So, today, we continue a series I’m calling, “Why Jesus?” We’re studying a series of conversations, from the Gospel according to John, that Jesus had over the course of his ministry. And we’re looking at them in reverse, as we move toward the coming of Christ we herald on Christmas Eve. Speaking of Christmas Eve, how are you coming with the invitation cards? You’ll notice that there’s another one there in your bulletin today, and I encourage you to use this card, too, to engage in conversation with someone special in your life. To talk about “Why Jesus,” for you, and listen for the spaces in their life where that relationship, for them, could make a world of difference. And invite them to sit beside you on Christmas Eve this year. Okay?
Okay. So, Lazarus is dead. That’s the scene. The funeral of Lazarus. Now, Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were good friends of Jesus. And they lived in a town called Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. And Lazarus had gotten sick. The sisters sent word to Jesus, but he didn’t come. He got the message, but he delayed. So they had a funeral for Lazarus and sealed his body in a tomb. And all of this happens before Jesus shows up. In fact, three days passed between Lazarus death and Jesus’ arrival on the scene.
Now, for me, I think it’s pretty incredible that, as a pastor, I have the opportunity to be present in the most intimate, powerful moments in other people’s lives. I get to be part of both weddings and funerals. Can I tell you a secret? I like funerals better. Know why? At weddings, people are preoccupied and everything moves fast. But at funerals, we talk with one another. We share stories. We’re open, and the conversations that result are always amazing.
We’ve stepped into one of those conversations in this passage of Scripture. Jesus is talking with Martha, one of Lazarus’ sisters, and she’s kinda going after him for taking so long to show up. If he had come earlier, she says with hurt in her voice, Jesus could’ve saved her brother. But he didn’t. Have you ever wanted something so badly, only to be disappointed when it didn’t materialize? You had every confidence in your prospects, you were absolutely certain, and then everything fell apart? That’s what Martha was feeling. She had every confidence in Jesus, but the healing didn’t come the way she wanted. And she shares in the conversation that she still has confidence in who Jesus is, but she isn’t certain why things didn’t work out the way she’d hoped. Because her brother is dead. So she vents, and Jesus says, “Your brother will be raised up.”
And Martha responds that she knows Lazarus will be raised up “in the resurrection at the end of time,” and she’s resigned herself to waiting. Like so many of us who encounter disappointment, we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that, in the end, it will all work out. Like Martha, we grieve our losses and take small comfort in knowing that it will all work out, eventually, but for now we hurt. I know people like this, and so do you. Sometimes you and I are these people. We take comfort in vague platitudes and bury our hope in far-off possibilities.
The trouble is that this strategy never works. It fails us because we sell ourselves short. We sell our faith short and we short-circuit the power of God to work in our lives. There’s a line in the movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” where the hotelier says, “It will all work out in the end. And if it doesn’t work out, it isn’t the end.” And Jesus responds to Martha’s attempt at self-care by saying, “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”
Believe is a funny word. It comes from the word “pisteuw.” Say “pisteuw.” Now, “Pisteuw,” is not a word about thinking something. Belief is not about what you think. “Pisteuw” means to cling. Like a cat to a tree. To take your claws out and dig into something forcefully. If you believe something in your head, it’s an intellectual exercise but it has no weight. Do you believe this, Jesus asks? Will you cling to the possibility and pursue it, or will you simply accept a possibility in your mind as maybe reasonable and wait. Too often we choose that option - we translate “believe” as an exercise of the mind, but that’s not what it means to Jesus. To Believe, to “Pisteuw,” means to cling tenaciously. To grab hold of promise and not let go.
To believe in something means we pursue it actively. We engage. We get up off the bench and move to the front lines of the life we have right now. Miracles happen. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And we’ve seen the ordinary become extraordinary in our own lives. Not because we think it so. But because we actively engage. Healing can come in an instant. Or it can take a long period of time. But it comes, if we allow it. If we pursue it. When we get sick, we take medication. We seek medical attention. We take measures to recover. And our efforts, one way or another, are blessed.
But sometimes we get in our own way. We become the stumbling block to our own healing. We don’t look for help or we refuse the help that’s offered to us. We wallow in our present and cling to our past, and we foreclose our futures. In too many churches, like Martha, we say, “Jesus, I called to you. I prayed to you. We kept things going the way we had before for you. And still, nothing changed. You didn’t show up.” And we resign ourselves to the fact that what we hoped for didn’t work out. Or we stay in that place, expecting a certain result to someday, eventually, come to pass. And we wait.
But Jesus calls us to something new. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he was given a new life. Can you imagine that witness? Can you imagine the stories he was able to tell and the lives that Lazarus and Mary and Martha influenced after this moment passes and Lazarus is resurrected? The thing is, in this new life that Lazarus gets, eventually he’s going to die again. And the question becomes, what does he do - what do his sisters do - with the new life they’ve been given? With a fresh shot at a new tomorrow, what will they do with it? Will they wait for things to work out and happen to them, or will they take an active role in shaping the new reality that Jesus made available to them? What do you think? As we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ once more, I pray that we’re going to “Pisteuw,” cling actively to the new possibilities that God is opening before us. That we’ll let the things of the past be the past and share the good news of what’s happening now and what lies ahead with one another and with everybody we meet. That we’ll truly live hope in new and unbelievable ways. For we are the empty tomb.
But, personally, sometimes it just feels like we’re the tomb, doesn’t it? Too many hurts. Too many struggles. Too much pain we carry. And we can’t see the way out of the darkness anymore. We get lost in the darkness of that tomb. We’ve been buried by a life that didn’t work out the way we planned. By people who weren’t who we thought or hoped they’d be. And we find ourselves moving deeper into the darkness, not moving toward the light. We resign ourselves to the losses and we wallow in the pain. We can’t let go of the old. Maybe you’ve been hurt. Maybe you can picture right now the people who’ve hurt you.
You know, some of the slights are pretty small; some of those hurts are like these tiny little rocks I’ve got here in my hand. And what happens, with some of us, is we take these rocks out and we get a magnifying glass and blow them up. We make them bigger than they are, and instead of just letting go of them, just tossing them aside, because they’re nothing, we take them and we hold onto them. We continue to play with them; we get them out every once in awhile and get our magnifying glass out and look at them some more. And we keep them in our hearts.
And there’s a lot of things we encounter that aren’t all that serious; they’re a little more serious, they sting for a little longer; and we could let those go or talk to the other person and say, “You know, you did this thing and it didn’t make me feel very good,” but we don’t do that. We just pile them in our heart.
And we keep doing this. Every year there’s a number of things that happen, some of them get much more serious, more painful, and we just keep piling them away. We don’t practice forgiveness. We don’t ask for it. We don’t give it. We hold onto them. Even when we say we’ve forgiven, we still keep track.
By the way, do you know how the apostle Paul defines love? He says it keeps no record of wrongs. But some of us are really excellent at keeping record of wrongs. And sometimes they get more serious, you know? You get hit with one of these, you’re going to feel it for a long time. And then, some of us, maybe there were people in our lives who piled in stones that could kill you, or nearly kill you.
And we just keep holding onto them. Clearly there’s no excuse; maybe those people never asked for forgiveness – maybe they did – but we hold onto it. And because this represents our heart, our soul, and that’s where we keep these things. Not just in our memories, but…
We keep them right here. Close. And it’s really hard to reach out and love somebody when you’ve got this in your heart. And it’s hard to let somebody else love you. And it affects every other relationship you have – not just with your spouse or immediate family, but it affects all the rest of them. In small ways, and sometimes great ways, you find that, after awhile, it’s hard to breathe. And you feel yourself sort of bent over by the burden that you carry in your heart.
All of those years. All of those sins. All those hurts. And this is why forgiveness is God’s answer to the question implied in your existence – because people are going to hurt you; people are going to say things, and do things, and somewhere along the way you recognize that you holding onto them is like drinking poison. It doesn’t hurt the other person; it only hurts you.
Of course, letting go and telling somebody, “You know, that thing in the past? Look, I love you anyway, and I’m letting it go.” That blesses the other person; it sets them free as a prisoner from their own backpack of pain and sorrow and regret. But mainly this is about you.
One of the ways to deal with this is an acronym called, “RAP.” This doesn’t solve all the problems, but this is something you can do with a therapist or a pastor if you’ve got a really big backpack. By the way, with a therapist or pastor – over the course of a year you take out one rock, and then another, and then another, until you finally find the backpack’s empty.
But, RAP – R is “remember your own short-comings. When somebody’s slighted me and I’m really mad, I have to stop and remember – what are things I did, like that, to somebody else? Have you ever stopped at a 4-way stop and somebody goes out of turn? They don’t remember the rules: if you got there first, you go, and if you got there at the same time, the person to the right goes? And that’s irritating, right? But I’ve done it myself a hundred times. And, every once in awhile when I do it, somebody honks their horn. I’ve actually had people give me the universal sign of displeasure with their middle finger.
I didn’t mean to cut out of turn – I just wasn’t paying attention. Talking on the phone. “Sorry, buddy; man, get a life,” right? It helps you, when you can recognize your own short-comings, to be able to let go of those things that other people have done.
And then there’s A, which is “assume the best and not the worst.” See, what we often do is attribute motive to somebody else that may not have been there. We assume we know why somebody did what they did; we stew on it, we eat on it, and we just keep letting it build up inside – when, in fact, that wasn’t their motive at all. I’ve found this when I’ve talked to people – they’re surprised, they weren’t thinking what I thought they were thinking at all.
And then the last piece – P – is “pray like crazy.” This is what Jesus teaches us; we pray for our enemies; we do good to them despite the fact that they’ve hurt us, and that begins to change us. You pray this every week here – forgive us our debts, as what? That’s right. We forgive our debtors. Can you pray those words with honesty, with integrity and wholeness?
And there comes a day when you’ve finally worked through this and you say, “You know what? I’m not going to carry it anymore.”
And you find yourself free. And this is part of what we’re talking about when we talk about healing. There can be no healing where there is no forgiveness. We can’t cling to the future if we’re holding on to the past. May you believe this. Amen, and Amen.