“LOST: male dog, has one eye, mangled left ear, missing left hind leg and most of his teeth, crooked tail. Answers to the name, ‘Lucky’.
In our modern day world I suspect many of us feel a little like Lucky. We are bombarded by bad news – bad news on a world scale, bad news on a local scale and bad news on a personal level. It never seems to stop. You turn on the tv to watch a little news and relax, and all you get is one bad story after another, even the shows which are supposed to entertain are full of anger, bully and violence. Watch an episode or two of Married at First Sight, My Kitchen Rules or The Block to see what I mean.
Talk a stroll through the local bookshop or record store (are there any of these any more?) and take a look at the covers, the story briefs or the lyrics and you will be surprised by the words used, the storylines or violence and horror which seems to permeate almost everything out there.
Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst, wrote in 1956; “We have a literacy above 90 per cent of the population. We have radio, television, movies, a newspaper a day for everybody. But instead of giving us the best of past and present literature and music, these media of communication, supplemented by advertising, fill the minds of men with the cheapest trash, lacking in any sense of reality, with sadistic phantasies which a halfway cultured person would be embarrassed to entertain even once in a while. But while the mind of everybody, young and old, is thus poisoned, we go on blissfully to see to it that no “immorality” occurs on the screen.”
Little seems to have changed in the 60 years since he wrote that. There seems to be no end to bad news and we may find ourselves overwhelmed and feeling we are living in the worst of times not the best of times. Despite the capacity for human beings to grow and develop knowledge, skills and quality of life we seem not to have mastered the art of living well together.
No wonder we feel a little like Lucky the dog, broken down, dragged out and not all there. We may indeed feel as if we are living in the hopeless days. And it is when we are living in the hopeless days that we are the closest to the sense of another long Gospel reading from John. This is the story of loss and grief, of facing up to the inevitable death that faces us all in some way every day. We receive bad news about our own health, about the health or death of a friend, about the health of our beloved pet, we lose a job, we face divorce, we face financial ruin, we risk everything for a better life only to be told no and more. For whatever reason we find ourselves living in the hopeless day.
Martha, Mary and Jesus find themselves in this very place. Their brother, his friend has died. He gets the news on the day it happens. He is sad but does not rush back but waits 2 days before travelling to their home. Perhaps he was worried about the reception he would get. The disciples were because they intimated it was beyond risky for Jesus to show his face there. Perhaps he was so overcome with the thought of going back and facing it immediately, it was just too much. So it wasn’t until the third day that he began the trip and he arrived on the fourth day, a day when it was going to be too late for heroics such as a healing, the body had already started to decompose.
Martha and Mary were both upset at his tardiness intimating he had known about Lazarus’s health prior to his death and hadn’t come back. They were well aware of his ability to heal and couldn’t come to grips with his failure to heal the one he loved. Their confrontation with him may have been a little more forceful than John relates and his defence that this was all for God’s glory probably was not an appropriate answer. And it isn’t ever.
Yet here they were in what was to them a hopeless situation.
Peter Woods writes that “Jesus knows that Lazarus is dead. He tells his disciples this brutal truth. Only then does he decide to go to nearby Bethany. He arrives on the fourth day. The day that is beyond all hope. All through Scripture the third day is the day that God acts. Jesus arrives on the hopeless day, the fourth.”
This is worth keeping in mind as it is the only time it is recorded. The day that is beyond hope is a place where people live and where God is not absent. Yes God acts on the third day, timely and appropriately, before everything decomposes and falls apart and we live and have been taught to live with the expectation that this will happen. But God is not absent from the hopeless day, the day beyond hope. What actually happens in this story we do not know but we do know something happens and Lazarus is somewhat restored, at least in the story if not in real life. God in someway restores equilibrium and balance in so dramatically that in a few verses on from this reading, Jesus future is doomed by those in power who will see to it he dies.
We always want God to act within the 3 days, within a timely framework that works for us. We also want God to restore it to the way it was. But it has changed no it is different and uncomfortable. We find the day that is beyond all hope too painful, to dislodging, to traumatic, and it often leaves us with scars we can never erase. Yet if we look closely to that day or days we find God is not absent, stuff is happening to us and others, the ground is shifting and life continues, different, changed but it is still life.
Fourth day living is where the church has been since the promised or expected immediate return of Jesus has yet to occur. Fourth day living is the ordinary experience of each of us and has produced wonderful spiritual practitioners, writers and saints. Fourth day living is the norm for the majority of people throughout the world, not the exception in places where God does not appear on the third day to prevent children dying of starvation, people being bombed out of their homes or others feeling the wrath of racism and oppression.
It is in fourth day living that we begin to experience the necessity of faith, hope and love; the value of community and belonging; and the expansiveness of God’s presence, even when God seems to have gone missing. Fourth day living pushes our boundaries, reshapes our values and expectations and beckons us forward into an ever-expanding universe open to surprise, beauty and possibility.
The truth for Jesus friends is that they have not avoided the inevitable encounter with fourth day living, only postponed it; but they may have lived the days after Jesus’ visit, the day after they experienced for the first time the day beyond all hope, very differently, intentionally, focused and with an awareness they didn’t have before.
Like Lucky, they panted for more.