Sermon April 2: A Way out of No Way

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Faith United Methodist Church

April 2, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture:  John 11:1-45

Prayer for Illumination: 

As Lazarus in the tomb heard your words of power, so have we.  On this day may we walk out of darkness and into the light of righteousness.  May the ministry of your word remove our grave clothes and embrace us in the kingdom of God.  Amen.

Sermon:                               A Way out of No Way

Doubt.  Faith.  Faith.  Doubt.  Some folks believe that faith and doubt are at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Merriam-Webster defines doubt as, “a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction.”  I doubt the Red Sox are going to make it to the World Series this year.  I doubt I will be able to fit into that dress.   To doubt is to be unsure.  Doubt always leaves open a possibility.

I tend to believe that doubt and faith are not opposites.  I’ve heard a convincing argument that fear is, in fact, the opposite of faith, not doubt.   In fact, I think that doubt and faith go hand in hand.  We are human, after all.  We have limited imaginations.  Who would’ve thought it possible for a blind man to see, a leprous man suddenly made clean, a dead man to come back to life.  Of course we are going to scratch our head at these events.  Seriously?  Can that really be true?  We get so used to the predictable that it’s hard to believe anything else.   We’re not conditioned to believe there is a way out of no way.

Our Gospel reading today is about the death of one of Jesus’ closest friends. When Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was sick, you’d think that he would’ve left immediately to do whatever he could for his friend.  At least that was what the sisters were hoping.  But instead, Jesus waited two days to even begin the 20-mile journey.  Two days.  By the time Jesus arrived at the house of his friends, Lazarus had been dead four days and was buried.  In Jewish thought, it took three days after death for the soul to leave the body.  Lazarus wasn’t just dead.  He was dead-dead.

Put yourself in Mary and Martha’s shoes for a minute.  How do you think these sisters must have felt?  Grief stricken, abandoned, angry?   Mary didn’t beat around the bush once Jesus finally arrived.  She confronted him, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”   She knew Jesus healed the sick, so she had hope when Lazarus was alive.  But now that Lazarus was dead, what could Jesus possibly do?  Tears accompanied Mary’s greeting.  While she loved Jesus, she doubted he could do anything at this point.

And what did Jesus do in response to Mary’s tears? With those who mourned Lazarus’ death, Jesus wept.  Now this leads to an interesting question.  If Jesus knew that he could raise Lazarus from the dead, why would Jesus cry?  Some people even think that Jesus delayed his trip because he planned all along to raise Lazarus.  If that were the case, why would Jesus be moved to weep at Lazarus’ tomb?  Did Jesus doubt his ability to restore his friend’s life?

Perhaps he was weeping over the people’s unbelief or maybe Jesus cried because he knew, after raising Lazarus, he would have to face his own death.  Those are certainly possibilities.  But I think that Jesus cried because, as a man, he shared the pain of his friends.  He felt the magnitude of the loss.  As one preacher suggested, in Jesus we find the resurrection and the life here grieving with us in the midst of pain and death.

There are lots of reasons to doubt Jesus’ ability to help Lazarus at this point.  Death was the final barrier.  And as we said earlier, Lazarus was not just dead.  He was dead-dead.   As Martha pointed out, there was already a stench.   But, in the words of Kathryn Matthews, “There are places and times when our religious imaginations fail us.”  Mary and Martha, and the friends that had gathered around them, had trouble seeing beyond the predictable.

So there at the tomb, with tears in his eyes, Jesus did what no one thought possible.  He made a way out of no way.  He called to his friend Lazarus and Lazarus walked out alive, stench and all.   It’s a good thing that Jesus life-giving actions are not dependent on the faith of humans.

So today, in our Lenten series, we are emptying our plates of doubt.  We are embracing the miracles of God that are beyond our limited imaginations.  Over the past few weeks we’ve emptied our plates of temptation, misunderstanding, regret and blame.  Like these others, we’re probably not going to rid ourselves of all doubt ~ and I’m not sure that should be our goal.  What we can do is suspend our disbelief in order to see the hope God puts before us.  Sometimes we’re like the first followers of Jesus who are, as Veronica Miles puts it, “…often more concerned with situational limitations than the restorative possibilities of life and resurrection.”

The play by Eugene O’Neil, Lazarus Laughed, tells the story of what Lazarus’ life might have been like after his resurrection.  At one point in the play, Lazarus’ friends ask, “Lazarus, tell us what it is like to die.”  Lazarus answers, laughing, “There is no death, really.  There is only life.  There is only God.  There is only incredible joy.”

Lazarus was the one person in this story who didn’t doubt.  How could he have doubted?  He was dead….. and then we was alive.  Those were just realities for Lazarus.  The rest of us, though, may contend with doubt.  We may question and be curious and wonder.  And still, Jesus goes to Jerusalem, to the cross, for us.

 I said earlier that it’s my belief that fear, not doubt, is the opposite of faith.   This miraculous raising of Lazarus set things in motion in the hearts and minds of those who feared Jesus, which led to his death.  To doubt is to be unsure.  Doubt always leaves open a possibility.  Fear does not.  It’s a good thing that God’s life-giving actions are not dependent on the faith of humans.  Yet, miraculously, the followers of Jesus were beginning to doubt the finality of death.  As Lazarus might have said, “There is no death, really.  There is only life.  There is only God.  There is only incredible joy.”  Amen.