Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hezekiah and Lazarus

Isaiah 38.1-5, 9-20, John 11.1-45
King Hezekiah experienced something that all of us want to avoid. He got very sick. Worse than that, he was close to death. We normally think of Jeremiah as the bearer of bad news, but here it’s Isaiah who was sent to tell him that ‘the Lord says you won’t ever get well. You are going to die.’ Isaiah advised him to put his affairs in order.
Hezekiah had been quite a good king. The Bible says that ‘he obeyed the Lord, just as his ancestor David had done.’ With some exaggeration, it goes on to claim that ‘no other king of Judah was like Hezekiah, either before or after him,’ and that ‘he was successful in everything he did.’ This is because he closed all the ancient hill shrines, which had sometimes been associated with pagan worship or with sacrifices offered by people who weren’t ordained as priests. Instead people had to worship God in Jerusalem.
The Old Testament doesn’t expect good people to have an untimely death, so that begs the question, ‘Where had Hezekiah gone wrong?’ Perhaps he shouldn’t have rebelled against the emperor of Assyria and refused to be his servant.
The emperor left his own record of what happened next. He writes, ‘I shut up King Hezekiah himself in Jerusalem, ...like a bird in a cage. I plundered his towns and gave them to [the Philistine kings]. I reduced his territory but increased the annual tribute he had to pay. Later Hezekiah himself sent to me in Nineveh, my royal city, his own daughters.’
You might think things couldn’t get any worse, but it was then that Hezekiah had his near death experience. He cried hard and prayed hard too, and God reprieved him.
The Book of Isaiah records the psalm which Hezekiah wrote in gratitude. His daughters might be prisoners in Assyria, but at least he had escaped from being a prisoner in the world of the dead.
Oddly enough, the way that Hezekiah thought of the world of the dead very closely resembles one of the oldest works of literature, the story of Bílgamés and the Netherworld, which was written in Babylonia where his daughters had been sent into exile. Bílgamés had invented a game with bat and ball which he and his friends played all day long until their womenfolk complained to the gods, who made their playthings fall down a deep hole into the underworld.
Bílgamés best friend, Enkidu, volunteered to go and get them back, and so he saw at first hand what being in the world of the dead was really like. He found that people who’d had lots of children in this life felt like gods, because they had plenty of descendants still left on earth to remember them. But people who had no surviving children sat around moping, because they would soon be forgotten.
In other words, it wasn’t a real existence.  In the realm of the dead people lived on only in the memories of those who’d loved them on earth.  So the people who wrote the story of Bílgamés and Enkidu believed, as Hezekiah  did, that dying would be like a thread being cut off from a weaver’s loom when the garment is finished, or tent pegs being pulled up and the tent folded away when the trip has come to an end. It was a giant full stop.
We talk about ‘meeting our maker’ when we die, but Hezekiah didn’t expect to meet God in the afterlife. ‘No one in the world of the dead can thank you or praise you,’ he says. ‘None of those in the deep pit can hope for you to show them how faithful you are. Only the living can thank you as I am doing today.’
We meet the same attitude when Martha and Mary lose their brother Lazarus. Jesus talks about Lazarus’ death as though it were reversible. Lazarus has only fallen asleep. He can be woken up again.
Understandably Jesus’ friends don’t quite get what he means. As far as they can see Lazarus is either sleeping, or in a coma, or he’s died. Even Martha, who  believes that Jesus is God’s Chosen Leader, expects that her brother will only rise again ‘when all people rise again at the last day.’
And in a sense she’s right. Lazarus’ rescue from the grave is not a resurrection. Death is not behind him, he’s just been granted a temporary reprieve.
This is what Hezekiah felt had happened to him. He says, ‘Your love protected me from doom in the deep pit’ and made ‘me healthy and strong again.’ And he praises God because, ‘Your words and your deeds bring life to everyone, including me,’ but he only means ‘so long as I am alive!’
Hezekiah believed that he’d been saved him from death because God had taught him a stern lesson, by putting him in fear of his life, but had then   forgiven his sins. So why did Jesus save Lazarus from death?
Was it because he was deeply moved by his friends’ grief? John hints at this, but in the end he thinks it’s too arbitrary a reason.
However, there are other possible reasons. Jesus saw himself as a prophet in the same mould as Moses or Elijah. Both Elijah and his protegé Elisha had raised young people from death, apparently because they too were friends of the family and were deeply moved by the mothers’ grief, so perhaps Jesus wanted to show people that God would do the same for him if he asked it. Again John hints at this as a possible reason for the miracle. The crowd was already muttering that if Jesus really were such an amazing healer, ‘couldn’t he have done something to stop this man from dying.’ At the tomb of Lazarus Jesus is reported as saying to God, ‘I want these people to be sure that you have sent me.’
But John suggests a third reason. He identifies seven signs which Jesus performed during his ministry to show the kind of salvation he was bringing. The raising of Lazarus is the sixth of those signs which punctuate his Gospel. According to John, Jesus told his friends that Lazarus’ death had ‘happened so that God’s own presence among human beings may be clearly seen; and that it may be clearly seen, too, that the Son of God makes God’s presence real for men and women.’
So what did this sign reveal about God’s presence in Jesus? Surely not just that Jesus was caring and compassionate, nor even that he was a great prophet and miracle worker like Elijah and Elisha. Its key purpose was to show that Jesus is ‘the resurrection and the source of life. Whoever trusts’ in him ‘shall come to life again, even though they die and nobody who is alive and trusts in him shall ever die.’
And yet, although the raising of Lazarus was a sign, it’s not the real thing. It’s just a foretaste, a promise that if we trust in Jesus - as Mary, Martha and Lazarus did - we shall come to life again even though we die. because life in him is indestructible.
All of us are going to have Hezekiah moments in our lives, or we’re going to sit at the bedside of someone going through the same kind of dark night experience. We’re going to have moments of doubt when we wonder just how strong that bond between the believer and Jesus really is. ‘I thought I would never again see you, My Lord,’ says Hezekiah in his psalm. ‘Can God’s love  for us in Jesus really overcome death?’ we may wonder.
And even if we’re not assailed by doubts of that kind, we might feel - as Hezekiah did - that our bones are being crushed, as though a lion were savaging us in its jaws, or that our lives are being wrecked or have turned sour, or that we’re being terribly abused by the circumstances which have befallen us.
Like Hezekiah, we know that the Lord’s ‘words and deeds bring life to everyone,’ but he could only pray that God would make him ‘healthy and strong again’ whereas we have the promise of Jesus that even though we die we shall come to life again.

If God were not able to reach us in death, the only hope we’d have left is that someone might remember us after we’re gone. But if God can overcome death, so that the life we enjoyed in Jesus continues after it and the thread is not cut off or the tent pegs pulled up and stashed away, then we can trust that he will always remember us. As the Psalmist says, even if we’re forgotten by everyone else, ‘the Lord will not forget to give us his blessing.’

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