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New World Syndrome
March 17, 2002
New World Syndrome
The people of Micronesia, in the western Pacific Ocean, are getting fat from eating Spam and potato chips and hamburgers. They are turning into what might be called "MACRO-nesians," and the change is killing them. Micronesians dropping dead in their 50s are not dying for reasons commonly associated with the developing world. The islands have no famine and little evidence of the diseases that cut life short in places such as Africa. The big killer is what some doctors call "New World Syndrome" -- a constellation of maladies brought on not by viruses or microbes or parasites, but by the assault of Western culture on traditional cultures.
The problems of poverty are not killing them; the scourge of affluence is killing them. They are just now beginning to face the diseases that knock us off here in the United States. Malaria, dysentery, and diarrhea have been replaced by diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. They are facing these problems because they have discovered our fatty, sweet and salty foods: Spam and corned beef and Vienna sausages, cake and muffin mixes, soda and beer and candy bars and potato chips.
Go into a Micronesian grocery store, and you can find plenty of unhealthy imported food, but you can not buy fresh bananas, papayas, breadfruit, coconut or mangoes. Apart from a fish shack or two, and a few stands hawking bags of the island's famous green tangerines, local produce cannot be purchased. In the past, most islanders grew fruits and vegetables on family plots and caught tuna and other fish in the ocean, but the majority of modern residents do not have time or energy to farm or fish--they are too busy with their office jobs.
Welcome to the New World--the promised land of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. That is us--U-S. Not that our problems in the United States are purely physical. Our spiritual diet is bad for us as well, and it's hurting us at younger ages all the time. We are victims of our own brand of New World Syndrome, getting sick from all the spiritual junk food that we ingest in our rapid-fire, radically individualistic, consumer-oriented culture.
The Grand Illusion
Every culture has its illusions, its grand ideas that seem true from inside the culture, but are false. The most prevalent illusion of our culture is affluence. It is the opposite of what Jesus said in Luke 12:15: "Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses.'" But our culture believes in the illusory happiness and fulfillment of affluence.
John Kenneth Galbraith writes of this in The Affluent Society. Most people in history, till recently in developed Western culture, have lived in poverty, on the edge of famine. But now we are all rich and it has changed our view of life. You might say, "I'm not rich, Im not well off" but believe me compared to most people in history, compared to most people on this planet right now, you are well off.
The incident that led Jesus to make the statement in Luke 12, and to tell the parable of the rich fool, was of a man who felt he didn't have his fair share, and if he could just have the material wealth he wanted, he would be happy. That is the illusion of today. What we need to learn is that the most precious commodities in life are non-negotiable: love, friendship, trust, things like that. Ultimately, we need to hear what Jesus said, our life does not consist of things but of our relationship with God.
But most people in our society do not believe that. Today, a shrinking number of people are eating the fruits of traditional religious culture, a shrinking number of people go to church read their Bibles, think seriously about religious doctrine. At the same time, a hunger for personal spirituality--cut off from religious institutions--has been soaring. More people are feeling spiritually dead, and they are searching for life in online chat rooms, in exotic religions and in the self-help sections of mall bookstores.
What's missing in all this is what Jesus tells us in John 11:25. Jesus prescribes what might be called an "R and L antidote" to spiritual death: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live." This is not too salty, sweet or fatty, and it provides us the spiritual nourishment we need for abundant life, now and forever.
John chapter 11 is the remarkable story of Lazarus. If we look at the way Johns gospel is organized, Lazarus' resurrection occurs at the pinnacle of Jesus' miracles. The first 12 chapters of John's gospel are referred to as the "Book of Signs." Within these chapters, the Lazarus miracle stands as the seventh and greatest of Jesus' wonderworks.
We are introduced in John 11 to the Bethany family of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. An immediate emotional connection is made between this family and Jesus. Up until now, Jesus' emotional life has been virtually ignored. Although we have seen him tired, we have not seen Jesus express great sorrow or passion or anger.
Now we learn in vs3 and 5 that Jesus "loved" Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. Some scholars declare that the emphasis John places on Jesus' love for Lazarus may indicate that Lazarus is the unnamed "beloved disciple" referred to later in the gospel. I know that many scholars identify the beloved disciple with John, the author of the gospel, but it seems arrogant, even juvenile, for John to refer to himself in that way. It is as if John were saying, "Hey, I am the one that Jesus really loved"which is why other scholars think that Lazarus was the beloved disciple. Whether that is true or not, there is no question that Jesus loved Lazarus.
Yet, this love does not immediately compel Jesus to rush to Lazarus when he falls ill. Instead, v6 says that Jesus delayed even beginning his journey for two days, and v17 indicates that he did not arrive at Bethany until Lazarus had been dead for four days. This delay, of course, heightens the tension in the story and emphasizes the importance of this journey. Jesus is now on the way to Jerusalem. (In verse 18, we are explicitly told that Bethany is about two miles away from Jerusalem.). Jesus must first re-enter Judea; then he remains just outside Bethany; and finally (in v38), he reaches Lazarus' tomb. As he reveals in verses 4 and 40, Jesus' dawdling serves to proclaim God's glory. Despite, or because of, Jesus' great love for this family, he proceeds toward their crisis at a pace that in the end will do the most to glorify God. That tells us something about Jesus. He always, in all his actions, words, and thoughts, glorified God
In the opening verses of John 11, while Jesus is winding his way toward Bethany, the disciples play a surprisingly dense, almost comical role. In v8, they are afraid to return to Judea. Jesus' rather cryptic remarks in verses 9-10 serve to reassure them.
But the disciples next play the fool in response to Jesus' quite transparent remark about Lazarus being "asleep." Until Jesus explicitly tells them Lazarus is dead, they have not a clue. In fact, throughout this incident, the disciples mostly act like they do not have enough sense to get out of the rain.
The one who does stand out in this story as faithful, perceptive, and brave is Martha, Lazarus' sister. It has been suggested that because of Jesus' great love for Martha (v. 5), she should be included with the Beloved Disciple as a full-fledged disciple of Jesus. Probably so, and what is most revealing about Martha's status in this text is that she makes the most insightful observation about Jesus in John's entire gospel.
Martha is already an example of faith in v20 where we learn that when she heard Jesus was coming, she ran to meet him. Faith runs to meet Jesusthat is the lesson. Her initial confession of faith is found in v21. She says, "Lord, if you had been here, I know that my brother would not have died." But she goes beyond that in v22 saying, "Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you." That is faith. Whatever you ask of God, God will do. Martha believes in Jesus.
When Jesus promises, "Your brother will rise again," Martha reveals her knowledge of traditional Jewish doctrine. She knows that Lazarus will rise "in the resurrection on the last day" (v. 24). Jesus now reveals to Martha that in his person the last day is already present, saying in v25, "I am the resurrection and the life."
Martha then moves to a new level of understanding. Whereas in verses 22 and 24, Martha had gladly confessed to Jesus what she "knows" to be true, in the light of this new information Martha now moves beyond knowledge to belief. She confesses, "I believe." Her faith is articulate and complete. She perceives Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world" (v. 27).
But if Martha's faithfulness evokes a revelation by Jesus of his true identity as the Christ, Mary's simple, yet overwhelming, grief reveals Jesus' genuine humanity. Martha interrupts her grieving to have a theological discussion with Jesus. Mary interrupts Jesus' slow progression to the tomb with her emotional outburst.
When Jesus sees Mary weeping, he is greatly disturbed in spirit and is deeply moved. He begins to weep himself, prompting some onlookers to say, "See how he loved him!" (v. 36). What a powerful image this is: God's own Son, the King of Kings and Lord of lords, so overcome by grief over the loss of his friend that he breaks down in tears.
Death is not a minor annoyance for Jesus. It is something that affects him so profoundly that he is overwhelmed by emotion. And just as he weeps over Lazarus, he weeps over physical deaths in Micronesia and spiritual deaths in our country.
But then, suddenly, another group of onlookers in the story speaks up and makes a less sympathetic observationv37: "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man [Lazarus] from dying?" That sounds like a put-down and a cut. But do not dismiss it too quickly. Many people ask the same question every day.
Why does not God create miraculous cures for little children with cancer?
Why does not God beat the heart disease of elderly church members?
Why does not God do something about the drought in our area?
R and L antidote
Because people today are hungry for answers, they're scavenging for spiritual sustenance in highly saturated fats. Junk food. And so they remain malnourished and fall victim to spiritual New World Syndrome.
Martha admits that she expects a straightforward healing miracle when she says to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (v. 21). She is confident that Jesus holds power over illness, and she believes that he would have chosen to use his power to help her brother Lazarus.
But then Jesus says something unexpected. Instead of explaining to Martha that he is going to raise Lazarus in just a few minutes, he says, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (v. 25)
This is not a straightforward healing. It is the R & L antidote. Rather than promising Martha a miracle, he invites her to trust him to work for new life. A big difference exists between these two options. Instead of saying, "I'm going to step in and make everything okay," Jesus says, "Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live." He promises that the dead will rise, but he does not predict just how.
So what does Martha do in response to this invitation? She proclaims, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah" (v. 27).
The very same invitation is extended to us today. Jesus says to us, in the vortex of our physical and spiritual illnesses: "I am the resurrection and the life .... Do you believe this?" Do you believe that Christ is working for radical new life? Do you believe that Christ is the resurrection, the one who conquers death? Do you believe that Christ is leading you, right now, in so many unexpected ways, from dying to rising?
Sarah Hinlicky is a Seminary student. She recently spent time with her dying grandfather, a time of sadness and grief that was complicated by the fact that her grandfather did not approve of women in the ministry.
On her last visit, she offered to pray with him, and then began to cry. "He opened his arms," she reports, and "I threw myself down on his chest, wondering if I might accidentally crack one of his brittle ribs, and he wrapped those dying arms around me. There was something miraculous about them. They were so unlovable, objectively speaking, so ugly and powerless. They looked like death. But to me, they were the embodiment of love. I wanted to touch and hold them, to examine their discolored spots, to keep them near because they were telling me that death can not annihilate our love.
"His yellow hands stroked my hair, and I started to pray, not very well, not very eloquently, not very coherently. He prayed, too, calmly, quietly, humorously even. He said, 'Lord, I didn't know what to think of this business of letting women be ordained pastors. But I see that you have called my granddaughter into it, so I think it must be a good thing after all.' And there it was, at the very end: The man who had baptized me was now blessing me to carry on his work in the world." When we face physical or spiritual death, there is only one antidote: resurrection and life. It comes to us through believing in Jesus and through trusting him to be at work for unexpected new life in every time, place and situation.
I heard a story about a pastor who was building a wooden trellis to support a climbing vine. As he pounded away, he saw that a little boy was watching him. The youngster did not say a word, so the pastor kept on working, thinking the lad would just leave. But he didn't. Finally, the pastor asked, "Well, son, are you trying to pick up some pointers on gardening?" "No," replied the boy, "I'm just waiting to hear what a preacher says when he hits his thumb with a hammer."
Now I promise you that if the preacher hit his thumb with a hammer, it would certainly bring new life to him in unexpected ways.
On a more serious note, it is Christ who brings us new life, and that new life changes all our ways. Once dead, we are now alive. This is not New World Syndrome. It is New Life Syndrome. In Christ, we have new life. Amen
Hinlicky, Sarah. "The great reunion beyond." Christianity Today, February 3, 2001, 53.
Shell, Ellen Ruppel. "New world syndrome." The Atlantic Monthly, June 2001, 50.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 5/4/02