A man left church complaining under his breath, "Fine, all this talk about green pastures and still waters. But what about the droughts? What about the storms? What about the crushing pressure and defeats? What then?"
Our Gospel reminds us that Jesus still shows up and Jesus makes a difference. Our story is one about when Jesus intrudes into death and brings life. He will not be held off or jerked about by death. His strong voice brings life. Whenever and wherever it shadows our arrangements with death in all our defeats, our surrenders, our fears, Jesus brings a new strength by his very presence. The timing for an Easter story such as Lazarus coming forth from death seems all wrong. Shouldn't we wait until Easter? But the reality is we can't wait. Whenever Jesus shows up, the dead come to life. Things open up and there is Easter.
We might argue that we're in Lent, the season of the cross. We're moving steadily, somberly, week-by-week, toward the inevitable death of Jesus. It's the wrong time, the wrong place for a life-giving Easter sort of story. But Jesus has a way of showing up at what we would call the wrong time, but perhaps the right time, for it is his time.
Just as with the blind man in the ninth chapter of John, we are reminded that we're not in charge. The writer of the Gospel wants to be clear to us. Jesus loved Lazarus. It says so in the fifth verse. Right in the middle of the story, tears flow down Jesus' cheeks. The bystanders comment, "See how he loved him!" But notice his reaction. First, he was off somewhere else-nice to know just how human Jesus was-and didn't come rushing right back. Our tendency is to knee-jerk when we're not where someone says we should be or doing what others expect us to be doing. Jesus dealt with reality. The disciples used a euphemism. He is asleep. No, says Jesus. He is dead.
This part of the Gospel radiates with the good news of the power and the presence of Jesus. Surely, the Lord is our shepherd. He leads. He restores. He protects. He provides. He anoints. His goodness and mercy are with us always, even as one passes through the valley of the shadow of death. Imagine for a moment a family emerging from the intensive care unit. Their pastor meets them. "She's gone," they say to him. "Mama's gone. She is dead." And the pastor says, "Why these tears? Don't you believe in the life everlasting, the resurrection of the body? It's in the creed." "Mama's dead. We don't want to be with her some thousands of years from now. We want her living now."
Martha believed in the resurrection of the dead, but she didn't want to be separated from her brother now. She didn't want to wait. She was angry at Jesus for not being there when she thought he should have been there. Jesus moves beyond this. He's talking about now-not what might have been or could have been. He is challenging Martha to put her trust in him rather than in some theological propositions that she had been told about.
We're talking about times when the creed won't do. We're talking about the presence of God in our hearts in the now. We're not talking about intellectual answers, but rather a peace that is beyond our understanding. What we're seeking in a funeral or memorial service, after the personal sharing, the expressing of thankfulness to God for a life, after we've heard the Gospel, read the Psalms, we're seeking a Savior to go with us. We're seeking one to stand with us as we cannot stand by ourselves. We're talking about a new, living relationship, not a philosophy or theology.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, "Faith for me is a dangling modifier. When people tell me they have faith, I want to ask, 'Faith in what? Faith in what will happen?' Day by day I encounter events that draw me deeper into these questions. Results, I hope, are not a set of beliefs but an openness to wonder."
Lazarus' being called from the grave and coming out is a bold reminder of God's power to transform our lives today. When in our very lives, we are over-burdened, pressed down, pulled down, pulled apart, can we live again? Can we see beyond what is in our control? Can we get over the anger we feel toward God for seemingly to be absent?
This story from John boldly reminds us Jesus was in control of an uncontrollable situation. Those gathered beside the grave saw no hope. Jesus shattered the barriers between Lazarus and a new day. We are challenged to set our goals on what God can do through us, the difference in what we are and what we might be. We envision a better world as Ann Weems wrote about in "Reaching for the Rainbows":
I keep reaching for the rainbows.
Thinking one morning
The hungry will be fed,
The dying held,
The maimed walking,
The angry stoked,
The violence stroked,
The oppressed freed,
The oppressors changed,
and every tear wiped away.
Someone has said that at the close of this life the questions will not be:
How much have you gotten, but how much have you given?
Not how much you have won, but how much you have done.
Not how much you have saved, but how much have you sacrificed?
Michelangelo left many of his statues unfinished on purpose. One of them depicts a man with his arms and legs protruding out of a massive block of granite, but the rest of the man is hardly formed. Perhaps Michelangelo wanted to remind us, like those statues, we are all unfinished products. We're like Lazarus-being called to a new day even when the situation seems hopeless. We can trust in Jesus, maybe not on our time schedule, but on his.
George Matheson was a young seminary student in Scotland who lost his sight. His fiancÃ©e broke off their engagement. He struggled to finish his education and was assigned to a small, rural parish. It would have been so easy to grow bitter, so easy to have seen no future, but listen to the third verse of the hymn he wrote years later when he wrote, "O Love That Will Not Let Me Go."
O joy that seekest me through pain
I cannot close my heart to thee.
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel the promise is not in vain
That morn shall tearless be.
Let me repeat the theme of our Gospel story. Jesus is in charge. It is not our timing or what we might think of as good timing, but it is his timing. Resurrection is not something to wait for until Easter, not some forthcoming day in some undetermined future. Resurrection is now. Anytime Jesus arrives, the dead are set loose. Jesus doesn't ring his hands over death or blame or deny. He moves out to the cemetery in order that the stone should be rolled away. Ever practical, down-to-earth Martha notes that Lazarus had been in there for a good four days, and in the words of the King James translation, "By this time, he stinketh." When Jesus shows up, we like Martha, have a hard time with the unusual, the awkward, the unexpected.
One year at an Easter service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, as was their custom, the service began with the bishop standing outside the door, rapping on the front door. The door is then to be swung open and a glorious Easter processional begun. This particular time the bishop was wearing a wireless microphone. Before he rapped on the door announcing, "Christ is risen!" the microphone was turned on so all the worshipers heard the bishop say, "This is awkward." Easter is awkward. Life coming into death at any time, anywhere, is awkward.
What Jesus was doing was signing his own arrest warrant. It was all down hill now. Down toward darkness, down toward his death on the cross. In the very next chapter of John, even one of the 12 is preparing to sell him out; the authorities are plotting to kill Jesus, to kill Lazarus. When Jesus shows up, we don't always respond with open hearts and open minds. Repeating what I said at first, "What are the hard times when we're dealing with more than we can handle?" Martha and Mary were overwhelmed with the death of their brother, and the seeming tardiness of Jesus, the one they'd all put so much trust in. It had been a great act of courage to open their home to him, the risk being very similar to those in Iraq who are willing to work toward the day when that nation is a democracy. And despite their faithfulness, he had let their brother die. Maybe on their lips were the ancient words of the Psalmist, "Out of the depths, I cry to you. Oh, Lord, Lord, hear my voice."
There's a story from Lithuania about 15 or 20 years ago when a group of young soldiers fled the Soviet army seeking refuge in a hospital. The president of little Lithuania told the frightened young men, "Go to the churches. It's your only hope." I don't know about the churches, but I know about the master of the church. When one is overwhelmed, when life or death is more than we can deal with, go to him, trust in him.
There's an old tale that Pat fell from the scaffolding on a construction job and was knocked unconscious. Mike ran for the doctor. The doctor came, he took one look at Pat and said, "He's dead." Just then Pat came to and heard what the doctor was saying. Bleary-eyed, he said, "I ain't dead." "Lay down, Pat," said Mike. "Lay down. The doctor knows best."
The challenge of the story of Lazarus' and his sisters' encounter with Jesus is to stop depending on just yourself or what the world has to offer but rather trust in Jesus in times it seems to be going right and those that are terribly wrong. In medieval times lead cups were often used to drink ale. But the combination of lead and alcohol frequently resulted in a chemical reaction that sent the drinker into a temporary coma, sometimes lasting a few days. Therefore, it became a common practice if a body was found to prepare it for burial and let it lay on the kitchen table for a couple of days. As it lay there, friends and family waited to see if the person would wake up. This is said to be the origin of the custom of holding a wake. But we don't expect the one thought dead to wake up. This drama is a powerful moment in the life of Jesus. It is unforgettable. Imagine for a moment: A funeral director closes a casket, seals it by turning a little crank, and then slips the handle into his pocket. Does he take it to the graveside? Probably, but let's suppose we're gathered for the committal prayers and there's a knocking on the inside. We could leave, but we stay to see. We turn to the funeral director standing over to the side, the floral spray is taken off, slowly he turns the handle. Can you imagine what will go through our minds as the person we thought of as a corpse stands up and looks around? That we can never forget that moment would be an understatement. This is just what happened to Martha and Mary and the little village of Bethany. The one great difference is not from within the grave the miracle occurs, but rather by the power of the presence of Christ. When Jesus shows up, the script changes.
Augusta Wilson, in "The Wisdom of the African World," says, "Death ain't nothing. Death ain't nothing but a fast ball on the outside corner. You get one of those fast balls about waist high, over the outside corner of the plate where you can get the meat of the bat on it, and you can kiss it goodbye."
We can live in a new way when we are both aware that he is with us and we can trust our very lives with his guidance. Bishop Will Willimon in his book "Resident Aliens: Life of the Christian Colony" wrote that this story demands an offensive rather than a defensive posture by the church. The world and all its resources, anguish, gifts, and groaning is God's world, and God commands what God has created. Jesus Christ is the supreme act of divine intrusion into the world's settled arrangement. In Christ, God refuses to stay in his place. We claim from this story the power of Jesus to call us out where we are buried, buried in our fears, our pain, our grief, our worries, life's pressures.
Edwin Marchman wrote, "Did he call Lazarus from death's abyss? Did he change water into wine that day? Yes, but his greatest miracle is this-to make a Christian from our common clay."
We're challenged to believe that it is never too late to allow our dream to hope to live again to respond as Lazarus and to come forth to live. Listen to the ancient words of the Psalmist, "I wait for the Lord. My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning. O, Israel, hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is steadfast love and with him is great power to redeem."
Let us claim the hope that whatever the time, wherever the place, it is the right time for Jesus to be with us.
Let us pray.
O gracious God, so often we find ourselves pressed by life but forgetting the hope and the power that comes from thee. Let us know that no matter how dark the day or hopeless the situation, you will be with us and in your time you will deliver us. Amen.