of gentleness” is contrasted with a “stick” of punishment.

Christ’s gentleness is not the outflow of a fearful spirit, but a loving spirit, God’s great compassionate love. Paul has already told his readers about “the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation” and that their ministry comes through “God’s mercy” (2 Cor 1:3; 4:1). He has reminded them of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). The gifts are “the proof” of love that reaches out to others because of “the surpassing grace” God had given them (2 Cor 8:24; 9:14).

Paul makes his appeal on the basis of God’s compassion, Christ’s gentleness—not on the basis of God’s justice, because God’s justice has already been met by Christ becoming “sin” for humanity (2 Cor 5:21). The Corinthians have plenty of the world’s critical spirit that chooses leaders who in turn criticize and subjugate. Paul appeals through the double columns of “meekness” and “gentleness” because he wants the Corinthians to learn about these aspects of God’s nature. They did not comprehend God’s compassion, gentleness, and mildness, so they found Paul’s leadership style deficient because his aim was to be compassionate, gentle, mild—in other words, loving.[2]

Both the Christian “meek” and the movie “meek” have to fight great evil that is out to tyrannize and destroy them. The Christians at Corinth had to resist the “superapostles” who took advantage of them, dominated them, and even slapped them while putting on airs. They disguised themselves, even as Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:13-20). Paul sought to win over the deceived “meek” ones, the Christians at Corinth, not with physical violence, but with love and arguments (2 Cor 10:3-6). Paul wanted to avoid punishing the Corinthians’ disobedience. He wanted to give them opportunity to change (2 Cor 10:6; 13:1-10). But he appeared to allow God to deal with the superapostles themselves (2 Cor 11:15; Rom 12:19).

The movie “meek” were not so attracted to the haughty evil persons, but they were deceived by them. For the action-crazed audiences, the “meek” were fighting was not for each other to be transformed, as the Apostle sought to win back and transform the Corinthian church, but the movie “lowly” directly fight with the “superpowers” mano a mano. Most of the time our hero, Colt, sought to escape from evil, even as Paul encouraged the Corinthians to escape from the mental hold of the superapostles. The stunt men could finally use their physical prowess for real action and not make-believe scenarios.

Th angel of light appears to be attractive, even as in the movie one’s attractive friends are not friends necessarily. The haughty evil ones in the movie sought also to deceive its world and make the “meek” look evil, while the haughty superapostles at Corinth sought to deceive the Christian church.

But, in both the movie and in the church at Corinth, the “meek” win over evil and “inherit the earth.” Second Corinthians does not tell us what the Corinthians in Achaia decided to do, whether to follow Paul or the superapostles, but we know from a later New Testament letter that the Christians in the province of Achaia acted in a supportive manner by donating to the poor at Jerusalem (Rom 15:26). And other early church leaders recorded that the Corinthian church returned to and maintained their sound doctrine.[3] The haughty in the movie end up destroying themselves, while the lowly are victorious.

What applications might we draw from this movie, The Fall Guy? While this movie is not a perfect parallel, all truth is God’s truth, and this movie illustrates a central truth of God—the meek will inherit the earth. Our reward in heaven from the triune God is great for persevering in faith (Matt 5:5-12). We will “inherit the earth,” “be filled,” “receive mercy,” “see God,” be called “children of God,” attain “the kingdom of heaven,” and receive a great “reward” (Matt 5:3-12). The “lowly” in the movie were also victors. But in our daily lives, while strategy to combat evil is crucial, our first goal should be to transform others with gentle and proactive love.

Aída

p.s. Here is a question for those of you who decide to see The Fall Guy: what is the Bible verse that is quoted in this movie and how does it apply in the perspective of the movie?


[1] Redeeming the Screens: Living Stories of Media “Ministers” Bringing the Message of Jesus Christ to the Entertainment Industry, edited by Jeanne C. DeFazio and William David Spencer, includes the life story of award-winning stunt man Bob Yerkes, who concludes “I was mentored by the world’s greatest stuntman who specialized in high work. His name was Jesus Christ. He stood in for everyone up on the cross” (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016), 61.

[2] These comments on 2 Corinthians 10:1 come from Aída Besançon Spencer, 2 Corinthians: The People’s Bible Commentary: A Devotional Commentary for Study and Preaching (Abingdon, UK: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2010), 164-65. This book has been reprinted as Daily Bible Commentary by Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007

[3] Aída Besançon Spencer, Paul’s Literary Style: A Stylistic and Historical Comparison of II Corinthians 11:16-12:13, Romans 8:9-39, and Philippians 3:2-4:13 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998 [1984]), 82, citing Eusebius’ Church History IV. 22; 1 Clement I.2.



Wednesday, April 10, 2024

 


The Woman Who Built Three Cities and Blessed Her Family

Al Bireh Beit ‘Ur al-Foqa , probable remains of one of Sheerah’s cities, Welcome to Palestine,

https://www.welcometopalestine.com/destinations/ramallah-al-bireh/beit-ur-al-foqa/

For ancient Jews in exile, 1 Chronicles was eye-opening. They could search its lists and locate their ancestors and, thereby, discover their legitimate places in their original homeland. This made the prospect of returning from the land of captivity to their fabled land of origin more doable and less frightening. The book was an empowering gift that must have taken its author an enormous amount of arduous labor to organize and copy from ancient lists on scrolls. To the exiles, it was a miracle.

Today, however, judging by our students and parishioners’ responses, stumbling through these lists is one of the most stultifying ordeals for even the most devout of us daily devotional devotees. Prospecting through these genealogies is exhausting. The lists of incomprehensible names keep piling up around us. To many modern readers, we might feel as though we were poking through a pile of decaying ruins, dusty, archaic, and irrelevant to our lives. By 1 Chronicles 7:20, we trek into the genealogy of Ephraim, Joseph’s younger boy, the one who received the blessing which would normally have been given to his elder brother. Ephraim means “fruitfulness,” so he was set for a blessing. And, sure enough, in his family’s history we come upon an artifact worth picking up and dusting off. It’s a nugget of joy and inspiration, but, to our surprise, it’s embedded not in an account of great joy but one of sadness. Apparently, events had not been unfolding in the way a family with a blessing expected. We get our first inkling that things are not going well, when we read that Ephraim named his own son Shuthelah, which means “discord.”[1] And that name does not go away, for we see it repeated some six generations later, indicating things were still not going well, with yet another child named for dissension.

How tough were events going for Ephraim’s descendants? The lowest point hits with a familial catastrophe: the sudden death of the two sons of a later Ephraim, named for his great ancestor. These two young men, Ezer and Elead, are murdered in an incident at Gath, far down in the southeast corner of the promised land, near the Negeb wilderness. The killings were done, we are told in 1 Chronicles 7:21, by the residents of Gath because Ezer and Elead “came to seize [or to capture, conquer, take away[2]] their cattle [or possessions or property].”

This brief description isn’t much to go on, so it’s not completely clear if Ezer and Elead, and anyone who went with them, went down to retrieve their own cattle, or if the strong word choice specifies they had gone to Gath to heist some cattle and build up their own herd. Most translations, including the Jewish Publication Society of America’s The Holy Scriptures according to the Masoretic Text, seem to opt for the latter: that these two young guys, bereft of the lesson my own long distant future generation would learn from Roy Rogers and Dale Evans that no happy trails were waiting for rustlers who set out for the wild territory of a place like Gath to see what they could pilfer, did just that and the whole venture went fatally awry.

What these young bucks apparently needed to have taken into account was that Gath was a Philistine city that had been populated by the giant Anakim (Josh 11:22).[3] Maybe Joshua had wiped out the giants in his day, but, as Goliath would later reveal, there were still enough large opponents around.[4] But caution is not always in the mind of the young. If they had thought this through, they might have opted for saving up their earnings and bartering to buy some livestock. But when we’re young and daring, most of us want what we want NOW. We’re in a hurry. In the case of Ezer and Elead, setting out on a life of crime can come to a quick ambush. As they, we don’t always think of the lasting impact on those who love us, for this catastrophe left permanent heartache behind.[5]

1 Chronicles 7:22 tells us their tragic demise was devastating for their Dad. He was so distraught that he mourned for a long time, so long that his brothers gathered to comfort him. And then, as other generations came, the family finally received a blessing. And, along with it, came a mood change from a stand-out heroine who gained renown for her exploits and lifted her family up to honor. This was the niece her uncles had not lived to meet: a young, ambitious woman named Shēērah. We are told in 1 Chronicles 7:24, “Sheerah built (the word banah also means “form, develop, erect, to cover with buildings, to repair, to rebuild”)[6] the house (or “tent or mansion”) of Horon, the lower and the upper, and Uzzen-sheerah.” Christine Anslow in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary puts it well when she acknowledges “Sheerah” as one “who had a talent for city building.”[7] This observation agrees with what we read in the Bible text. We also realize Sheerah must have done a solid job, when we read C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch’s note, “Beth-horon the nether and the upper” are “the present Beit-Ur-Foka and Tachta.”[8] When we punch up these time-altered names, we discover, “Beit ‘Ur al-Foqa is the smaller of the two Beit ‘Ur villages, which crown adjacent hilltops. The village, 14 km east of Ramallah, is a charming, peaceful place whose tranquillity is interrupted by the main Israeli highway that runs through the valley.”[9]

These towns, however, were not always so peaceful, as we read in Joshua 10:10. Beth-horon, located on an ascent, was a Canaanite city under attack by Amorites for making peace with Joshua, who counterattacked and defeated the besieging soldiers when God rained deadly hailstones upon them (v. 11). Keil and Delitzsch observe further “Uzzen-sherah” is “a place not elsewhere referred to,[10] which she probably founded, and which was called after her.”  They add, “The building of the two Beth-horons is merely an enlarging and fortifying of these towns. Sherah was probably an heiress, who had received these places as her inheritance, and caused them to be enlarged by her family.”[11] Joan Comay takes this final speculation a bit further when she writes, “her descendants built the towns of Lower and Upper Beth-horon and Uzzen-sheerah,”[12], leaving Sheerah out of the hands-on equation entirely. But the Masoretic text does not do this. It gives her direct credit. If we are uncertain if women in Old Testament times ever got down and gritty moving stone and building fortifications, we have only to look at Nehemiah 3:12 to discover that one of the area rulers of Jerusalem, Shallum with his daughters, repaired the section of the wall by their dwelling. Sheerah seems to me to have been this kind of get-involved architect.

A helpful discussion that is full of insight has been provided for us in the journal Pricilla Papers by Eric E. Richter, who serves as editor for Asociación Casa Editora Sudamericana (South American Publishing House) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here is one example of the provocative observations that he makes: “The fact that she had a brother shows that the construction of these cities was not a necessity due to a lack of male leadership. Rather, this achievement seems to be mentioned to highlight her achievements in the face of her brother’s lack of initiative or success.” And here is another: Controlling the cities of Beth-horon carried several substantial advantages. Being an important ancient route, it allowed Sheerah to protect the tribe of Ephraim from possible attacks from the east (as happened later, in Saul’s time, 1 Sam 13:17–18). In addition, because this was an important trade route, it guaranteed its ruler a constant source of income. It was also the easiest route to access the thriving seaports of Lebanon from the direction of Jerusalem and the prosperous Jordan Valley.12 The fact that Sheerah controlled this vital road undoubtedly secured for her an important social position among the leaders of her tribe. This may explain why she is mentioned so prominently in Ephraim’s genealogy.[13]

In addition, what strikes me is that her accomplishments not only changed her family’s blight by bleaching it out with an effective and lasting honoring light, but, as we read the rest of this genealogy after her municipal renovations and founding are noted, we see a change in what her descendants achieved.

We notice no towns are named before Sheerah’s building projects are celebrated. Therefore, a possibility is that, up until Sheerah’s game-changing actions, her family may have been comprised of nomadic herders who lived in tents and tended their flocks. After Sheerah, however, we read a continuing list of generations but are now told that these descendants lived and stored their belongings in Beth-el, and surrounding towns, Naaran to the east and Gezer to the west, and their towns,  Shechem and the towns around it, Aiah with its towns, and they spread out along the borders of Ephraim’s brother Manasseh’s tribe, in Beth-shean and its towns, Taanach and the towns around it, Megiddo and surrounding towns, and Dor and those settlements related to it (1 Chron 7:25-29). Sheerah’s descendants had become city-dwellers.

So, what can we learn from this amazing woman and her energetic activities that brought enough fame and blessing to her family to be noted in the Bible and affect the lifestyle or her descendants and the scope of what these descendants were inspired to achieve?

1)   Never let yourself be locked into the trap of thinking that adversity means you cannot rise above your circumstances. Sheerah was a woman in a patriarchal time from a family depressed by loss, but she obviously did not let violence or prejudice stop her from accomplishing worthwhile goals. If God has gifted us in accomplishing something, we should follow Sheerah’s example and not hesitate to use our gifts.

2)   Creating something positive is better than doing something negative. We know Sheerah’s name and what she achieved. We don’t know a single name of the men of Gath who killed her uncles, and all we know about her uncles, besides their names, is that they were killed. If they had built something instead of pursuing risky behavior whether to redeem their own property or heist someone else’s, they would have ultimately given their parents joy rather than have broken their hearts.

3)   If the list of what she did is chronological, Sheerah refurbished two cities before she tackled founding her own. Making something that benefits the welfare of others is always a good idea of the best route to travel. It’s the main road to success. And, as we set out on it, we should never avoid starting small and never rush precariously to get big. If what we’re doing pleases God and we put the time and effort into it, God may help it flourish. While we may not know what happened to Sheerah’s third building project, if two out of three of her building efforts actually are still existing today, thousands of years later, that’s pretty good!

4)   Parents can never tell which of their children God will raise up to do great things for God their family. Therefore, we should encourage them all – early and late bloomers alike.

5)   Coping with loss is very difficult – especially the loss of children. I come from a family that lost a child full of wonder and full of promise and full of the love of God. Sadly, a series of miscarriages and still-borns never allowed her to be replaced. With her loss, the sunshine was gone from our home. None of us could bring it back to the degree she provided it. The effects of the loss plagued my parents until they died. Grief is part of our lives in a fallen world. Ephraim’s brothers knew that sorrow is not necessarily a transitory experience. They gathered and comforted their brother.

     What I’ve learned now after fifty-one years of ordained ministry is that caring silence for sufferers is always the best approach. They need to talk and we need to listen to their pain. We need to be sensitive and caring with those who lose family members and not insist on a timetable for their grief. Sorrow is individual. It takes as long as it takes. We can fix a lot, but we can’t mend every broken heart. For some, the only balm of Gilead that will be applied is when sufferers are gathered up in the everlasting arms of our Lord God. So constant prayer interceding for all is imperative.

6)   Finally, as amazing as it may seem, we modern gentile Christians can even find kernels of interesting and edifying data in the Bible’s chronology lists! So, keep plowing through them, as our Messianic Jewish sisters and brothers do.

In summary, here is a takeaway from the Bible’s verse about Sheerah: Sheerah is an accomplished woman who builds and refurbishes cities and prosperity from God’s blessing follows her exploits. After the Scripture highlights the cities she reclaims or founds, the rest of the list of the line of Ephraim is filled with people and their towns and no more sad accounts are told. Honestly, when we think about it, this may be among the best results any of us can expect to achieve on earth…

Bill



[1]The meanings of the names are listed alphabetically in June Comay, Who’s Who in the Old Testament together with the Apocrypha (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 356.

[2]Lakeh” in Karl Feyerabend, Langenscheidt Pocket Hebrew Dictionary to the Old Testament (New York: McGraw Hill, 1960), 160.

[3] W.F.  Stinespring, “Gath” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1962/1980), vol 2, 355.

[4] Another seven-and-a-half-foot giant warrior was killed by one of David’s “mighty men” in 1st Chronicles 11:23, not to mention the report of the spies to Moses that Canaan was populated by descendants of the Anakim (Num. 13: 28) and they looked like grasshoppers against these giants (Num. 13:33).

[5] Some commentators believe with Matthew Henry, “It is uncertain who are the aggressors here,” but decide, as he does, “I rather think that the men of Gath came down upon the Ephraimites, because the Israelites in Egypt were shepherds, not soldiers abounding in cattle of their own, and therefore were not likely to venture their lives for their neighbors’ cattle.” Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, ed Leslie F. Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1960), 438. Keil and Delitzsch, however, dismiss this scenario as “Incomprehensible,” and note, as I do, and, as, I believe, the text is very clear, that generations have passed, the Israelites have entered the promised land, the original patriarch Ephraim is long dead, the father simply bears the same name, and these young men have come down “to plunder” (C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, trans. James Martin, Commentary on the Old Testament: Volume 3, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, 1989), 140. Please note: this page number is in the second set of numbers, as this printing is 3 volumes in 1.

[6]Banah” in Feyerabend, Langenscheidt Pocket Hebrew Dictionary to the Old Testament, 48.

[7] Christine L. Anslow, “I Chronicles”, IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2002), 217.

[8] Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 3, 141.

[9]See Welcome to Palestine.com, https://www.welcometopalestine.com/destinations/ramallah-al-bireh/beit-ur-al-foqa/.

[10] Open Bible website has a 40% possible location for Uzzen-sherrah with a satellite map, encircling a small settlement that is within 5 kilometers of the other locations Sheerah rebuilt, currently known as “Beit Ur al Tahta.” https://www.openbible.info/geo/ancient/a57ea5f/uzzen-sheerah.

[11] Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 3, 141-42.

[12] June Comay, “Sheerah,” 350. We can see the source of this dissenting reading in the Septuagint, which gives the credit to her father in a somewhat puzzling verse that claims the father of “Saraa” was “among those that remained,” so it sounds as though there was a large slaughter of her family, and her father was the one who built Bethoron the upper and the lower and a descendant of Ozan (who that was is not clear, since that name is not listed in the genealogy) was Seēra (spelled differently) see “A Chronicles I” in The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha with an English Translation and with Various Readings and Critical Notes (London: Bagster and Sons, n.d.), 539. Bible Hub website has several helpful excerpts from standard commentaries falling on either side of the debate of whether Sheerah herself had a hand in the building or not. Here are two representative ones: “Matthew Poole's Commentary, “His daughter, i.e. his grandchild, or great-grandchild, for such are oft called sons or daughters in Scripture. Who built Beth-horon, i.e. rebuilt or repaired, which possibly she did in Joshua’s time. And this work may be ascribed to her, because these works were done either by her design or contrivance, or by her instigation and influence upon her husband and brethren who did it.” Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible, “And his daughter was Sherah,…That is, the daughter of Beriah; not an immediate daughter, but a descendant of his, otherwise she could not have reached the times of Joshua, as she did by what follows: who built Bethhoron the nether, and the upper; which were cities on the border of the tribe of Ephraim; which the Israelites having taken from the Canaanites, and destroyed, she rebuilt, see Joshua 16:3.” https://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_chronicles/7-24.htm. Helpful to remember when assessing which version to follow is the wise counsel provided by The Updated New American Standard Version website, in its discussion of the differences of these two sources, under its section “Weighing the Difference, Masoretic VS. Septuagint: The primary weight of external evidence generally goes to the original language manuscripts, and the Codex Leningrad B 19A and the Aleppo Codex are almost always preferred. In Old Testament Textual Criticism, the Masoretic text is our starting point and should only be abandoned as a last resort,” https://uasvbible.org/2023/05/26/the-masoretic-text-vs-the-greek-septuagint-a-comparative-study/.

[13] Eric C. Richter,Sheerah, the Unknown City-Building Woman of 1 Chronicles 7:24,” Priscilla Papers, 37/3, Spring, 2023, 28-29. https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/sheerah-the-unknown-city-building-woman-of-1-chronicles-724/.

 

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Strange Occurrence at Bethany: The Tale of the Messenger Who Carried News from Mary and Martha to Jesus That His Friend Lazarus Was Dying (John 10-11)1

 

https://freechristimages.com/bible-stories/lazarus-raised-to-life.html Carl Heinrich Bloch "Raising of Lazarus" c. 1870

Listen, the guy was dead!  Dead – I mean dead!  Kids, I mean, ahhhhhhh, blahhhh, dead!  I’m talking about find-a-cave-with-a-hole-in-it-stick-him-in-the-hole-seal-it-up-or-you’ll-be-sorry-next-Tuesday-dead! Dead! And we were all miserable.  

See, this young guy Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were good people in our village. I liked them.  Everybody liked them.  They’d had enough misery in their lives, what with their mom and dad dying and them having to bring each other up.  But they worked hard.

Lazarus had always been a healthy, hardworking kid brother.  He was kind of a cross between his two sisters. 

Mary is really sensitive, thinking all the time and she contemplates stuff.  When you talk to her, she’s kind of quiet and thinks over what you said and then gives these really profound insights.

Whenever Jesus comes to visit – and he does whenever he’s in the area, because he loves them all as much as we do – she drops everything and just sits along with the guys at his feet like she was in school!  And nobody says anything.  Not anymore!

Martha, her sister, complained about it – once!  See, they had all this food to get ready for Jesus and his mob, because there’s always a bunch of people following him around.  And, of course, since Jesus was in town and stopping at their place, I showed up and the whole village too - everybody always turns out to see Jesus.  You know, we’d go mobbing over to their place to hear what he said and see if maybe he’d do a miracle or anything else happened, we didn’t want to miss.

 Well, here’s Jesus, sitting in front of their house,  teaching all this wonderful stuff about the nation of God coming to earth and how we should be changing our lives because of that and here comes Martha storming out from behind the house where they do the cooking in the fire pit and she bursts right through the group, points a ladle at Mary, and says something to Jesus like: “Lord, is it of no concern to you that my sister has left me all alone to do the serving?  Tell her to come and help me”[2] (which was really kind of snippy and bossy - ordering the Lord around - but, I guess she had kind of got stuck with us all, and, I mean, I could kind of see her point.  Why should she do all the work?).

 But, Jesus was so kind and understanding with her.  He didn’t yell back at her or anything, but just smiled kind of gently and said, “Martha, Martha, you’re worried and distracted about a lot of things, but only one thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the good portion; it will not be taken away from her.”

Now, at first I thought he was talking about food.  You know, because he said “the good portion” and Martha was cooking and all, but Mary wasn’t eating anything – oh, and then I got it.  He meant another kind of nourishment.  Something for the spirit, you see?  Then we all got it and stopped just looking for a miracle and paid more attention to what he was saying.  And, after that, nobody said anything about Mary sitting in.

So, you get an idea of the kind of people they were.  Martha was the one who held the place together after their parents died.  And contemplative Mary and nice young guy Lazarus all did their part and they got along just fine.  That is, until bit by bit Lazarus started to get sick.

It wasn’t all that much at first.  We were in the fields and I was helping out and he kept stopping to mop his brow and drink something and then he sat down for a long while and pretty soon he was showing up later and later and then he couldn’t come at all.  In fact, he wasn’t getting out of bed.

 So his sisters did what every good woman does, because, as we all know, no guy ever wants to call in a doctor.

First, they tried some home remedies.  Then they called in the village healer.  Then, when it began to look serious, they called me in to take a message to Jesus, because that’s one of the things I do as the local odd-job specialist and utility fix it man.  I’ve got a really good donkey and reasonable rates – you’ve probably heard some of my slogans, like:

· “I never shirk your job of work,” and

· “If it’s busted, I can be trusted,” and, especially,

· “When you need to send word, I’ll make sure it’s heard!”

So, you’ll all want to keep that information in mind, you know, in case you need some help in the future.

Well, anyway, the sisters send this message by me to Jesus.  You can see Martha’s style in the first half – snappy, brief and to the point, but also Mary’s hand in the second, her roundabout and cryptic way of talking about their brother.  Their message was: “Lord, listen” (that’s Martha), “the one you love is sick” (that’s Mary).   Definitely a composite – from the hearts of both the sisters.  Well, that was the message, so off I go without delay!

Where was I going?  Where was Jesus?  Nobody knew exactly, but we all had a general idea.  Because, wherever Jesus went, he caused a stir.   And word would always come back telling of all the marvelous things he was saying and doing.  It seems like every other traveler had a new account to tell.  One amazing thing after another.

Ironically, he was up around the other Bethany – not our Bethany, but, you know, the one way up in Galilee, over on the east side of the Jordan about 30 miles just below the Sea of Galilee, right across from Aenon and Salim where John did his baptizing – in fact, where John baptized Jesus.

    Our Bethany, of course, lies down in Judea on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives about one and five eights’ miles outside of Jerusalem.

    So that put Jesus about 46 miles away from us. 

    There’s a mountain road from that Bethany directly through Jericho, but it’s kind of dangerous for a lone traveler, because the hills are full of robbers – and they don’t just take all your stuff – they beat you up and leave you for dead.    So, it’s best to go with a caravan.

  You cut north at Jericho and head across the small roads to Archelais.  These weave along between the flood plain of the Jordan and the hill country, but you don’t get anywhere near Mt. Ebal.  No, you stay pretty much in the fertile valley.  There’s a ford around Jericho, as everybody knows, but there’s not much on the other side, so I stayed on our bank and worked my way up.

     Now, I mentioned my donkey is still pretty strong and fast – it can actually out-gallop a horse and a camel when it’s scared – so I figure three days if we travel well to get up there and maybe another one to find Jesus and bring him back, so we can be back home in our Bethany in about a week, figuring, of course, an extra day in for the Sabbath.

  Praise God, the trip was uneventful, and, sure enough, the crowds were getting thicker as I’m approaching Aenon.  The name means “double spring” and it really is a pretty place, with a lot of lovely willows by the waters.  And the closer I get, the more people I see!  So, I find a place to cross the Jordan and there’s Jesus himself!

  Well, he’s kind of hard to get to, between the mobs and his disciples who are trying to keep people from swarming all over him – but, me, I’m not shy – I’m yelling, “Message for Jesus from Bethany!  Message for Jesus about one he loves!” and that got their attention.

Well, I shoulder my way through the crowd and, then, there I am before the man himself!

 He’s looking as healthy as always and strong like he always is from all that physical labor when he was a fix it man like me and all that walking since. 

 But, he’s also looking tired like we’re all taking a lot out of him, but he’s still got that smile just lurking behind his serious expression and he looks at me with those clear eyes like I’m the only person on the whole riverbank and he says hello to me by name!

     I’m, of course, astounded.  I mean, sure he’s been to our Bethany a bunch of times, having friends there and all, and I’ve listened to him, but I didn’t know he’d actually noticed me in the crowd -  I mean, knew my name and all.

 He listened real intently to what I had to say and then he said to me, but also to his buddies and to the crowd as well, “This sickness is not to death, but about the glory of God, in order that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Well, I’m thinking, that’s good news.  Lazarus isn’t going to die.   But, we should put a move on anyway because he is extremely sick – and why should he be uncomfortable?  

So, I water my donkey, pick up some food that’s always lying around when Jesus is there, and I’m ready to head on back in the morning – if not now!

I’m figuring we can walk the donkey, since so many of Jesus’ people are on foot – and they go everywhere he goes – and, of course, with this mob we don’t have to worry about bandits – this is like a race migration!

So, I’m figuring again, okay, if we push this crowd, we can cover maybe 12 miles a day max?   At least for the swiftest.  The rest that are going six, five, four, three a day, well, they can catch up.  So, we can be back in Bethany in, say, maybe four days for sure.  That’ll work.

And then a strange thing happens.  Jesus doesn’t pack up; he doesn’t say anything more; he doesn’t move.

That day passes.  The next day passes.  The next day passes.  Two whole days more he stays there preaching and healing and his disciples baptizing new believers and then he decides to set out.

I’m thinking – come on!  Come on!  Lazarus is back home trying to hold out – I mean he was really sick when I left him and that’s over a week ago now – and we still got a half week of travel to go.

Did I say a half week?  Now I realize, this is Jesus we’re talking about.  The Prophet of Nazareth himself.  He could be stopped to heal every leper along the road!  And I’m thinking, if I don’t deliver him in time, I may not get paid! Especially, if it takes us so long that Lazarus does end up dying.

 Plus, his disciples weren’t looking too pleased with me when I told him what was up at Bethany.  And, when Jesus finally says, “Let’s go back to Judea,” sure enough, they start objecting, “Teacher, right now the Jews are looking to stone you, and you’re going back there again?”

Then Jesus said something that went right over my head and I think everybody else’s too.  He said, “Aren’t days 12 hours?  If someone walks in the day, he won’t stumble, because he sees by the light of this world.  But, if someone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in it.”  

 Okay.  I had no idea what that meant.  Maybe he was trying to say we should travel by day?  That’s fine.  Camping out at night?  No problem.  I was planning to take us all back by day anyway.  In fact, we’d just wasted two perfectly good days not traveling!  But, never mind that.

Apparently, however, that wasn’t what he was talking about, because he went on to say, “Lazarus, our friend, is sleeping, and we go to wake him up.”

His disciples must have been thinking, what’s the matter, he’s got no rooster?  We’ve got to walk four days into certain danger to wake this guy up?  One of them says, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he’ll get cured.”

But, Jesus is talking about a different kind of light, a different kind of stumbling, a different kind of sleep – and he clues us in.  “Lazarus has died, and, so that you may believe, I rejoice that I was not there, but let’s go to him.”

Then Thomas the Twin, who was a sour and skeptical individual, grumbles to his friends, “Let’s go so we can end up dead like him.”

And all kinds of things are racing through my mind, like maybe Lazarus isn’t dead?   Maybe it’s not true?  But, look, Jesus himself said it and he always seems to know this kind of thing without being told.  So, I’m thinking, if he’s already dead, we’re wasting our time.  As it was, we probably never could have made it back in time.  But – wait a minute - hadn’t I heard about Jesus healing some Roman Centurion’s servant with just a word – and at a distance?  Why can’t he do this for his dear friend Lazarus and save us all a trip?  I mean, what’s the point of him going home with me now if it’s way too late?        

Well, the trip back was pretty anxious for me.  It took us four full days even with Jesus striding purposely along in the lead and the rest of the people turning back or trailing behind, scattered along the road for miles.

 We hadn’t even arrived on the outskirts of town on the fifth day when we started meeting travelers who told us the bad news – Lazarus had indeed died and just at the exact time Jesus said he had.

Next, here comes Martha to meet him.  She doesn’t look at me, but goes directly to Jesus and he embraces her.  We can see she’d been crying, but she’s trying to keep control of it, though it’s obvious the tears are still ranked up in her eyes and they could come marching out at a moment’s notice.

Then Martha says to him with regret and just a little bit of reproach in her voice – which is so Martha – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  And then she says something really strange, I don’t know why.  It was like some really bizarre hope was suddenly looking out from somewhere deep inside her – maybe it wasn’t even from her, but from someplace else, because what she said was: “Even now I know that whatever you may ask God for, God will give to you.”

  Jesus picks that right up and says to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

  Well, wherever that wild hope came from shut down and it’s the old Martha talking again, because she says, “I know that he’ll rise in the resurrection in the last day,” like she’s sitting at his feet like her sister Mary does, reciting the right answer as if she were in the school where the local rabbi teaches us boys our Torah lessons.

 But Jesus isn’t teaching a class about the last day.  Instead, he says to her one of those puzzling things he’s always saying, especially before something big comes down, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one believing in me, even if dead, will live.  And everyone living and believing in me will not die forever.  Do you believe this?”

 Martha answers right back to him, “Yes, Lord, I have always believed that you are the Anointed One, the Son of God who has come into the world.”

 Jesus nods at her and he asks for Mary and she turns around without another word and hurries back to get her sister. 

 Jesus, however, doesn’t move.  He stays in the same spot and waits.

Me, I’m feeling really uncomfortable, because Martha hasn’t even acknowledged me.  I can’t help but think she’s blaming me for not getting Jesus back on time – but I’m not the one who wanted to wait two more days up in Galilee! 

 So, I kind of fade back a little into the crowd and then here comes Mary and says the exact same thing that Martha did.  These girls certainly think alike on some occasions!

Mary, of course, falls to his feet and she’s crying away, and I can see Jesus is really moved by her sorrow. 

One thing about Jesus, he has the most tender heart of anybody I ever met.  “Where have you placed him?” he asks really mournfully.  And then Jesus starts crying.  Given that we waited two extra days up north, I’m thinking maybe he’s feeling bad about that, you know, that he didn’t hurry here.    But I soon learn that that wasn’t it at all – not in any way.

 Given what happened next, I’ve puzzled over those tears for a long time.  I mean, he must have known he was going to do what he did – that in a couple of minutes he was going to turn all their hearts to joy and all their tears to laughter – and still he cries.

I wasn’t feeling too good myself.  I never cry, but I was getting pretty close to it.  Another hour of this great sorrow might just do it.  

Mary can’t even answer him, she’s so overcome with misery. So the women with her, friends and relatives who’d come in from Jerusalem to comfort her and Martha –because, like I said, everybody loved this family – they say, “Come and see, Lord.”

So, finally, Jesus goes at their invitation.  Me, I’m trailing along behind – and that puts me back with the grumblers who are saying, “Wasn’t he able – this one who opened the eyes of the blind man – to make it so this one wouldn’t have died?”

And these complainers got me wondering too.  Maybe Jesus was never actually able to heal Lazarus.  Maybe he’s only good on the small stuff; that’s why he didn’t hurry here!  So, I didn’t try to defend him or say anything.  I just shuffled along with the rest of the crowd.  And that’s when things got really strange…

Lazarus’s tomb was a cave in the side of a small rise.  The entrance faced east.  It had been carved into a rectangle and had a large stone fitted into place over it.   Martha and Mary couldn’t afford to have grooves cut on the outside and a rolling stone to cover it.  So, friends had simply laid a stone across the entrance.   It was very sad to see the tomb.

Jesus arrived and he was obviously filled with emotion.   Then he says something astounding.  “All of you, remove the stone!”

Now, you see, Lazarus had been buried for four days.  Some of the folks standing around were superstitious, as country people are.    Some of us believe the soul hangs around the body for three days in hopes it could return to it, but, after four days, see, it gives up.  This was the fourth day, so Lazarus was unsalvageably dead.  That’s why we all mourn so heavily for three days and there’s a perceptible shift on the fourth day.  Some of us feel that’s the time when our loved one is now completely and irrevocably gone. So, Martha spoke for us all, when she said, “Lord, there’ll be a sour odor, because he’s been there for four days.”

 But, Jesus stays steadfast and he reminds her of what he’d said on the outskirts of Bethany, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God?”  And he looks at her.  And then he glares at the crowd.   His face was full of certainty and power.  

 On impulse I just turn around and grab a corner of the rock.  Samuel, who owns the big wheat field, and John, my neighbor, who keeps a grove of almond trees, grasp hold of it too. A couple of other guys pitch in and we slide it off the front.   I know it sounds risky.  Sure, the body had been washed and anointed with perfumes and oils and even wrapped up in linen that friends had brought in from Jerusalem, but it had been four days, and none of that scented stuff was going to help it now.   But, see, we weren’t thinking about that.  We were just responding to Jesus and his commanding certainty.

So, I’m staring only at him, but he’s not looking back at us anymore.  No, he’s looking up to the sky and he’s talking to God – like God is right there in front of him.  He says, “Father, I thank you that you heard me.  And I had already known that you always hear me, but for the sake of this crowd standing around I spoke, so that they will believe that you sent me.”

 Now I’m holding my breath – and not just because I’m worried about what might leak from the tomb.  No, it’s that kind of breath-taking moment when anything might happen.

 Suddenly Jesus shouts out in an enormous voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 

   I jump like four feet in the air.   And then I hear this stirring behind me.   I’m gaping into the darkness.   I see something moving.   It’s cloth.  It’s moving!  No, it’s the dead man!   He’s still got the shroud cloth wrapped around his face and hands and feet.

My mouth drops open.  And out he stumbles.  Lazarus – alive again.  We gape at him.  We gape at Jesus.

And Jesus looks at us the way you’d look at a bunch of five year olds, as he says matter of factly in his normal voice, “Untie him and let him go.”

You know, since that strange day in Bethany, I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole incident.  I know it’s changed me.  I don’t look at things exactly the way I did before.  I still work – and I work hard – but my life is not all about wheeling and dealing for money anymore.  Jesus changed that.  He’s opened my eyes to a few things:

 like the fact that, whenever Jesus shows up, I should expect he’s going to turn things upside down, doing big actions like maybe even raising the dead (!) and other surprising things, like, for example, with the women – he encourages them to join right in and learn with men. He takes what they say seriously.  He doesn’t think the main thing they’re supposed to do is cook!

And, another thing, he cares about everybody – even people like Lazarus and his sisters and me – unimportant, everyday people.  To him, our lives are as important as anyone’s and he cares deeply about us – all of us.

  In fact, you can expect to be in a community whenever you get in with Jesus.  There’s always going to be a crowd around him, because he’s the kind of person that makes things happen.

  And don’t expect Jesus to be afraid of the stuff we’re afraid of.  He’s used to going into dangerous places and he’s apt to drag you in there with him.  So be prepared for danger!

  Also, his timing won’t necessarily be ours.  We might expect to get rescued long before we really do, because Jesus is operating on a whole different timetable than ours.

  Also expect him to say a lot of cryptic things about which you aren’t really sure what he means.  So, stop and think about them.  He’s couching spiritual truths in everyday illustrations.  They’re going to take some thought.  You’re going to have to think a little deeper.  And don’t expect the people closest to him always to know what’s up either – sometimes nobody knows what he’s up to! 

See, Jesus is always working on another plane than we are.  He doesn’t just snap to it, when we’ve got a problem or we ask him to fix something.  He’s got a mission to glorify God and be revealed himself as God’s Anointed One!  He does things so that we’ll believe that God sent him to raise all of us on the last day, if we trust in him and obey him.

Sure, he helps with our present needs, but even more so, he’s working to ensure our eternal safety.  He has a whole higher plane of concerns and values in addition to what we have and we need to focus in on them and not just on what we want out of him.

 Remember also, sometimes he waits to be invited.  He’s not just going to barge in and change everything.  He may not act if you’re not reaching out to him in your life and thoughts and values and actions.  He might just stay out there on the outskirts of your town.  So, if you want him in your life, go to him!

 And when you do, expect to be changed yourself– maybe to learn something eternal you didn’t know that will impact your life here and now - and to see miracles in your life that you never really expected (not to mention miracles all around you in other people’s lives too!).

Remember, he’s got the power of life and death in his hands.  As he said, he is “the resurrection and the life” and he proved it by making our dead friend Lazarus alive again!  So, when things look hopeless, you never know when he’s going to suddenly yell, “Lazarus, come forth!” and your whole world might right itself.

 Also, remember, he’s got the tenderest heart you ever met, so don’t give up too quickly on anyone or anything – Jesus has a way of bringing new life when you least expect it!

  Look at me – all I was concerned about was whether I’d get paid or not for bringing him a message.  Then I saw he was the One who is himself God’s Message, who holds the power over life and death in action!  Now that certainly changed me forever!  Gave me a whole new perspective on things! 

For one thing, it certainly changed my attitude toward life.  I’m less concerned about what other people think now.  Especially the grumblers.  I realize, there’ll always be people dissatisfied with what Jesus is doing.  My advice:  Ignore them.

  But, if Jesus tells you to do something – get to it!  Never ignore him.  Even if it sounds crazy – like rolling a stone away from a dead guy.  If it’s really Jesus talking - and not your own wishful thinking – jump out of that safe and selfish circle of what’s good for me, and what I think should be going down, and the way I think it’s supposed to go down, and take a chance to help some other guy who’s tied up – because Jesus may just be setting him free! 

Finally, remember this last and most important thing:  Jesus knows God’s heart and God’s will.  If you follow his example and his leading, you’ll never go wrong.  In fact, you may just find yourself in the life-giving business with him – and that’s a good one to be in!

Oh yes, and Martha paid me – and well! Thank God for a good businesswoman!

 

Bill



[1] This first person narrative was presented as a sermon during Lent at Pilgrim Church, Beverly, Massachusetts in March 2011.

[2] Bible verses are translated by the present author.