One of the side benefits of holding worship online is that I get to pop in on worship services all over the world. It is fascinating to see how people in different parts of the world gather for worship. Today I spent a few moments in worship with a Church in Scotland and one in England. Last week it was churches across the United States. Another benefit of this, and more serious, is that I get to see what others are preaching and “borrow” some of it for my sermon.
Another benefit of all of this is that I cannot tell if you are laughing at my jokes or not, so I am going to assume that you are at that these jokes are the funniest things you have ever heard!
Two weeks ago, when we gathered to worship for the first time online, I asked if you were overwhelmed. I am asking again this morning if you are feeling overwhelmed and if you are taking care of yourselves and each other. It is hard to believe it has only been two weeks, as it seems so much longer. In those two weeks, we have learned a new vocabulary, words, and phrases like Social Distancing and Shelter in place. And we have had to learn new skills like getting a worship service online.
But in all of this, all the uncertainty all of the craziness going on all around us the Church is still the Church, and we are here, albeit, at a distance, the Church is still being called to be the Church and to care for one another.
Today we come upon what I believe is one of the greatest stories in Scripture the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead. I say that this is an excellent story because not only does Jesus raise his dear friend Lazarus from the dead, but we get to see a glimpse of his humanity as well.
Jesus is no stranger in the town of Bethany; in fact, Scripture tells us that Jesus often went to Bethany to find rest. In Bethany lived his friend Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. As the story goes, Jesus was about a day’s journey from Bethany, and word came to him that Lazarus was sick. But Jesus did not come straight away; he waited two days before returning.
When Jesus arrived, as the story goes, he found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. This is an essential point for those us reading the story now. Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, which means he is truly dead, and there can be no mistake about it. But when he arrives, he is confronted by Lazarus’ sister Martha who scolds Jesus for not coming sooner. Martha believed that if Jesus had come before this, her brother would not now be dead four days.
Jesus takes a moment to comfort his friend Martha and tells her that her brother will rise. Martha is sure she knows what Jesus means and assures him of that when she says to him, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus tells her that he is the resurrection, but she does not quite understand what is about to happen.
Martha takes Jesus to her home, where he sees Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, and those who had come to be of comfort to them in their mourning. I am not sure if you have ever been around professional mourners, but the sounds in the house were sounds coming from the very depths of their souls. There would be crying and wailing, as you have never heard before. In John’s version of the story, we read that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Now keep in mind, Jesus knew what he was about to do; he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but seeing those around him in mourning, he was overcome with grief for them and at the loss of his friend. He is going to raise him, but he was still overcome at the sight of those around him mourning their loss. Perhaps it was also a stark reminded to him of his own death that would soon be upon him.
Jesus asks where he was, and the women say, “Come and see.” These are familiar words, “come and see” these are the words that Jesus spoke when he was assembling his disciples at the very start of John’s Gospel. Now they are placed here as a reminder that following Jesus leads us to the tomb, not in a physical way but in a spiritual way. To be followers of Jesus, we must die. Die to self, die to what we want for what someone else might want. We must die to hatred and bigotry of all kinds since we cannot follow Jesus unless we truly love our neighbor. So, when they say to him, “come and see,” this is a reminder from John of the cost of discipleship.
Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus, and Scripture tells us, “Jesus wept.” I mentioned this passage last week as a reminder that Jesus understands our grief as he shared in it and shares it with us. Jesus walks the same road we walk and shares in our joys and our sorrows, and he will never leave our side.
Jesus asks for the stone to be removed; this is all by the way a foretelling of Jesus own raising from the dead in a few days’ time. He calls for the stone to be rolled away, and they object because of the smell. Again, John throws this in there, so we understand that Lazarus is really dead. They roll the stone away, and Jesus looks to heaven and then cries from deep within himself, “Lazarus come out.” And he does.
I have read this story probably a thousand times, but it has taken on new meaning for me these days. Here we are, the Church of the 21st Century and some might say, on our last legs some might even say we are in the tomb, and along comes Jesus and says in a loud voice, Church come out! Come out of your four walls and come out and be with the people, serve the people, and one another. Come out and witness to the world that all of creation is a cathedral, and what is of the utmost importance in caring for each other and loving one another.
In all of the doom and gloom of these days, we have seen some extraordinary acts of love. Nurses and doctors are going to work, day in and day out, putting their lives on the line. People checking on their neighbors and see if they are okay. Shopping for them and just striking up conversations to they days do not seem so empty and endless. Each day I am amazed at what I see going on out there in the world.
But this has also forced the Church to reexamine what Church really means. People who were once resistant to the digital revolution have now embraced it, and I hear conversations about how we need to keep up this online stuff when this is all over. This is a reformation of sorts; the stone has been rolled away, and the Church has been called out of the tomb, and I can say with confidence that she has embraced it with both hands.
But in all of this, let us not forget that there is grief. I wrote a short essay this past week about grief and how it comes in many different ways, maybe you read it, I posted it on the Church Facebook Page. We are all grieving loss right now, the loss of being together, the loss of worship, the loss of worshiping on Easter, and all the rest. What this story tells us is that even when we know the outcome, as Jesus did, it is still okay to grieve and to weep. But for those of us who know, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story, we know that after a long and dark night morning comes and then the resurrection.
My friends, Jesus is here with us, walking with us and showing us the way. Sure, times will be difficult, and we are going to grieve, but Jesus will never leave us, and for that, I am truly thankful.