Saturday, April 4, 2009

Revisiting Landmarks

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.

                        John 12.1

Going Back to Move Ahead

Bethany is the final place Jesus visits prior to His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Situated on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, it sits just a mile-and-a-half outside the capitol. Travelers often pause there to freshen up, water their animals, and take a deep breath before heading into Jerusalem’s big-city hubbub. Jesus has more in mind than sprucing up, though; His decision to stop at the village comes not by coincidence. He’s altogether aware that once He passes through Jerusalem’s gates, there’s no turning back. He’s always been welcomed and appreciated in Bethany. His dear friends, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, live there. He performed one of His greatest miracles there by restoring Lazarus to life. So Bethany holds many fond memories for Jesus, and in the manner of many facing certain arrest, conviction, and execution, He makes a point of calling on His beloved friends and supporters one last time before walking into destiny. He’s going back to move ahead. Ironically, what happens during His layover there cements His fate.

Open Arms

Obviously, the good people of Bethany haven’t the slightest inkling this is Jesus’s farewell visit. What He’ll soon experience is beyond their imagination. Unlike Nazareth—where He was run out of town after chiding His childhood neighbors and relatives for looking for His wonders rather than listening to His words—any time Jesus comes to Bethany, He’s received with open arms. (This explains why He works miracles there that Nazareth never sees.) Bethany loves Jesus for Who He is, not what He does, and they treat His arrival on this Saturday before Passover as a homecoming event. After sundown brings Sabbath’s end, they give a dinner in His honor. Martha waits table. Lazarus sidles up near Jesus, eager to spend time with the Friend Who gave Him life.

Taking some license with John, it’s easy to envision Mary seated at distance, overcome with emotion while watching the brother she’d lost dining with Jesus. An uncontrollable urge seizes her. She rushes off and returns with her prize possession, a jar of costly perfume. Boldly, as convention frowns on women interrupting male conversation, she pours the fragrance on Christ’s feet and towels them with her hair. Her gesture stuns everyone, none more than Judas, who’s appalled by her excess. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” he asks. Jesus silences Judas’s protest with a rebuke indicating Mary’s lavish gratitude for a past resurrection signals another to come. “Leave her alone,” He says. “She was saving this to anoint My body after death.” Two extraordinary, inextricably linked things coincide in that moment. Judas’s outraged disapproval turns him against Jesus and Jesus predicts His corpse won’t remain lifeless long enough to require preservation. By this time next week, both men will be dead. Only one will rise.

Choosing the Route

So often when facing unfavorable inevitabilities, we withdraw under the impression what’s coming is ours to face alone. We walk in solitude, staring at trials looming ahead, hanging on to every moment before the unavoidable will wait no longer. But here Christ teaches us the importance of choosing the route we take to confront our problems. Before we plunge into ordeals, we should follow His example and take time to return—if not physically, then mentally—to people who love us for who we are and places where we knew God’s power in very real, life-affirming ways. Revisiting landmarks provides invaluable assurance and solace while hazarding our way through future unpredictability and anxiety. Past accomplishments and feats of kindness become touchstones that keep us steady when failure seems likely and cruelty engulfs us. I can’t help but think Jesus looked at Lazarus and saw Himself leaving His own tomb. Possibly even on the cross, staring down as His life’s blood pooled at its base, Lazarus came to mind. In those final moments, confidence in His resurrection held firm if for no other reason than He’d recently reunited with a friend who experienced resurrection.

But revisiting landmarks also achieves two other benefits. The acceptance and gratitude we rediscover there bring clarity to what we will find as we move on. Mary based her offering on the past, yet Christ received it as a promise for the future. And finally, returning to sites of indubitable strength provides contrast we need to separate hangers-on and bad influences from legitimate friends. John says Judas objected to Mary’s generosity “not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief.” Surrounded by genuine love for Jesus, Judas revealed his true colors. Though he stuck with the other disciples until the Passover, his actions in Bethany already belied his loyalty to Christ. In times of trial, the last things we need are so-called friends covertly opposing us. Pausing to reflect on people who prove their faithfulness and devotion again and again often awakens us to reality of those traveling with us. In the end, what began as a homecoming banquet became a going-away celebration. It’s always that way with revisiting landmarks. We go back so we can move ahead.

Lazarus was living proof of Christ’s resurrecting power. (Giotto di Bondone: Raising of Lazarus; circa 1320)

(Tomorrow: In the Name of the Lord)

Postscript: Speaking of Landmarks…

You all heard the news, I’m sure. After supposedly progressive states like California and Arizona expressly vote against Constitutional equality for all, Iowa sneaks up and reaffirms it. I’m happy to leave political opinions to the pundits, religious opinions to the preachers, and personal opinions to the people. But as an American and Midwesterner, I couldn’t possibly let the moment pass without paying tribute to the state next door and its Supreme Court’s commitment to liberty and justice for all. In the words of The Music Man’s author and composer, Meredith Willson, “You really ought to give Iowa a try!”

“Iowa Stubborn” from The Music Man (1962).


johnmichael said...

Once again I am moved by one of your posts. And once again, this post couldn't have come at a better time.
Thank you...I needed to read this.

Tim said...

John, how delightful to see you! One of the reasons I love the Word is its timeliness--it never fails to speak to us right where we are at the right moment.

Thank you for your kindness. It always strengthens me.

Blessings to you as we enter this week of remembrance. Easter is coming!