By The Rev. Sherry Deets
5 Lent – April 6, 2014
The Lenten journey, which has taken us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death last Sunday, now leads us to the dry bones of Ezekiel and the tomb of Lazarus and the gift of life out of death.
This morning’s gospel story began a few weeks earlier. The brother, Lazarus, was taken ill. We have no details, but the illness frightened his two sisters so much that they sent word to Jesus – obviously with the thought that Jesus would interrupt his travels to return and heal Lazarus. Jesus, though, seemed almost indifferent to their message. By the time Jesus and his disciples came to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days.
When Jesus arrived, Martha was the first to meet him. She was probably the oldest of the siblings and she seems to have been the head of the household. Her first words to Jesus were these: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” There was no polite greeting, no “Shalom,” no “I’m so glad you’ve come”; just this: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
In one sense, Martha’s greeting was a stirring testimony of faith. She believed that Jesus would have made a difference, that he who had opened blind eyes and restored withered limbs could surely have taken care of her brother’s illness. But her statement was also a complaint; in truth, an accusation. Quite clearly, Martha was saying, “What kept you so long? If you had hurried a bit or had left some of your other pressing business, you could have spared us the loss of our dear brother.”
In other words, Martha was telling Jesus, “You’re late. It’s nice of you to have come, but you’re late.”
Have you ever heard someone say, “God’s timing is not our timing”? An Old Testament writer tells us that for God, a thousand years “are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.”
And this morning we hear in our psalm… my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.– Psalm 130:6
From the beginning of time all who have watched for the morning have had as their companions a magnificent covering of stars. And, though they may have given different names to the constellations, and told different stories about them, the stars we might look at tonight are largely unchanged across thousands of years. We are looking at basically the same sky that wheeled over the heads of those in biblical times.
Except — except when a star explodes.
When a star explodes it is called a nova, from the Latin, referring to a “new” start. Such a star would appear in the heavens, shine dimly or brightly; then disappear after a matter of hours or days.
Once in a great while there would be a supernova, when a giant star collapsed in upon itself, creating an explosion so great that such a star could outshine everything in the heavens, except the sun — and even then, the great supernovas were visible in daylight when all other heavenly bodies disappeared. Supernovas are not just ordinary exploding stars. Most of the star that goes supernova is destroyed in the explosion resulting in a tremendous output of energy.
One of the most interesting stories about those who watch for the night and wait for the morning concerns 14-year-old Caroline Moore of Warwick, New York, who became famous overnight in November 2008 when she became the youngest person ever to discover a supernova. And Caroline’s supernova was very special, because it was one of the faintest ever discovered.
One reason she found the supernova was — because she was looking. For seven months she compared thousands of photographs by computer, until she made her discovery. She would look from one photo taken of a particular point in space to another taken later, with stars, nebulae, galaxies, and other celestial objects all together until she noticed one star had become brighter in the second photograph.
It may seem obvious, but whether one is looking for a star — or the truth — it helps to be looking for something if you want to find it. The universe is a complicated place. There are wheels within wheels, objects and items connected in disparate patterns somehow making a coherent whole. Once upon a time a star shouted out the wonderful news that Jesus Christ is born. This should be a matter of delight.
So think about it — what are you looking for? Are you looking at all? Because if we don’t seek, we won’t find, if we don’t knock, doors won’t open, and if we don’t wait for the morning, trusting in God’s goodness, we’ll never know if there is a wonder appearing overhead, or if God’s love has dawned at last in lives all around us.
We don’t know why Jesus waits, and we don’t know why God waits. No amount of theologizing and explaining can satisfy us while we wait. And wait we do. My only conclusion is that something critically important happens to us while we are waiting. Life is lived while we wait. Faith is proved while we wait. Hope is tested while we wait.
When life is ruthlessly constricted, when hope is stifled, there appears no time to come worth considering. What’s in front of us looks like sunset and endless night. When we find ourselves in Bethany’s house of grief, or down among the bones in death valley, then we must look past the terrible something and ache for God to intervene. The one who acted powerfully in the stories of Ezekiel and Lazarus and above all in the story of Jesus is neither unwilling nor unable to act in our stories as well.
No bones are too dry. No grief is too deep. No stone at a tomb entrance is too heavy. God can resurrect an executed man! God can revive a heartbroken family! God can restore a dry bones community!
Sometimes what we must do is stand back, and wait and watch for God to work.
Love is linked inextricably to death in John’s gospel, and that is also true in the story of Lazarus’ family. Their relationship with Jesus does not mean that bad things do not happen. He does not prevent Lazarus from dying. But he is ultimately present to them, and God is glorified even in something that feels initially un-redeemably painful, and this beloved family is part of God’s glory.
Being in relationship with Jesus means facing death and grief with him and learning that still, in spite of the death and the dryness and the finality of the door at the entrance to the tomb of our hopes, he can still be said to be life. “I am the resurrection and the life”, Jesus says. Nothing is ever so dead that it keeps him from being that, for himself, and for us. And in John that life is not only a future hope. Abundant life is always ever now.
As we approach Holy Week, next Sunday is Palm and Passion Sunday, having Jesus at our tombs also means that we must follow him to his. We must endure the silence of his Saturday even as we endure the silences of our own. But we endure them knowing already that Sunday, that Easter, will surely come, that when we are walking in the garden of our grief, we will meet him again.
The God-life is not about believing all the right things about Jesus. It’s not about being able to recite the creed without crossing your fingers or believing that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish or having an instant, now-you’re-saved, “born again” experience. It is about being willing to let go of everything you think you know and allowing yourself to be drawn into the mystery that is God. “Believing,” as John uses this word, does not refer to some intellectual process that happens in your head. To “believe” in something is to give your heart to it. The God-life then is about giving your heart to God. Your broken heart. Your disbelieving heart. Your divided, angry, fearful heart. Your hard heart. You do not, of course, have the power to transform your own heart, but you do have the power to offer it, no matter what condition it is in, to the God who is able to make all things new. Amen.
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