Several years ago, there was a book that was published called “The Shack”. This book was about a man trying to come to terms with the horrible murder of his young daughter and asking where God was in these events of his life. The book was rather controversial, because God appeared to the man as a black woman instead of as God the Father; Jesus appeared as a handyman in jeans and a plaid shirt, and the Holy Spirit appeared as an Asian woman who was a gardener. Many people objected to God being portrayed in this way, but for the man in the book, this was the only way that he would have accepted God speaking to him, and God used this to bring the man back into relationship with God, and to comfort him over his daughter’s death. And I believe this portrayal of God relates to our Gospel story today. The purpose of the Gospel of John is written in the 20th chapter: “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” As for the particular story of the raising of Lazarus that we have today, one of my pastor colleagues writes this, “Lazarus didn’t come back to tell us heaven is for real. He was raised to show us Jesus was for real.” In other words, Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus so that we would somehow have proof that there is a heaven and that Lazarus could tell us all about it. Instead, Jesus raised Lazarus to show us that he, Jesus, is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name. The story tells us that Jesus meets us where we are in our faith and speaks to us in language we can understand to help us believe in him. So, let’s look at how Jesus meets Martha, Mary, and the people around them and speaks to each of them in a different way.
The first person that Jesus encounters as he arrives in Bethany is Martha, one of the sisters of Lazarus. Martha greets Jesus with an accusation and yet with faith, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give youwhatever you ask of him.” I can just picture Martha, struggling to hold in her grief and to be the responsible one, giving the correct religious response to Jesus when he tells her that her brother will live again: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha takes comfort in the teaching that has been given to her, her intellect helping her to keep her emotions under control. And then Jesus takes her beyond what she has been taught by saying that he is the resurrection and the life, and that those who believe in him will never die. And Martha makes the confession in John that Peter makes in the other gospels: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” By responding to Martha on the intellectual level she was working on, Jesus was able to take her faith one step further so that she was able to believe in him and make that confession.
There are times in our lives when Jesus meets us on that intellectual level to strengthen our faith. I confess that for me, this is my preferred way for Jesus to come to me and strengthen me. It is through study of the Bible, learning the intricacies of the Greek and the Hebrew languages, and discovering new ways of looking at things that God lures me into relationship with him. I went to see the Noah movie a week ago and, for me, this movie actually strengthened my faith. Why? Because up until that point, when I thought of Noah, I thought of an old man with a white beard, a cartoon character from the flannel graphs of my childhood, with all the cute animals on the ark two by two who somehow were prevented from eating one another. In other words, this was not a real story to me. However, what the movie about Noah did for me is this: it made Noah into a real, flawed human being, just like me. It imagined him struggling with the idea that all of those people except for his family were going to die, and it asked what made him so special and why God chose him. Noah became a real person to me and not some kind of holy person without any flaws. And that means that God can and does choose any one of us flawed human beings to work through, perhaps even me from time to time, and this idea strengthens my faith in the God who loves a sinner like me so much, that he sent Jesus to die for me. This is just one of many ways that God has strengthened my faith in Jesus on an intellectual level.
I also recognize, however, that we human beings are not creatures of pure intellect, but that we have emotions as well. And this is how we see Jesus relating to Martha’s sister, Mary: on an emotional level. When Mary hears that Jesus has arrived, she runs to him, falls at his feet weeping, and cries out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” No correct religious response to Jesus from Mary as it was with her sister Martha. No, Mary pours out her feelings of sadness, anger, loss, hurt, disappointment, betrayal, and grief and lays them on Jesus. And Jesus responds to her at the level that she will understand. Where our translation says that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved—well, the translators apparently did not think it appropriate for Jesus to display what we would call negative emotions. The original Greek says that Jesus was very angry—simply put, he was ticked off. John doesn’t tell us exactly what Jesus was angry about, but I believe that he was angry at the power that death and sin held over the people. And then, when he looks around and sees the people weeping, he is moved to tears himself and weeps with Mary and all of the others gathered there. Any time a movie about Jesus shows this scene, they show him shedding one or two elegant tears, like even that is too much emotion for the Son of God to display. But remember also that Jesus is human. When it says that Jesus began to weep, Jesus is absolutely sobbing, heartbroken with grief that this should have happened to his friends.
When we grieve, and when I or anyone else says that Jesus weeps with us, this is how I want you to picture it: not as Jesus shedding one or two elegant tears, but as being bent over in grief and sobbing right along with us. Picture him with his arms wrapped around you and rocking you back and forth as perhaps your mother or father did when you were little. And if you are angry about your loved one’s death, be angry and say, “Jesus, where were you? This wouldn’t have happened if you had been here, paying attention,” then picture Jesus as also being angry that death still holds so much power in our world. Just as Jesus can strengthen our faith on an intellectual level, he can also be with us and strengthen us through our emotions, when our intellect has receded into the background and when we can’t hear anything else but our emotions.
But you know what the great thing is? Jesus doesn’t leave us either at an intellectual level or an emotional level in responding to him. And we see that in the last part of this story, when he finally gets to the tomb of Lazarus and raises him from the dead in a very dramatic action. And I love the detail in this part of the story. I can picture myself as Martha, who, when Jesus tells the people to take away the stone, Martha says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” The King James Version is more direct; Martha there says, “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” But, as I said, Jesus does not leave Martha on the intellectual level her faith is on, and chides her for not believing. Mary, who is consumed by her emotions, stands in the background. And Jesus calls Lazarus out, and Lazarus comes out. And many of those who were with Mary and Martha put their faith in Jesus because of the sign that he had done.
Just because Jesus meets us at the level of faith where we are does not mean he leaves us there. He challenges us by showing us the glory of God in the most unexpected places. Who would have believed that anyone could raise a man who had been dead for four days? But remember what I said at the beginning of the sermon: Lazarus was not raised so that we would believe that heaven is for real. The Scriptures do not record whether Lazarus remembered anything from his time of being dead, and there is a reason for that. We would become too focused on what happens after this life, and Jesus wants us to be focused on him. The sign was given to us so that we would believe that Jesus is the real thing: really and truly the Son of God, and that by believing, we would have life in him. And that eternal life does not start in heaven. It starts here on earth, from the moment we are baptized until the time we die and beyond. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” Jesus says.
When we are not focused on what happens to us after we die and if heaven is for real, this frees us to have abundant life here on earth. When we are focused on Jesus, we trust that yes, he does have the power to raise us from the dead, and yes, eternal life has already started for us. When we are focused on Jesus, we are focused on living that abundant life that he brings us here on earth, and thoughts of death and of heaven flee into the background. When we are freed from thoughts of death, we are freed to love and to serve one another. And God will come to us in the best way possible to speak to us and to show us what he would have us do, expanding our faith from the intellectual and emotional levels where he finds us, unbinding us from our fears, and setting us free to live life abundantly in Jesus. The only question is, now that we are free from fear and from death, how is God loosing us to love and serve one another? The possibilities are endless. Amen.