(I don’t post sermons very often, but this one is sort of timely and I had several requests for copies, so here it is from last Sunday, November 4 . . . )
Text: John 11:32-44
What a week, huh? How many of you lost power? Any of you still without power? Anyone have damage to their house or cars? You know, we were really blessed overall – there’s lots of problems still in New York and New Jersey and that area that will be going on for a while. No power, no food, no gas . . . it’s a mess. And then there is the desolation we don’t hear too much about – Haiti is still recovering from the earthquake 2 years ago and it was the hardest hit country in the Caribbean as Sandy came through. Cuba and the Bahamas got hit pretty bad, too.
When something devastating like Hurricane Sandy happens, it’s no wonder that folks look up and say, “God, what’s going on? Where are you God? Why is this happening?”
Well, I did some research on the internet to answer the “why” question and I did find lots of reasons Hurricane Sandy caused so much destruction. There were lots of weather explanations, but I was researching for a sermon so stuck to the religious ones. A few pastors posted that Hurricane Sandy was definitely God’s judgment on President Obama. So it’s President Obama’s fault. At least one pastor said it was a warning to Governor Romney because he’s a Mormon. So it’s his fault too. There was a Muslim cleric over in the Middle East who said it was a punishment for the decadent lifestyle of the United States. So it’s all of our faults, I guess. I found a couple of Christian pastors who kind of agreed with him. Then there was the most popular reason – I put in the words “Christians blame gays Sandy” into Google and got 5 million hits.
One of my Facebook friends posted, “I’d like to take a brief moment and apologize on behalf of the gay community for causing hurricane Sandy. I did not realize, nor do I think any of my fellow gay brethren, that our actions and existence would cause such a massive storm. I am most sincere with this apology, hope you all may forgive us…”
Yeah, no matter how you feel about President Obama or Governor Romney or homosexuality or whatever, it’s silly. But it’s more than just silly. We are on very shaky theological ground when we try to ascribe motives to God. Unless we have heard straight from God, we are on very shaky theological ground when we say, “God did this for such and such a reason.” The truth is WE DON’T KNOW. We don’t know – we’re told in Scripture we don’t know; that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. The whole book of Job is about Job’s friends telling him why bad things were happening to him – because he must have done something really bad. And they were wrong. It was Satan bringing the calamity onto Job.
In Bible Study last Wednesday evening we talked about Luke 13. One of the things Jesus brings up with the people he’s talking to is a tower that fell on some people at a place called Siloam. Jesus asked the crowd, “Do you think those people who died were any worse than anyone else – any worse than you?” Of course not. Jesus was saying not to waste our time when a catastrophe happens trying to figure out what the people affected did to deserve it. He says to use it as an opportunity to look at our OWN sinfulness, and to turn away from sin and turn toward God.
Bad stuff doesn’t happen because God is mad at us or someone else so God throws down a storm or an earthquake or cancer or a broken down car.
The reality is that we live in a fallen, sinful world and bad stuff happens. Hurricanes happen. Illnesses happen. Car problems happen.
“But Pastor Dave,” I would guess some of you are saying, “But Pastor Dave, if God is in control doesn’t that mean he could stop the bad stuff from happening? Doesn’t it mean that God ALLOWS all that stuff to happen?”
Pastor Dave, “Why doesn’t God do something?!” (PAUSE) That is what Martha and Mary wanted to know.
Lazarus had been dead four days when Jesus arrived at Bethany where he had lived with his sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha saw Jesus coming and ran to him. The first thing she said to him was this. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
“Why didn’t you do something, Jesus?!” That’s what she’s asking.
Have you ever asked Jesus that question? I have. When my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s I asked it. When Karen had to have multiple biopsies and surgeries, I asked it. When Autumn got her diagnosis this past spring, I’ve told you I shouted it – and other questions – at God as I sat in my car in my driveway.
“Why didn’t you stop this from happening?”
Let’s give Martha and me and you the benefit of the doubt. That statement Martha makes – “If you were here, my brother wouldn’t have died” – it’s actually a statement of faith, isn’t it? Martha acknowledges that Jesus COULD have done something. When you or I get disappointed with or even angry at God, we are professing our faith in God’s power.
As you know, I didn’t believe in God when I was 25 and my dad died – I didn’t ask then, “Why did God allow that to happen?” because I didn’t think there was any God to ask. It was only after I became a Christian that I started to question God. It was only out of faith.
But faith means that we accept the God’s answers, or that we accept what is even harder, that most of the time God isn’t give us an explanation. God is not going to answer all of our questions, at least not in this life.
And I think Martha shows great faith. “If you were here my brother wouldn’t have died.” She goes on, “But I know that even now God will give you anything you ask.”
That brings us to the point we pick up this story in today’s Gospel reading. I’m leaving a lot out of the story – you should all go home and read all of John Chapter 11. That’s your homework. It’s a beautiful story and we only have a bit of it in our reading today. But what we have is the core.
You see, the death of Lazarus is a true crisis for Mary and Martha. Not only do they have to deal with their grief over the death of their brother, but apparently they weren’t married and didn’t have any children. So in that society, in that place and time, Mary and Martha had no more support – no way to eat or to pay for shelter or clothes or anything else. Women couldn’t just go out and get a job.
Today’s reading from John 11 picks up after Martha has had her encounter with Jesus and gone to get her sister, Mary. Mary runs to Jesus like her sister did, but she wasn’t alone – she was accompanied by all the mourners who had come to her house, weeping and wailing to express the great grief of the situation. They all get to Jesus and Mary falls down at his feet. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
What must this have been like for Jesus? Mary, Martha and Lazarus were dear friends of his. Have you ever been blamed by your friends for something bad happening? It feels terrible. Imagine being blamed for the death of someone. Mary and Martha are saying to Jesus, “It’s your fault our brother is dead.”
Picture the scene – Mary and all those mourners crying and shouting and wailing – you’ve probably seen Middle Eastern funerals on television news. And Jesus is in the middle of all that, and the finger is being pointed at him.
Notice that what Jesus does NOT do is to start getting all theological and explaining to Mary and Martha why their brother has died.
And, even more surprising, he doesn’t comfort them by saying, “Hey, don’t cry, I’m about to go and resurrect your brother.”
What does Jesus do in the midst of all that grief? It’s summed up in the shortest verse in the Bible, what I believe is the core of this awesome story in John 11. Verse 35 says, “Jesus wept.”
Why? He KNOWS he’s about to raise Lazarus. He’s God – he KNOWS this is the plan, the way things are supposed to be, he doesn’t have to guess at God’s purposes, he KNOWS God’s purposes.
But what he does is . . . weep. And this isn’t just a few tears rolling down Jesus’ cheeks. The meaning of the Greek is closer to “He burst into tears.”
Two verses before, in verse 33, we’re told, “When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”
Why does Jesus weep? Because he sees the sorrow and the suffering of Martha and Mary and the mourners and he is drawn into their grief. The words translated “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” literally mean that Jesus “shuddered with emotion.” It can mean that he was angry or extremely sad or overcome or, I believe, all of the above.
Our Savior doesn’t give us all the answers or all the reasons, He gives us HIMSELF.
When we cry or are angry at the stuff that happens in our life and in the lives of those we love, Jesus does not stand back and observe and feel sorry for us . . . NO. Jesus feels right along with us.
That’s what people who have experienced a hurricane or any other calamity in their lives need to hear, not how they or someone else caused it.
What they and we need to hear and to know and to trust in the storms of our lives is that JESUS IS HERE. Jesus is with us and in us and feels our pain and our sorrow and our hurt right along with us.
Jesus was going to raise Lazarus. Eventually we will be raised to an eternity of perfection in the very presence of God. But you know, when I’m going through something right here and right now, that eternity can seem a long way off. What is much more comforting is that Jesus is with me right here, right now.
And you and I are called to BE JESUS – to demonstrate his presence – for each other and for the world. Jesus calls us to a participatory faith – look what happened at the end of the story. . .
Jesus goes to the cave where Lazarus has been entombed for four days. He says a prayer, and then he orders Lazarus to come out. Can you imagine the crowd, standing there, holding their collective breath as they wait to see if anything is going to happen? Their eyes are fixed on the opening of the cave, maybe with a quick glance or two at Jesus. Does this weeping son of a carpenter rabbi really have power over death? And then . . . and then there is some movement back in the darkness of the cave. The movement takes shape . . . it looks like . . . it is the shape of a man. And out of the darkness and into the sunlight emerges Lazarus, still wrapped in his grave clothes.
Do the people applaud? Do they stand there in stunned silence? Do they mob Lazarus or Jesus? John doesn’t tell us. All we have is Jesus instruction to those who are there: “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Lazarus has been bound by death and by the grave clothes wrapped around him. Jesus began the unbinding and freed him from death. But he leaves it to the people there to free him from the wrappings. Jesus called them to participate in the miracle.
On this All Saints Sunday, that’s what it means to be God’s saints in the world. In baptism, we are freed to participate in the work of Jesus in the world. We are indeed freed to be Jesus for each other and for the world. Not to try to explain God and His plans and purposes. Not to blame this person or this group – or worse yet, the person who is suffering.
But to BE THERE for others as Jesus is there for us. Not to judge or to say “Stop crying!” because someone else’s crying makes us uncomfortable, but to cry along with them and be there with them as Jesus is with us right here and right now and always.
I was visualizing this as I was reading it. Strong message Pastor Dave!