Sunday, March 29, 2020 – Lent 5
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he 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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
I used to love a good theological argument, especially when I was in seminary. My friends and I would gather for some food and then stay up until the wee hours of the morning, debating and arguing the minutiae of what we thought we knew. But once I got into the parish; once I started to deal with real people’s problems; once I started to deal with my own problems, well, then it just seemed like a colossal waste of time to argue about what we could not possibly be sure of.
Our lives and our faith are full of ambiguity. And ambiguity is always a tough sell in world looking for the next sure thing. It’s a tough sell in the midst of a global pandemic. People want answers and people of faith want a faith that speaks directly to the crisis of our time. They want a God who intervenes. This week alone, I read about a charlatan TV preacher selling a coronavirus cure. I saw a politician claiming that this virus could be eradicated if we would all just repent. Two different approaches, but the same promised result: an answer in the midst of the miasma of this current moment. An answer.
One day, Jesus received word that his friend Lazarus was desperately ill. Lazarus lived with his sisters, Mary and Martha in a village called Bethany, about two miles outside of Jerusalem. One day, Lazarus developed an odd cough. That night, a fever shook him. And with each passing day, he got weaker. Finally, in full-blown panic mode, the sisters sent for their friend Jesus. Surely, he would have an answer.
But despite the closeness of their friendship, Jesus delayed going to Bethany. He delayed and said something odd about the illness of Lazarus being an avenue for the glory of God. But then Lazarus died. And when Jesus heard that he had died, he stayed where he was for two more days while the sisters grieved and wondered where their answer was.
When Jesus finally traveled to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. And that’s a significant detail because Judaism at the time taught that the spirit of the deceased lingered on earth for four days before passing the point of no return. In other words, all hope was gone.
When Martha heard that Jesus was approaching the village, she ran out to meet him on the road. She ran, powered by grief and anger, excitement and frustration. She ran, and as she ran, she wept. When she got to Jesus, she erupted: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!” And then perhaps, in much quieter voice, she said, “But I know even now that God will give you whatever you ask.”
And Jesus replied with these famous words: “I am the resurrection and the life…”
Martha latched onto the hope in those words and ran home to get Mary. They returned to Jesus, a group of mourners trailing them. When Mary saw Jesus, she repeated the same accusation: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” And his death hit them all again with a cruel freshness.
When Jesus saw the depth of despair in the sisters’ faces; when he saw the raw anguish of grief, John says that he was deeply moved. The Greek word implies not only that he was moved, but that that he was angry. And I like that detail very much because it is my own experience that grief is often mingled with anger; that fear is often expressed as anger. And seeing this in his friends, evoked the same in Jesus. And Jesus began to weep.
“Jesus wept.” That is one of the most profound theological statements in the New Testament, for if you take the Incarnation at all seriously; if you believe that somehow Jesus is Emmanuel “God with us,” then that means that God, the Sovereign Creator of all that is, is deeply moved by our pain. But God is more than just an observer of our pain. God’s heart breaks at all human suffering. And God weeps great, copious tears.
Some people don’t like to talk about God like that. They want a God who is all powerful and far removed from the human condition. But a weeping God is the only way that this Christian can make sense of the pain of the world. Theological arguments about God’s power and glory cannot comfort me in the midst of my fears and frustrations. But a weeping God who stands beside me; a weeping God who hung on a cross, that image offers me the kind of companionship that comforts me when there are no easy answers.
Of course, the story doesn’t end with weeping. The story of God-with-us never does. Jesus asked that the stone be rolled away from the opening of the cave. And then he cried out in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come forth!” And Lazarus did, still wrapped in his grave clothes, hands and feet tied, face covered with a grave cloth. It must have been quite a sight. And Jesus said: “Unbind him and let him go.”
I have loved this story for as long as I can remember. When I was much younger, I loved it because it spoke of Jesus’s power to save us even from death. But the longer I live; the more grief I experience, the more that God seems to delay in our moments of crisis, I see a more profound truth in this story of the raising of Lazarus. This is the story of a God who does not always arrive in time table we set, but who does come in surprising ways, and always at the right time.
In the church I served in New Jersey, a young man named Doug hurt his knee in a church softball game. It didn’t heal so he finally went for surgery at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan. I went to visit on the day of surgery, but when I entered the room, he and his wife looked stricken. They told me that the doctors had found a malignant tumor on his knee. And not just any tumor. It was a rare and virulent form of cancer with no known treatment anywhere in the world. In two weeks, this young father and husband was dead, leaving a family and a parish in shock.
During those two weeks, I made a lot of trips to the hospital. One day his wife asked me to step into the hallway, and without warning asked me, “Why do you believe in God?” I knew this question was coming directly from her suffering. At in that moment, any theological argument I had ever learned about the problem of suffering was meaningless. All I had, in that moment, was my own experience of God. And I remember that I said something like this: “I don’t believe in God because of anything I have ever read or been taught. I don’t believe in God because of the Bible or because of the church. I believe in God because whenever I have been in the depths of despair, I have known a companioning presence. Sometimes it comes in people. Sometimes it comes in words or in silence. Sometimes it comes in my bittersweet longings and in my tears. And sometimes, God even comes by way of a felt presence. I believe in God because God comes whenever I need God the most.” And her eyes filled with tears and she quietly replied: “Yeah, me too.”
In these unprecedented moments, many of us are afraid. Some of us wonder where God is in the midst of it all. Some of us even feel angry. OK. Because I think that it is in the tears and the questions and the anger that we will find God. The weeping God stands beside us in the midst of our fears. The weeping God wraps us in the everlasting arms as we grieve, and grieves with us. And then, the weeping God stoops down to gather up all the broken pieces of our lives, all those things we count as lost, and from them fashions something new and unexpected. We call that Resurrection.