Monday, April 18, 2011

SERMON: Jesus Delays

Oregon Scientific RM313PNA Self-Setting Projection Alarm Clock with Indoor Thermometer, Blue
Date: April 10, 2011
Text: John 11:1-45
[Introduction] I have a confession to make: I hate my alarm clock. Now, there are some specific features that I enjoy. With one button, I can change the timezone. With another, I can easily set the alarm. It has both an up and down arrow, so if I want to set my alarm earlier than the previous day, I don’t have to scroll through 23 numbers to get back to the hour before. The best feature of all? It shines the current time on the ceiling. It’s invisible during the day but at night when my wife and I are laying without glasses in the bed, it’s just bright and big enough to be readable. That’s what I love about my alarm clock.

What do I hate about it, then? It wakes me up. I like sleeping. My dreams are sometimes the most peaceful part of the day. My alarm clock very rudely steps into that refreshing and relaxing state and yells at the top of its lungs, “Get up!” as it beep, beep, beep, beeps. That’s what I hate about my alarm clock.
[Page 1] Quite unlike my alarm clock which is always on time, in our Gospel passage today Jesus is late. Early on, he gets the news that his dear friend Lazarus is ill. Lazarus’ two sisters Mary and Martha had sent the word. They wanted him to come. They knew that if Jesus was there, he could make everything better and restore Lazarus to health. Instead, Jesus does one of the most frightening and confusing things in the Bible: he delays. “Accordingly,” we hear in the passage, “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.” Even though Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he does not rush to their aid. He delays. Why?
We could hear the passage and think Jesus was weak or afraid. Given the way Jesus breaks down weeping (weeping so hard that the people point at him and gawk) it could be that Jesus is just too weak to face the pain of his dear friend’s sickness. Or, maybe he is afraid. Lazarus’ town Bethany is just a little over three kilometers from Jerusalem, and the disciples object, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Maybe Jesus delays because he needs to build up the courage to face a possible death. He was human after all.
Alternatively, maybe Jesus wasn’t weak and afraid. Maybe he was callous and capricious. Jesus seems to know that something is up here. He says to the disciples, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v. 4). A little later, we hear in the story, “Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe’” (vv. 14-15). All of a sudden, Lazarus seems like a tool that Jesus uses to glorify himself. This seems to imply that Jesus is glad Lazarus dies because this way the disciples will believe. What does this make Lazarus then, some kind of collateral damage? Is his death nothing more than a means to an end, a necessary evil in the fulfillment of God’s good plan? Jesus is divine after all. He could see the whole picture. Maybe he is callous towards his friend’s pain and death, using it to his own ends.
Whether Jesus is weak and afraid or callous and capricious, either way, he does the most frightening thing imaginable. Even though he has the power to heal in his hands, even the power to heal from a distance (!), he delays. He does not go to Bethany. He lets Lazarus die.
[Page 2] Since early times, Christians in desperation and despair have prayed, “Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus, come.” But all too often in our experience, Jesus does not come. For some reason, he delays. It is a terrifying experience to know that Jesus could step in and fix it (whatever “it” is) but doesn’t. What kind of Lord is it who allows his creation to continue suffering, continue spiraling out of control, continue giving into hate? What kind of Lord is it that stands at a distance while the world he created suffers from its sickness and dies?
We don’t know most days. So in response to Jesus’ delay, we doubt, hurry, and scramble. We doubt the goodness of a Lord who stands at a distance. We scramble to fix the problem ourselves, rushing to resuscitate the world before it passes away. We start to believe that if Jesus really is absent, then maybe we can find some other person to take his place. Maybe we can find another Christ to stand in for Jesus of Nazareth and fix the world.
Throughout human history, we’ve done this over and over again. In the mid-20th Century, in the face of a severe post-war economic depression, the German people rallied around a Christ of their own. They put their hope in him. Jesus was not coming, it seemed, so they thought they could retake their former power by force. The Christian cries of “Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus, come” were twisted into the militaristic cries of the Third Reich. These people trusted other people with complete power in hopes that they could resuscitate the world, but they instead set out on a path that resulted in the slaughter of millions.
Jesus’ delay has effects in the history of nations, but it also has profoundly personal effects. When you and I sit alone in our houses, our cheeks wet from tears caused by Jesus’ seeming abandonment, we know what it must have been like to have been those two sisters who called to Jesus in their distress and were not answered, those sisters who mourned the death of a brother that their Lord could have saved but instead for some reason chose to delay.
[Page 3] What those sisters do not know, as they summon and wait for the Jesus who delays, is that Jesus’ love will raise Lazarus from the dead. They know that Jesus loves Lazarus. When they send word to him, the message reads “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3). But they cannot comprehend the height, width, and depth of Jesus’ love. In their minds, love means rushing to aid. In their hearts, they believe that when they cry “Maranatha!” that the Lord Jesus is supposed to come quickly. But Jesus’ love, they will find, is something entirely different.
Jesus’ love is confident. When Jesus hears the news about Lazarus’ illness, he turns immediately to his disciples and tells them that Lazarus’ illness does not lead to death (11:4). Instead, God’s glory will be shown through it. A little later, when Lazarus’ illness has swallowed him up in death, Jesus says to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (11:11). Jesus is confident that his love for Lazarus will win in a fight against that non-love, that anti-love that is death.
But, Jesus’ love is also compassionate. He does not accept Lazarus’ death with the stoic determination of a movie military commander who sacrifices the lives of his unit for the completion of a higher objective. Even though Jesus’ love is confident in how things will turn out; Jesus’ love also breaks his heart. When Jesus comes to Bethany, first Martha approaches him and then Mary. He receives them both and begins to teach them what it is that what he is about to do will mean. But when Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet and through choked tears says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32), Jesus’ heart breaks. His spirit is greatly disturbed. His face contorts with pain. He cries out, “Where have you laid him” (11:34)? When he starts walking towards the tomb of the man he loved, he breaks down and begins to weep (11:35). He arrives at the tomb ‘greatly disturbed’ (11:38).
Confident yet broken-hearted, Jesus chokes through his own tears, saying, “Take away the stone” (11:39). When Martha questions him, he turns his swollen eyes to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God” (11:40)? And Jesus prays to the Father, thanking him, allowing the people around to see that there is a relationship of trust between them, one that will empower him to do what’s next. And Jesus now, with eyes puffy and snot drying in his beard, confidently raises his voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
And that is precisely what Lazarus did.
[Page 4] When my alarm clock goes off precisely on time every morning, my brain starts to work. It tries to incorporate the beep, beep, beep, beeps into the fabric of whatever dream that I am dreaming. My brain tries to tame the alarm into something that is a part of my dream world; it tries to make it something that I can ignore.
But, I can’t. Eventually the sheer otherness of the alarm shatters my dreams and brings me startling awake. It’s 5:00 am. It’s time to go running. I am left with a choice. Do I ignore my alarm and retreat to the safety of my dreams? Or do I embrace the real world and walk into the day?
I don’t know if Lazarus had the choice when he heard Jesus calling from the door of his tomb, but we do. When Jesus calls us (“Christian, come out!”), we can get up and start walking in the light, or we can choose to remain children of the darkness, those people who prefer to believe the world’s destructive illusion instead of its illumined reality.
But, one thing is for sure. The life we are living before we hear Jesus’ voice calling, that life is the entombed life, the life of death, the life of the dream world. Jesus’ voice, when it calls us to new life, is painful. It disrupts our slumbering selves. It for the first time snaps our eyes open in shock, in disorientation, in sheer incomprehension.
But if the voice that calls us is the same voice that called Lazarus from the tomb, then we can know that it is the voice of love. It is not the voice that we expected, because we expected God’s love to be the thing that rushes to fix us, that rushes to heal us, that rushes to meet our needs. But, instead, when we hear the voice, we hear it as a voice that has delayed. It did not come when we expected it, as part of our dreams, but as something that intrudes upon and sometimes shatters them. Even though it seems to us like the voice is delayed, it has come precisely at the right time, precisely when God would have us get up and walk out of our tombs into the light of a brand new day.
Jesus’ love called Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’ love calls us into newness of life. Jesus’ love is the reason we gather here this morning. Jesus’ love is what we will soon receive, memorialized, in our hands and in our mouths. Jesus’ love that led him to a cross, that led him through death to a resurrection, that love is the love that is God Himself, God Almighty, God the one and only. He is the One that we adore, that we worship, that we love. Even when he delays, we cannot put another in His place because He alone is the one who loves us enough to call us by name and rouse us from our sleep. He alone is the one that we worship, here in this place and now and forever, world without end. Amen.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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