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Sunday, November 4, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Faith is not the religion of theoretical judgments but a way of life.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, the Judeans who were in her house followed her, because they thought she was going to the tomb to weep. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, Jesus was still in the place where Martha had met him; he hadn’t even made it into the village. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, it was because Martha had whispered into her ear, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, a lot had already happened.
The Judeans living in Jerusalem had come for the seven-day mourning period; Martha and Jesus had already shared on the road an urgent back-and-forth full of heavy words. Important conversations and revelations were already past when Mary came where Jesus was and saw him.
Lazarus’s illness and swift passing has already happened. Jesus knew that by the time Mary came where he was and saw him, because the sisters sent word of it to him. He decided to stay put, miles away, for two whole days. He’d said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” He loved Lazarus. He loved Martha and Mary, too. Still, he’d permitted a four-day delay in his arrival by the time Mary came where Jesus was and saw him.
There is a history behind this meeting. Meaningful things, troubling things, have been happening well before the verse that begins our reading, with its concrete location and memorable dialogue. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she brought with her questions and hurts from all the things that had already happened. And so did he.
None of us ever come to Jesus out of nowhere. Neither the death-bed convert nor the cradle Presbyterian are a blank slate to Jesus. By the time we come to the places in our lives where Jesus is and we see him, so much has already happened, so much of our own doing and so much the doing of others who have left a legacy for us to live into.
We’ve lost people. We’ve been lost. We’ve been found. We’ve found ourselves, found our purpose, then forgot it, then maybe found a different one. We’ve been dragged to Jesus kicking and screaming and we’ve come running like some runaway prodigal.
But it all happens, and we bring all of it with us when we come to Jesus for the first time, just like we do when we come to Jesus that final time and all the times in between.
As we come to Jesus here in this early hour I want to acknowledge just how much, for each of us, has already happened. It all matters.
So it’s a fraught encounter, isn’t it? I know we come to church for some peace. We need this time and this space to provide a respite, a sanctuary from all of the turmoil in our lives and in the news. Bills. Doctor visits. Flat tires. That leaky faucet. Homework. Soccer practice. Work. I talked to someone recently who was out of her office for three days and returned to 400 emails. 400.
I hear from lots of people how church, for them, needs to provide an escape from the strain that characterizes the rest of their week, a strain that is only made worse by the machinations of our electoral politics (there’s an election Tuesday, if you haven’t heard), and what seems like a rising tide of division and anger, hatred even—violent, racist, anti-Semitic hatred even—for viewing on CNN or Fox or MSNBC or anywhere, whenever you pull your phone from your pocket.
Amidst all of this, can Jesus not be an escape? Can we not come here in the quiet of the morning to whisper our prayers and praise our Maker in a soothing melody? It’s a reasonable, perhaps even spiritual, thing to desire from our worship, as from our entire life in God: some serenity for the chaos, some spirituality for the grind.
I want it too.
Yet I can’t get past all the distress that spills out all over the place when Mary comes to where Jesus is and sees him.
She falls at Jesus’ feet and blurts out, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” It’s a grenade of a thing to say to someone when a person you both loved has died.
It’s coming from the crowds too, of course. They’re whispering among one another, wondering aloud why the same man who was able to restore sight to a blind man was unable to prevent Lazarus from dying. Some of them might have been there when Jesus did that, just as some of them might have been there when he turned water into wine at that wedding in Cana or when he healed that man who’d been sick for thirty-eight years or when he’d fed five thousand people with some barley loaves and a few fish.
The mourners who followed Mary out of the house when she bolted out to meet Jesus, because they thought she was going to the tomb, are part of the scene, too, all weeping and wailing. You have to imagine the context of funeral grief in the Mediterranean world: it’s not the stoic affair we tend to make of it. I imagine loud crying and moaning in a kind of chain reaction among the mourners.
It is a scene of raw emotion. It’s not peaceful.
And it gets to Jesus. He is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. These are complicated emotional words in Greek, the language of the New Testament. They mean more than just sad. There’s a tinge of anger in what Jesus is experiencing as he absorbs Mary’s accusation and feels her tugging at his ankles, as he observes the diverted glances and shrugging shoulders of the bystanders, and as the pitiful moans of grief coming from the mourners wash over him in waves there on the road.
He weeps. It’s the shortest verse in all the Bible. John 11:35. “Jesus began to weep” (or, in the more concise King James, “Jesus wept”). Jesus has presented as totally in control from the moment he learned that Lazarus was sick. He took his time getting there, and he spoke blithely to his disciples about the whole affair. “Meh. Lazarus is asleep. I’ll wake him up.” Even in his conversation with Martha here in this same spot he’d maintained the philosopher’s tone: “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.” Just the way we read that at funerals makes you imagine Jesus hovering six inches off the ground as he says it.
Well, his feet are firmly on the ground now. They’ve been pulled there by Mary and the crowd and all the mourners. Jesus stands in the middle of all the distress, and he takes it into himself. He is as affected by the loss and the grief and the anguish as everyone else is.
I think the anguish of it all is tied up with the miracle of it. It is tempting to see Jesus’ emotion as something separate from his miracle, like he had his moment of human frailty there on the road but then pulled his divine self together and did the God-work there at the tomb. But I don’t think that’s right.
The power of God is not something separate from the human affect. Paul writes in Romans that the power of God is “made perfect” in human weakness, so I don’t think we can separate out the anguish of Jesus from the power of God in the Lazarus miracle, or anywhere else.
The writer of Genesis depicts God as one who sees the wickedness of the human God has created and feels remorse for having created it. “It grieved God to the heart,” it says.
The words to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus are that God has “observed” the misery of the Hebrews in Egypt and “heard” their cry. “Indeed,” God says, “I know their sufferings.”
The power of God to heal our lives and our world is not a different thing from the vulnerability of God that permits the Creator to know the sufferings weighing the creation down. The pockmarks of war and the floods of refugees fleeing violence and poverty—God knows them and God’s power is not absent from them.
The power of Jesus over death is not a different thing from the tightening of his jaw and the deepening of his breath as he stands before his friend’s grave. They are the same thing. God knows the threat of death—as God—and God’s power is not absent in the face of that threat.
And by that one thing—the power of God—Lazarus is raised. Death is not the last word. Love wins.
You can’t make this stuff up.
I say that because it seems made up, right? How else are we to take a story about a person who died and who then, four days later, was brought back to life? How else are we to square such assertions with the world of facts and science we know from our own experience?
Those concerns don’t seem to trouble John’s author. The miracle itself is related with so little detail—”he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out”—and ends so abruptly—”Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”—that you wonder how much the Gospel writer really wants us to focus on it at all.
To the degree that other people in the story react to it, their reaction is not to poke holes in the science of it but to take it rather seriously. Many of them take it back to Jerusalem and the religious authorities, almost in a panic: “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
What about us, though? Well, maybe we’re not so different from these people in the end.
Martha is living in a fact-based world, for sure. When Jesus asks that the stone be removed from Lazarus’s tomb, Martha feels compelled to remind him that Lazarus has been in there four days and that there will no doubt be a smell (here again the King James translation wins the day: “He stinketh”). She is as on board with Jesus as anyone. She said earlier, “I believe you are the messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” That belief is one thing. Biology is another.
Jesus’ answer to that concern is telling, because he doesn’t promise a miracle, precisely. It’s not really about the miracle, is it? Jesus does a lot of miracles in the Gospels—especially the Gospel of John—and they all kind of point beyond themselves to something or someone more important. So Jesus answers Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
This is about our need to see the glory of God. It’s not about a powerful enough sign to convince us of Jesus’ authenticity. It’s about a life true enough to convey the glory of God to our present circumstances, which seem so inglorious so much of the time. This is about the fundamental claim made in the very beginning of John’s Gospel, that “The Word became flesh and lived among us” and that we have seen his glory.
For Martha, belief meant seeing through events to the glory behind them. What does it mean for us? When we gather around this story, and then gather around this table, with this bread and this cup, how does belief enable us to see the glory of God?
What if this bread is more than just bread? What if it’s a glorious sign of nourishment for all God’s children? And what if the cup is more than pottery? What if it, too, is a glorious sign but of common life all God’s children are invited to partake of? What if the table is more than a table but a glorious representation of God’s welcome and abundance, seen as all the more glorious in times when voices of exclusion and fear and menace sound the loudest?
If we believe, we can see the glory of God. That’s a very different gift than being convinced of the X’s and O’s of a miracle.
May God give us eyes to see that glory and hearts to believe it. Amen.