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When We Run out of Words
April 6, 2014
We are now into our 5th Sunday in the season of Lent and the tension grows each week as we make our way to the cross. Each Sunday for the last few weeks you have heard a periscope from the Gospel of John. And each Sunday we have been reminded of the purpose for John’s gospel in John’s own words. At the end of the gospel he writes:
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Already we have seen those whose witnessed Jesus’ signs and believed. Nicodemus, a leader in the Temple. A woman at a well in Samaria. And last Sunday a man who has been blind since his birth. Today it will be Jesus’ dear friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
Listen for the Word of God to the Church from the 11th chapter of the gospel of John:
“So the sisters sent to him saying: ‘Lord, him whom you love is ill’.”
You have heard those words before, haven’t you? At some point in your life you have heard words like these that change your life. If you have lived long enough and loved deeply enough, you are bound to hear those words: “The one whom you love is ill.” It is a game-changer of a sentence. Often life can be measured as life before those words and life after those words. So in a sense there is no place in scripture where we can more empathize with Jesus than in this moment when Martha and Mary come to Jesus with the news that their brother, Lazarus, the one Jesus loves “so” very much, is near death.
You have just heard a very long and very complex chapter from the gospel of John. There are at least a dozen sermons in this one, pivotal, moment in Jesus’ life. We cannot peel back all the rich layers in this story, so I’ll try to limit myself to only three or four sermons this morning!!
Lazarus dies and Jesus goes to Bethany. Try to imagine in your heart of hearts what that journey must have been like for Jesus. If you have ever received a call that a love one has died and you have to pack bags and get on an airplane or climb into your car and drive a long distance, you have some empathy for what Jesus was feeling as he made his way to Bethany. When he arrives Jesus discovers that Lazarus has already been dead for four days. John is graphic here. The body was already beginning to stink. Lazarus is stone-cold dead and beginning to decompose. The Deacons are already bringing over chicken casseroles and jello salads to Mary and Martha and the congregation grieving with them because the one they loved and the one Jesus loved is dead.
When she hears of Jesus arrival, Martha goes out to meet him and scolds him saying: “Master, if you’d been here, my brother would not have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Jesus simply replies: “Your brother will be raised up.” Then he adds: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even though they die, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
In the next moment Jesus is taken to Lazarus’ stone-cold body and he sees Mary sobbing in inconsolable grief and he himself is so overcome that he weeps also. “Jesus wept.” Most of you know that this is the shortest verse in the Bible. And those around him comment: “Look how deeply he loved Lazarus.”
The next thing we see is the stone being removed and Jesus praying to his Heavenly Father and shouting: “Lazarus, come out!” And out walks a cadaver, wrapped in clothes from head to toe, with a napkin over his face. Jesus commands: “Unwrap him and let him loose.”
Without a doubt, this is the most powerful sign in the gospel of John. The resurrection of Lazarus is a miracle to be sure. In fact, it is almost a preview of what will happen two weeks from today when Jesus’ body will be raised by the power of God from a stone cold tomb and death will be dealt a death blow.
But as much as this is a story about resurrection it is also a story about love. For love and death are inextricably linked in the gospel of John. Early in John’s gospel we read that “God ‘so’ loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16). Later Jesus will tell his disciples in words that will form the heart of our Maundy Thursday service: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13).
Perhaps the most moving moment in scripture is also the shortest verse of scripture, one that I could always remember when Mrs. Bickle or Mrs. Mullens would call on me in Sunday School class at First Presbyterian Church. When all else failed, when nothing else would come to mind, when called upon to recite my favorite verse, I could always remember John 11:35.
In my first Bible, a red-letter King James Version given to me by my parents for Christmas in 1954, John 11:35 reads simply: “Jesus wept.” I used to think I was so clever quoting that verse as my favorite. My best friends Hardy Smith and Phil Puckett would always elbow me if I was called on first because then they would have to come up with something more substantial.
Now, as the years have rolled by me and sometimes over me, I often wonder if I was not just being clever, but perhaps that little verse told me more about Jesus than all the other verses in the Bible combined. Jesus wept. Why? God not only “so” loved the world. Jesus “so” loved Lazarus that Jesus’ heart breaks when he realizes that his friend Lazarus is dead. And his love and his grief is so evident that even those who will soon usher Jesus to the cross say of him: “See how he loved (Lazarus)!”
In that moment of overwhelming love, Jesus holds the life and death of Lazarus in his hands. Have you ever had a moment like that? A moment in which the life or death of a divinely created child of God, someone you love, rests in your hands? A moment like last Saturday when I sat in a conference room at Seton Hospital with the young daughter of a friend. I had baptized Ashley when she was a child and now here some thirty years later I was sitting with her in a little room on one of the most difficult days of her young life. The critical care doctor carefully explained what was happening to my friend, Becki. It was multiple organ failure. Nothing could be done to reverse course. With each breath Becki was slipping away from us. The only humane thing to do was to disconnect the life support that was artificially breathing for her.
In that moment I was without words for Ashley. Holding the weight of another’s life is the heaviest burden we are asked to bear. Even when there is no alternative. Words seemed terribly inadequate in that little conference room and all I could really do is hold Ashley and nod to her that she had made the only decision that she could make. Knowing that the hardest part of love is letting go. Later, I remember words that Barbara Brown Taylor (When God is Silent, p. 39) once wrote:
“When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God.”
When we run out of words the sacred presence of God often comes flooding into even an ICU room where a child of God is gasping for air. When we run out of words then God can be God.
Ashley courageously made the decision to let her mother go. The doctor and the nurse turned off the machines and we went back into Becki’s room and I read Psalm 23 and I read the very words Jesus spoke to Mary and Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though she die, yet shall she live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” Then we prayed and recited the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer and I made the sign of the cross on Becki’s forehead and I reminded all of us that she was baptized and in that baptism she was claimed by God as a child of God and that she would never be forsaken by God and indeed nothing would ever be able to separate her from the love of God. It was one of the truly sacred moments of my life.
The story of Lazarus turns out differently from the story of my friend Becki. But not all that differently. For both have claim to the same promise of Jesus. Both have been raised by the power of God into new life. Jesus is the “resurrection and the life” for both Lazarus and Becki. It is the promise of God for all God’s children. And maybe just a hint of what we will hear when we come together again in two weeks with the words ringing in our ears that “Jesus is risen!” The reminder that we don’t have the last word and death does not have the last word. AMEN