Where is God?
Sermon 29 March 2020: John 11:1-45
The last ten days or so have been incredibly dramatic and I suspect that there is more of the same to come. We have been compelled to consider entirely new ways of gathering for corporate worship, we have been told to close our church buildings, and many in our church communities are still trying to come to terms with the fact that the way they have historically participated in being and doing church needs to be re-thought.
As I said last week, disruption very often leads to transformation. Our worship of God is not limited to a particular building or a defined space. So, what new opportunities does the closure of our church buildings create for us? Might it force us to embrace new practices? Do we need to think more about collaboration and partnerships? In a socially distanced world, how do we help those who need pastoral care and practical assistance? At one level, social distancing makes life a lot harder, but at another, given that some of us may be carriers of the COVID-19 virus without knowing it, it’s also the right way to show love of our neighbours.
In difficult times, I think people either to turn to God or turn away from God. It’s too early to draw conclusions about trends at this stage, but I’ve been encouraged by the number of people who have joined our live-streams or viewed the recordings of our worship, and I suspect that live-streaming services is something that we’ll be continuing with for some time, maybe even permanently…..although, in due course, it would be nice to have a few people at least who are physically present!
The world, as most of us know it, has been massively disrupted. And as the number of infections of COVID-19 continue to rise across the globe; as several countries deal with the effects of recent earthquakes; as billions of dollars are wiped of global stock markets; and as hundreds of thousands of people across the globe face uncertain futures, it’s not unreasonable to ask: Where is God in all of this? That’s pretty much the question that Mary and Martha were asking isn’t it?
As we’ve just heard from today’s gospel passage, Lazarus, Jesus’s friend, had fallen ill. His sisters Martha and Mary sent for Jesus because if anyone could help Lazarus, surely his friend Jesus could? As Mary and Martha did their best for Lazarus, they must have been wondering, where Jesus was? These people were friends of Jesus and it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect that Jesus would rush to Lazarus’ bedside to help. But, Jesus tarried, and by the time he got to Bethany, Lazarus had died.
But even though Lazarus was dead, it’s clear that Martha still hoped that Jesus might do something. “…even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him" she says. She didn’t know exactly what Jesus would do, but notwithstanding her grief, in the midst of all that despair, she still had hope.
In that moment, disappointment and faith co-existed. Mary and Martha didn’t demand a fix, instead they continued to believe in Jesus as the source of their hope.
Jesus’ response to Martha hinted at what was going to happen: "Your brother will rise again,” he said. To which Martha responded "I know that he will rise again… in the resurrection on the last day. Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me, will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
By all accounts, Martha gives the correct religious response, thinking about the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. But Jesus wanted her (and us for that matter) to know that the resurrection is available now, through him, for all who believe in him.
He then asks where they had laid Lazarus’ body and is taken to the tomb. He instructs that the stone covering the entrance to the tomb should be removed, but Martha, ever the pragmatist, cautions him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone.
That for me is the pivotal moment in this story. If the stone had been left in place, the glory of God would not have been revealed and Lazarus would not have been able to come out. Martha probably verbalised what others were thinking – Lazarus’ body was already decomposing, so the last thing you’d want to be doing is taking the stone away….the smell would horrible.
Two important things happen at that moment. First, Jesus empowers people to move beyond what their experience told them was right and sensible, by asking them to take away the stone. Second, with that obstacle out of the way, God’s glory was revealed as Lazarus emerged from the tomb very much alive.
All of which begs the question: what are the metaphorical stones in our lives that limit our capacity to experience God at work? What are the things in our lives, as individuals and as church, that prevent us from experiencing life to its fullest? What are things that are preventing God’s glory to be seen at work in and through us? What are the things we hold on to – possibly even cling to, that keep our lives in a tomb of inaction and misunderstanding?
In the past few days, many of our civil liberties have been constrained…and for good reason. We have all had to rethink certain aspects of our lives, not least of which is how we practice our Christian faith and how we function as a church community. When our church buildings were shut for public worship a few days ago, and all the associated events were cancelled, did we experience a stone being rolled into place with a sense of finality or did we find ourselves empowered to roll the stone away, facing the opportunity to embrace new life, like Lazarus?
Too often, we let our path to God be blocked by stones – things that we know we should let go of, but somehow just don’t seem able to. Too often we cling to things that prevent us from experiencing the full and abundant experience of life in and with Christ. Too often we cling to our stones and refuse to roll them away and let the miracle of Christ into our lives.
Martha’s hopes when she said to Jesus “I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him" were certainly met, and almost certainly exceeded. The stone was removed, and Lazarus was raised from the dead.
Do we have the same hope? Do we share Martha’s conviction that God will give us whatever we ask of him? The doors to our buildings are shut for the time being, but the church… you and I…need to remain active and open. As we consider all of the turmoil, fear, and anxiety that is going on in our world today; as we contemplate where God is in all of this, I pray that we will embrace this moment as an opportunity for new life….an opportunity for spiritual renewal, an opportunity to find new ways to minister, an opportunity to reach new people with the good news of Jesus Christ. As we embrace all of that, I pray most of all that we and others may experience the presence and glory of God working in and through each one of us.
The Lord be with you.