Do You Believe This, Pastor Kinsey
You can tell that the power and wonder of the Passion stories is nearly upon us, already, in the stories of the raising of Lazarus, and also in the dry bones from Ezekiel. The Passion story will carry us through Holy Week, which begins next Sunday, and the liturgies require less preaching then, because, when we have the central gospel message staring us in the face, and tugging at our heart-strings, it’s best to let it just speak for itself.
But, I do want to say a word about the centrality and importance of what faith is for us, which is in all three or our readings today – not to mention, central to our Lutheran Confessions, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year.
Last week we reflected on the healing of the man born blind, the beggar who confessed his belief in Jesus, as the Son of Man, who then worshipped him. Belief, in John’s gospel, is a faith that believes in the power of God to break through our world of sorrow and death, and brings new life, and new sight.
I remember now, some years ago, when Kim and I were driving her mom, Tedi, to her last chemo treatment. It was early spring in the UP of MI. And as we gazed out the car windows at the wilderness, it was hard to believe summer could come. The roads were gritty with salt and gravel, now that the snows had melted. The fields looked beaten down, matted with lifeless bleached straw. “You wonder, how this world will come back to life,” Tedi said aloud. “How is it, that all this will disappear, that the green will be able to push up and take over, that in a couple of months everything will be renewed and all this ugliness will have just vanished? Where does it go?”
And after a long pause, “It may be hard to believe,” she said, “but I also know from experience that as impossible as it seems, the power of life will win, and come summer, everything will look different.” And Tedi had a simple enough explanation for how this happens. “God,” she said. “God’s power of life.”
Tedi’s cancer was far advanced by then, and she didn’t live to see summer that year. But she lived in God’s power to raise her, in the confidence that there’s new life ahead in the power of the living God. And summer did come.
In John’s gospel-telling, of the raising of Lazarus, it cannot be overlooked how central this story is. First of all, this 11th chapter is the exact middle, of John’s 21 chapters, and it’s the last of Jesus’ 7 signs, revealing his Messianic nature. But raising Lazarus, will also seal his fate. Immediately afterward, the elites of the Sanhedrin’s city Council, get together, to plot how to get rid of him.
Which makes Jesus’ decision all the more audacious, when you think about it, that he purposely waits some two days to go to his best friend’s home in Bethany, after getting word from the sisters, Mary and Martha, that their brother Lazarus was ill. Although it’s not clear what Jesus’ intention is – it’s just as likely that he’s hesitant to go because he’s basically under death threat in Jerusalem – having just escaped stoning in the previous chapter.
But Jesus tells us that he’s holding off, so that “the Son of God may be glorified,” though the disciples don’t seem to understand what that might mean. After two days, Jesus tells them it’s time: “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
But when they arrive they find that “Lazarus has already been in the tomb four days!” Had Jesus miscalculated? The mood in Bethany is full of sorrow. The professional mourners were wailing, and clearly Martha and Mary were disappointed. Though, not without hope. Martha ran out to meet Jesus, while Mary stayed inside. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha cried. “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus tried to console her with the future promise of resurrection, to no avail. Then Jesus proclaims: “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?” Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Then Martha fetches her sister Mary, and she falls at Jesus’ feet weeping, with all the townspeople behind her, wailing, and Mary pleads with Jesus in the same refrain of her sister: If you had been here, my brother would not have died. The sisters have great faith. But isn’t too late? As the tension mounts for Jesus to say or do something, he asks where Lazarus is, and they take him to the tomb. Some of the townspeople are mumbling that he should have come earlier, or that maybe he didn’t really care that much – if he healed the blind man, why not come sooner to help Lazarus, his friend?!
When our lives feel like a wilderness, like a dried up desert, hopeless, and afraid that death is around the next corner – there is no greater text that this one – except, maybe Ezekiel, and the vision of the valley of dry bones, the metaphor for the once mighty people of Israel, whose Temple was destroyed and who were then exiled to Babylon and left for dead – a pile of bones! But Ezekiel says that they will rattle back to life, it will be awesome, because the LORD will breathe the breath of the holy spirit into them! They felt like dry bones, left for dead. A people without a home for 2 generations. But this promise of the Spirit reviving them, would sustain them, and give them hope of returning to Jerusalem.
The fact is, none of us is going to make it out of here alive – dust to dust! But some of us live lives, even now, of courageous resistance. We battle cancers, and we speak of hope. We fight for relationships, staving off fears that love is “clean cut off.” We resist the debilitation of aging and strive for independence. We do our best at work, even when there are rumors of layoffs and buyouts. We continue to send out resumes and find ways to retool when it comes. We pray for loved ones away at war, and at home resist the decay, of neighborhoods, public funding, and the social contract.
“Son of Man, can these bones live? O Lord GOD, you know!” We, who are exiles and pilgrims here on earth, gather Sabbath after Sabbath, and draw strength from the power of this vision, of God’s possible.
So, Mary and Martha confront Jesus in our paradox of faith today. They’ve sounded the alarm to call Jesus to their home, watched their brother Lazarus go downhill day by day, and finally, buried him. Where are you Jesus? So when he finally shows up, it’s hard to know what Mary and Martha think is still possible!
They see Jesus’ love for Lazarus. They say they KNOW Jesus is the resurrection and the life. ‘Yes, Lord, I believe,’ they say. Yet they warn Jesus away from the tomb. “He’s too far gone! There is a stench!”
But Jesus marches right up to it. Jesus takes the battering ram to the stone, sealing the tomb. Jesus calls, and the dead man hears his name, and Lazarus comes out! He stumbles, squinting into the light of the spring sun, that has warmed and revived the lily’s and palm trees.
Jesus asks us: Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? The word glory means “weight” in Hebrew.
Jesus says to Martha, and to us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, ... Do you believe this?” But, I have to say, the word believe fails to capture what Jesus is asking; for the Greek word, pisteuo is never just a cognitive matter – a matter of the mind, only. Pisteuo asks for our trust and courage, to live for that in which we believe? Do you rest your faith in Jesus’ power of resurrection life? Do you live toward this? Live in God’s power to raise up, and that summer will come?
In the past 500 years of Lutheranism, we have not always understood faith so clearly. But there are no excuses. Today is a new day! Can these bones live? Yes! Every day we struggle to rattle our old bones together one more time, to offer our lives for Christ. To say, yes Lord, I believe, and to live into it with courage! O LORD, make your light, and your life, shine in and through me!