On Lazarus: While We Wait

We started a three week sermon series on the story of Lazarus today.  I preached the first part today.  It went well.  First, the scripture:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘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.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin,said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away,and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 11:1-27, NRSV)

While We Wait
Rev. Thomas M. Ryberg
First Congregational Church of Battle Creek
April 3, 2011
John 11:1-27
Today we heard the first part of the story of the raising of Lazarus, which is perhaps the most spectacular of all of Jesus’ miracles.  It is found only in the Gospel according to John, and it happens immediately prior to when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of a colt.  The gospel-writer for the Book of John uses this story to foreshadow the upcoming death and resurrection of Christ.  It is in the aftermath of the Lazarus story that the crowds who witness this event become galvanized into a full-out frenzy for Jesus, which results in some of the religious leadership conspiring to kill him.  The story of the raising of Lazarus is the impetus that sets the rest of the Jesus story in motion.

But in this week’s reading, we do not encounter the complete Lazarus narrative.  We begin with Mary and Martha sending word to Jesus who is some days away, that their brother Lazarus, whom they remind Jesus that he loves, is ill. Jesus, upon receiving this news, determines to wait an extra two days before leaving for Bethany, where Lazarus is staying. According to the gospel-writer John, Jesus does this in order to make his ultimate arrival much more spectacular and miraculous. He waits an extra two days. And Mary and Martha and Lazarus, in turn, must wait for him.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who recognizes the feeling of waiting for God to show up. The act of waiting seems to be fairly fundamental to simply being alive. We wait all the time, in big and small ways. We wait for the bus. We wait for new employment opportunities. We wait for results from a doctor. We wait for those who chronically run late (some of us a little more chronically than others!). We wait for the pizza to get here. We wait for it to stop raining so we can go outside and get the mail. Depending on the Sunday, we wait for church to get over so that we can hurry home and turn on the game.  (At other churches, I’ve heard they do that.)  And so on.

In big and small ways, waiting is fundamental to human living. Does anybody here not know the experience of waiting for something? It is part of our collective and individual human experience. And it is an ingrained part of our faith, insomuch as we spend a good deal of our living time waiting for God. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find myself waiting for God.

I’m waiting for nothing less than the very realm of God to become fully manifest on this earth, right here, right now. I’m waiting for the kingdom of heaven that Jesus declared is at hand. This what I’m thinking about every week when we pray together, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I’m waiting for God to come set right that which is wrong in this world, from global and local hunger, to global and local violence, from the large-scale grief of a nation at war, to the small-scale grief of a family who has lost a loved one too soon. To varying degrees, to live as a human being means to encounter the experience of suffering, and in response, we cry out to God the truth of our condition, and then…all we can do is wait. We must wait. Waiting is part of what it means to be human. And it is part of what it means to be a follower of God.

The Bible is full of stories of people who are waiting. Apart from Lazarus, there is Noah, and his family, as they wait for the rain to come, then for the water to subside so that they can get off the boat.  The Israelites, groaning under Egyptian slavery, wait for liberation from their oppressors. Then they wander around the desert for forty years, waiting for a homeland. They are exiled by the Babylonians, then occupied by the Romans, and they wait for king after king, then a Messiah to lead them to freedom.  And these are just a fraction of the many examples from the Older Testament.

Waiting is an integral part of being human. So, I invite you to call to mind this morning: what are you waiting for?

There are a couple of big things in my life that I’ve been waiting for.  Andria and I are waiting on a baby, who if she arrives on schedule should be here sometime in the next 4-8 weeks. We wait for her to come into our lives – in a sense, she’s already here now, but not like she will be shortly! We are waiting for our lives to be irrevocably altered for the next 18 years and more.  And I’ve been waiting for this – fatherhood – my whole life.  Fatherhood is one of the two things I have always looked forward to, as long as I can remember, and it is now nearly upon me.  Nearly…I’m still waiting… on the one hand, I am yearning to take my daughter into my arms and hold her close, and look out at the world together as she grows.  And the next moment, come all these darts that puncture holes in my sense of readiness, giving way to all my insecurity: how in the world will I be able to care for another human being like this?  How will the process of giving birth actually be? Will she be healthy when she comes? What happens when she gets sick for the first time? What will this mean for my job?  Will I ever learn all the ins and outs of cloth diapers?

And there’s another big other thing I’ve been waiting for, for many years, and that is to become a pastor. As I enter my fifth month here at FCC and am preparing to take my installation vows next week, I have been thinking quite a bit about how now, at 28 years old, I am finally fully entering the profession of my calling. After 23 years of continuous schooling, including the last seven years of pastoral discernment and preparation, I have one more week to wait before being installed as an associate pastor here. THis has been a long time coming.  I graduated from high school eleven years ago. College, 6 years ago. I am ready, and so excited to be finally embarking into this work. And not a day goes by that I do not feel gripped with gratitude that I somehow ended up here, amidst all of you, who have welcomed Andria and me with open arms, and who are bold to worship God with the best you have to offer, whether at 10 or 11:30 on Sundays, or 6:30 on Wednesdays. The spirit of God is palpably alive here, and I am humbled and excited to participate in the ongoing work of this church. But, even as I have been here four months already, I have not technically been installed yet as associate pastor. I have seven more days to get my last rookie screw-ups over with, and don’t worry, I intend to make the most of them!

I am waiting to officially join as pastor, after years of discernment and preparation. And I am waiting to meet someone who will change my life in ways I can only begin to imagine. So in other words, two of the biggest milestones I’ve been waiting for for my entire life – family and career – are coming to fruition in one week, and one month, respectively. I feel very small in the face of these big events!

Waiting does that to us, doesn’t it? Raises our anxiety, makes us feel vulnerable, makes us feel small. It is a context of powerlessness, at least in relation to whatever you’re waiting for. There is a certain anxiety in waiting. It means we are invested in some sort of outcome, and have expectations around how the outcome should result, and so we are vulnerable to all the “what ifs” that arise in the meantime. What if I’m not ultimately cut out for the work to which I’ve given the last six years of my life? What if something happens to the baby before she comes?  There is vulnerability in waiting, in not yet being able to see the outcome that we long for. Are you waiting for something too, something big? Something which makes you feel vulnerable, anxious, maybe even powerless? What are you waiting for?

Maybe like me, you are waiting for some big news pertaining to family, or employment. Maybe there are major events in your personal circumstances that are impacting you and your loved ones. Whatever you’re waiting for, I’m very glad that we can wait together, in community.  It is a true blessing that we can share our joys and troubles and support one another while we wait in this church community. We are not nearly as vulnerable to the anxiety of waiting when others wait with us.  And waiting is a part of walking in faith together. As people of faith, we are waiting for the realm of God to be made manifest on earth.  We are waiting together for the day when our world will no longer be divided up along artificial boundaries of who has and does not have money and power.  We wait together as we along with our loved ones suffer in mind, body, or spirit.  We wait for the day when all flesh will see the salvation of God.  We are waiting for God to show up and do the new thing that God promises to do.  We are waiting for God.

Lazarus, Martha, and Mary waited for God too. Lazarus was gravely ill, and he needed God to come in and turn his world around. He was unwell, and he was not able to help himself get better, no matter what he did. He needed help that could only come from Jesus. And for that matter, he needed help that Jesus routinely provided at the time, everywhere he went. Jesus was, after all, a healer. He crisscrossed the region, going from town to town, preaching and healing. This is what he was known for, and this is precisely what Lazarus needed, because he was not able to heal himself, by himself.  Lazarus had exhausted his own capacity to heal himself, and so he needed to call on a higher power.  Perhaps some of us here resonate with Lazarus this morning, having exhausted the personal resources that used to get us through.

What happens next seems all too familiar: God does not show up as had been hoped, and Lazarus dies. This seems to be true in our day as well: God does not apparently intervene in order to prevent death and suffering, which is what we so often hope for in the face of tragedy. From the looks of things, God is not very interested in going around the world and preventing bodily death. And sometimes, this reality makes it real hard to keep the faith.  Maybe some of us resonate with the circumstances of Lazarus.

Then there is Martha. When I read this story, it is easy for me to identify with the righteous anger of Martha, when she says, if you had only been here, my brother would not have died. If you had only been here. How many times have I doubted the veracity of God’s promise in the face of human suffering? If only you had been here, in Japan. If only you had been here, in Haiti. In Darfur. In Rwanda.  In New Orleans.  In Serbia. Or Auschwitz. Or at the cross.

If the purpose of God is to intervene and prevent human suffering and death, then God is not at all good at being God. But it is interesting to me that even in the one and only story in the Bible in which Jesus raises someone else from the grave, God does not act in order to prevent the death, but in such a way so as to triumph over death later on.  And even then, God only apparently does this once, in order to establish glory, not in order to protect humans from dying.  Not in our Bible, and tragically, not in our lives.

So when Lazarus dies, Martha declares, If only you had been here, my brother would not have died. It is a statement of grief, one which is still attempting to bargain with Jesus. She showed strong faith and had high expectations, and Jesus did not come through according to what she had in mind. So she let him know, bringing her argument directly to the Lord. By the way, when we feel like this, let us be as bold as Martha in taking our pain straight to God.

Martha’s sister Mary, on the other hand, has a very different reaction. She does not come out to greet Jesus when he finally arrives; she remains instead at her home, where Lazarus had died, where the pain is. In her sadness, and perhaps her anger as well, Mary stays behind. She withdraws and disengages from communicating with Jesus until after he had been back for a bit. Where Lazarus is dead to the point of needing literal revival and Martha goes out to argue with God, Mary is caught up in her grief, and goes inward, keeping it close. She’s not challenging, not processing externally, not talking about it on the outside. She and Martha handle their respective grief differently, just as any two of us do today as well.

Depending on where we are in life, we might find ourselves feeling like Lazarus – close to death, in bad need of the kind of repair that only God can provide. We might find ourselves feeling like Martha – righteous, expectant, angry, when God has not come through as we had hoped and expected. And we might find ourselves feeling like Mary – withdrawn, isolated, disengaging from God as a result of God’s apparent inability to make things right. So whether you resonate with Lazarus, Mary, or Martha, or none of the above today, perhaps it will be instructive to consider what actually happens, according to the text.

Namely – Jesus does actually show up. In the words of the old gospel song, “He may not get there when you want, but he gets there right on time.” Jesus showed up! And he had a plan. And his plan was not understood by anyone else, under the circumstances. Ultimately, Jesus does indeed show up to Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and when he does, it means big things.

For Lazarus, it means total, radical, reorientation. In his case, what has been dead is now fully alive. So for those of you who find yourselves in similar straights with Lazarus these days, know that through the presence of Christ, new life is on the way. Get ready!

For Martha, Jesus’ appearance means a challenge to her current way of thinking, her righteous anger, and her current belief system. Believe in me, Jesus tells her, I am the resurrection. People come back to life through me. Do you believe this? And Martha, bless her soul, is able to answer, yes, I do. So for those of you who find yourselves identifying with Martha these days, get ready to open your heart and your head to new belief, new trust that God can and will bring about healing and growth that seems impossible on its face. Believe it!

For Mary, Jesus’ arrival means that it is time to risk leaving her place of solitude and responding to his call out to meet him directly. She brings with her the deepest concern she has on her heart, like Martha: “Lord, if you were here, my brother would not have died.” And she weeps. And in response to her tears, Jesus is deeply moved.

So for those of you who feel like Mary these days, do not withhold your tears from God. Listen for whether and how God calls you out, and take your sadness to God directly. Come out, and let the honesty of your grief be an offering unto the Lord.

No matter what you are waiting for today, no matter whether you most find a kindred spirit in Lazarus, Martha, or Mary today: know that God has not now, nor will ever leave you, even unto the end of our days. Lazarus, get ready! Martha, believe! Mary, come forward! Wait for the Lord, who is coming at once to do a new thing.

Amen.

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