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Monday, April 11, 2011

Sermon from April 10, 2011 + The Fifth Sunday in Lent, (A)

“Real Reality”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: John 9:1-45; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

We can only imagine how hard the wait was for these sisters. Mary and Martha have sent word to Jesus that their brother, his dear friend, was dying. When he finally arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days. But if it took a couple days for the messengers to get to Jesus, and he waited two days as John says, and then it took him a couple days to get to them, it’s possible that Lazarus died even as the messenger spoke to Jesus, and his delay made no difference in the outcome.

But how long had Lazarus been ill? How long had the sisters been praying for healing, waiting for word about where Jesus was? This story is very different from our other Lenten Sundays – Nicodemus had heard of Jesus, but the woman at the well and the blind man hadn’t, and all three really had their first encounter with him in the stories we’ve heard. Not so Martha and Mary. “Jesus loved Martha” – that’s what John says – “and her sister, and Lazarus.” This was not a disciple-teacher relationship as much as a dear friend relationship. And they’d seen what their dear friend could do – healing, teaching, being grace. Mary and Martha knew he could save their brother. But they had to wait. And waiting for something you desperately want and need is incredibly hard to do.

The psalmist sings today, “Wait for the Lord, for with the Lord is steadfast love; with the Lord is plenteous redemption.” Even calling to God out of the depths of pain and sorrow, the invitation is to wait, because God will provide, God will save.

But how long can one wait? What if it doesn’t look like God is going to do what you’re praying for, hoping for?

This is a powerful part of this story for me: Martha, and then Mary, both confront Jesus in their grief which rises out of their fruitless waiting.

It’s hard to tell if they’re angry or just filled with sorrow. Probably both. But if we’re to look at Jesus through their eyes, the first thing we see today is disappointment. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” How could you? How could you not come? Does our love mean nothing?

And in that disappointment we see a bit of ourselves. And perhaps the others from our Sunday readings. Was Nicodemus disappointed he didn’t get the answers he sought? Was the woman disappointed that there was no magic water after all? The blind man shouldn’t have been disappointed – he actually got his healing.

But this is the emotional connection for us here: facing pain or grief or loss, waiting for God to do something, and believing God has decided not to. Anyone who has stood in desperate silence beside a hospital bed knows what Mary and Martha are feeling. Anyone who’s stood at a grave on a cold hillside knows what is crushing them. Anyone who has looked at the devastation of a natural disaster in stunned horror can understand them. And I think we’ve all made, or wanted to make, their rebuke as well: “Lord, if you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened.”

So what are we to make of who Jesus is, what he offers us as followers?

It’s John’s goal for us, after all. So can we trust Jesus for what we really need? It’s fine to talk about prayer and asking God for help, but will it matter in the end? It’s fine to say Jesus is our beloved friend, but will he be there when we need him? More than anyone so far this Lent, we can see ourselves in these beautiful sisters.

But if we’re to know if Jesus is trustworthy, we ought to finish the story, see what he offers these sisters, and what happens next. Because the story doesn’t end with these rebukes, with Martha and Mary’s disappointment. And therein lies our hope.

And really the story isn’t about Lazarus being raised, either. At least for us it isn’t.

Yes, that seems like the main point, and it’s a pivotal moment, one that seals Jesus’ fate. From here on out his opponents are bound and determined to have him, and Lazarus, killed.

But for us there is something even more important. Lazarus died again, 2,000 years ago. He’s quite literally history. But there is truth for us in Martha and Mary’s experience that is deeper and more real and more present to us than this morning’s breakfast.

And that truth is that faith in Jesus means seeing a deeper reality of a loving relationship with God that gives meaning to the rest of life. Jesus invites Martha and Mary to see him in a different way, in a transforming way, even if the evidence of their eyes, of their lives, tells them otherwise.

Jesus responds to the sisters differently. Martha, the practical one, the one who runs out into the road to shout her disappointment at Jesus, gets a conversation. Jesus doesn’t tell her she’s wrong in criticizing him. He tells her that her brother will live again. She agrees – at the last day, she says. But that doesn’t change her sorrow. And it’s also not what Jesus is talking about.

Before he ever raises Lazarus, without promising that he will do it, he wants to know if Martha trusts him for her life. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. “Everyone who believes in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” he asks.

Here’s what he asks of Martha: a leap of faith. Can she trust that, even though it looks as if she’s lost Lazarus, even though it looks as if Jesus has let her down, can she trust that Jesus will be life for her? Enough for her? That he can fill her up inside with love and peace, even though her brother is dead?

And what a blessed woman! Martha not only elicits for us Jesus’ great “I am the resurrection and the life” statement, she makes a statement of faith more powerfully than any of his disciples in any of the Gospels: “Yes, Lord, I believe, that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

It’s important to remember – she has no idea what he’s about to do. That’s clear when they come to the tomb, and she doesn’t want Jesus to open it for fear of the smell of a rotting body. Martha doesn’t know what he’s going to do. But she’s decided to trust him for her life.

It’s the same leap Jesus asks of Nicodemus – to trust that with the Spirit giving him new birth he won’t need all the answers. And of the woman at the well – to trust that with this loving relationship with God that is hers, she’ll be quenched to the depths of her heart. And of the blind man – that even beyond his physical new sight, he is now seeing God’s love in the flesh, standing before him. And none of these had any more proof than Martha did. Or than we do.

This is what John tells us about Jesus, the Son of God: Living in a loving relationship with the God of the universe, as given by the risen Lord Jesus, transforms everything in our lives.

If we focus only on the tangible things, the things we can touch, sense, feel, we ultimately find only death. Nothing lasts – we grow old, we get thirsty, we go blind, we lose loved ones, we die. As Paul says in today’s reading, living by the flesh, the way of the world, is death for us. And if we’re hoping for God to make that different, it won’t happen, any more than the woman of Samaria got a magic pitcher which never emptied of water.

But what God has come to offer us in Jesus is the intangible reality of real life lived in relationship with God. A life where we live and breathe in God’s love, which surrounds and shapes and gives meaning to our life. Meaning even when we are thirsty, or grieving, or blind, or without answers. What Jesus offers is Resurrection and Life now – that we live with the amazing confidence that we are in God’s hands, no matter what.

And here’s the miracle: when we take that leap of faith in the intangible love of God, it then gives meaning to the tangible realities of our lives. As Paul says, if we live by the Spirit we receive life even in our mortal bodies.

And Mary is our key here. Jesus doesn’t have a conversation with her. He simply is with her. He weeps with her. He honors her pain, her grief, her sorrow. And transforms it by being there. This offer of Jesus is no rejection of our worldly needs and wants – Jesus knows how badly we need these things. This is an offer of life that will so fill and surround us that no matter our external circumstances we can know and live in the joy that God loves us with a deathless, eternal love.

Faith is a mysterious thing. And ultimately it is a gift of God to us.

And today Jesus invites us to jump into the gift, into the mystery, and revel in the love we find.

Of course Jesus ends up raising Lazarus. But his invitation to Martha, and her leap of faith, comes before that. While she’s still waiting. While she has no evidence that anything will be better, except the presence of her beloved Master standing before her offering her life. And it is enough for her.

And so we stand before Jesus on the road to our Bethanys. And of course we know that in his resurrection Jesus will bring us to eternal life even after our deaths. But like Martha and Mary, we’re not there yet. We live in our world as they did in theirs. And we come to this Table seeking answers, quenched thirst, eyes to see, life in the midst of death. And we have no guarantees that the things we think we most need will be given us. We come, knowing that what we see as real life can often be hard, and painful.

But we come to this Table and our Lord comes to us in bread and wine – granted, small tokens of this presence, but gifts of grace nonetheless. And Jesus looks at us and says, “Do you believe that I can fill you up, even if your other circumstances don’t change? Do you believe I am Resurrection and Life, even now for you? Do you want to leap into my love and know forever that you are mine?”

We know what Martha said. As for me, I’ve come to know that in Jesus I’m home. At his Table I am home and I am fed. That’s the best way I can describe what it means for me. In Jesus, I’m alive. I’m loved. No matter what happens. Even death. And that is your gift, too – I pray God helps you know that as well. Because this, this is real life. This is ours as a gift. And this, this is what we have to share with the world.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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