Many years ago Alanis Morrisette sang a song titled “Isn’t It Ironic?” Ironically, almost everything she mentioned in her song wasn’t actually irony at all – it was simply a series of unfortunate coincidences. It may rain on your wedding day, and you may not take that good advice offered to you, but that isn’t irony – its just unfortunate circumstances. If you really want to see irony, there is no need to look any further than our Gospel reading for this morning. In the story of the raising of Lazarus and the reaction of the Pharisees, John writes an account simply dripping with irony.
(John 11:45-48) Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.
Consider just the following bits of irony. It was the Pharisees themselves who had demanded signs from Jesus to back up his claims, but now that they (undeniably) had them, these signs were a terrible problem for them. How do you continue to argue against someone who can raise the dead? Yet these chief priests and Pharisees still would not loosen the choke hold on their cold and hardened hearts. What’s more, these religious leaders were so worried about keeping their Temple and City of Jerusalem intact that they completely miss out on the Living Temple in their midst who had come to bring one and all to the Heavenly Jerusalem with him. Not to mention that they get what they want – Jesus is eventually put to death, but Jerusalem is still destroyed by the Romans anyway. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think? A little too ironic! It should make us stop and think.
But we’re not done yet! Consider this – it is a miracle of giving life to the dead that sets the chief priests and pharisees on the course of killing the author of that life. And what’s more, consider the very words of their leader. (49-50, 53) But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish … So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. Truly, they didn’t know the God-given truth behind the words here uttered! The Words that Caiaphas meant for evil and harm, become God’s gracious Words of the Gospel and life. Their plan to put Jesus to death, was really God’s, and had been since the day Adam and Eve were cast from the garden.
As John goes on to tell us: (51-52) He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. Irony in it’s most glorious incarnation! The Son of God singled out of God’s own people and marked for death, so that through His death life might be gained and the heathen nations become God’s people once more! By trying to stop Jesus, these men were rushing His task through to completion. The most deplorable and evil of plans being used for the greatest good this world has ever known. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think? A little too ironic! It should make us stop and think.
It should make us stop and consider that this has always been God’s approach to us human beings. A glorious, grace-filled irony. Consider these words from our text: (5-6) Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Jesus hears that Lazarus is gravely ill so he decides to stay right where he is! He loves them so much that He doesn’t come. Yet from this irony comes a much greater good. Not only is Lazarus healed in the end, as they had hoped for, but he and his sisters come to trust in Jesus, not just as great physician, but as the One with power over death and Life. The One who IS the Resurrection and the Life!
The works of the Chief Priests and the Pharisees begin with a quest to improve and maintain life (even if it was only their own!) but through hardened hearts and disbelief all that they do leads only to death (Jesus’ and their own!). Ironically, the works of our Lord begin with death (first Lazarus’ and then His own!) and by faith leads to life! This is exactly what St. Paul says would happen in our Epistle reading: (Romans 8:5-6) For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
And this perhaps is the final irony in this whole account. We who have it, don’t always get it. We for whom it is all spelled out in black and white, can’t seem to read between the lines. Oh sure, we condemn the Pharisees in our hearts – How could they have not known better? But then turn around and follow their example in our lives.
How often do we ask God for a sign, but then refuse to acknowledge the clear signs He puts before us. We want Him to show us how much He loves us, but when He gives us indisputable signs like Baptism and His own Holy Supper, somehow it just isn’t enough. When life turns ugly the first thought is often “Lord if only you had been here, I wouldn’t have had to suffer like this!” How often do we find ourselves straining so hard for the prize of heaven by trying to be better or do better or just plain make up for when we didn’t, that we forget about the little piece of heaven He has placed right here in our midst through the Divine Service. Or we become so fixated on minutia around the church building and programs that we are in danger of ignoring Christ himself, in our midst. Sometimes we get so caught up in the quest to live the good life we can’t see that such things lead only to death. Busy people aren’t any happier. Wealthy people aren’t any healthier. And the one who dies with the most toys is still dead.
But Christ came to bring life to the dead, strength to the suffering, joy to the grieving, passion to the apathetic, conviction to the doubting … but not by taking any of our suffering away … He brings about all his greatest mercies by using this very suffering to his own holy ends. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think? A little too ironic! we may be tempted to cry out. But then let us stop and think. All of the glories of heaven have been yours since the moment you were Baptized. The end was fixed before the beginning started. Signed sealed and delivered in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it ironic? And further, whatever suffering may come to pass, you have a holy meal in the Body and Blood of Jesus, to nourish and strengthen your faith and so see you through. A foretaste of heaven, to get you through every rough spot in your life here on earth. Isn’t it ironic? Yes it is, and praise God that it is!