The Fifth Sunday in Lent: April 2, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
4 I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him;
in his word is my hope.
5 My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
Sometimes it feels like we’ve been waiting a long, long time. Sometimes we can wait so long that we start to lose hope. Sometimes it feels like God is waiting just too long to help.
That’s what I’ve been thinking about in the gospel we just heard. The last of our long Lenten gospel readings. And what a powerful one. Mostly it’s a story we think of as the raising of Lazarus. But really, that part only happens at the end. Most of the story is about Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters – and about the long wait before the miracle comes.
All three of these siblings, it seems, were close friends of Jesus, a family with whom he was deeply intimate. Judging by the order in which they are named, Martha was the oldest and Lazarus was the baby brother. And Lazarus, their beloved brother, Jesus’ dear friend, falls terribly ill, so they send for Jesus to tell him. And Jesus does not come, and Lazarus dies.
And the next day, Jesus does not come. Nor does he come the following day. It is only when four days have passed, when they are fully in their grief and mourning and all hope has been abandoned, that Jesus shows up. Some scholars say it was the belief at the time that the life force of the body stayed nearby for three days – but by four, the person was truly and completely dead. And by four days, the body would be beginning to decompose. It is only on the fourth day that Jesus comes.
And it is not as though he were unavoidably held up, or far away, unable to get there in time. The story says he tarries – Jesus stays where he is two more days on purpose.
When he finally does come, before he’s even got to the house, Martha comes out to see him. She is confused, outraged, bewildered. Lord, she says, if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died. The question beneath it that I hear is: where the hell were you? When Jesus comes nearer to the house, her sister Mary comes to him and says the exact same words. If you had been here, my brother would not have died – and then she collapses, weeping. What must Martha and Mary have been suffering and thinking in those dark days after their little brother had died?
I think that many of us here can imagine it. Many of us could tell stories of begging for God’s action and healing, of waiting, of what feels like intolerable delay – and of what feels like God not acting. In our own lives, in the lives of those we know and love, in the affairs of the world at large – sometimes it seems like we ask and ask, and nothing happens. It is one of the hardest questions to deal with in our faith.
My family had a story like that, when my sister was a young teenager diagnosed with leukemia. Our church had a healing service for her and the cancer went into remission, and everyone rejoiced at the amazing miracle. And then, she relapsed, four times over the next five years. What kind of healing was that, everyone wondered.
We all have stories like that, of healing that took too long in coming. Any of us who have struggled with addiction or with a loved one who is addicted can tell stories of promises made and broken, relapses, the difficulty of keeping sobriety. Any of us who live with chronic pain have dealt with praying for that pain to be healed, only to have it return again the next day. Many of us who felt our nation was making progress toward civil rights and care for the environment, now fear at how quickly it all seems to be slipping away. We pray for healing and justice and for things to be made whole, and we live with brokenness and disease and pain. So much we pray for seems so long in coming that maybe it might never come at all.
Which is why as I reread the gospel story I am all the more amazed at Martha. Even in what must be total grief and agony, even as she confronts Jesus for not coming in time, she still professes faith. Even now, she says, with my brother dead four days, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him, Jesus. I trust you, she says. I know that even though everything is hopeless, all the doors shut, God can act through you. She doesn’t know how – when Jesus tells her Lazarus will rise again, she answers sort of hopelessly and yet obediently, yes, I know that there will come a time for resurrection at the end of all things. But when Jesus says, no, not just then, I mean now – I am the resurrection, right here in front of you – despite the fact that his delay in coming has failed her and her family, she says, I trust you. I believe. You are the Messiah.
I almost think that Martha’s faith in this moment is the greater miracle in this story. We know because we have heard this story before that Jesus will indeed raise Lazarus from the dead, that something amazing will happen. But Martha doesn’t know that. All she knows is that her family’s best friend, the one that they had been hoping in, has let them down, so completely down that her brother is dead. Her sister can only weep at Jesus’ feet. How can Martha believe that this is not the end?
Maybe Martha has a hard time facing facts and keeps hoping despite it all. Maybe she just doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But I imagine that she says that she trusts Jesus because she knows him. She has spent time with him, welcomed him into her home, talked and laughed with him. She knows him enough to trust him. And not simply because he is her friend and things have gone well between them up to this point. She knows that somehow her friend, this man, is so completely aligned with God that through him, something can happen, even when she can’t see how. The God who has acted in dark and desperate times throughout salvation history will act now in her life as well. Because the one coming into the world, the Messiah, is the promised incarnation of everything God has done up to that point. The God who brought a child to Abraham and Sarah when they were too old to have one; the God who brought Joseph into Egypt to help his brothers, when they had tried to kill him and sold him into slavery; the God who had brought the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea; the God who had led the people through the desert and kept them alive there for 40 years; the God who showed Ezekiel the vision of the dry bones being raised, who over and over again had opened doors that were shut, had turned curses into blessings, had breathed life through all the times of death and devastation. That God has been and is now the God of unlikely salvation. Martha believes all of that, fiercely. And yes, Martha says, I trust in that God. I believe. Perhaps the most powerful thing about Martha’s witness in this story is that it is not after Lazarus is raised from the dead that she professes her faith in Jesus – it is before Jesus does anything, purely because she trusts him.
That trust is how we become people of faith. God does not just present us with a series of proofs and demand that we believe on the evidence; God does not just expect us to swallow doctrine on someone else’s say-so and stop there. We might come to belief in different ways, entering the door because we have heard tell of God’s goodness, because we have seen something amazing happen in someone else’s life, because we feel so in need of it ourselves. But we grow in faith through our relationship with God – because we spend time with God, we welcome God into our daily lives, we take the time to be in God’s presence through prayer, through scripture, through the community of other faithful people. I hammered on you a few weeks ago about building a discipline of prayer and scripture in your life because we can’t coast along on other people’s coattails when it comes to knowing and trusting God. It is something we have to learn, and lean into, for ourselves.
When we are in those long times between – when we have cried out for God and we are waiting, waiting, waiting for action – times when the healing or grace has come so late, or times when we think it hasn’t come at all – what we have to go on is about being willing to trust. To trust based on others’ stories, to trust based on our own desperate hopes, yes, both of those – but maybe most profoundly, to trust because we have spent time enough to know that the God who is dealing with us is the God of life, the God who works out all things for good. Which means we trust that even if the outcome we long and yearn for doesn’t happen – if Lazarus is not raised, if the transplant is not successful, if our marriage is not saved or our child is hurting or the job goes to someone else or any other number of painful things that we are faced with too often in this world – even so, we trust him who says, I am resurrection and I am life.
When Lazarus stumbles out of the tomb, hobbled and blinded by the bandages he is tied with, Jesus says to them all, Unbind him, and let him go. And so Lazarus is unbound from the chains of death. But Mary and Martha too are unbound – Mary is unbound and set free in her joy as she sees her brother alive again; and Martha, amazing Martha, is set free in her deep and radical trust in Jesus before the miracle even happens. How she gets there is a miracle in itself. The miracle that unfolds as we center our lives more and more in God, and God’s deep and radical love for us. The miracle of God’s life living in us, through us bringing healing to this world and everyone around us. More than just an answer to our prayers – life and transformation. Resurrection.