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  • Dr. Bruce Havens

When Hopeless

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

a message by Dr. Bruce Havens

based on the theme: “Where Will You Go?”

Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.

March 29, 2020

John 11:1- 45

14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now 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, “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.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “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?”


I thought I should begin this sermon with a dramatic narrative of someone’s experience with grief and possibly hopelessness. But maybe in the midst of “the current circumstances” that is unnecessarily manipulative. Maybe it always is. The truth is don’t we all know grief? Can I compare my grief with anyone else’s? Why? To show I am more deserving of sympathy? So let’s be honest. The grief that anyone is suffering right now is the worst grief. The challenge for us as people of faith is to find a way, to choose not to become hopeless in the face of all the reasons for grief right now, or at any other time.

My message theme and topic this morning was chosen long before Covid-19 became real. I only say that to suggest the Holy Spirit that led me to choose that title was clearly looking ahead. I am talking about “Where will you go, when you are hopeless?” And maybe that is an overstatement of this passage and its message as well as our current situation. Maybe that depends on whether you have the virus or not! There are certainly valid reasons for anyone in the clutches of that illness to fall into the clutches of hopelessness, no judgment. And faith is no guarantee we won’t feel hopelessness. My hope this morning is that whether you are feeling hopeless or not you can find reassurance and strength to move from that place of hopelessness or to resist falling into that pit if you aren’t there.

So this Scripture is called “The Raising of Lazarus.” But the reality is that John spends much more time talking about the grief of Mary and Martha. The dialogue of this scene becomes a “teaching tool” for John to teach and lead not only Mary and Martha to greater faith, but us too as readers. In almost every encounter in John’s Gospel someone comes to Jesus and Jesus says something to them and they misunderstand, he corrects them, often there is another round or more, and then they either express faith or fail to. Nicodemus never understood. But the blind man we talked about last week, and the woman at the well we talked about the week before all “got it.”

Both Mary and Martha are grieving: “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” By the end of her conversation with Jesus, Martha says to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” But we never are told if Mary made the same move from one level of faith to another. Of course, the story is about who Jesus is, even more than it is about the sister’s grief or even the brother’s death.

The Bible scholar in me cannot keep from admitting to those of you who may struggle with this story for a variety of reasons that there are a lot of curious parts to this narrative. Let me at least mention a few of them, even if I cannot satisfactorily clarify the questions about them.

First, when he hears that Lazarus is ill and Jesus says, “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.” We may ask, how is someone’s illness or death for God’s glory? Is God’s glory present in everyone’s illness or just the death of Lazarus? And how is the Son of God glorified through this? Some people do believe everyone’s illness or death is actually for the glory of God. Whether that is the case can be debated theologically, but here’s what John emphasizes throughout his Gospel: Jesus’ glory is on the cross. Strangely he never refers to Jesus’ resurrection as “glory.” So the question becomes if Jesus’ suffering and dying on the cross is his glory, what does that mean for us? Are we all to have this “Pollyanna” attitude that every suffering is for the glory of God? Are we to seek to be ill or die so that we can “glorify” God? Wait, instead of giving you answers to your questions I have just asked more questions.

Then before we can wrap our minds around that we learn that Jesus waits 2 days before going to be with those he loved. Then when he tells them he is going there the disciples are all in a tizzy because the last time he was there the people were threatening to stone him. But he insists he must go. He makes a cryptic statement about those who walk in the light seeing but those who walk at night stumble and then confuses the disciples by saying Lazarus is asleep so he must go wake him. All these are examples of the way Jesus makes a statement, people misunderstand him, and he adds another statement to clarify. But sometimes, even the disciples didn’t understand the clarification. Then there is the comment by Thomas, who we will later learn missed the first encounter with the Risen Christ, and famously said, unless I see and touch his wounds I will not believe he is risen. Here he says, “Let us go die with Lazarus too.” I have no explanation except to say Thomas may sound like he doesn’t get it, but in the end he fully confesses Jesus as the Christ.

There’s a whole lot more that confuses or at least could be questioned. As much as I like taking time to think about those questions, we don’t have time to chase every thread here in one morning’s message. The main question anyone would ask would be “did Jesus really raise Lazarus from the dead?” For me that is the question of faith. We cannot prove it any more than we can prove the existence of God. It is a matter of faith. And what matters about faith is what we do about it. If we believe that Jesus has the power to raise the dead then what is our response – how then shall we live, as the song we sometimes sing asks?

For me the message of this is that Christ IS resurrection. While John transforms the shame and pain and suffering of the cross to a sign of God’s glory revealed in Christ, the glory of the cross is that Christ is resurrection, now, then, in the future, in life and after death.

So often we are preoccupied with the thoughts of living again after we die. That is the focus of most resurrection thoughts in the Christian faith. That is not bad or wrong, it is just not enough. The message of the raising of Lazarus is that Jesus is resurrection now. He did not have to wait to be crucified and raised again to give resurrection - new life - to Lazarus. The other side of that is we do not have to wait until we die for Christ’s resurrection power to be at work in our lives. Christ gives us the living power of the resurrection in life as well as in death.

For me this is what this passage shows us Jesus does. He calls out, they bring out, and they unbind him. There is a partnership of action between Jesus and the people who are witnesses to this event. If we want to see resurrection now, and join in we need to look for signs someone or something lifegiving is being called out. We may not hear Jesus’ voice like a human voice but Jesus is still calling out to bring life out of death. Sometimes it is where someone’s spirit is dying from a crush of grief, or problems, or worries. I like to think that when people heard Jesus calling out to Lazarus that drew them there to see. Then they became available to bring him out and unbind him.

Those are our parts. The part Jesus invites us to share in the work of resurrection. We can’t raise someone, but we can bring them out of tombs and we can unbind them. The story tells us there was a rock in front of that tomb. Someone had to move that. Someone evidently brought Lazarus out of the tomb. Maybe he was weak from being dead for four days, I don’t know. Maybe the wrappings and bindings made it hard for him to bend his legs, get up, and walk out. But I envision there were people there, who had been grieving, and perhaps others who heard Jesus calling and came to see what was happening. And they joined in. They became part of the resurrection. And we can too.

Can we bring out life in others? When we show someone the compassion of Christ by our attitudes and actions we can bring them out from fear, grief, and hopelessness. When we get the chance to actually help someone and see the gratitude and new light in their lives, doesn’t that lift our hearts and spirits? Resurrection is a two – way street! When we are willing to wait with someone when they are between places of security and certainty and be with them until they have passed through the time of wavering between hopelessness and hope, we are part of the resurrection power of Jesus. Be sure – we don’t raise people, Jesus does, but we can “bring them out” when Jesus has called them back to life from hopelessness.

Finally, if we can we must finish the job: unbind them. Like Lazarus bound head to toe in cloths that have been soaked in oils and herbs and spices to reduce the stink of death, people often are bound by death cloths. It may be a heart thing – a sorrow. It might be a spirit thing – a way their faith has faltered because of a grief in their life. It might be a bodily thing – a physical injury or life-time disability, or an acquired disease that takes away an ability to do some things physically. Can we be the ones to unbind them? Can we do for them what they want us to do? Let’s not assume their powerlessness or hopelessness. Let’s be sensitive enough to ask if someone is ready have us do something for them, or if there is some way we can unbind them to let them go. Honoring people who are facing hopelessness means being willing to let them tell us what they need at that moment and not demanding they let us do what we want to do for them to make ourselves feel better. That authority lies with Jesus.

We do not have the resurrection power of Jesus. We have the resurrection life of Jesus now, by faith. We can share in the resurrection now by looking for where Jesus is calling out those lost in death or hopelessness or grief. We can share in the work to bring those out who are metaphorically bound by death. And we can unbind them. Now, let’s remember this all begins with us hearing Jesus calling US out, with us coming out, and with Jesus unbinding us from hopelessness. Where will you go when you face hopelessness? If you are too bound by it, pray that Jesus will come a’callin’! AMEN.

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