My yoke is easy and my burden light. The Priests and Scribes and Pharisees and Elders of Jesus time represented the wisdom of time and the law of the land. It was to these leaders of the temple that the people looked to be faithful followers of God in the tradition of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and king David. These men over the years had codified laws and rules and prescriptions that were specific and numerous and were controlling of every part of life. These rules and laws went from the washing of hands before eating to worshiping. Lost in all this was the personal nature of God. Jesus today is telling them that the revelation of his Father is hidden from the wise because they are blinded to Jesus. It is through Jesus that they can see and experience the Father. In this way they come to know the father because they know Jesus and only he can reveal and bring the father to them. So, Jesus is revealing to them the true wisdom, and that is his person. He is the way to the father and he is telling those so strongly bound and burdened with so many prescriptions to come to him and rest and give up their burdens. His yoke, his burden is easy in comparison. His call is love and concern for others to live in the person of Christ.
Today, we should remember Christ’s words and remember that wisdom is in his person and actions. Rules and laws are meant to be a service or guideline for order, yet without compassion and mercy and living in the person of Christ are they meeting the test “My yoke is easy and my burden light”? Truly our real rest and peace is in him.
Isaiah 50:4-7; Ps: 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Matthew26:14 – 27:66
Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0
Shortly before Christ died, He uttered those famous words which have been preserved in Aramaic: “ Ele, Ele, Lama Sabachthane”, or in English, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those words are the opening words of Psalm 22, but unfortunately not one of the verses we read today from that Psalm. At the crucifixion, they are a quotation, not a question or a statement. Why does Jesus quote the 22nd Psalm?
Now we are all familiar with the 23rd Psalm. Both Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 are poetic songs, written about the Messiah, the Savior, who was to come. In Jesus’ day, everyone who worshiped the God of Israel had learned the 22nd Psalm by heart. So anyone listening to Jesus while he was on the cross knew exactly the verses that followed. Let’s look at them.
Verse 6 of Ps 22: “To you they cried out and they escaped, in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” God has always hears our cries.
Verse 7: “But I am a worm, hardly human.” Think about the physical condition of Christ at this point. Matthew 27: 26 “…after having Jesus scourged, Pilot delivered Him to be crucified.” What does scourged mean? The Romans used whips with pieces of sharp metal at the ends. It cut and tore the flesh, leaving the body cut to the bone, bleeding profusely. A person rarely survived this. The soldiers who scourged him took no pity on him. He would have looked hardly human after being scourged. He would have been soaked in scarlet blood, and looked like the worms that were crushed to make scarlet dye for fabric.
Verse 8: “All who see me mock me… they curl their lips and jeer.” We read Matthew 27:29, “(The soldiers) mocked him…and they spat on him, and beat him on the head.”
Verse 9: “You relied on the Lord- let him deliver you.” In Matt 27:43: “(The chief priests say) He trusts in God, let him deliver him.” Remember what Jesus told Peter in the Garden, Matt 26: 53 “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (That would be 72,000 angles.)
Verse 12: “There is no one to help.” In Mark 14:50, in the Garden, when Jesus was arrested, Mark tells us that all the disciples left him and fled.
Verse 14: “Like water my life drains away; all my bones grow soft.” Jesus was dying from loss of blood, and he could no longer lift him self up to breathe, as if his bones were no longer hard.
Verse 15: “My strength has dried up…” Even as Jesus carried his cross to the crucifixion site, he lost his strength and Simon of Cyrene had to carry it. (Matt 27:32)
Verse 16: “They pierced my hands and my feet.” In Luke (24: 39), The Risen Christ shows his pierced hands and feet to the disciples.
Verse 17: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” The soldiers do this in John’s Gospel (19:24)
But then, we come to verse 20, the Psalmist says, “Lord, do not stay far off, come quickly to help me.” Gone is the idea of abandonment! Instead there is a firm certainty in the faithfulness of God. This continues in verse 25: “For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch; did not turn away, but heard me when I cried out. Verse 27: “…those who seek the Lord will offer praise. May your hearts enjoy life forever!” Not only is God faithful, but eternally faithful. And finally, the last verse, verse 32: “The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn (us), his righteousness; ‘He (The Lord) has done it’.” By the way, the Psalm’s Hebrew phrase “He has done it” is best translated into the Aramaic idiom of “It is finished.”
It makes no difference if you see this Psalm as the prophecy of King David and his description of the Messiah coming true down to the smallest detail, or if you see the Gospel writers, convinced without a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, telling the events of the Passion in the familiar words of the prophecy. Either way, the Gospels have accomplished their goal: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.
Well, we’re back to the first verse of the Psalm, then. Did Jesus mean that God had turned his back on him, abandoned him? No. Jesus was teaching the faithfulness of God from the Cross! Jesus was saying, “Look at me! You know the Psalm. Believe this promise of God’s faithfulness; God is near to you always. God never turns his back on us, no matter what was done or how long the list of sin. To say otherwise denies the love of God.”
St. Paul said it so well: “Who shall separate us from this love? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers; not height nor depth, nor any created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 35-39)
Dry Bones or Live Bones??
Our readings today are very complex. It’s easy to be left wondering exactly what the writers are trying to tell us. Let’s start with Ezekiel. As I hope you remember, one of the pivotal events in the ancient nation of Israel’s history was being overrun by the military giant, Babylon. Babylon exiled the leaders of defeated nations to another country and then brought in other exiles to populate that nation; the goal was to break down the social structure and the culture. So the upper-class Israelites were taken to Babylon and people from neighboring countries occupied Israel. The peasants were left, abandoned.
Ezekiel was the first prophet of Israel who became a prophet while outside the Holy Land. He received his call in Babylon, and one of his first duties was to tell the exiles that their Temple had been completely destroyed, for many of them had believed it could never happen. Then his job was to encourage the exiles by giving them a Utopian vision of the Israel of the future. He gave the exiles a vision of restoration to prepare them to return home and begin the job of rebuilding. But the vision is more than just restoration. It is a vision of resurrection of the dead – the totally and finally dead; a vision which begins with piles of dried out bones. I’m sure you’ve heard the story. Ezekiel says, “Dry bones: hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord, ‘I will bring spirit into you, that you will come to life.’” And the bones came together with sinews and flesh and skin, and God gave them breathe, and spirit came into them and they came alive.
Then God explained to Ezekiel, “These bones are Israel. The people say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’” The imagery is used to describe the restoration of the people that will come about they return from exile. The imagery of resurrection describes God’s revival of his covenant people and the renewal of their relationship with him. What had died is now alive. This vision proclaimed that the fullness of their life, as a people, was this: knowing the saving power of God in that covenant relationship.
From the Christian prospective, the nation of Israel was indeed rebuilt, but the war dead did not come to life again. The people who returned were given the strength and desire to restore their nation, and there was an extended time of peace in the land. But resurrection did not come until the Messiah, Jesus, appeared.
It is exactly that resurrection that is the confusion in our reading from the Gospel of John. At the start of the story of Lazarus, Jesus is aware of Lazarus’ illness. Jesus’ response to the disciples’ concern is that Lazarus will not die, but the illness was for the glory of God, and that the Son of God may be glorified through it. There is confusion for the disciples between spiritual death and physical death. Yet Jesus deliberately waits, even though he was only two miles away.
John’s community also felt that somehow, Jesus was deliberately waiting, delaying his return to earth. They were tired of hoping he was might arrive at any time. At first it was believed that the 2nd coming of Christ would occur shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. Christians expected to live to see him return. But people in the early church, specifically John’s community, were dying. There was a growing scandal and disappointment of the people, leading to doubts and loss of faith/ spiritual death.
Then the disciples are confused again; they misunderstand the word “sleep”. Finally Jesus tells them clearly: Lazarus has died. For the 3rd time, the disciples are confused. They think they all will die if they return to Judea, where there had been threats of stoning Jesus.
John’s community was feeling threatened by persecution.
When Jesus arrives, Martha, like John’s community, clearly wants to ask, “Why weren’t you here? Why didn’t you come sooner?” But she only gently says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha understands and makes her confession of faith, as we do even to this day at Christian funerals.
Mary greets Jesus boldly: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Then she burst into tears, along with the others around her. Jesus himself began to weep, but likely in frustration more than sorrow, because there were those there who were openly critical. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”
John might have taken this angry and frustrated quote from members of his community as they gathered for the burial of a beloved believer.
Martha protests at the opening of the tomb, and Jesus must remind her: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” As He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, John writes, “Now many who had seen what he had done began to believe in him.”
No doubt John was also praying that hearing the story of Lazarus will increase and solidify the belief and faith of his community some 60 years or so later.
This event is in the Gospel of John as the last of the miracles that Jesus did. It was the crowning glory of the many “signs” recorded by John. It is the miracle that must be remembered and reread every time death seems to still be in charge. Mature faith enables a believer to face physical death knowing that eternal life is not just a promise of resurrection, but is also a present and continuing participation in the life of the ever-living Jesus.
When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, the last Passover was near, as was the crucifixion. What better time to be reminded of the power and glory of God than when we face a major trial, a time of crisis and suffering? Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I hope you will be able to participate in the Holy Week services. These days are a time to acknowledge the suffering that is a part of life and the cruelty that is part of people. But acknowledging those things also make us better able to believe the truth of God’s love and majesty and power, and the joy of the resurrection enables us to hold strong in the faith.
The Man Formerly Known as “Blind”
I don’t have any hard facts for what I am going to tell you. Don’t complain later I am gave you fake news; this is just a theory of mine: I think maybe God gets more frantic prayers (from adults) during tax season than any other time of year, like the ones from my house over the last few weeks. My brother’s a tax wiz – he didn’t know the answer to my tax question. The lady at the bank had a CPA friend. He didn’t know. I asked lots of people. Then Monday night, my daughter-in-law, I love that girl, emailed a friend who knew a guy who might know. Tuesday I had my miracle. I had the right answer from a man who ran a tax office – and he had the software for the form. My taxes are done – and filed….and I didn’t have to pay anything. God is good.
Now, a year ago I might have said that my tax miracle ranked right up there with the miracle healing of the blind man in today’s Gospel. After nearly going blind in my right eye and having the “opportunity” to consider being blind, for real, I can tell you that blindness is several levels above taxes. But frankly, the blindness of the men called “Pharisees” in this Gospel scares me more than either taxes or loss of eyesight.
I’ve always wanted to think I was a child of Lake Woebegon. According to Garrison Keillor, all the children of Lake Woebegon were above average. (All the women there were beautiful, too.) But I have had some difficulty finding hard facts about being above average. So I worry about convincing myself that things are true, when they’re not true. These Pharisees have something very special and exciting right in front of them, but they vehemently deny it. They verbally assault the man formerly known as “Blind”, whose value was reduced solely to his visual acuity. They threw him out of temple, which is a very big deal, since the Jerusalem temple was the only place in the world, according to their rules at the time, where God lived & a Jew could make sacrifices to God and worship as required by the Hebrew Scriptures.
Usually I talk about Jesus being the light of the world, and what it means to be a light in this world. I talk about not assuming that bad things only happen to bad people. I talk about the symbolism and the culture that would have understood the clay and saliva thing. I talk about fearing Pharisees. I talk about how Jesus returned to tell “formerly Blind” that he was the Messiah, and that he believed and worshiped Jesus.
The Pharisees had powerful motivation for not acknowledging the miracle of the healing of blindness. They were the guys with the answers to all questions. Their job was the Hebrew Law, and they spent their days quibbling over fine points of the Law. Their job was to be right, to be smarter than others. It was their life. They were supposed to be walking, talking Mr. Right-all-the-Time. That meant they were in charge and got to make the decisions and call the shots. It felt good, like a lot of power, a place of authority, and a way to control little people like Mr. and Mrs. Who-Must-have-Sinned-Because-their-Son-is-Just-a-Blind-Beggar.
Jesus must have annoyed the Pharisees a lot. They wanted to nail him on the “working on the Sabbath” charge and shame him and put him out of the Temple too, and end that irritating habit he had of asking those questions they couldn’t answer. Equally was annoying was the fact that the uneducated, ragged, beggar “formerly Blind” said in front of everyone that they were wrong – and they hadn’t been able to respond to him.
But today I only want to focus on the last 3 sentences of our reading. “Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see – might see; and those who do see – might become blind.” Some of the Pharisees… said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see’ so your sin remains.” I know, on every level, which side of that I want to be on.
Jesus offers forgiveness, but no one escapes judgment. At some point, in some way, we must face being wrong, of grasping power and authority which we have no right to. We have to confess our part in keeping this unjust society rolling along, and the times our wants win over someone else’s need. Our clothes are cheap because the people who made them live in cardboard huts. Our chocolate is good, because it’s harvested by children who are only paid with a meal for a hard, long day’s work. Our breakfast eggs are the result of chickens fed chemicals and raised in cages so crowded they cannot walk, and so on. We know this but take great pains not to see too much.
I learned one thing in 7th grade Social Studies, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” That day I understood that I was ignorant, and it could be my downfall, not my salvation. Now it’s almost impossible to be blind to the conditions in refugee camps and for Syrians trapped in the war there. Do these things lead us to choosing blindness, or do they open our eyes?
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” but he shines his light everywhere, even the places we don’t want to see. My experience volunteering in a sub-standard nursing home where abuse and neglect were rampant taught me that there are a lot of Pharisee-types around, well-funded and backed by heavy handed legal departments. Since I was barred from that Nursing home for filing complaints about patient care with the State Ombudsman office, the State of Maryland Attorney General has filed cases against some of the tactics used in that nursing home. He had eyes to see. There are forces working for good. But Jesus acted so purposefully that I think he meant us to act too, not just see, and our action, regardless of short-term success in bringing social change, frees us from our blindness.