Sunday sermon for December 18, 2011
Text: John 11:7-16
Given at Slackwood Presbyterian Church, Trenton, NJ
The mountains of central Virginia are an unlikely place for a Shakespearean theatre troupe, but I promise you it’s there: at the Blackfriars playhouse, an elaborate recreation of the indoor stage on which many of the Bard’s plays were originally performed. And because there’s such an emphasis on historical authenticity, they don’t light the stage like a modern theatre would: the Elizabethans didn’t have spotlights. Instead, the house lights are on the whole time. Everybody can see everything; the whole stage is on, all the time. And so after the show you can stop in the gift shop and buy the infamous t-shirt: Blackfriars Playhouse: “We Do it With the Lights On.”
Okay, that’s not what I meant and you know it. I’m thinking this way: it’s the darkest time of the year; the longest nights are upon us; I’m thinking it would be nice to have some lights on, the newborn winter already seems like it’s never going to end. It’s about that time on the calendar when I begin to seriously contemplate hibernation: I could curl up with a stack of books, a long Netflix queue, and good pillow. If I drift off to sleep, all the better: wake me in April. Wake me up when the sun comes back. I prefer to wait and do this with the lights on. But wait a second, we do have the lights on. It’s Advent, and I know it’s Advent, because the lights are on, everywhere. The electric wreaths on the streetlamps. The candles in the window. And the strings of lights on the Christmas tree, always right in that front entrance. It’s dark out there, but we do this with the lights on. On Nassau Street in Princeton I swear they’re setting up an emergency runway. We’ve got nothing if not lights, everywhere, our own refusal to go gently into this good night.
Of course, the trick with Blackfriars is that, while you can see the whole stage at any time, the actors can, of course, see you: they can see you checking your iPhone, they can see you whispering to your friend, they can see you nodding off for a nap, which, even with the lights on, is remarkably easy to do. And no less easy in this season of Advent waiting: we come home at the end of the day, excited to put the lights in the window and yet exhausted by the darkness of the season. We have hung the tinsel with care, but somehow it doesn’t feel right, in the rush, in the frenzy of the season, it’s easy to feel like you’re just sleepwalking towards Bethlehem. Advent is here, Christmas is almost upon us, we wait for the coming of Jesus Christ, we have lit his approach – there’s a whole runway all set up – and yet we are so tired, the world demands so much, it’s so easy to find ourselves asleep even with all these lights on.
We have good company. Our story today is very much about sleeping with the lights on. It’s early in the long story arc that builds towards the resurrection of Lazarus. He’s fallen ill in Judea, and Jesus knows it, but instead of just coming out and saying it, he speaks in this curious euphemism: “Our friend Lazarus is asleep.” Now, the worst-kept secret in this scene is that Lazarus is dead. You know it, I know it, Jesus knows it, we know where this is going. But hold off on that for one second, sit in the strangeness of the moment. Jesus is trying to motivate the disciples to go to Judea, and it’s a tough job because the last they time they were there they were under attack, and instead of saying “our friend is sick unto death” he says: our friend Lazarus is asleep, and I am going to wake him up.
And we can’t just let this go as mere poetry. Just before, when trying to explain the urgency, Jesus speaks in this strange riddle: “Are there not twelve hours in the day? He who walks in the light does not stumble…” The reader is supposed to get a reference here; the Hebrew day begins at sunup and, by tradition, lasts twelve hours. In modern translation Jesus is saying: “look, if I had an extra hour in the day I could afford to rest. But there’s no time.” We can already hear the echoes: my hour is close at hand. “I go to Judea, and then to Jerusalem, and then to Cavalry, and the sun will set on my life.” The clock’s ticking. We have so little time, and yet our friend Lazarus sleeps, it’s worth risking everything, there’s such urgency, for this man, our friend, is sleeping with the lights on, sleeping with Jesus yet here, and Jesus is going to wake him up.
What, then, of we who claim to prepare ourselves for the coming of this child? We wait with such urgency, we wait with such eagerness: and yet it is Jesus alone who eagerly rushes to Lazarus’ side. We say “Come, Lord Jesus, quickly,” and yet I think our hearts are with the disciples, “If only there were another hour of sunlight.” We might have time, after our days are over, after our responsibilities, after we’ve wrapped the presents and hung the stockings and strung the lights from every tree. We might have time, if there was one more hour, but there are only so many in the day, we might have time, after we got finished preparing for Jesus, we might have time to serve him.
Yeah, there’s a challenge in this text. How many Christmas lights will it take for us to see the truth in this darkness? How many colored bulbs will we hang over the bench where a homeless man sleeps? How many candles will decorate dinner tables that could easily find room for one more starving mouth? How many strands of lights will it take for us see justice, or are we just asleep with the lights on? We string up the bulbs and then choose darkness. Lazarus sleeps, and the world sleeps with him.
Or Lazarus is dead, and the world is dead with him. Actually the disciples were actually quite excited about Lazarus being asleep: “Oh, no, Jesus, that’s great news: if he’s resting, that means he’ll get better. He’s just sleeping it off. He needs a few days, these things take care of themselves.” But it’s not to be. Jesus finally just lays it out: “Lazarus is dead.“ His twelve hours are up, his light is gone; these things come to and end, you know. Lights go out, and Lazarus shines no more. Lazarus is dead, and the world with him.
Maybe that’s just it. Maybe it’s just dark, the longest night of the year, the longest night anyone can remember. Maybe it’s just the brokenness of the world in 2011, a laundry list of headlines: riots and revolutions, economies of destruction and despair, such anguish, such pain. Or maybe it’s something much more personal. Maybe it’s just that time of year when memories can be so acute. I used to think that if we just put up one more strand of lights, if we just lit one more candle, somehow the darkness would fade, we wouldn’t have to sit with the pain this year. But I don’t know anymore. Who wants to celebrate, Christmas just isn’t the same, not anymore, we miss her so much, we miss him so much, but Lazarus is dead, and the world with him, and one more strand of lights won’t help anything, not in this darkness. Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Are you kidding me? Is there even one? It doesn’t feel that way, not this year. Just let me go, and wake me up when the sun comes back.
But this Gospel won’t let you go. Are there not only twelve hours of daylight? Well, maybe for now, except we know where this story goes. It goes to Judea, and it goes to Jerusalem, and it goes to Calvary, but then sometime in the darkness of Sunday morning this Gospel won’t let you go, sometime in the darkness of Sunday morning ,while the disciples sleep, while the city sleeps, while the world sleeps, sometime on Sunday morning the boundaries of life and death and the boundaries of light and dark all fall apart, sometime in the darkness of Sunday morning Jesus Christ walks out of that tomb. Sometime in the darkness of Easter Sunday morning the son comes back, and he is coming to wake us up.
The world sleeps with Lazarus. And yet this Advent Jesus Christ is coming to wake us up. Yes, there is challenge here: we have slept through the cries of the world, of the poor, of the sick, of the oppressed, but Jesus Christ is coming to wake us up, with the cry of the infant born in the darkest night of Bethlehem. Yes, there is challenge: Jesus Christ is coming to wake us up and we will see the world as it is, not just a spotlight on a Christmas tree, but house lights that show our neighbor as ourselves. Yes, there is challenge, we will do this thing with all the lights on, but there is also the promise: this Advent, the world is dead with Lazarus, but Jesus Christ is coming to wake us up, and he brings with him the grace of God, and he brings with him the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and he brings with him the power even over life and death.
One day in my summer of hospital chaplaincy I was sent to the room of an elderly patient with advanced dementia. Left alone in his room, Jim would wail and cry for the nurse, and so I was there to keep him company. There was no family, there was nobody coming for him, so I sat and listened. With dementia the conversation is hard to come by, but as I listened, there was this constant refrain. “I just want to get some sleep, but that light… that light is after me. There’s something in that light, it won’t let me rest.” Now, of course, the hospital room was blanketed in a kind of fluorescent yellow, but that wasn’t the problem. No, the light he meant was at the far end of the room, on the wall-mounted television, the tiniest little pinhole light, Christmas-card-red, a little indicator light that says “I’m not on right now, but I’m plugged in.”
Finally, I thought, here’s a way I can help. I couldn’t figure out how to unplug the thing, but I could at least find something to cover it with: a little piece of black paper, a little scotch tape, and voila. The light was on, but you couldn’t see it. The room was no darker to anybody else, but I hoped that at least to Jim it might provide some small comfort. A few minutes later, he drifted off to sleep, and I continued on my rounds, with a fresh of self-satisfaction about me. But the next day I came around again, and found an empty room. Jim had passed in the night. With no one else coming, Jesus had come to bear him home, to let him sleep at last with Heaven’s lights upon him, and to wake him up again when the morning comes.
And so he comes for us.
For all of us who sleepwalk towards Bethlehem; for all of us who hide our eyes from the lights of the season; for all of us who fear the darkness; for all of us who carry the stench of death into the manger: Behold! A child is coming, born for us, born to raise up Lazarus, and us with him. So it is not in the light of this world that we will have our faith, nor in its darkness shall we fear to tread, but rather our trust is in this child raised from the grave, who rushes quickly to our side, who wields both daylight and darkness in the palm of hand. Amen.