This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on March 29, 2020. You can view it on our YouTube channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.
The text was John 11: 1-44
One of my favorite games to play when I’m ruminating on a situation that I’m unhappy about, is the “if only” game. Maybe you play this game too. You know the one where you have a fender bender and you think “ugh, if I had only not looked left when I should have looked right.” Or “if that other person had stayed in their lane.” Or “if I had stayed home.” Then all the unpleasantness could be avoided. Part of how we are wired as human beings is to be constantly vigilant for how to stay alive and out of danger. And when danger does arrive on our doorstep, as it invariable always does at some point, we want to dissect the events leading up to the misfortune, figure out who to blame, how we avoid this again and even on occasion figure out how to change the misfortune so that we don’t have to endure any of the consequences. This line of “if only” thinking lulls us into the falsehood that we have some sort of control over life events and we can logic or bargain our way to happiness, safety and security.
Don’t get me wrong, we should try and make appropriate decisions that don’t put ourselves or others in harms way, but we also know that there is no such thing as perfection. We can technically make every correct decision and take every prudent action and still have traumatic events befall us. And we’ve seen the inverse of that as well, haven’t we? When someone seems to make poor decision after poor decision and still everything comes out all right for them. It can be maddening to attempt to discern any pattern, consistency or logic out of life.
Mary and Martha and even the disciples are knee deep in this “if only” game in our John 11 story this week. Jesus gets word that Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha, is very ill. Jesus seems to brush this news off in a cavalier way that is hard for me to understand. I mean, I want Jesus to drop everything and rush to Lazarus’ bedside and save him from what ever pain and suffering he is experiencing. But Jesus doesn’t do that-he hangs out two more days wherever he was. Then all the sudden after two days, Jesus decides to go to Bethany where Mary and Martha were. Again, why the wait, I just don’t understand.
Jesus arrived to find what I always have envisioned as a wake happening. Family and friends gathered lamenting, crying, telling stories of the deceased, eating, praying, visiting the grave all the activities that you might participate in when a loved one dies. It is interesting that the gospel writer John does let us know that the “Jews,” who are in this gospel the authorities, are here. Were Lazarus or Mary and Martha important to the authorities somehow? Were they a prominent family? Or was it that they were close to Jesus and they thought that this was another opportunity perhaps to see what Jesus is up to? It could be any or all those things, we don’t know, but I get the sense that their presence wasn’t completely altruistic. And I think Jesus knows it. Martha met Jesus on his way and the first words out of her mouth were “if you had been here.” Martha was probably replaying the sickness and death of her beloved brother over and over in her mind and now seeing Jesus was another piece in her attempt to make sense of a senseless experience. Jesus if you had done what I wanted you to do. Jesus doesn’t offer platitudes of “God needed another angel,” or “this was God’s will,” or didn’t even offer an “I’m sorry he died.” Jesus simply states: “Your brother will rise again.” Now Martha’s response is less surprising than we might think as there was a strand of Jewish Pharisaic theology that did believe in resurrection. But it wasn’t quite what we think of resurrection as followers of Jesus, it was more of a what happens on judgment day or the Day of the Lord from the Hebrew Bible. Jesus knows this and gently offers that there is more to it than that. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, not just someday in the far off future, but right now, even when we wonder “if only” and even when we don’t like or understand our current circumstances. Martha then gets Mary, and the Jews follow her as she too, goes to Jesus. Ironically, or predictably, Mary’s first words to Jesus are the same at Martha’s “if you had been here.”
Jesus sees her tears, sees the Jews and then gets mad. The gentle translation of “greatly disturbed” doesn’t do justice to the Greek, which means indignation. Jesus is angry. He is angry and moved, that is he is overcome with many emotions at once. He’s angry that the Jewish authorities are using Lazarus’ death for their own gain, he’s angry that death is a part of his dear friend’s existence at all. He’s moved to tears that this is humanity’s reality. Jesus is moved to tears amid the many emotions himself and of others around him. We have a God who is with us in sorrow and cries with us in sorrow and fear.
Jesus goes to the tomb, and when he says to roll away the stone, Martha interjects that is a bad idea, Lazarus has been dead long enough that there will be the stench of death in the air. But Jesus then offer his own “if” statement. If you believe, you will see the glory of God. Jesus then prays and calls Lazarus by name and Lazarus emerges from the tomb, bound in death wrappings. Jesus says to those present to unbind him from the trappings of death.
We find ourselves in a time when we are asking ourselves, and God “if ” questions. If someone had contained this virus sooner, if we could figure out how to cure it or treat it, if we weren’t so vulnerable from it, if this wouldn’t affect the economy, if this didn’t require so much sacrifice, if we weren’t so afraid and uncertain. But Jesus comes to us in our “ifs” and offers to us belief. Believing isn’t some naïve ascent to wishful or magical thinking, it’s not like those prayer forwards that we all get that say “if you forward this to ten friends then your prayer will be answered.” Belief is like love, it is a gift from God, and it is tenacious and foundational. Believing is how we orient our vision and hearts to live in painful times and in suffering. Believing doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen, but what it does mean is that you will see God at work even when it only looks like death, you will see God who takes our chaos and brings order, you will see how God takes our attempts at logic and control and reminds us that there is more than we can see. Through Jesus, we are freed from the “ifs” of our lives. Jesus unbinds us from “ifs” to freedom, to community, to service and to love. We are freed to hear Jesus call our names and we unbind each other, as Lazarus’ friends unbound him, for life. Life that is not certain but life where hope is alive and present through Jesus Christ. We believe because of Jesus’ love and we look for abundant life and possibility where others see finality and despair. We believe and so we see the opportunities before us as a congregation and as individuals, to unbind each other from fear and death to freedom, for the sake of being this abundant life and freedom in our community. In the coming days and weeks and probably months, we will be called on to serve our community in ways we’ve never imagined. But this is God’s people unbound, not stuck in the “ifs” but freed to the reality of God’s love and presence no matter where we are, how isolated we might physically be. We believe and we shed the trappings of death for life. Amen.