The Rev. Kimberly van Driel
Sermon Text: John 11:1-45
Life would have remained normal, if Jesus had been there in Bethany when Lazarus fell ill. But he wasn’t, so messengers went out from Bethany to tell Jesus. that the friend he loved his ill. He waited for two days before setting out. “I’m glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there,” he told his disciples. Why wouldn’t he have wanted to be there, if he loved Lazarus so much? If he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. Mary and Martha would not have wept. The crowd would not have gathered for funeral rites. Bethany could have avoided all that pain.
It’s one of the more puzzling moments in a story filled with beauty and emotion. This week, I looked at art that tells this story. I discovered many portrayals of Jesus weeping. I found many depictions of Lazarus coming bound out of the tomb. I even unearthed suggestions for craft project with kids, a number involving toilet paper, which, given the shortages, struck me as inadvisable at the moment. But no matter which search terms I plugged into Google, I could not find a picture of Jesus with his disciples, waiting at the River Jordan for two days before finally setting off to Bethany to see his friends. It’s as if that detail is a moment that we don’t want to contemplate too deeply, this moment of Jesus letting death be death.
By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. Four days in the ancient world was the time when the death had become real, when any hope that the one who died might not really be dead but be in a coma evaporated. At four days dead, Lazarus was dead enough for mourners to come, dead enough for a funeral and dinner, dead enough to make a stench.
At four days, Lazarus was dead long enough for everyone to know that life as they knew it wasn’t going to come back, that normal was over and that it would be very, very long time before there would ever be a new normal again.
Which is what many of us are experiencing this week, not because of one single death, but because of the virus and the quarantine. Some of us know people who have this illness or who have died from it. Some of us experience inordinate levels of stress in working, especially those at jobs in hospitals or grocery stores. Some of us, isolated at home because we are in a “risk category,” are more isolated than usual, without the usual outlets, coffee with friends, church, a drink down at the lodge, bowling on Wednesday. Some of us are managing new technologies that we never thought we would ever have to use—how many of you ever imagined that one day you would attend worship by conference call or video chat? Some of us are noticing changed dynamics within our own families and homes. Who knew that a house could be so small with just two people in it? Who knew that you could be so tired after a day just at home with small children?
And through it all there is a looming sense of not knowing what the future will hold. It seems likely that even when the immediate threat is over, “normal” will be something very different than what it was a month ago.
In that sense, his crisis has given us all something bigger than we can manage. Not that we aren’t trying. Parents have tried to manage having kids home all the time through schedules, craft projects, board games, times for exercise. Others of us have tried to manage our time alone with setting goals for housecleaning, organizing, and attempts to help others. Sometimes these strategies work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we cope reasonably well. Sometimes everybody just has a meltdown from the stress and the sadness and the loss.
If Jesus had been in Bethany when Lazarus was ill, they all would have coped by asking him to heal Lazarus. By asking him to put things right. To make Lazarus better. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Lord, if you had been here, everything would still be normal. Lord, if you had been here, we would not be experiencing this awful dislocation and grief. But Jesus was not there. And even when they sent for him, he waited two days before he set out, which goes against our expectations of how a good God should operate.
Jesus, however, has expectations of his own. He doesn’t rush to Bethany and he is remarkably plain about the reason. For your sake I am glad I wasn’t there, so that you may believe.
If that hard word-I wasn’t there, so that you may believe–has anything to tell us today, it might be this: in this strange world in which we find ourselves, in which viruses travel the globe and in which economies shut down overnight, we need something more than just going back to normal. We need something more than just a schedule or a routine. We need something more than coping strategies. What we need, instead, is the power of grace. We need resurrection and life. We need God to make us into a new creation, and give us something beyond “normal” to believe.
Even under non-crisis conditions, our desire to manage our own lives and cling to what we consider normal can be a form of mistaking what God truly desires from us. God does not want perfectly managed lives from us. God is not standing over us, insisting that we approach everything with calm, manage our own loneliness with aplomb, curb all of our own anxieties, and live without fear. Instead, God wants our faith, our trust. I’m glad I wasn’t there, said Jesus. Why?So that you might believe.That is either a threat or a promise depending on how you hear it. If we cling to everything that we expect, if we put ourselves in the driver’s seat of our lives, if we long for the old normal when nothing is going that direction, then this news that God wants only our faith is a threat, because then those expectations of ourselves and our world have to be wrapped up and put in the grave. They are nothing but sinful dead weight on our lives. God cannot do anything with them.
But if we can admit that we never had any control anyway, if we can confess that we are in over our heads right now, then this news that God wants only our faith is really a glorious promise. It means that we do not have to be any stronger than we are. It tells us that the moments when we are a mess are in fact moments when Christ can speak and do something brand new right here and right now in this profoundly not normal moment. When Jesus arrives at Bethany, everyone is losing it. The crowd is wailing. Mary and Martha are weeping. The crowd is turning to one another in irritated disgust. Jesus himself has a meltdown. He weeps and is filled with anger at the grief of the crowd and the reality of death. If the last days have found us weeping, we have good and holy company.
There is no calm in Bethany when Jesus arrives, but where he is, there is resurrection and life. The word is spoken. Lazarus is raised. Jesus calls his name. But mark this well: this raising is something altogether different than Jesus making things normal again. Check out that final detail when Lazarus appears at the mouth of the tomb. The Scripture does not say, “Lazarus came out.” No. It says, rather, “The dead man came out.” The graveclothes still bind him. He’s alive, but the reality of his four day stint in the grave is still there, too. He lives, but not the way he used to live. There is no going back to the time before he died. Jesus has not erased the experience.
Jesus has not made things normal; Jesus has made things new.
And this is grace for this moment, this moment that we cannot control. Jesus who called Lazarus name at the mouth of the tomb, has also called our names. has also called our names in the gift of Holy Baptism. At the moment we were baptized, whether we knew it or not, our expectations that our lives would be at our own disposal went down in the water. “Normal” as we define it drowned at that moment, our sinful selves united with Christ in his death.
But at the mouth of that watery tomb God has also united us to Christ in his resurrection. And so God gives us something more than “normal: new life and hope and strength and love. God gave us grace sufficient even for our meltdowns. We were raised to live in Christ and not for ourselves. And he is here in this present moment, not to prevent its agony but to raise us in faith to face it. In Baptism we have already died the only death we have to fear. In Baptism, Christ calls our names, unbinds us, and lets us go.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.