Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What Convinced You to Believe?

Acts 2:14a, 22-32: 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
April 27, 2014
© 2014
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
Caravaggio 1601-1602

The conversation between Jesus and Thomas in John 20:19-31, reminds me of a man who called himself a Christian skeptic and relished a gadfly role. Though he was active in a free-wheeling, discussion based Sunday school class, he only came to worship on special occasions. On Easter people in that congregation greeted each other with “Christ is risen!” and responded with “He is risen indeed!” This man took pleasure in responding, “So they say.” Listen to Thomas and Jesus.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 
20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 
27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 
28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 
29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Thomas is never labeled a doubter by any New Testament writer. I think Thomas was more like a lot of us who come to worship the Sunday after Easter. Thomas was the dependable guy who was almost never missed, but his faith had become stale and fragile.
John 11:16 says that when Lazarus died, Thomas was ready to go back to Judea and die with Jesus when the other disciples were afraid. In John 14:5 at the Last Supper, it was not a lack of faith, but a desire for understanding that prompted Thomas to ask Jesus how to know the way to the unknown place Jesus was going. We don’t know why Thomas was not with the other ten disciples on Easter evening. Even though he had said he wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen until he had seen and touched him, a week later, he was there with them. (v. 26)
I think Anne Sexton’s poem Small Wire puts our starved, fragile faith in context of God loving grace.
My faith
is a great weight
hung on a small wire,
as doth the spider
hang her baby on a thin web,
as doth the vine,
twiggy and wooden,
hold up grapes
like eyeballs,
as many angels
dance on the head of a pin.

God does not need
too much wire to keep Him there,
just a thin vein,
with blood pushing back and forth in it,
and some love.
As it has been said:
Love and a cough
cannot be concealed.
Even a small cough.
Even a small love.
So if you have only a thin wire,
God does not mind.
He will enter your hands
as easily as ten cents used to
bring forth a Coke.
We can starve fragile faith by avoiding discouragers and nourish fresh faith by absorbing encouragers.
The other disciples had told Thomas that when they saw the risen Jesus, he showed them his hands and his side (v. 20). Thomas was only asking for the same experience they had already had. Rather than scold, Jesus offered exactly that, “Put your finger here and see my hands.” (v. 27) This makes me think of a young child who says, “Let me see,” reaching out a hand to touch and hold.
By giving Thomas this experience, Jesus included him in his mission. He was among those whom Jesus sent, just as the Father had sent Jesus. (v. 21) He was commissioned to proclaim the forgiveness of sins just as the others were. (v. 23) The tradition of the Church of South India is that Thomas preached the risen Jesus to their ancestors.
A careful look at the Greek grammar of the last line of v. 27 shows faith is dynamic, “Stop becoming a doubter, and become a believer.” Faith is not fixed. We are on the move, heading toward or away from trusting Jesus. We can starve fragile faith by avoiding discouragers and nourish fresh faith by absorbing encouragers.
If we can recognize ourselves in Thomas, we can learn what to can absorb to nourish our fresh faith. Since you’re here today, you’re one of those people who doesn't decide on worship attendance based on how you feel when you wake up on Sunday morning. You are steady and dependable.
But steady is not static. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Stop heading down the path of boring routine that sucks the life out of your faith.” Take the path that leads to enthusiasm, and excitement. Pay attention to the little clues that God is present and active. Hang out with and soak up the energy of people who are flourishing in their faith.
The text intentionally does not say whether Thomas reached out to touch Jesus. The focus is on Thomas’ exclamation, “My Lord and my God!” More than his doubts, his inhibitions vanish. Some of us are introverts and some are extroverts, and we express our enthusiasm in distinctly individual ways. However, absorbing the freedom of uninhibited expression nourishes fresh faith.
Many studies have shown that new Christians are more effective evangelists than longtime believers. In time our circle of friends shifts into the church, but new Christians still have their networks of non-believing friends. We've gotten used to faith and hang out with others who’ve gotten used to faith too. By sending Thomas and us on the mission to proclaim forgiveness of sin to those who don’t know him, Jesus also gives us two stimuli for our faith. First, we have to depend on the Holy Spirit to handle unpredictable conversations we have with those who don’t know Jesus. Second, people who are new to faith are excited about what Jesus has done for them, and by hanging out with them, we absorb their excitement.
Jesus told Thomas that those who believed without seeing would be even more blessed than he was. Over the centuries, many who have not seen have believed because of Thomas’ experience. His “doubt” made him an even more reliable witness than the other disciples. We who believe without seeing are the recipients of this blessing.
John seems to draw his Gospel to a conclusion with verses 30-31. Chapter 21 is an appendix to show how Jesus resolved the tense relationships with his disciples who abandoned him at his crucifixion. I think John ended the Gospel proper with the story of Thomas specifically for people like us with fragile faith, not so much to convince seekers to believe in Jesus. John wrote his Gospel quite late, when he was likely the only eyewitness of Jesus ministry and resurrection still alive. He wanted to nourish fresh faith among them and us who have come to believe without having seen.
By the end of the first century, the Church was already in need of some renewal. John ended his Gospel with the story of Thomas as renewal stimulus for those who had come to believe without having seen Jesus. By absorbing this encouragement, they were nourished and blessed with fresh faith. British New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has made a global splash on the Church from the definitively evangelical to the broadly mainline. In the most unlikely of venues, he was interviewed on The Colbert Report in 2008 and was asked what he wanted to accomplish. He answered, “I would like to kick-start a biblical renewal within the church – not simply a renewal of private piety, though God knows if you got the sort of renewal I am talking about, it would drive people to their knees, it would fill their hearts with joy, it would challenge them at every possible level.” Christianity Today. April 2014, p. 7
Though I am sure John wrote his Gospel to starve the fragile faith and nourish the fresh faith of all of us who have not seen but have come to believe, his purpose was not ingrown or self-contained. Jesus sent his disciples and us, just as the Father had sent him, with the message of forgiveness of sins and the hope of resurrection to eternal life. We who have believed without seeing are blessed to share in the same mission Jesus gave the disciples who had seen him. We are blessed to be participant partners with God in this great redemptive mission. We are blessed to be God’s instruments of introducing a whole new generation of those who have not seen to Jesus that they may also believe and share this blessing.

Reflect on the freshness of your faith as you listen to 1 Peter 1:3-9.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

If You Have Been Raised with Christ

Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10
April 20, 2014 – Easter Sunday
© 2014

One after another, succeeding generations have often felt they were living on the threshold of a dystopian society.
Trends we fear that may be pushing in those directions are branded with historic archetypes such as Nazi Germany and Fascist Europe, the Soviet Union and communist dictatorships, Iran and Islamic totalitarianism, North Korea and the personality cults of megalomaniacs.
Dystopian fiction articulates our fears, often as a polemic against what provokes our fears, sometimes resigned to the inevitable with almost gleeful, “I told you so.” I came of age reading 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World. Christians have made their contributions from C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind books. More recently has been the popularity of The Matrix, Divergent and Hunger Games.
Celebrating Jesus’ resurrection on Easter confirms that dystopian fears are not the destination of humanity, for the risen Christ is leading us into the joy of eternal life.
This journey from fear to joy is woven into the account of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew 28:1-10.
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Throughout the Bible, when angels appear to people the first thing they usually say is, “Do not be afraid.” Bible angels are awesome, not sweet blond girls with lacy wings. The angel who rolled away the tomb’s stone terrified the hardened Roman guards so they shook themselves comatose. (v. 4) With some grasp of angels from the Hebrew Scriptures, the women were still conscious to hear the angel say to them, “Do not be afraid.” (v. 5) At first, what seemed to be “Do not be afraid of me,” became, “Do not be afraid ever again. Jesus is alive forever, and whatever may seem wrong now is temporary. Ultimately the God of eternal life prevails!”
When Jesus first met the women running from the tomb, he greeted them. Many English translations just have Jesus say, “Greetings!” (v. 9) That sounds rather formal and weak. The Greek word is actually an imperative. “Rejoice!” or “Be Joyful!” It was a common Greek greeting, but Jesus would have said something in Aramaic, not Greek. Exactly what it was we do not know, but I believe Matthew translated it this way because Jesus released the fears the women felt as they quickly left the tomb. He nourished the great joy swelling up in them.
When Jesus sent the women to tell his brothers to go to Galilee to meet him there, he said, “Do not be afraid.” (v. 10) With the way the women came to Jesus, took hold of his feet and worshipped him, they certainly were not afraid they were seeing a ghost. They were afraid of the unknown, what was coming next. Jesus empowered them to move joyfully into the future heading to eternal life.
The angel sent the women to tell Jesus’ disciples to go to Galilee where they would see him. (v. 7) Jesus switched the noun from disciples to brothers. “Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (v. 10) By calling them “brothers,” Jesus was healing the wounds of denial, abandonment, fear and doubt of the past week. By calling them “brothers,” Jesus was opening a new deeper intimacy in the fellowship of the resurrection to eternal life.
Matthew and Mark (but not Luke and John) report sending Jesus’ disciples to Galilee to see him. Luke and John report Jesus’ appearances to the disciples on Easter evening (without Thomas) and a week later (with Thomas) before they went to Galilee. Interestingly, the last chapter of John seems to be an appendix that reports in some detail Jesus restoring relationships with seven of the disciples, especially Peter. Matthew reported that it was during this visit to Galilee that Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:19-20) Back where Jesus first called them to follow him, he was now sending them to fish for people throughout the whole world. But they were to return to Jerusalem for Jesus’ final appearance at his ascension and to await the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
As our brother, the risen Jesus invites us into this intimate fellowship of the resurrection to eternal life, but he also evokes a response of wondrous worship. When the women recognized Jesus, they immediately came to him, took hold of his feet and worshipped him. To hold onto his feet they were at least down on hands and knees, if not flat on the ground prostrate in front of him. Matthew didn’t report what the women did to worship Jesus: sing a hymn or recite a Psalm or praise his power over death. Maybe their worship was just the physical posture that expressed the posture of their hearts, but Matthew clearly called it worship. No Hebrew prophet, no New Testament apostle would ever accept anything that even resembled worship. Yet Jesus accepted their worship of him as the divine Lord of Eternal Life.
When both the angel and Jesus told the women to tell Jesus’ disciples to go to Galilee, they said they would see Jesus there. Without getting tangled up in Jesus’ other resurrection appearances to the disciples, I find the directions to go to Galilee to see Jesus instructive for us. If we hope to make the transition from our fears to the joy of the resurrection to eternal life we have to go where we will see Jesus. As the clichés go, this is not rocket science or brain surgery. The spiritual life is not complicated, only difficult.
Some of you may remember me telling about hearing Father Thomas Hopko speak when he was Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. He said that when he was a boy his mother used to tell him that if he wanted to grow as a Christian he needed to read his Bible, say his prayers and go to church. When as a seminary dean training people for ministry in the church, he told his student that if they wanted lead people to grow as Christians, they needed to read their Bibles, say their prayers, and go to church. Where can you go to see Jesus? In the Bible, as you pray, and in worship together with other Christians.
Two weeks ago when we listened to the conversations with Jesus around the raising of Lazarus from death, I said that the New Testament points to the hope of the resurrection to eternal life and doesn’t tell us much about what happens between the time we die and are raised at the last day. Similarly, we have only a couple of hints about where Jesus was and what he was doing between his crucifixion and resurrection, but I think these hints point to how Jesus’ resurrection propels us from fear to joy.
Our Disciples of Christ tradition considers creeds to be human instruments distinct from inspired, authoritative Scripture. You may know that the Apostle’s Creed says that Jesus “descended into hell” or as the more current translation says, “he descended to the dead.” One interpretation of that is that to redeem us, Jesus not only died on the cross but went to hell for us. 1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6 say, “He went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” (A parenthetical comment about Jesus word to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43: neither Jesus nor the Greek manuscripts used punctuation, so by moving the comma, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” can also be “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Then we don’t have the problem of Jesus coming back from heaven so he can ascend to heaven again 40 days later.) Sorting out what Peter meant would be a great Bible study, but for our purposes this morning, I think it is enough to say that taken together Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection defeated sin and death, liberates from fear and fuels great joy.
The Resurrection Icon on the cover of your bulletin is a way of portraying this visually. The risen Jesus is triumphant, dressed in white and surrounded by glory, still with nail prints in his feet. He stands on the gates of hell collapsed in a cross. He broke them down to get in and liberate the prisoners from death. He lifts Adam and Eve out of their graves by their wrists showing that Jesus saves us; we do not save ourselves. Satan is bound on the floor of hell that is scattered with the broken locks, chains and keys that bound humanity to death. John the Baptist and Old Testament saints surround Jesus. Icons are not intended to portray a specific event but are windows into spiritual reality. The spiritual reality here is that while Jesus’ disciples were in mourning on Holy Saturday, Jesus was not inert in the tomb but working out God’s redemptive plan. Sin and death were defeated. In some parts of the Church this is called “The Harrowing of Hell.” Jesus’ resurrection is the victory that takes us from fear to great joy.
Celebrating Jesus’ resurrection on Easter confirms that dystopian fears are not the destination of humanity, for the risen Christ is leading us into the joy of eternal life. I invite you to reflect on this as you listen to Colossians 3:1-4. 

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Who are you, Jesus?

Matthew 21:1-11
April 13, 2014, Palm Sunday
© 2014

During Lent the Gospel will be read as a dramatic dialog before the sermon. This week the congregation participates in the voices of the people welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem.

Matthew 21:1-11
Narrator:    When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them,
Jesus:         “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 
Narrator:    This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
People:      “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 
Narrator:    When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking,
People:      “Who is this?” 
Narrator:    The crowds were saying,
People:      “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

“On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered [Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. [The Guide] decreed that every year they should celebrate this day with rejoicing.” This processional with palm branches and music is reported in 1 Maccabees 13:51-52. Simon Maccabee was welcomed into Jerusalem after liberating Judah from the invading army of Trypho around 142 BCE. Most of the people of Jerusalem would have known this important event in their history when Jesus rode into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday. But Jesus did not come as a military conqueror. Jesus came as the upside-down King who turns arrogance into humility, hostility into harmony, and grumbling into exaltation.
The Gospels of Mark and Luke tell the story of Palm Sunday from the perspective of the disciples and people who accompanied Jesus as he approached Jerusalem. John’s Gospel tells it from the perspective of the people of Jerusalem who heard Jesus was coming and ran out to greet him.
Like Mark and Luke, Matthew tells how Jesus staged this pageant by sending two disciples to get the donkey for him to ride. Like John, Matthew quotes Zechariah 9:9 to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem. But only Matthew reports the conversation between the people coming into Jerusalem with Jesus and the people coming out of Jerusalem to greet Jesus.
When the people coming out of Jerusalem saw and heard the entourage accompanying Jesus, they asked, “Who is this?” Those coming with Jesus answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
By quoting Zechariah 9:9, Matthew affirmed that Jesus was not just a prophet but the Son of David, the Messiah King. If we read Zechariah 9:9-10 together we can see Jesus as the upside-down King who turns arrogance into humility, hostility into harmony, and grumbling into exaltation. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Yes the Messiah King is triumphant and victorious but not arrogant. He is humble, riding an ordinary beast of burden. Matthew specifies a mother and colt, not because Jesus was straddling two animals like a circus acrobat, but as a demonstration of gentleness with the animals at a time when they would not usually be carrying loads.
Yes the Messiah King is triumphant and victorious but not a military conqueror. No majestic war horse or chariot, but a donkey. No battle bows or spears but cloaks and branches. He commands peace.
Yes the Messiah King is triumphant and victorious but not exclusively for Israel but for all people. He commands peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
The shouts of the people welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem came from Psalm 118. Did you recognize them in this morning’s invitation to worship? “Blessed in the one who comes in the name of the Lord” is pretty obvious. But did you know that “Save us, we beseech you. O Lord!” is “Hosanna?”
Before Jesus’ time “Hosanna!” had come to be used as an exclamation of praise, but it is actually an appeal to the Messiah King to “save us.” “Hosanna” is much more than “save us from our enemies.” It implies “save us from ourselves.” It acknowledges that we need help from someone outside of our situation, someone more powerful than we are, the Messiah King, to rescue us.
The Messiah King comes in the name of the Lord. He gets our focus and orientation off ourselves and onto God. He comes in the name of the Lord, with the authority and power of God to save us.
The people shouted, “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The Messiah King transforms our cries for redemption into praise. He reorients our lives from sinking into our problems into glorious worship.
When Jesus is our upside-down King turning arrogance into humility, hostility into harmony, and grumbling into exaltation, we are elevated into the Messiah’s Kingdom.
Competitive pride is replaced with gratitude for the gifts we have received from God’s hand. As the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land where they would prosper, Moses warned them in Deuteronomy 8:17-18, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.” In 1 Corinthians 4:7 Paul wrote, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?”
In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have seen the re-eruption of violent ethnic and tribal rivalries in areas formerly under communist domination. Similar hostilities fuel violence in Africa, the Middle East and the Muslim world. In our own country the social, political and even religious landscape is characterized by “polarization.” The Messiah King not only teaches us how to love our spiritual brothers and sisters but instructs us to love our enemies as a sign of his Kingdom.
Our relentless pursuit of happiness has left us with the bitter fruit of discontent that is fed by advertising and inequity. When we get caught up in exuberant praise for the Messiah King, as those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem did, our grousing and griping are washed away by thanksgiving and worship. Our discontent is replaced with joy.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Where were you, Jesus, when I really needed you?

John 11:18-44
April 6, 2014
© 2014
Raising of Lazarus
During Lent the Gospel will be presented in worship as dramatic readings before the sermon.

John 11:18-44
Narrator:    Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus,
Martha:      “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus:         “Your brother will rise again.” 
Martha:      “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus:         “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 
Martha:      “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 
Narrator:    28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately,
Martha:      “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 
Narrator:    29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The 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. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him,
Mary:         “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Narrator:    33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said,
Jesus:         “Where have you laid him?”
Mary and Martha:       “Lord, come and see.” 
Narrator:    35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said,
Jew:           “See how he loved him!” 
Narrator:    37But some of them said,
Jew:           “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 
Narrator:    38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said,
Jesus:         “Take away the stone.”
Martha:      “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 
Jesus:         “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 
Narrator:    41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said,
Jesus:         “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 
Narrator:    43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice,
Jesus:         “Lazarus, come out!” 
Narrator:    44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them,

Jesus:         “Unbind him, and let him go.”
I went to get gas at the Stripes station at 42nd Street and Preston Smith Road Wednesday evening March 19. A multi-car accident blocked all traffic in both directions. Emergency vehicles were just arriving. A pickup truck had plowed into the back of those waiting at the red light, flipping one of them over. Three were hospitalized. I breathed a “thank you” prayer that I hadn’t been waiting at that signal just moments earlier.
I affirm giving thanks for chance escapes from disasters, but I have to recognize that someone else was stopped at that red light and didn’t escape. Just this week our two older sons have been confronted with good friends who have experienced life threatening mental illness, in one case actually fatal. This has left two circles of faithful believers asking in great pain, “Where were you, Jesus, when we really needed you?”
A well-meaning friend may give you a “Footprints in the Sand” bookmark when you ask, “Where were you, Jesus, when I really needed you?” But the last words, “When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you,” just don’t cut it. You feel abandoned.
Martha and Mary both asked, “What if Jesus had been here?” as we would. We also ask a question that would not have occurred to them. “Where was Lazarus while his body was in the tomb?”
We also meet Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42 when Jesus was their dinner guest on a happier day, though Lazarus was not mentioned. As different as these two encounters were, the way Luke and John present the sisters is remarkably consistent. Even the subtle difference in the way they said to Jesus, “If only you had been here …” matches.
Martha was the practical woman of action. The Greek word order tells us she emphasized my brother. She was grieving her personal loss. When Jesus asked for the stone to be removed from the tomb, she objected that it would stink. I am quite sure that when Lazarus came out alive he smelled his own rotten stench.
Mary was the emotional woman of relationships. The Greek word order tells us she emphasized my brother. She was grieving a loving life cut short.
Once again we see Jesus as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). He entered fully into the painful grief of his friends. He wept with anger at the terror of death. Even those who asked if he could not have saved his friend are moved by the depth of his love.
When Jesus told Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” (v. 23), she thought he was giving her a polite condolence cliché, to which she responded with an affirmation of faith that Lazarus would rise on the Last Day (v. 24). It would not have crossed her mind to ask Jesus where Lazarus was while his body was in the tomb. But that is a question that people of our generation pursue with great intensity.
Like Martha, we in our time have our own collection of polite condolence clichés with which we express our sympathy and extend comfort. “He’s in heaven.” “She’s in a better place.” “Mom and Dad are together again.” “I’m sorry for your loss.” These are expression of love and faith in times when we know we have nothing to say that changes the present circumstances. Many first person accounts of near-death or return-from-death experiences are popular affirmations of faith and hope. I would not question for a moment these people’s experiences, but I must confess I am not comfortable with being particularly definitive about how to interpret them. John’s account of the raising of Lazarus does not include even the slightest clue of Lazarus reporting what it was like being dead nor of anyone asking him about it. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul gave these words of consolation. “The Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (vv. 16-18) Our comfort is that whether we have died or are alive when Jesus returns, we will be raised to be with him forever!
The New Testament focuses on what Martha called “the Resurrection on the Last Day” and says very little about what happens to us immediately after we die. Theologians call this time between death and the Resurrection on the Last Day “the intermediate state.” The Hebrew Scriptures say even less. There are some intriguing hints that seem to stimulate rather than satisfy our curiosity. I have included these passages below.
1 Corinthians 15 is the New Testament’s major treatise on both the resurrection of Jesus and our hope of sharing with him in the resurrection to eternal life. While it is still mysterious, and Paul used analogies and metaphors to communicate the wonder of resurrection, this one chapter is filled with tantalizing details that are absent in all of the little hints about the intermediate state in the New Testament. When you want to know about what happens to us when we die, I strongly urge you to take a leisurely stroll through 1 Corinthians 15 and savor every detail. With words the Church has used for centuries, I affirm this hope when I conduct a committal service for a beloved saint. “We commend to almighty God our brother or sister, and we commit his or her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Though Jesus raised Lazarus to mortal life, demonstrating his power and authority over death, Lazarus did die again. In his Gospel, John has positioned the raising of Lazarus as the pivot that turns the story to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It is not just chronological, though it is that, but it is skillful story telling that points directly at the purpose of Jesus’ ministry.
In the Synoptic Gospels, the religious leaders and Temple authorities begin to plot how they could kill Jesus after he drove the merchants out of the Temple. (Matthew 21:12ff; 26:4ff; Mark 11:15ff; 19:1ff; Luke 19:45ff; 22:1ff). John went back just a little earlier to show that the raising of Lazarus got those religious leaders and Temple authorities plotting to kill Jesus before he could become a popular threat to them and bring down Roman military action. (John 11:46-53) Having Lazarus walking around alive was embarrassing. Too many people had smelled death and seen him come out of the tomb at Jesus’ command. Rather than be convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah, they plotted to kill Lazarus too. (12:9-11)
Jesus responded to Martha’s affirmation of faith in the Resurrection on the Last Day by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (v. 25) Reminding grieving people of the resurrection is not a condolence cliché, not an imaginary crutch to get through the pain of loss, not a pleasant place to escape to. Jesus himself is the very embodiment of eternal life. By our intimate relationship with him, we are participants sharing his resurrection.
Jesus said to Martha, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (vv. 25-26) By believing in Jesus we have already become participants in the resurrection to eternal life. Even though we will die, we will live. By believing in Jesus, we will never die. Clearly, believing in Jesus is not mere ascent to the existence of God, which all too often passes for good enough. Nor is believing in Jesus just recognizing him as the Christ and Son of God, though that comes with it. Believing in Jesus is living with the absolute confidence that even when tragedy prompts us to cry out, “Where were you, Jesus, when I really needed you?” he has so intrinsically united us with himself, that we will not die but live as those who will rise again on the last day. Jesus asks us just what he asked Martha, “Do you believe this?”

1 Corinthians 15 is the New Testament’s major treatise on both the resurrection of Jesus and our hope of sharing with him in the resurrection to eternal life. The Bible actually says very little about what happens between our death and resurrection. The following passages give a few hints. But when you want to know about what happens to us when we die, I strongly urge you to take a leisurely stroll through 1 Corinthians 15 and savor every detail.
·         Job 19:25-26 “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.”
·         Mark 12:26-27 “As for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:32; Luke 20:38 add “for to him all of them are alive.”)
·         Luke 16:22-31 A different Lazarus was carried to Abraham’s side/bosom and the rich man was in torment in Hades (not exactly the same as hell, but that’s another topic for another time).
·         John 14:2-3 “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
·         1 Corinthians 15:51-52 “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
·         2 Corinthians 5:1-2 “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.”
·         2 Corinthians 5:6 “While we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord”
·         2 Corinthians 5:8 “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
·         Philippians 1:22-24 “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”
·         1Thessalonians 4:17 “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
·         Hebrews 12:1 “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”