Do you believe this?
Scripture: John 11:1-45
Today, in our scripture passage, one that I invite you to return to over the course of the week because of its power and relevance to our time, Jesus asks Martha a question. In the past few weeks of our Lent series called Questions Welcome, we have explored questions that were asked to Jesus and about Jesus. But today, Jesus gets to ask the question of Martha and of us.
"Do you believe this?"
The word believe can be a problematic word in our faith and in our culture.
Going back to its Gaelic or Germanic roots, belief is defined as placing confidence or trust in someone or something.
Right now, in our culture and in this time of crisis, we are being asked each day to place our confidence in people and markets and businesses and government institutions - and certainly in our faith.
But what do you do when your government leaders do not inspire your trust in them? No matter how highly they talk of their accomplishments?
How do you feel confident when different news channel address the facts of the day with their own particular spin?
How do you trust in the stock market when it seems to fluctuate on fears and anxiety and the flapping of a butterfly wing around the world?
How do you place your hope in our economy, which we were told a few months was a strong as it ever has been, and now discover how fragile it always has been?
Right now, we are also rediscovering how much trust we have placed in so many people around us - sometimes without realizing how important they are to our lives.
For families like my own, we are now going on 15 days since our children were last dropped off at school or put on the bus. I mean, 15 days - but who’s counting? With each day, we realize how much care and skill we entrusted to those teachers and school staff. How much we need those teachers, how thankful we are for them, even the mediocre ones.
We are having to be confident that when we stay home and order in our groceries and delivery that some complete stranger isn’t going to take our money and do whatever - but drop said items at our front door. That requires trust.
We are being asked to trust our doctors and nurses for our very lives - and we are so grateful for their sacrifice, for those who are spending all days setting up beds and providing care, those who are going into the ICU rooms to fight alongside those who are struggling to draw breath, and for those who are racing to find a vaccine.
And of course, we are being asked to have faith in our God - which can be hard when the death count from this virus spike every few days.
Ultimately, are we placing our trust in fragile things or on sure foundations?
When Jesus came to Bethany, he entered into a fragile situation, a traditional period of mourning for this Jewish community. There were weeping people. Martha came running to see him, overcome with grief fake watches, still wondering and hoping against hope for someone or something to bring her confidence. Someone or something to change the reality.
Jesus had known Lazarus well. They were close. The news hit him hard. Our scripture says that when he received the word, Jesus didn’t leave right away. I’ve never understood why, until I am reminded that losing someone close and someone dear often makes it hard for us to get out of bed, to eat, to muster the energy to face the day. Some of you have been there.
It took him a couple of days for he and his disciples to carefully make their way back to Judea, which was also dangerous - there were powerful people plotting to have Jesus arrested. So, they took their time and took the back routes to Bethany.
About four days later, they arrive near Mary and Martha’s house - and Martha is the first to run out to meet Jesus at the edge of their land.
When she confronts Jesus, she reveals something remarkable about herself.
She believes. She believes that Jesus, no matter how late to the scene he is, is capable of changing the course of their lives.
We could read her questions and statements as someone who is in the throes of grief and is talking out of their mind - but I think Martha knew. More than knew, she had confidence in Jesus. She trusted him and the power he had access to through his connection with God, even if she did not always understand it.
And so the first words out of her mouth aren’t - “Hey, Jesus, come in and take a load off. I’m so glad you made it. Let me get you something to eat.”
Rather, she says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
What a bold way to get the Son of God’s attention. If only I - or we - had that kind of confidence, right? (Lord, if you had been here…)
She lays it right on Jesus' feet, and Jesus doesn’t back down.
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.’ (Vss. 25-26)
What follows next is incredible - in the most powerful verse in the entire gospels, “Jesus weeps” (V35). He is overcome with emotion as he gathers in with the mourners, those wailing in despair at the loss of their dear friend, a wailing at an unjust world that can claim lives so quickly - the lives of basketball coaches and high school teachers and nurses and doctors and children and artists and retirees and on and on. Jesus too weeps for a world that is too often marred by death and despair.
Greatly disturbed, Jesus comes to the tomb.
And there he commands the stone to be taken - and of course for those of us who have read ahead into Easter, we already resonate with what is about to come. The stench begins to waft out of that dark hole. You can hear the shocked cries of the gathered crowd. Jesus turns back to Martha and says with a face stricken with tears, angry and determined, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
And then he cries out to Lazarus - calls him out of that dark pit - that place of hopelessness and despair and dread and loss. And Lazarus comes out, still bound up in the trappings of death, but altogether alive once again!
The word believe is the word that draws us deeply into those whole scripture passage - it is the question that sits with us as we read this and the narrative of death and loss are so powerful.
So powerful that some of us are losing our damn minds in fear and anxiety.
So powerful that some of us have placed our confidence and trust in news channels, conspiracy theories, stock markets, guns and ammo, kombucha, and borders.
So powerful that some of us are wanting to turn this moment of “physical distancing” into sealed up tombs of death and destruction.
Through the wailing cries of anxiety, Jesus asks us, “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?”
The Raising of Lazarus is not a story that if we just believe hard enough - God will answer our prayers.
Rather, Jesus’ question asks of us each of us - what or who are we placing our confidence and trust?
Are we placing our trust and confidence in the things of this world, that no matter how important they are to enable us to do work and flourish, will never have power over the pits of darkness and despair?
Or do we place our trust and hope in a God who speaks such a word over our lives and even this pandemic that life somehow emerges?
Dr. Melinda Quivik writes, "Jesus creates the ability to believe by causing death again and again to turn to life.”
Jesus is worthy of our trust and confidence.
God is able through God's own Son to do the impossible - the impossible sometimes looks like miracles, like dry bones taking on flesh, and sometimes, it looks like strangers and neighbors and community on Zoom calls, handcrafting masks at home, praying for each other across fences, and organizing brown bag lunches to serve those who are hungry. It looks like love in a season of pandemics and uncertainty.
I wonder what it looks like for you and your family right now. Why not share with me in the livestream chat or send me a note this week?
We still will weep and grieve with those who hover at death’s door, but Jesus’ power is such to unwrap our eyes to see the impossible - a new world, a new way of life, a new way of being in community.
A colleague shared an article with me this week that revealed that after the devastation of the Spanish Flu in 1918 that wiped out millions across the planet, the ranks of the religious clergy swelled as people, grappling with their fear and their loss of trust in life, went to seminary to study and seek answers to make sense of what all of this tragedy and loss could mean.
This never implies that the tragedy we experience is God’s plan. No! Rather, it suggests that out of these experiences we often see and know God in a new way. And as Jesus unwraps our eyes, we work together for a world where “there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
Do you believe this? Do we believe this?
(Close in Prayer)
O Mighty God,
We are so fearful and uncertain.
We have placed so much trust and confidence in temporary things.
Now, Lord, help us believe.
Help us believe even in times of sorrow that your life-giving power is at work.
Comfort the families who suffer now by sharing your tears.
And command us to come out of our hiding places
To live with courage and compassion,
To see in every moment an invitation to join in your dance from death to life.
In the name of the One we call Jesus, Messiah, Resurrection and Life,