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 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.”

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