Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jesus' tears and the Haiti earthquake


On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude quake hit Haiti, just 10 miles west of Porte-au-Prince. There were 3 million people in need of emergency aid after major earthquake. The major quake sent 33 aftershocks ranging in magnitude from 4.2 to 5.9. As Haiti has poor construction work, a lot of buildings collapsed and increased the death toll further. 200,000 people are estimated dead, and 3 million more are affected. Haiti is one of poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with 80% of the 9 million residents living in poverty. You can imagine the nightmares and horrors that the Haitians have to live through. Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian writer and political activist, said that,

In this kind of natural disaster, it is almost always the poorest who suffer the most -- those who have the least to lose are often those who lose the most. Life is always hard for poor people -- living on the edge is insecure and full of risk. Natural disasters make it worse. Yet even in normal times, poverty is hidden and not reported by the media. In times of disaster, there continues to be little coverage of the excessive impact on the poor.[1]

Not too long ago, Typhoon Morakot hit Taiwan leaving at least 461 people killed, 192 people missing, and 46 injured, and one village buried. How should we Christians view natural disaster? How should we respond? In this afternoon, I hope to draw upon a passage from Lazarus’ resurrection as we reflect together.

Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
Jn 11:17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

The Gospel of John was written in the midst of fierce theological debate in the early Jewish-Christian community, and with aim of convincing the readers that Jesus was the Messiah. “Whereas Mark begins with the baptism of Jesus, and Matthew and Luke with the birth of Jesus, John begins ‘at the beginning,’ before the creation.”[2] The gospel of John portrays Jesus as the Logos incarnate and the author is the witness. The author shows Jesus Christ as being thoroughly human, with Jesus’ first miracle during the wedding at Cana in Galilee and his last miracle, which is the resurrection of Lazarus, at Bethany near Jerusalem. Jesus participates in the joy of human celebration, and weeps at the loss of a dear friend. Let us look in details at the resurrection of Lazarus. Prior to Jesus’ arrival at Bethany, he had received a message that Lazarus was ill, and he remarked “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” He intentionally delayed his arrival and he told his disciples “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (Jn 11:15). These implied that Jesus knew what was going to happen, and he allowed Lazarus to die. Upon his arrival at Bethany, we are told that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days, and many Jews had come to comfort the sisters. Martha receives Jesus before Mary, and this opens up a conversation between Martha and Jesus. Martha expresses hope that her brother would not have to die if Jesus had arrived earlier. We have to pay careful attention to Jesus’ following reply as that is the key to this narrative.

Jesus reassures Martha that her brother will rise again, and Martha assumes that Jesus is referring to the last day or the resurrection at the end of time. To emphasize what he is implying, Jesus adds that “I am the resurrection and the life (v.25a),” and explains “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die (v.25b-26a).” What does he mean by that? First we know that Jesus is responding to Martha’s misconception that her brother will only rise at the end of time. Second, we also know that Jesus is referring to the present. He is saying that eternal life begins now, and those who believe in Jesus Christ already have life that transcends death. “Jesus shares completely in God’s ability to give life (5:21-29). As the resurrection and the life, Jesus defeats the power of death in the future (v.25b) and in the present (v.26a).”[3] He then invites Martha to confess her belief, and she declares “Yes” and going beyond the affirmative, adds “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming in to the world (v.27).” This proclamation is normative in the confession of the gospel of John (cf. 20:31). What did Martha do after her confession?

Jesus Weeps
Jn 11: 28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Martha informs Mary about Jesus’ arrival. Unlike Philip who relayed his belief in Jesus as the Messiah when he told Nathanael about Jesus (v1:43-45), Martha does not. However, Mary’s response is prompt upon hearing the Jesus’ arrival. Similarly, she expresses belief that her brother would not have died had Jesus arrived earlier. She is the same Mary who had anointed Jesus’ feet, and in this scene, she falls at Jesus’ feet. There has been a lot of argument on how verse 33b should be translated. NRSV translates this verse Jesus as “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” NIV renders it as “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” while Chinese Union Version has it as “心里悲叹、又甚忧愁” (he lamented, and was in deep sadness)There is an intense emotion displayed here, and such intense emotion is usually either an expression of indignation or anger. “Is Jesus angry at death, angry at people’s lack of faith, grieving with or for his friends, or responding to the immediate prospect of his own death?”[4] I am inclined to a New Testament scholar, Moody Smith’s view that

Jesus evidently participates in the mourning and sadness over Lazarus’ death. The flat statement that Jesus wept (v.35) would confirm this. Nothing is said about Jesus’ irritation because of the Jews’ unbelief, or about their forcing his hand by putting him into the position of having to perform a miracle that as a self-revelation would lead immediately to his death.[5]

Jesus began to weep. This is perhaps the shortest verse in the whole gospel. The fact Jesus wept illustrates that Jesus shares the sadness of his friends and their neighbors. Jesus understands the grief of his friends and mourners, and he himself loved Lazarus, his friend and his disciple. The rest of the mourners witnessed the love of Jesus for his disciples, and Jesus loved his disciples till his death (v.13:2). Jesus requests Mary to show him where Lazarus’ tomb is. His love for Lazarus prompts him to action, and such love is not just a state of mind.

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
Jn 11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Martha’s response to the opening of the tomb shows that Lazarus is really dead. Jesus utters a proclamation that expresses his confidence in the firm relationship between him and His Father. At his command, Lazarus emerges from the tomb, still wrapped in grave cloth. Lazarus’ resurrection testifies Jesus as the Lord of life and of his intimacy with God the Father. Jesus shows the Jews an even greater miracle than preventing the person’s death. He brought the dead back alive.

What does this narrative tell us about the Haiti earthquake? We do not know why the earthquake strike Haiti, though God knows the earthquake would take place, just like Jesus knew that Lazarus would die, God grieves when 200,000 Haitians died and many more displaced. God loves the Haitians just like God loves us, and when God’s people grieved and wept, God wept with us. Jesus is the resurrection and life, though Jesus may not be physically here to resurrect the dead Haitians, those who believe in Him continues to have an unbroken relationship with Him. Jesus does continue to offer hope and light to everyone who is alive today, and Jesus’ promise does not start after one’s death, but in the immediate now. We do not know why tragedies happen, but we know that God suffers with us, God enters into our grief, and God bears the brunt of suffering on the cross. God is intimate with pain and suffering, and when one suffers, she does not suffer alone but suffers with the One who is intimate with pain and suffering.

What are we expected to do as people of God? We know that Jesus’ love prompts Jesus to respond to Lazarus’ death, and Jesus also said in Matt 25:40 “just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” we are similarly called to respond. Let’s look at Lazarus’ response after his resurrection.

The Plot to Kill Lazarus
12:9 When 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. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

After his resurrection, Lazarus was bearing testimony for Jesus, and led many people to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. This incurred the wrath and fear of religious leaders to such an extent that Lazarus’ life was threatened. I believe this is how one testifies about Jesus, by living out our faith. I am not saying that we are to seek death intentionally, but we are called to be Jesus’ faithful followers. Though we cannot bring a person back to life, we are called to offer hope and called to stand in solidarity with people who are suffering. We are called to testify to the hope we have in Christ Jesus. Though we undergo a physical death, we believe in an eternal life with God through Christ which begins now, and in the resurrection to come. This is how God’s love is manifested for us, Christ died for us while we are still sinners (Rom 5:8). God’s love moves us to action. Though we may not be physically in Haiti to assist the people in need, we could:

1) Follow the news on Haiti earthquake so that we know how to continue praying for them;
2) Text "HAITI" to "90999" and a donation of $10 will be given automatically to the Red Cross to help with relief efforts, charged to your cell phone bill;
3) Donate financially online through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance on PCUSA  website

There are many other means we could respond. We who are loved by God, who are called into relationship with God, are also called to testify the hope we have in Christ. Like Lazarus who experienced Christ’s radical grace, let us also acknowledge the radical grace we receive from God and manifest it in our life. Let us join our hearts in prayer:

We pray for Haiti

God of compassion
please watch over the people of Haiti,
and weave out of these terrible happenings
wonders of goodness and grace.
Surround those who have been affected by tragedy
with a sense of your present love,
and hold them in faith.
Though they are lost in grief,
may they find you and be comforted.
Guide us as a church
to find ways of providing assistance
that heal wounds and provide hope.
Help us to remember that when one of your children suffers
we all suffer;
through Jesus Christ who was dead, but lives
and rules this world with you. Amen.

Prayer by Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); and Linda Valentine, Executive Director, General Assembly Mission Council, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

[2] R. Alan Culpepper, The gospel and letters of John (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 16.
[3] The Gospel according to John, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville, TN: 2003), 1931. 
[4] Culpepper, The gospel and letters of John, 188.
[5] D. Moody Smith, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), 224.

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