Saturday, April 5, 2014

A matter of life and death

John 11:1–45

Our pilgrimage to Lent continues with an astounding act by Jesus in Bethany, a little town very close to Jerusalem. But before this action, his friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus go through a heartbreaking experience.
Jesus is on retreat across the Jordan River, where he’s taking a break from the harassment of the Jewish leaders. Lazarus becomes ill, and his sisters send a message to Jesus to come quickly. But Jesus intentionally stays where he is for two more days. Finally, he heads back to Bethany. By the time he arrives back in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days.
As Jesus approaches the home of Lazarus and his sisters, he is confronted by an angry Martha. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” How many of us have said similar words to Jesus!? Mary says the same thing, a few minutes later. They both believe that Jesus could have healed Lazarus, if he had come before he died. Now that Lazarus is dead, they don’t believe he can do anything to help their brother. They are frustrated, angry, grieving. Yet, even though they are angry that Jesus wasn’t there when they needed him, they still believe in him as the Son of God, as the Messiah.
Jesus and Martha have a conversation, this time about resurrection. Martha believes he is talking about the end of time, some day in the far distant future. But Jesus is talking about something different. Jesus is talking about eternal life, which has two meanings in John’s Gospel.  
First, eternal life is what we think of as resurrection, life with God after we die. Sins forgiven, welcome to the house God has built for us, resurrection. We don’t know just what resurrected life looks like, but we want it. We know if God has promised it to us, it will be good, and we want it.
But Jesus has something else in mind in addition to the resurrected life. Eternal life also means having a relationship with God right now, today. If we have God in our lives all the time, our lives are richer, fuller. Believing in Jesus gives us eternal life now which continues into the next, resurrected life. Our bodies will die, but our spirits will live on. In that way, we will never die. Of course, Martha doesn’t understand all this at the time, but perhaps she can make some sense of it before and after Jesus is crucified.
What she can understand happens while she is watching. Jesus asks where Lazarus’ body is. They take him to the family tomb. Jesus prays out loud, so the crowd can hear what he is praying. He calls upon God to use him to bring glory to God-self. He prays that the people gathered there will believe that God’s power is within him, and that he is God’s Son, sent by God the Father to reveal God’s true heart to the people.
When Jesus asks that the stone be rolled away from the tomb, practical Martha objects. The body has been dead for four days. Lazarus’ spirit is surely gone by now. The body will have begun to seriously decay, and it will have a terrible odor, a stench. There is nothing to be done for Lazarus now. Despite these warnings, Jesus wants the tomb opened. When the stone has been rolled away, he calls to Lazarus, “Come out!” and Lazarus does just that. He comes walking out of the tomb, still wearing his burial cloths. Jesus tells the folks to unbind the wrappings on his body and set him free.
 Lazarus was resuscitated, like when we do CPR on someone, or shock their body with chemicals and electricity to bring them back to life. He would die again some day, but not for years, we hope. Last week, the class watched a telling of this story on video and we were all struck by how young the three siblings were. We often think of Lazarus as an older man, but in this video, all three were in their early to mid 20’s. Lazarus had a long life to live, and now he had a chance to enjoy it and thank God every day for it.
Many people believed in Jesus after this. He has power over life and death, just like God. What he says must be true! Unfortunately for Jesus, but according to God’s plan, this raising of Lazarus caught the attention of those who sought to get rid of him. We know the ending, and that the end is not really the end. We know that God raised Lazarus to live out his full life. We know that God raised Jesus from death, to prove that death is not the last word for our lives.
Because next Sunday is the cantata, and I won’t be preaching, I’d like to take a few moments to wrap up our pilgrimage to the cross. We began in the wilderness, facing and resisting temptations, because we believe that God will help us. We explored the possibility of new life, based on a belief in Jesus as the Son of God. We drank deep of living water as we believed that this water is always flowing, always there, when we believe in Jesus. We examined our own lives for the blind spots that keep us from acting as if we believe in Jesus. And today, we experienced a demonstration of God’s power in Jesus, in order that we may believe in him.
The Lenten pilgrimage in John is a journey of increasingly powerful calls to believe in Jesus. The Gospel is written so that those who read it may come to believe in Jesus as God incarnate, God-with-skin-on. I pray that you have allowed yourselves to see and hear these stories in new ways, or at least in ways you have not considered lately.
A pilgrimage is intended to open minds and hearts to renewed belief. A pilgrimage should lead us to action – to sharing the powerful news of Jesus with those who have not heard, with those who do not believe. If you can’t share anything else, you can share this: God has power over life and death, and offers life after death to all who believe.
Lamb of God Lutheran Church in Anaheim, California, was forced to find new life. Started in the 50’s and 60’s when lots of other churches were starting in the area, the congregation once numbered in the hundreds. But today, rising housing costs forced families with children to move elsewhere. Average worship attendance is 40 people. Knowing they can’t compete with larger, wealthier churches, Lamb of God has focused on serving the poor neighbors in the local community.
On Wednesdays, a hot meal is served to all who come. Outreach programs provide backpacks to junior high school students in need, and some high school students get help with uniforms or other school gear. On Saturdays, homeless children are invited to fun activities and a snack. Many of the children are not aware that the church that has been the source of these gifts.
How can a small congregation do all this? They have made a commitment together to serve the community. They have limited what they do to a narrow focus. And they have partnered with organizations like the Salvation Army and other community agencies and churches.
They are not growing in numbers as a congregation – at least not yet – but they did not begin to serve the community with the intent of having more members as a result of their ministry. They began serving the community because it is what they felt called by Jesus to do. What they do experience is a lot of interest and excitement among members and the community about who they are and what they do as followers of Jesus.
Are we as individuals doing what Jesus is calling us to do? Are we open to God’s voice as God calls to us? Do we believe that God will make possible whatever God has called us to do?
Are we as a congregation doing what God is calling us to do? Are we focused, as Lamb of God is focused, on serving God by serving God’s needy people? Do we believe that God will make possible what God has called us to do?
If we do not believe we have a purpose and that God will help us fulfill that purpose, we are only treading water, surviving for our own needs. If we believe that God has called us to amazing ministries and that the things we need for ministry will flow to us like living water, then let us move forward in faith to the new life God has in mind for us.

Please pray with me: O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.