holy cross sermon for the fifth sunday in lent, year a, april 6, 2014

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?

Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus.  Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany.  They were close friends of the Lord.  Jesus was at ease in their home.  We see this in the story in Luke where Jesus comes to their house and is teaching.  Mary sits at the Lord’s feet and Martha becomes indignant at having to serve by herself.  She does not hesitate the speak her mind to Jesus:  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me,” (Luke 10).

And in today’s reading we see some of the same familiar impertinence from both sisters, who, in their grief, say the same thing to Jesus as he arrives on the scene deliberately late:  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” (vv 21 and 32).

We see in these words from the grieving sisters not really a lack of faith, but a perfectly human lack of understanding.  These disciples of Jesus, who were also his friends – they BELIEVE in him.  Jesus asks Martha directly whether she believes, and she answers “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world,” (v. 27).  And the miracle that is about to take place will be a vindication of this faith.  “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (v. 40). They do, in fact, believe; and they will, in fact, see the glory of God.

What Mary and Martha – and Jesus’ disciples – don’t see are the implications of what they confess, the implications of their faith in him, that he is who he says he is, that he HAS come from the father, that the power and the glory of God are indeed manifest in him, and through him, and by him.  “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”

Death is the great reality that stands at the center of human existence, the endpoint of every human life.  Death is a powerful fact that confronts what we claim to believe about the power of God in Christ.  Death clouds our vision.  It stands as a veil of experiential separation between our confession of faith in Jesus, on the one hand, and the fulfillment of his promise of life, on the other.

And the veil of death hangs heavily over today’s reading.  Its palpable – we can hear it in the words of the bereaved sisters and in the Lord’s own weeping; we can see it in the blackness of the tomb’s opening.  Even our nostrils are offended when we read Martha’s words: “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for [Lazarus] has been dead four days” (v. 39).  Spiritually, we see in all of this the CONDITION of humanity into which the Lord entered when he became incarnate.  Death is indeed at the center of human experience.

But just in the previous chapter the Lord had declared to the disciples unambiguously that he is the Lord of death.  Death has no power over him.  He came to put death in its place simply by being who he is. Jesus says: “The Father loves me because I lay down my life, that I may take it again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father,” (John 10.17-19).

But the power of sin and death obtrudes into the hearts even of the faithful.  Anyone who has experienced bereavement knows this.  And we know that sin and death are inextricably linked in the Bible.  The faith of these friends of Jesus shows itself to be weak in the face of death – what looks like a definitive victory for sin – for as St. Paul says “sin reigned in death,” (Rom. 5.21).  And our faith is often weak in the face of this reality – a reality we encounter daily.

So what do we think?  We tend, perhaps, to think that the Lord has come to us only to commiserate, to be a fellow mourner.  We think that he has come merely to weep.  We think that he has come just to sit with us next to the mouth of our sealed tombs – the “done deals” of our untransformed humanity.  We think that he has come to share our grief, but otherwise to leave us alone – a ministry of presence and commiseration.  But that’s not the whole truth.  “Surely he HAS borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… [but] upon him was the chastisement that made us WHOLE, and by his stripes we are HEALED,” (Isaiah 53.4 & 5). He comes not just to share our grief, not just to commiserate with us, but to HEAL us.

…..At first Jesus says, “Take away the stone.”  He urges us to uncover the places in our lives – in our hearts – where sin has planted its flag, and has seemed to triumph.  He commands us to examine the places of hopeless, untransformed stagnation, to expose them to the light of day, to the breath of life, and most of all to his sovereign command.  “I have power to lay down [my life], and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.”  Jesus is the boss of death.

We naturally resist, like the grieving sisters.  “Lord – I have been this way for as long as I can remember!  By now there is an odor!  Lets just sit here and weep.”  But that’s not why Jesus came.  His words to us in such moments are his words to the invalid lying by the pool: “Do you WANT to be healed?” (Jn. 5.6); Do you even want to be victorious over your habitual sins? Do you want to be transformed; Do you want to be RAISED?  Jesus did not come to sit with us, weeping in front of a sealed tomb.  He commands us to uncover even the darkest places – especially the darkest places – of ourselves – to hear and OBEY the command of the one who has life in himself (Jn. 5.26), with whom all things are possible (Mat. 19.26, Mrk. 9.23).

Jesus came to TRANSFORM us.  He said “he who does not obey the Son shall not see life” (Jn. 3.36).  And what is his command?  His command to each of us is: “Take away the stone… [and] COME OUT of the tomb.”

If YOU would believe, YOU would see the glory of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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