Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
The power of death to awaken us to the presence of God speaking to us is particularly urgent in our times. We live in an age that values control. Theologians like to be able to explain things so there are no questions, young executives want to be on top of their work, and new pastors wish to appear to their people to have their lives together. Death comes and renders these assumptions of control a shambles. Then in our chaos and our dependency we cry to God. Then and perhaps only then we can hear. Urban Holmes
The Voice that Wakes the Dead
I don’t usually use the lectionary, which is a series of Scripture passages assigned to each Sunday. However, there are times when I don’t have any ideas for sermons and will select the lectionary passage. In January, as I was planning my sermons for Lent, I knew that our pilgrimage would make it impossible to do a series of any sort, so I looked at the lectionary and the story of Lazarus was listed for today. It sounded fine to me, so I wrote it on the worship schedule and forgot about it.
In some ways the story of Jesus raising Lazarus is an unusual choice for today. We are in the middle of Lent, a time for repentance and reflection on our spiritual journeys. Yet the story is about resurrection and life. It seems more like an Easter story.
Then two days before we left for our pilgrimage I heard that Horst Endress had died. While we were in Israel Tanya and I learned that Leslie Holt, a 46 year-old lady from one of my former churches had died. Her funeral was last Saturday. Then last Sunday Susanne Udvari called me and told me that Joe had died. Monday morning I came in to the office, looked up the passage for today’s sermon, and was stunned at how appropriate it was.
Mary and Martha appear several times in the gospels and we know a bit about them. Martha was hard working and driven. She tried to please everyone by what she did. Mary was more contemplative and emotional. When she went out to meet Jesus she fell at his feet and wept. These two sisters had a brother named Lazarus. We don’t know much about him. He was sick. Then he was dead. And then he was surprised.
Lazarus lived with his sisters in Bethany. Bethany is a small village at the top of the Mount of Olives. It’s about two miles from Jerusalem. When Jesus came to the Jerusalem area he stayed at their home. He ate dinners with them. Jesus was friends with Lazarus, Mary and Martha.
We don’t usually think of Jesus having friends. We know that he had the disciples. There were people who came to him for healing and to listen to him teach. There were crowds around him, but friends? Wasn’t he too busy being the Messiah to have any friends? Yet Mary and Martha and Lazarus were Jesus’ friends. Our passage says that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).
In the 15th chapter of John’s gospel, at the last supper, Jesus said to the disciples “I’m not going to call you my servants. You are my friends.” That includes anyone who is a follower of Jesus. That includes you and me. We are Jesus’ friends. Yet, what does it mean to be Jesus’ friend? Do friends get special treatment? Are there privileges that come with being friends? Does it mean that when we are in trouble Jesus drops everything else and rushes to help us? That is certainly not what Mary and Martha experienced.
Lazarus got sick. Mary and Martha knew that Jesus had healed many people. They sent a message to Jesus. “Lazarus is sick.” They didn’t ask Jesus to come and heal Lazarus. They just expected him to come right away. We expect the story to say that “Since Jesus loved Lazarus he rushed back to Bethany and healed him.” Instead, the passage says that “though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5-6). By the time Jesus finally got to Bethany, Lazarus was already dead and had been buried for four days.
Have you ever noticed that Jesus never hurries? There are no stories of Jesus running. He didn’t even jog. He doesn’t rush or seem frantic. That drives me crazy because I often feel frantic. By the time I got the office Monday morning I was running as fast as I could. There were 65 emails that had come in while I was gone. Vera Crookshank’s funeral was on Monday, The funeral for Horst and Anneliese was yesterday. I had to meet with Susanne, Kristen and Matt to plan Joe’s service. I had to plan today’s worship and sermon. And there were a number of other tasks that should have been done but I never got to. I spend a lot of time rushing from one thing to the next, trying to get done all the work that Jesus wants me to do. You would think that Jesus would rush to keep up.
Yet he doesn’t. Jesus is not dragged around by our agendas. His timing is often different than our timing. And because Jesus doesn’t always show up when we expect him to and doesn’t follow our agendas, we sometimes get disappointed with him. Jesus is not interested in fulfilling our dreams and desires. His goal is to bring glory to God.
Lazarus is whatever you count on Jesus loving and blessing. Maybe it’s your family. You want your children to be healthy and to have good jobs and live close by. Maybe it’s your dreams for your career or your retirement years. Maybe it’s your hopes for this church or some great mission project. These desires are not necessarily wrong or bad. But if we cling to these desires rather than clinging to Jesus we just might end up disappointed. Jesus doesn’t want to rescue our lives. He wants to give us new life.
During our pilgrimage we went to the traditional site of Lazarus’s tomb. The picture on the screens is that place. On the left hand side there are 15-20 steps down from a small road, into a little waiting area. Then you have to duck through the doorway and go down 5 or 6 more steps into the actual crypt. Above those steps there is a little window where you can look down into the actual burial area. These widows are very common in burial chambers.
Usually a burial happened within 24 hours of death. The body would be wrapped in spices and cloth and then put into the crypt. A stone was rolled across the door of the crypt, but the little window was left open. The belief was that the spirit of the person stayed around the body for three days before it went to Sheol, the place of the dead. When it left after three days it would go out through the window. Jesus showed up four days after Lazarus was buried, which means that his spirit was already gone. Lazarus was dead and all that was left was the grief and putting life back together with an empty place in the hearts of Martha and Mary.
When Jesus got to Bethany Martha came out to meet him. She was mad. “Why didn’t you get here earlier? You could have healed Lazarus.” When Mary came out she asked the same question, but it seems that her emotion was more sorrow than anger. She fell at Jesus’ feet and wept. Both sorrow and anger are a normal and healthy part of grief.
Jesus doesn’t reject or scold either of the two sisters – Martha for her anger or Mary for her sorrow. He accepts them just as they are, with all of their emotions and struggles. Jesus even shared in their grief. When our passage says that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33) it could be translated “he was angry,” just like Martha. And of course, we know that Jesus wept. That verse is one of the great trivia questions about the Bible. What is the shortest verse in the Bible? “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). However, Jesus’ tears are anything but trivial. He shares in our grief.
In his exchange with Martha Jesus makes an incredible claim. “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” (John 11:25-26). Then to prove that he has the power to give us life Jesus called Lazarus back to life.
I love the way John describes that event. First Jesus prayed. He didn’t ask God to bring Lazarus back to life. He simply thanked God for the miracle that was going to happen. Then he “cried with a loud voice” (John 11:43). It ought to say, he shouted. “LAZARUS, COME OUT!” I wonder if he shouted because Lazarus was not likely to hear him, or was it because we so often don’t hear Jesus’ voice. We are so overwhelmed with the voice of death that we miss the good news that Jesus brings us life. We are so focused on our fears and the life-squelching, life-destroying message of the world that we miss the good news that Jesus came to bring us life, abundant life, eternal life. “LAZARUS, COME OUT!” Then Lazarus came out.
This story is the good news that Jesus’ love reaches beyond death, and whenever Jesus shows up there is life, new life, resurrection life. Jesus has power over death and the power to give us new life, the life that God wants us to have.
The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is a precursor to Easter, pointing to Jesus’ resurrection. Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. Lent is the 40 days before Easter, not including Sundays. The reason Sundays are not included is that every Sunday is intended as a celebration of Jesus’ power over death. Every day is a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Let us celebrate that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have life – abundant life, new life, eternal life! Amen.
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24
A pastor wrote a book about finding God’s love in the interruptions of life. One Sunday as people were leaving the sanctuary, a member of his church commented that she had just finished reading his book. She loved it, saying it was the best thing she had read since “The Bridges of Madison County.”
The pastor said “That is an interesting review. The message of the two books is completely different.” The woman replied, “I know that, but it doesn’t matter. They both touched me deeply.” The pastor didn’t say it, but he thought to himself, “I guess truth doesn’t matter anymore. What counts is being ‘touched.’ Theology isn’t important.
There is an attitude about theology in the church that is rarely spoken but I sense is very real. Members tend to think “Theology is too hard. It’s over my head. I can’t understand it so I’ll leave it up to pastors. They have plenty of time to think deep thoughts.” Let me give you a little inside information about pastors. Most pastors have the same attitude. “I don’t have time to read theology. I’ll leave that up to the seminary professors. They are the professionals who are paid to think about irrelevant and useless ideas.” [2:00]
If we were to have a theological discussion, one of the best known theological concepts has to do with the “omni’s.” God is omnipotent – all powerful. God is omniscience – all knowing. And God is omnipresent – all present. I looked up a definition of omnipresence.
Omnipresence is that attribute of God whereby he is said to be everywhere present. Traditionally this has meant:
I’m going to stop there so that I don’t totally bore you and put you to sleep. It’s good information and true, but tends to be rather heady and pointless. I think the Bible has a better way to talk about theology. The passage Melissa shared with us talks about God’s omniscience and omnipresence, but in a very different way. Let’s take a look. You may actually want to get your Bible out and follow along.
Psalm 139 has four stanzas. Each stanza has 6 lines. In the first stanza, verses 1-6, we hear about God’s omniscience. God knows us. God knows everything we do. He knows when you stand up or sit down. God knows all of the paths that you walk. God knows what you are going to say before you even say it. God knows when you break your diet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sneaked a cookie, or two, or four, assuming that if no one see me eat it the calories don’t count. I know that isn’t true, but even if it were true, God sees and the calories count.
God not only knows what you do, he knows what you think about, even if you don’t do it. God knows the lustful thoughts that run through your mind. God know the things you wish you could say to other people but are too polite to say it. God knows the temptations that eat at your soul and the worries that destroy your peace. God knows you intimately, better than you know yourself.
I want to skip the second stanza for now. I’ll come back to it in a few moments. The third stanza develops this idea of God’s omniscience. The reason God knows you so well is that God created you. God formed you. God knit you together inside your mother’s womb.
My mom is a wonderful knitter. She actually made this sweater. I tried knitting once. Knitting is hard work. It takes way more skill and concentration than I could ever have. When I tried to learn how to knit I discovered my gift to the knitting process. I can take yarn and roll it into a ball. That’s about it. Anything else, forget it.
If I actually tried to knit a sweater, it wouldn’t even be allowed into an ugly sweater contest. However, God is a master at knitting. God’s knitting is exquisite. It’s perfect. The psalm says that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. God’s works are wonderful. You are not an accident that just happened to come from a random combination of DNA. You are intentionally created by God and you are a masterpiece!
I doubt that most of us feel like a masterpiece. But Psalm 139 reminds us that we are a wonderful creation. God knows you. God made you just as you are, and God loves you.
The idea that God knows us so intimately might cause us to try to hide. Let’s be honest, most of us want someone to know us, but at the same time, we are terrified that we might be known. We are afraid that if someone really knows us they will reject us. And so we try to hide; from each other, and from God. If you don’t think you try to hide, reflect on your reaction to the idea that someone knows all your secret thoughts. Or try to look someone in the eyes for more than about ten to fifteen seconds. Even that long is uncomfortable.
We all hide, in countless ways. The second stanza of Psalm 139 tells us that hiding from God is impossible. This is the omnipresence of God. Where ever we go, God is present. If we go into heaven, God is there. That doesn’t surprise us. We expect God to be there. If we go to Sheol, the place of the dead, God is even there. This is the hope we need any time someone we love has died. Death doesn’t separate us from God’s love and presence. As Paul says in Romans, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, neither death nor life” (Romans 8:38-39).
If we cross over the ocean, the farthest place we could imagine going, God is there. If we go into the place of deepest darkness God is there. Even when we struggle or sin, God is with us. This is the omnipresence of God. No matter where we are, no matter how much we struggle, God is with us, and loves us.
Do you remember playing hide and seek? In the neighborhood where I grew up we played it almost every night. Our front porch was home base. We had ten to twelve kids who would play, and we had a great time playing. But if you think about it, hide and seek is really a stupid game. What other game do you play that you want to lose. Think about what winning at hide and seek means. It means that no one finds you.
That happened to me one time. Right across the street from our house there was another house with some huge junipers along the front. Behind the junipers was a great place to hide. One time I was behind these junipers and found that there was a little space in the middle of the junipers. I crawled in there and you couldn’t see me from either side. My sister’s friend, Luann, was it. She walked in front of the junipers and then behind them. She never saw me. About 25-30 minutes later I realized that no one was looking for me. They had all left and were doing something else. You don’t want to win at hide and seek.
Friends, the good news is that God never lets us win at hide and seek. The omnipresence of God means that no matter where we are, God is with us.
Omniscience and omnipresence – two great theological truths about God. Thankfully, this psalm doesn’t describe them with abstract ideas about God. The psalm describes them in personal terms. It isn’t that God knows all things, but God knows me. It isn’t that God is present everywhere, but God is with me. God knows, God is present, and God loves me. Thanks be to God.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Lord Jesus, let me condemn my sin
in Your company,
face to face with Your holiness.
Though I bow my head and heart in shame,
still let Your hand clasp mine;
let it be Your love which searches me,
Your sorrow which wakens my sorrow.
Let my sorrow deepen
knowing I have wounded
my Friend, my Master, my God.
Yes, Lord, I have crucified and crucify You again,
by many different sins,
by often repeating the same sins,
by obeying, crowning, myself.
Forgive me, Lord Jesus:
Lord Jesus, wash me clean,
Lord Jesus, make me whole,
Lord Jesus, hold me fast
in Your company forever.
Adapted from My God My Glory, by Erik Milner-White
Secret Piety and a Joyful Faith