March 27, 2020
Attached is the sermon for this Sunday. It was not composed with the coronavirus in mind. For a good while now, I have been preparing sermons in advance because these days I never know when there will be an emergency or other situation to which I need to give all of my attention. I did think about altering the sermon in light of the current crisis but decided not to so that it would stay closely tied to the Gospel reading and speak to the situations and questions it was originally meant to. Also, I thought that as it is it could still speak in some way to what we are experiencing.
In addition, I want to mention two announcements that would have been in the bulletin today:
Even though we have temporarily stopped having worship services, the grass has not stopped growing! And so, if you have not yet signed up to mow, please consider doing so. Please contact George Dietz, (George.Dietz@Woodward.edu) and he will give you all the information you need to know and be happy to put you on the crew.
We are also continuing to take orders for Easter lilies, even though we are not sure if we will be able to have a service. The price will be $12.50 per plant rather than the previously announced price of $10.00. However, the plants will be the larger 10-inch pot. If you wish to order a plant, please call (770-997-7117) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) the church office.
The sympathy of the congregation and the strength and hope we share in the resurrection of Christ is extended to Lynn Carroll and her family upon the death of her mother.
May God continue to grace your days with the laughter that helps us make it through such days, the love that casts out all fear, and the peace that calms our anxiety.
God be with you,
Sermon The Reverend Jeffrey M. Halenza
March 29, 2020 Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church
John 11:1-6, 17-45 Fifth Sunday in Lent
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “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.” Accordingly, 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. When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “1 know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “1 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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 2
And so today we hear the story of Jesus and Lazarus.
The story of Jesus calling Lazarus back to life.
It’s a powerful story and yet a disturbing story too, a story that raises some tough questions, and a story that gets us thinking about the whole issue of life and death and life beyond death.
Lazarus was Jesus’ best friend.
And Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were great friends of Jesus as well.
As one commentator has described the relationship, Jesus would drop in on them whenever he was in the neighborhood.
Maybe because their home was the one place Jesus felt at home and could relax, although it’s hard to picture Jesus ever relaxing, just sitting back and being himself — always the demands, the unending needs, everyone approaching him because of what he could do for them but never once thinking that there might be something they could do for him. And so maybe that was it – maybe Lazarus and Mary and Martha didn’t make demands on him but just allowed him to be himself for a time. Maybe Lazarus was the one person Jesus didn’t have to be the Messiah with, and the one person he could talk with about what it was like being who he was.
And if that’s the case, it’s easy to understand why Jesus loved going there, loved Lazarus, and Mary and Martha too.
And they loved him and so when Lazarus became ill, they immediately sent word to Jesus.
But Jesus did not drop everything and go to the side of his best friend, and you have to wonder why he didn’t.
One answer, of course, is that the note said that Lazarus was only ill, not dying, and so there was time to delay, time to complete his work in the region where he was.
And anyway, how do you know exactly when to go? When you receive word that someone you love who lives some distance from you is ill, do you drop everything and go or do you wait for further word? Sometimes you go immediately only to discover that the person is doing better and then later, when you’re back home, you receive word that the person has had a relapse, but you can’t go back and be there when the person really needs you. It’s hard to know when to go. And sometimes you just can’t drop everything — family and job obligations can make it nearly impossible. So we anguish over when to go, if we can go, how we can manage it.
And maybe Jesus felt some of that very same anguish.
And yet a little later in the story Jesus does seem to know.
He seems to know just how sick Lazarus truly was and exactly when Lazarus dies.
Jesus even tells his disciples that he was glad he wasn’t there because now he can call Lazarus back to life and the disciples will believe even more. And suddenly Lazarus seems to be merely a prop in some divine drama and Jesus seems to be not much of a friend to Lazarus at all.
And you have to wonder about that too. Was it really Jesus’ plan all along to delay, or was he just trying to make the best of a bad miscalculation and rationalize away his failure to be there — as we ourselves often do in such situations?
But whatever the reason for his delay, the fact remains: Jesus wasn’t there for his friend when his friend needed him the most.
And that’s all that mattered to Martha.
That’s what hurt: his absence.
When Jesus finally does arrive on the scene, Martha immediately demands: Where were you when we needed you?
“Lord, if you had been here,” Martha says, “my brother would not have died.” And while some might not take that as an accusation, it is. As another commentator has put it, “There is such love in that greeting, and such blame.” Martha knows that Jesus is a lifesaver, a life-giver, so where was he?
And Martha’s pain and questioning is often our pain and questioning at such a time. Like Martha, perhaps we blame God for not being there, not working the miracle we so want.
For Martha, Jesus would have made all the difference, only he wasn’t there.
And now it was too late.
But in her grief Martha clings to one last hope.
“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him,” Martha says to Jesus.
For a moment Martha hopes beyond hope that somehow Lazarus can be returned to life, but in the end it’s beyond imagining for her, it’s just too much to believe.
She and Jesus talk of resurrection and it’s clear that for Martha it is only a future thing, not something that can be worked in the present. But Jesus tells her differently, tells her not that he has the power to work resurrection but that he is the resurrection and the life — that to be hooked up to him means that even though we die, we shall live; that to believe in him is to start eternal life right then, right now.
But it is all too much for Martha.
And Mary too. For when Mary greets Jesus, she expresses the same anguish and blame, and all she can do is weep with grief and hopelessness.
And this time Jesus makes no attempt to say anything — he is deeply moved and asks only to see Lazarus’ tomb.
And when he comes to the place, Jesus weeps.
It is the only recorded instance in the New Testament where Jesus breaks down and sheds tears. And why does he weep? Certainly because he has lost his best friend. But there are other reasons as well. Those standing nearby make a devastating accusation: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept his man from dying?” But as one author has pointed out, they said nothing that he hadn’t already said to himself. If he really was the resurrection and the life, wasn’t there something he could have done to keep Lazarus alive? The blunt fact of it was that he had not been there and Lazarus died, and the blunt answer to the question of the bystanders was no, he could not keep his friend from dying. And so Jesus weeps because of death itself, the frailty and grief and pain of life. But weeps too because for all he has said and done, still no one understands, no one believes — believes that death is not the end, that to follow him is to somehow outlive death, that eternal life begins this side of death.
But Jesus not only weeps, he also becomes angry.
The Greek word that is translated “deeply moved” means more than that. It suggests anger, someone ready to explode. And Jesus is angry – angry at death, angry at the randomness of things, angry because everyone has given up on Lazarus, given up on life.
And so it is with both love and anger that Jesus calls Lazarus back from death, calls him to life again. And while it is not a resurrection in the truest sense — because Lazarus will die again — this much is clear: death does not have the last word.
And that’s what Jesus wanted people not only to see but to believe: that to be connected to him means to have life.
Life now, life in the midst of death, life beyond death.
Now how you take the story of Lazarus, I do not know.
It may leave you with more questions than it answers or stretch belief to the breaking point.
All I can do is proclaim what for me is the truth of the story.
And the first truth of the story is a hard, painful truth: the truth that there will be times when Jesus will not be there when we need him most, at least not in the way we want or need. It is the hard, painful truth of the absence of God, a truth the Psalmists knew, Israel knew, and Christ himself knew on the cross. The Bible is very honest and blunt about it, much more so than we are. But Scripture also tells us that in their sense of abandonment the Psalmists and the people of Israel and Jesus kept crying out to the absent God, kept turning toward God, kept holding fast to God. And it is in such moments that faith is truly faith and love for God is truly love for God. In those moments when God is absent and no miracle comes, to keep trusting and loving God are faith and love at their deepest and truest.
And there is another truth of the story: the truth that God knows the frailty and pain and grief of life and anguishes with us. And God also knows our anger at all that happens and feels that anger as well. Our bodies fail us sooner or later. Illness strikes without warning or reason, sudden accidents sweep us away, terrible things happen in this violent, chaotic world, and neither God nor we ourselves can make our lives immune from all that threatens. The Bible is honest about that too — what life is like. And God anguishes with us and knows the power of death not only to take life from those we love but also to take the life out of us who watch helplessly.
But God does more than anguish with us. God answers all that happens with a power more powerful than death: God answers with life.
That is the deepest truth of this story, a truth I cannot prove or explain but only proclaim: the truth that to follow Christ and live in him and allow him to live in us is to know life that is stronger than death. And the life he gives is not only life after death but life now, before death. Jesus called Lazarus back into life, back into the life he had known before his death. It wasn’t a resurrection but a being returned to life, life before death, life in the midst of death.
And maybe that’s what we need to hear more than anything. Like Martha, most of us probably believe in a resurrection after death — eternal life. Believing in life before death, in the midst of death, is the problem. But as Jesus was calling Lazarus back to life, he was also calling Martha and Mary and all who grieved for Lazarus back to life — to come out of the death of despair and grief and disillusionment and live fully again. And he calls us to do the same: to come out of the death before death we often find ourselves in and discover life that is a match for death.
It is the deepest truth of this story: in Christ there is the power to put the life back into us - before death, in death, beyond death.
And maybe it’s all a bit too much for us.
But then it will be, as it was for Martha and Mary and the original disciples and even Lazarus himself — until they lived with that wild faith day after day.
The same wild faith that connects us to the One who is the resurrection and the life.
Prayer of the Day
Pastor: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.
Pastor: O Lord our God, life is the miracle you work — life now, life in death, life beyond death. Grace us with such faith in Christ that the miracle of life would be worked in our lives and we would see that set next to the abundant life you give, death would scarcely fill a cup.
Prayers of Intercession
Pastor: O Lord, you are the resurrection and the life! And we pray that you would so live in us and we in you that we would have life now and forever. Call us each day out of all that seeks to take the life from us, raise us up each day in hope, grant us the wild faith that trusts ourselves to you, now, and at the last, and beyond. Work the miracle of life each and every day! Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: And we pray too, O Lord, that we ourselves would be life-givers. Often we speak such deadly and deadening words to others, put on them the deadness we feel inside, take the life from them with our moods and bitterness and anger. Heal us, release us from our tombs, fill us with new life, that we would give life to others day after day. Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: But if we are to feel anger, O Lord, let it be the righteous anger that you yourself felt. Let us be deeply moved and greatly disturbed by what poverty does to people, what hunger does, what violence and abuse do. Fill us with an anger that moves us to help raise people out of poverty, to provide bread and shelter and comfort, to bring an end to violence and abuse. Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: And move us as well, 0 Lord, to stand with those who grieve and hurt. When everyone turns away after a few days, let us remain. Let us weep with others, continue to hold them, be a friend who helps them find the way to life and joy again. Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: And we pray too, O Lord, for those risking their lives to protect our lives. But as we support them, let us also support every effort to undo the conditions that breed despair and lead people to do violence. Let us never become arrogant as a nation, but even more dedicated to building up peace and hope in our world. Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: And we pray, O Lord, for those who are shut-in, those who are ill or hospitalized, for those who are suffering and hurting, those who are dying, those who are grieving. Comfort them! Heal them! Be with them! Especially do we pray for those who have contracted the coronavirus and are struggling to live, for their families who fear the worst, and for all the healthcare workers treating them and risking their own lives and we pray too for Carolyn Herche, Michelle Bryant, Ralph Turner, Barbara Hellwig, Harold Finney, Linda Keyser, Justin Markham, Martha Ratzman, Kay Douma, Judy Cable, Annette Flanigan, Ryland Jones, Joanne McGee, Sharon Allison, Barbara Gordin, Walt Sternke, Bill Dixon, George Pringle, Carl Berkobin, Sandy Tiedemann, Genelda Clinton, Eleanor Gibson, Sarah Fields, Kristi Gordin, Winifred Pernell, Roberta Lecour, and Lynn Carroll and her family upon the death of her mother. And for all those relatives and friends so dear to us. Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: And now in the silence, O Lord, we pray our most personal prayers and listen for the word you speak to us...
Pastor: Lord, in your mercy,
People: hear our prayer.
Pastor: O Lord, as we go out into the day, help us to lift up our hearts in thankfulness and praise. Guard and guide us. Grace our days with laughter. Grant us the faith that trusts that all shall be well.