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The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens

The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens is senior minister of Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

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Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Dunwoody, GA


The Road to Easter Runs Through a Cemetery

John 11:1-27

5th Sunday in Lent - Year A

April 10, 2011

Most, if not all of us, have looked at dreams, hopes, plans that have been lost.  As if buried in a grave, they seem gone forever.  Whether from a failed marriage, personal bankruptcy, downsizing or merger of a business, broken relationships with adult children, or former friends, or for other reasons, the future seems bare.  We are speaking of those times when in life when we can no longer do what we used to be able to do.  Perhaps because of a chronic illness or financial problems, the loss of employment or a looming foreclosure, or a handicap that makes each day difficult.  We are talking about where life has suddenly grown empty.  Just as those first moments must have felt for Mary and Martha as they stood beside their brother's grave.  Their world changed forever.

The road to Easter runs through a cemetery.  As in so many times in life, we struggle before we arrive at our destination.  Despite our best efforts, the future seems sealed away.  The sisters had sent word to Jesus of their brother Lazarus, and Jesus' friend's illness.  As the first of our Gospel lesson reminded us, they had done much for Jesus.  When the world was turning against Jesus, it had been Mary who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.  It was Mary and Martha who had provided Jesus shelter on the edge of Jerusalem at Bethany.  Be honest, is this not the feeling we have when things turn against us despite the fact that we have prayed, despite the fact we have thought we were going the extra mile, despite that we see ourselves as good folk?

But as in so many times in life, what appears to be an ending can in fact be a beginning-- where we  only see death, actually we can see the power of life; where we only see failure, God can open a new door; where we feel abandoned, God draws near and we find hope and assurance.  What we are celebrating on this road to Easter is, even though we travel through the reality of loss and reversals, defeats and disappointments, there is power in the world that is stronger than death, even our fear of death.  The Gospel today deals with who will have the last word.

At first, the focus of today's Gospel from John is on a sunset, but quickly turns to a sunrise.  We have the joy and hope of Easter two weeks early.  We are talking about victory for those who seemed defeated.  For, you see, while the season of Lent is one of preparation and repentance, Sundays are always a celebration of the Resurrection, of Easter.  That is why many who give up something for Lent will indulge on Sunday.  There are forty days in Lent starting with Ash Wednesday, if you don't count the Sundays.

But before we can get to the joy, John's account reminds us of the sorrow and grief that had control of Mary and Martha's lives.  Martha confronts Jesus with the fact if he had been there when Lazarus was dying, it would not have happened.  When Jesus tries to comfort her by saying he will live again, she fails to understand him.  She took his assurance to be a theological statement, not a promise for the present.  In the abstract she agreed, but her heart was still broken.  She believed, but she was yet to understand.

Lent is a time of preparation for Easter.  We can never know the full impact of the Resurrection unless we are honest with those times that we have felt no hope, seen a way to go on, or felt we were alone--similar to how Mary and Martha must have felt when Jesus was not there in their time of need.  Their brother was dying and Jesus delayed his return.  But from the feeling of being abandoned came the overwhelming joy when Lazarus came forth from the grave.  Joy that is not related to what occurs to us in life is false joy.  Only when we are honest with our hurts and fears can we know the full impact of the truth that God is with us.  We have all dealt with the loss of some of those we love; we will all have times of despair and sorrow.  But being honest with where we are will open our hearts and minds to the wonderful news of Easter.

We have to be honest with ourselves and our God in where we feel hopeless in love.  Feelings of optimism that are not connected to who we are and where we are can be false optimism.  The power of the Easter faith that we are getting a preview in today's Gospel account of Lazarus being called forth from the grave is that whatever happens to us in our world, God is greater, and we can trust and believe in him.  We will always have reason to hope.  Truly, the road to Easter runs through a cemetery.  It is not a road that detours through the realities of life, but empowers us to deal with the realities of living head on.

From last week's Gospel in John 9, we heard of Jesus confronting religious ignorance that placed burdens on people unnecessarily.  You may recall the story where guilt was placed on the man who was blind from birth and his parents, but Jesus would hear nothing of this and met the issue head on.  Today we see the courage of Jesus to deal with the pain and grief of Mary and Martha.

There was risk for Jesus to go back to be with Mary and Martha.  This was not an easy turn in the road.  He was warned, as we heard in our Gospel, that some were seeking to stone him.  His reply was to speak of walking in the light so that no one would not stumble.  He would not allow the fear of others, the sorrow of death, or anything else to darken his way, to keep him from going where he was needed.  At this point Thomas speaks up.  Thomas has been one of the worst labeled people in history, being called the doubter.  Here, indeed, Thomas was bold as he says to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."  He was demonstrating the power of faith to empower action in our lives even on a road that leads through a cemetery.

The four days that had passed since the death and burial of Lazarus had led to what we might call the casserole time:  The neighbors who had gathered in Mary and Martha's home to console them, perhaps bringing food.  And when Mary responded to the call of Jesus, they went with her.  Though we can be confident that they went not expecting what was to happen, but to cry with Mary and Martha.  Notice these good neighbors; these caring neighbors were Jewish.  Through the centuries Christians have too many times focused on the Jews that were a part of the trial and death of Jesus, without realizing most of those who Jesus worked with, lived with, and taught were Jews.  His closest followers and family were all Jewish.  This part of the Gospel is a warning for us not to allow the labels we put on people to rob them of their God-given value.  The scene reminds us that neighbors caring for neighbors are good folk, whatever their faith.

Before Jesus could arrive back at Martha's home, she met him on the way.  She immediately confronted Jesus with her belief that if he had been there Lazarus would not have died.  How easily would it have been for Jesus to have become defensive?  After all, they were trying to stone him.  He could have talked of his need to seek shelter to be safe, but rather he dealt with her sorrow as he assured Martha her brother would live again.  Martha took his reply to be the promise contained in his teaching about the Resurrection, while Jesus would not let her stay in the creedal or the abstract, but rather reminded her that he was the hope.  Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."  These words of hope are spoken today at most memorial and funeral services.  Martha seemed convinced by these words and returned to the house to get Mary.

When Mary came where Jesus was, she repeated the same plea to Jesus as Martha: if you had been here, we wouldn't be going through this.  This time it was said with tears.  Jesus saw not only Mary crying, but all those who came with her.  Jesus' heart was broken.  There are times when we are dealing with grief and tears that a simple, practical request can be helpful.  At this point Jesus did not try to deal with the matters of faith as he had done with Martha, but simply asked where they had laid his friend Lazarus, and they responded by inviting him to come and see.  At that moment, we get a glimpse of the humanity of Jesus, as he begins to cry.  He had lost a dear friend, and he could also see the grief of the two other friends, his sisters Martha and Mary.  Sometimes the best thing we can do for another is to cry with them.  His tears communicated an empathy that words could not.  The crowd's reaction was mixed; some saw the tears as a sign of the depth of his love for Lazarus, others could not help but to ask the question so often asked at a time like this, why?  Particularly if he could give sight to a blind man, why couldn't he have kept his friend from dying?  When our hearts are broken, there is rarely an answer to the question that will satisfy the hurt.

It is as if the writer of John is drawing a line under the words to emphasize the depth of Jesus' feelings.  As he approached the grave, he was deeply disturbed again.  Then Jesus took the first step of the miracle when he asks for the stone to be removed.  Martha, the ever practical one, questioned the move; she reminded Jesus that her brother had been dead for four days and there would be a very unpleasant odor.  The translation that we read mostly in the church today--The New Revised Standard Version--used the word stench, the King James Version says he would stinketh.  Whatever we use to describe a four-day old body, Martha knew it was not going to be pleasant.  But Jesus knew that if we are going to behold the Glory of God, at times we have to get beyond the boundaries of the norm.  He challenged whether she truly believed, so the stone was removed.  Then comes that moment when Jesus calls Lazarus to come out.  This was not your normal gathering around a grave.  The road to Easter had reached a very important turn in the road; Lazarus came out.  When others saw this man who had been dead and buried alive, they would be drawn to the one who had such power to call him from the grave.  And though in this scene we see the power of God to give life, we also see the risk when that power is displayed.  From the last verse of today's reading from the Gospel of John, it is said that many of the Jews that had come out to be with Mary saw what Jesus had done and believed.

We stand at this point on the road to Easter and we know that--

The world will not have the last word.

We will not have the last word.

But God will have the last word.

These are days of new beginnings.

To find the joy and hope of Easter, we must go through the cemeteries of our defeats and disappointments.  The Bible is full of stories about transforming situations that had become desperate and hopeless, but are radically changed with new opportunities filled with promise and new life.  There was Abraham and Sarah, to whom God's promise seemed so impossible being revealed, so impossible that Sarah laughed; there was Moses running from being wanted for murder that is called to lead his people through the sea; there was David who faced a giant; there was Elijah, after his greatest success seeing no reason to live, finding God in the still small voice; there was Ezekiel's vision of the scattered bones of a defeated army coming back to life.  In the New Testament there is Nicodemus shaking his head at being born anew bringing spices for Jesus' body; or the Samaritan woman at the well, pushed aside by her village, finding in Jesus a new life; or the blind man of last week's lesson being rejected by his own parents only to find new life in Jesus.

William Barclay was asked once on the BBC about the miracles in the Bible.  He defined them as symbols of what God can do today.  He used as an example Jesus calming the Sea of Galilee.  He said that in any storm, Jesus can give confidence and calmness.  He stills the storms of our hearts.  When asked where he was with this in his life, Barclay explained that years ago his twenty-one year old daughter drowned in a boating accident.  He said God did not stop the accident, but he did still the storm in Barclay's heart and restored his spiritually dried-out soul. 

As I said, the world will not have the last word.

We will not have the last word.

But God will have the last word.

These are days of new beginnings.

On the road to Easter, we move toward the joy of Easter and the hope of the life everlasting when we experience the power of Christ in our lives.  This happens for us when the stones of bitterness, disappointment, and sorrow are rolled away and we experience the call to come forth and live, to live life at its fullest.

It is when we hear Jesus say, "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 shall never die," not only at the High and Holy time of Easter, but in a cemetery filled with sorrow.  Then, and only then, do these words come alive for us.  That is what I like about today's lesson; it comes when we least expect it.  Jesus knew of God's power to deal with and defeat death.

Toward the end of the 19th century, A.J. Gossip, a noted minister in Glasgow, Scotland, and a professor at Trinity College, experienced the death of his young wife.  He buried her on Friday and preached the following Sunday.  His sermon was entitled "When Life Falls Apart."  In that sermon he said, "When one complains about ankle deep water, what will they do when the swelling streams come upon them, when little troubles come and we go astray, what will happen when all falls in?  I have been in the swelling current, my feet have touched the bottom, and the good news I bring to you is the bottom is solid, you can survive." 

In our lives, can the stones be rolled away, can we come forth to live?  The answer is yes.

The world will not have the last word.

We will not have the last word.

God will have the last word.

This can be a day of new beginnings   Amen.

 

Let us pray.  Father, where there are stones blocking our lives and sealing us off from the power of your love and hope, roll them away and let us know of your goodness and grace this day.  Amen.

 


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