Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent 03/29/20
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 29, 2020
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Lazarus was not sleeping. He wasn’t stunned. He wasn’t resting, or pining for the fjords. Lazarus was stone dead. He was no more. He’d ceased to be. He was a stiff, bereft of life; his metabolic processes were a matter of interest only to historians. He’d shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible. He was an ex-Lazarus.
And that’s just how Jesus wanted it. Not in and of itself, of course. Death is never God’s will, and Jesus counted Lazarus as a good friend, but the death of Lazarus represented an opportunity to accomplish something more important than getting his friend back. The deader Lazarus was, the greater the opportunity to increase the community’s faith in Jesus. Jesus had already performed miraculous healings, and still, most people did not believe, or were too tentative in their faith. The faith of his own closest disciples was still too weak for the more difficult days that lay immediately ahead.
For all we know, Lazarus might have preferred to stay dead. Some have speculated that leaving whatever peace he might have found in the grave, or the act of crossing back from death to life, or the realization that someday he would have to endure dying all over again, would have put him off the idea. But increasing the faith of his disciples and the other witnesses was more important than acceding to a dead man’s hypothetical wishes. Because this miracle, strictly speaking, isn’t about Lazarus, for the same reason the Gospel isn’t about Lazarus, or Mary and Martha, or the religious authorities. It’s all about Jesus.
In raising Lazarus, and raising him the way he did, Jesus revealed several important things about God. Jesus showed us that God acts with God’s timing, not the timing we might like. Mary and Martha would have liked Jesus to show up on their schedule, but no. As a Christian Arab from Galilee I once met put it, “Us men from Galilee do not make appointments, we make appearances.”
Jesus also showed us that when God wants us to know something, nothing will stand in God’s way. Jesus showed us that we can be his friends, that he will hear our prayers. Jesus certainly showed us that God is sovereign over life and death, although the glory of the raising of Lazarus is far outshone by that of the resurrection. But the most exciting thing Jesus shows us about God is how compassionate God is toward us.
John tells us how deeply Jesus was moved by the grief of his friends, a grief that would have endured through each day Jesus had put off his arrival. And in his own right, Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Jesus himself began to weep, even though he had deliberately waited until Lazarus was four-days-dead, and even though he had done so in order to return him to life. Jesus not only shares our pain, he enters into it. When Martha, in her sorrow, expresses a glimmer of faith, Jesus is right there, challenging her to take the risk of faithful hope. And she takes him up on the dare. That’s what saints are made of.
Jesus is there for us, and indeed with us, in the darkest depths of our lives, just as he was there for his friend at his grave. He also invited the eyewitnesses to participate in the miracle. I don’t think this part of the story gets enough attention. Jesus could have unbound Lazarus himself, or made the bindings vanish, or given Lazarus the strength to break them himself. Not only would any of those have been anticlimactic or “gilding the lily,” they also would have deprived Lazarus’s family of the opportunity to take part in this awesome event.
More than that, though, this part of the story reminds us that even miracles do not completely reveal the glory of God. Rather, God longs for us to respond to God’s love with our own love of God and neighbor, and for us to express that love freely and faithfully, in ways that make sense in our particular circumstances.
This coronavirus pandemic might have us feeling as if we’re Lazarus, wrapped and trapped in the tombs of our homes. But come on. We are neither hopeless nor helpless. Our homes are abodes of the living, not the dead. And while we may not know just how long we’ll have to stay home, we know that some day we will walk out again, under our own power.
Rather, if there is an analogy to be made, our role is more like that of Mary and Martha, or whoever else obeyed Jesus’s command to “Unbind him, and let him go.” Rather than unbinding a man, though, as he always does, Jesus calls us to unbind our hearts from fear and despair, and our minds from self-absorption. For Jesus is not merely an historical figure nor a silent companion, but a powerful, active presence with a discrete and discernible will, doing as much for us as we will allow him to do. That is why it is so important to believe, why Jesus and his followers have gone to such great lengths to convince us of who Jesus is. Not because our opinions will get us into heaven someday, but because our faith will let us participate in the life, and will, and power of Christ right now.
We live, and we live in hope that God is not done bringing life out of death, but what we know about God’s reasons for doing that suggests that we should embrace the freedom Christ has given us and use this time of waiting constructively and graciously. That can mean many different things, just as faithfulness meant many different things to the disciples. We can respond to God’s love and express our faith with so many different practices of grace. For some of us, it will be cutting some slack to the person we’re cooped up with. For others, checking in on other people. For others, giving. For all, I hope, prayer.
God’s grace will let us follow Christ’s example of dauntless courage. Despite the unusual circumstances that have upended our lives, we will continue telling the sacred stories that have increased the faith of Christians in every generation and walking the sacred story of the liturgical year. We don’t know how long this crisis will last or what the final cost will be, but we know that Christ will remain faithful to us and as active in us as we allow him to be. So pray that the same Christ will speak to us, comfort us, heal and strengthen us, turn our hearts, enliven our souls, and make us ready to meet him, whenever, wherever, and however he may come.
Morning Prayer Rite 1
Morning Prayer Rite 2