How The Sermon Turned Out
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
There is a very fine line to walk when talking with friends who are grieving over the death of a loved one. How do you help them be open to God’s grace in their sadness without making it sound like God caused the death to make a point? So often we fail at this task, and our assurance that “God has a plan and there is a reason for everything” comes off as an attempt to suppress the pain and sadness of loss – or worse, we cause them to feel guilty for having their grief at all! Haven’t we felt this as well at times of loss? If we were better, more faithful Christians, then wouldn’t we have more trust in God’s plan? Wouldn’t we be more sure of heaven and be less sad? Wouldn’t we be less afraid of our own deaths if we had more or deeper trust in the resurrection?
Today’s Gospel story can make these kinds of feelings even more difficult for us – because, here from the mouth of Jesus, we hear that God in fact does have a plan and a reason for the death of Lazarus. Jesus – and through him, God – will be glorified through it. But Jesus has much better standing than any of us when talking about God’s purposes – and even with his assurances, Jesus’ closest disciples and friends grieved over the death of Lazarus. Even in the midst of their sadness, those standing outside the tomb that day glimpsed the awesome power of God as the One who gives life – and I have a hunch that they were sharply reminded of the gift that was their own life as well.
Suddenly, this story seems less distant to me. Being near to a death – particularly an untimely and violent death – sparks a particular instinct. It reminds us that life is short and fleeting and unpredictable. Often times when we are close to tragedy, we try to hold on to this idea, and live every moment as it might be our last. How many of us had thoughts like these after the tsunamis in Asia, or the public tragedy of the Lefkow family? When someone we love is given a second chance at life – like Lazarus was – we can feel even more strongly. We make promises to ourselves that we will savor the small things, spend more time on what really matters, and remember to tell our family more often that we love them so that when our time comes – as it most certainly will – we will have fewer regrets. Our whole attitude toward dying – and towards living- changes in times like these.
These changed attitudes – the decisions to live our lives in a different way – are what writer and theologian Frederick Buechner calls Believing. He writes, “Believing God … is less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship. It affects who you are and what you do with you life like believing your house is one fire or somebody loves you. We believe God when somehow we run into God in a way that by and large leaves us no choice to do otherwise”*. Now, with much respect for Mr. Buechner, I believe that we always have some choice of what to do with our belief: we can embrace the encounter, or we can spend a great deal of energy trying to run away from the experience.
The witnesses at the tomb had the same two choices in how they would react, and the Gospel of John goes on to tell us what happened. Some who were there went and told the Pharisees. Jesus had shown them that life was more of an illusion – that even death was not a sure thing as they had once believed. This close encounter with Jesus frightened them so much that they went to the people who could help them, the religious leadership of the Pharisees. Their solution was to try and control the problem – the Gospel of John tells us that it is the raising of Lazarus that directly leads to the plot to have Jesus put to death.
But others who were there that day, we are told, came to believe Jesus. The idea that God was more powerful even than death opened their eyes to a new world, where there was more to life than being alive. They discovered a new sense of hope. This is what the Greek word pistuo, translated as “believe”, really implies - rather than our sense of knowing a fact or having some knowledge, it is to hold in your heart, to claim “this is my hope.”
So what kind of witnesses will we be? We are coming to the end of Lent once again, and once again we will travel to Jerusalem, to Calvary, and to the tomb. We will be given the same choice. We can live lives trying to control the world around us, to fit everything into boxes that we can understand and grasp – living always in the “If onlys” that come from dwelling in the past, or the constant anticipation of the better circumstances that we wait for while trying to dwell in the future. Or, we can choose to live in hope – to rest in the uncertainty – by resting in knowing that God is good, that life is a gift, that the world is bigger than us. This is not the kind of happy optimism that blinds us to the sorrows around us - even Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, even though he already knew that he would rise again. Hope is not fool-proof – as Buechner said, believing is more of a journey than a position. Sometimes we will forget – our grief, our anger, our exhaustion keep us from remembering what it was like to encounter the God who gives us hope. But living in hope means that we keep trying when we fail - measuring our days and minutes in a different way, spending our time in different ways, and putting our trust in the Way.
And that, my friends, is when God is truly glorified. Because God’s glory is less about an awesome display of power and more about how it changes the lives of the people who witness the miracle. When it comes down to it, resurrection isn’t about dying and death, or even what happens after death. Resurrection is about life, about how we live in the present, not just whether we will live at some future point. It is about encountering God, and how we will choose to be as a result of that encounter. It is hearts open to miracles, people who live knowing that life is a beautiful gift, but that there is much more to life than being alive. Resurrection changes lives – and these changed lives, lives of hope and belief are all we can ultimately give back to God – but we do so knowing that God will be glorified.
*from Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary, p. 22