Once upon a time there was a beginning to time and creation. At some point in the future there will be a culmination of God's purposes in his creation. But in between the beginning and the end, there are many different kinds of moments. At any moment in our world, someone is crying. At any moment, someone is laughing. At any moment, someone is yelling, someone is whispering. At any moment someone is being lifted up and someone else is being torn down. At any moment in our world someone is rejoicing and someone is mourning. At any moment someone is finding and someone is losing. At any moment someone is being born and someone is dying. At any moment.
We come today to a specific moment which hangs between life and death. It is a moment that Jesus prolongs deliberately. It is a moment where some cry, some hope, some believe and some criticize. It is a moment of waiting between death and resurrection. It is a moment which tells the story to God's people about what happens with us in the in-between times.
Jesus' close friend Lazarus had been very ill. And when Jesus heard of his illness from Lazarus' two sisters, Mary and Martha, he did not rush to Lazarus' side. Instead, Jesus waited for two days and then he traveled to Bethany. By the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days and buried. Martha and then Mary come to Jesus with a greeting and a reproach, saying, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." The sisters' request had been ignored apparently. The problem was not a lack of faith. Both women believed in Jesus and in who he was. The disconcerting problem was that Jesus had not shown up in time to save the man's life.
We don't always know why God does things the way he does. And there are many ways to look at this story. But today we will consider just one angle--that God teaches us something about what it's like to live in in-between times, and what we do in in-between times.
We know that there are many beautiful and good things about our world. But we also live with the reality that this is a fallen world and many things about creation and humanity are broken, not quite right, and even downright evil. The Bible promises that one day everything will be put right and we will be whole again. But until that day, we live in in-between times, waiting for our hopes to be fulfilled. We wait to see our loved ones who have passed on through death. We wait for the scars and wounds we carry around inside to be completely healed. Do you ever still feel the pain from some past hurt? Every once in a while I do. We wait for our sinful natures to stop battling with us and for the time to come when we won't have to put such effort into choosing the good way. We wait for a closeness to God that is tangible and visible and right in front of us without all the walls we build in the way to block the view. For these things and other things, we wait. It is an in-between time.
As Jesus approaches Lazarus' tomb, we realize that it is an in-between time for him also. God did not have to put himself into such a time, but he did. Jesus is at a moment between life and the death that awaits him on the cross. And even though he will rise again, just as he will resurrect Lazarus, that fact does not negate the pain and suffering and dying that he will choose to walk through for our sakes.
What does God show us about in-between times as he waits in his own in-between time? Let's take a look at Jesus.
One of the things Jesus does in the in-between time is weep. In the in-between time there are tears. No matter how sure we are of God's promises and how strong our hopes are, God's people will still be moved to tears. When John says that Jesus was deeply moved and troubled, his words literally mean that Jesus groaned violently and was shaken to the very depths of his being. Weeping is not a sign of a lack of faith. Mary and Martha and God as a human himself wept tears at the pain and struggle and sorrow of the in-between times. It is okay to cry.
Whether we find ourselves at a funeral (even of a Christian) or witnessing some injustice or hearing bad news on the television, God's people will find themselves in tears. There is a lot to mourn in our lives. Jesus knew that he had the power to raise Lazarus. He knew that Lazarus was safe in heaven with God at that very moment. And yet still he wept.
We live with hope in our future. But here and now we live with the reality of the confusion and chaos of our world. There are times in the in between when we will find ourselves in tears. In the in-between time, there are tears.
In the in-between time there is also work. Even as Jesus gave earthly life back to Lazarus, Lazarus was just one man. And Jesus still had the cross ahead of him. But it is interesting that Jesus gave others work to do. In the in-between time, God's people have work to do. Jesus could have raised Lazarus any way he wanted to. Instead, he chose to ask others to roll the stone away. He chose to resurrect Lazarus with his grave clothes on, and then he asked others to help take off the linen shroud.
God seems to be like that--always seeking human cooperation in accomplishing his purposes. He doesn't have to. He chooses to. Jesus told his disciples and us to follow him. To love as he loved. To serve as he served. To lay down our lives for others just like he did. It is a serious calling that honors us. We are invited to join God in his work of redemption--to be part of his church and help roll stones away and remove grave clothes from people in this world who are entombed in fear or loneliness or failure or resentment or wounds. We don't raise people to new life in Christ. But God lets us help. God lets us help. That is the privilege and purpose he gives us, and it is not to be taken lightly.
People who know me know that I'm really big on church commitment. It's not an idea that originated with me. I had nothing to do with it. Making a decision to join a church and be active--to live your life with a specific group of Christians, to learn about love by loving and being loved, to join gifts and abilities in ministry, to commit to a life of service in all of life, not just on Sunday--is important because the church is God's vehicle for bringing people to salvation. Church is God's idea and God's invitation to join something bigger than ourselves and what's going on in our own lives. Church is God's idea of growing us up into the richest experience of salvation and, along the way, telling the story to others who might also find God as the answer to all their questions and longings. Church is who will feed the hungry and bind up the brokenhearted and speak words of life and lay down her life. Church is where we roll the stones away and take off each other's grave clothes and then joyfully and faithfully do the same for others in our world because as we obey Jesus' commands, we get to witness life come from death. In the in-between time there is work to do.
In the in-between time there are tears. In the in-between time there is work to do. And in the in-between time there are hopes. There are hopes. Whenever I hear of some goodness, I begin to know hope. This week a friend listened patiently and compassionately to another friend. This week a parent brought out the best in her child. This week a neighbor looked after another's house. This week in the city a surgeon saved a man's life. This week a police officer prevented someone from being killed. This week a kind word was spoken, someone gave up some time to nurse a relative, and a brother and sister made up. This week, a father was forgiven and a couple was reunited. Whenever we witness or experience joy or beauty or goodness, we catch a taste of what is to come.
Our hopes are all pinned on that time that is described in Revelation 21 where we will hear Jesus call to us, "Come forth from the in-between time to the now," where God will be with us face to face; and he will wipe away our tears and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. Everything will be made new and we will have a place with God and there will be light and there will not be any need or want because we will be fulfilled.
Paul tells us in Ephesians that when we believed, we were given God's Holy Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance as sons and daughters of God. It is God's Spirit which keeps alive in us a hope and a certainty and a longing for what is to come.
In the in-between times, God's people live with hope for what is to come. And it doesn't matter if others doubt or scoff or question or give up their hopes, as some did outside Lazarus' tomb, and even after he was raised.
In the book Fresh Packet of Sower's Seeds, Brian Cavanaugh recounts a little story about a snail who had a vision. One raw, windy day in spring, a snail started to climb a cherry tree. Some birds in a nearby tree sniped their ridicule. "Hey, you dumb snail," squawked one of them, "where do you think you're going?" "Why are you climbing that tree?" others chimed in. "There are no cherries on it." "There will be some by the time I get there," replied the snail.
As Jesus walked into Jerusalem, not long after he raised Lazarus from the dead, and as he continued steadily into the heart of conflict and hatred, into accusations and false witnesses, into whippings and beatings and thorns and nails and swords, there were those who squawked, "Hey, you dumb man, where do you think you're going? Why are you hanging from that tree? Nobody is with you. They've all deserted you and you are all alone. Where are your followers now? But he continued to hang and then he continued to die. He didn't stop the process. He didn't save himself. He continued on into death and the tomb because he knew that if he continued on through that tomb to the other side, everything he desired for us would be waiting there for us by the time we got there too.
God's people can be ridiculed in the in-between time. God's people can snipe at themselves and each other for being so slow to believe or commit or get moving. But the beauty of all of this is that God is the one who walks with us in the in-between time. God is with us weeping and working and hoping we'll come along as he does what only he can do. And as we creep along, creep along, creep along, God is the one who will make sure that everything we are creeping towards will be there in all its fullness--a city of gold through which runs a river of life which is bordered by the tree of life, bearing 12 crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations.
We live in an in-between time where there are tears, there is work, and there are hopes. And in the in-between time, at any moment, someone is crying and someone is laughing. At any moment someone is yelling and someone is whispering. At any moment someone is being lifted up and someone else is being torn down. At any moment in our world, someone is rejoicing and someone is mourning. At any moment someone is finding and someone is losing. At any moment someone is being born and someone is dying.
Don't give up at any moment. Keep going at any moment. Hang on at any moment. Rejoice in any moment. Because also at any moment Jesus may come back for us. At any moment we will hear the trumpet sound. At any moment God's voice will beckon us to his living presence. At any moment our tears will be wiped away, our work will be done, our hopes will be realized. At any moment we will be healed and whole and home. At any moment. Any moment. Amen.
Dear God, we place our hope in your word and your promise that one day all things will be made right; but until that time, enable us to walk faithfully with you. In your Son's name we pray. Amen.