Is seeing really believing?

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The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Lent 5, Year A
John 11:1-45
April 6, 2014

Listen while you read…

To be honest with you, I have really struggled with writing the sermon for today’s Gospel text. I wrestled with it for two weeks, trying over and over to write something and then throwing it out. This is our fifth Sunday in the Season of Lent, and today we are invited to reflect on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

At first glance, I think we would all say that this is a happy story, that there is so much to celebrate here: the promise and hope of new life through Jesus’ power over death—a very appropriate theme to hold as we prepare to enter into Holy Week in only a few days.

But I struggled with this text. I kept bouncing back and forth between the characters in today’s Gospel. There are so many points-of-view in the text, and I bet that each of us resonates with different characters given whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, in our lives. Take a quick glance at the complexity of the story itself:

There is Mary and Martha. Their brother has died. I imagine the three of them being so close, and suddenly, their big brother dies and they are left alone. They of course struggle to make sense of what his death means. They are friends with Jesus. They know the Lord—literally—and both of them wonder how this could happen to them—or how Jesus could allow this to happen. Each of them has the opportunity to tell Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” and they do so. We feel their pain, as we too remember those times in our lives when we have experienced the death of a loved one….and we have wondered what it means….where God was.

And the questions we have as we peer into their lives are:

Really? If Jesus had been there, would Lazarus not died? Is that how God works, to swoop in and fix all our problems? What does it mean that we practice our faith, try to live good lives, and still experience death and loss? It’s complex, isn’t it?

And, then, there is Lazarus himself, his point-of-view. He had been ill, this friend of Jesus. I kept struggling with the text here, because I wondered if Lazarus kept imagining where Jesus was. He had gotten to know Jesus, and he knew what hope and promise that Jesus brought. Jesus had been in their home, when Mary had used her hair to anoint Jesus’ feet with oil. He had witnessed Jesus firsthand, this embodiment of new life, of the Kingdom of God.

But now he was sick. Did he want Jesus to be there? Did he wonder where Jesus was? Did he wonder how this could happen to him? Did he wonder why Jesus didn’t come and help him, his friend? I know it’s reading into the text. We don’t know what Lazarus thought or felt, but I think it’s alright to name out loud what we wonder, because we know we feel these same things.
We know we have these feelings in our own lives… How many times have we wondered where Jesus was? How many times have we found ourselves powerless? Ill? In pain, in distress…..and we wonder where God is in the midst of all that. It’s complex, isn’t it?

Then, there are the disciples, always seeming to doubt and wonder if this can really be real. When Jesus tells them that they need to go back to Judea because “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep,” they seem outright dense. “Lord, if he’s gone to sleep, I think he’ll be alright. Why in the world do we need to go to Judea to see him if he’s taking a nap? And, in case you forgot, the Jews there just tried to stone you the last time we were there.”

Dense. Jesus has to tell them outright that Lazarus has died. And, Thomas, taking the “Debbie Downer” role of the day, says to the group, “Let’s get going, so we can all die with him.” No one voted Thomas “most optimistic” when the disciples had their yearbooks!

Don’t we feel like the disciples sometimes? Don’t we miss the point? Don’t we bumble along, missing the broader perspective on what God just might be up to in our lives? Don’t we struggle even as we hope—we know—that there is something more, that God is real….but we just can’t see it sometimes….we can’t imagine it… It’s complex, isn’t it?

And then there are the Jews, this other group who has another perspective. They did not think that Jesus was the herald or the embodiment of the Kingdom of God. They did now know Jesus in the way that Martha, Mary and Lazarus did, in the way the disciples did. And, we know that they had recently tried to stone Jesus when he was I Bethany the last time, so to say they have doubts about Jesus is an enormous understatement. Many of them just outright don’t trust him. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” they say. He is threatening to them, this new perspective in their midst, challenging their religious beliefs, their seemingly coherent systems. They are suspicious of what he says is possible—just like the disciples are in so many ways!

Aren’t we a good bit like them sometimes? Don’t we have our suspicions about what really might be possible? About what really might be true? Don’t we struggle when something—when God—challenges our well-constructed religious systems that we have worked so hard to put together? It’s complex, isn’t it?

So many perspectives in this story. So many points-of-view: Mary and Martha; Lazarus; the disciples; the Jews. Each with their struggles and expectations of how God should act, how God CAN act. And we each resonate with their points-of-view. We have each faced struggles in our lives—some of us severe illnesses with the possibility of death. We have all had a loved one die. We have all struggled and maybe had prayers that sounded like this: “why did this have to happen God if you had acted this wouldn’t have happened Jesus where are you how could this have happened to me I’ve been a good person and now all this I didn’t think this would be this way.” We have all felt the pinch of having our beliefs shaken, maybe even shattered outright. We have all struggled with doubt…

To put a fine point on it: we have all wrestled with the possibility of resurrection, of new life, of understanding life anew… At least I know I have. I know it’s true. I’ve experienced glimpses of it. I’ve sat with folks who have recounted events in their lives that, to me, could only mean that God is real and that the hope that Jesus offers is true….is trustworthy. But I struggle…I struggle to live into what I say I believe.

But then there is Jesus. Do we dare to imagine the story from Jesus’ point-of-view. He and Lazarus are friends, and he gets this message from his friends Martha and Mary that Lazarus is quite ill. But from the outset, Jesus has a different take on the situation, and, interestingly, he offers us a brief glimpse of his greater perspective: “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.” And then—shockingly to us—Jesus stayed where he was two more days! How could he not drop everything and run?!
And, suddenly in the text we see that Jesus becomes aware that Lazarus has died, and he tells the disciples that they need to go to Judea. Lazarus has died, Jesus tells them, and he wants the disciples to witness what will happen. “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” He is inviting them into a greater possibility…there’s something about Jesus’ broader perspective.

Martha meets him on the road when she hears that he is coming, and she tells him that it is too late. He’s already dead, four days now. And he invites her in to the greater perspective: “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.”
What does it mean that if we believe in Jesus we won’t die? How could that be possible? When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus didn’t just keep on living. He isn’t alive today, hiding out somewhere (although I did read a book one time that had Lazarus be a vampire who was hidden somewhere in Europe). No, Lazarus died—again. So, what does that mean, that he was raised to life only to die again, possibly of old age?

And that’s where I find myself at this point with the text: wanting to look at it from another perspective—from the perspective of trust. Jesus tells us that there is a relationship between belief and everlasting life. But these are complex realities. It is not easy, this belief. It is not easy to understand, this eternal life. But I think it’s true.
I think we can be changed, that we can share in these experiences in our life that shake our foundations and open our eyes to see a broader perspective—that God really does “have the whole world in his hands.” And I trust that.

The text says that many folks who witnessed Lazarus walking out of that tomb all bound up and stinking but alive…that they believed in Jesus. Their hearts had been opened to this new reality that was in their midst. They had found something that they could place their trust in, something that they could take refuge in, someone that they could hope in….something greater, Someone More.
We may not have all the answers. We are not meant to. More and more I have come to see that God surpasses our understandings…our limitations….our doubts and fears….even our despair. God loves us through it all, reaches out to us as we are bound by the limitations of this life, as we each are in whatever tomb we find ourselves in. And just like he did to Lazarus as he saw him stumbling out of the tomb, Jesus speaks and says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

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