Thursday, 16 July 2009

Do you believe?

A few Sundays ago we had an excellent sermon, and I'd like to relate some of the thoughts from that to you. I'll try to keep this short, but somehow I'm not certain that that will be possible. There is just too much in this. The sermon was based on John 11. I'll let you read this for yourself, but to give you an sense of direction, it is the story of Lazarus, Mary and Martha.

Now this story can be broken down into two perspectives: problem, and purpose. First of all, we'll start with the problems.

The first problem is that Lazarus - who is, as the story relates, a brother to Mary and Martha, and a good friend of Jesus' - is very ill. Nowadays, this may not appear to be such a big problem - we just run to the nearest pharmacy and get ourselves some medicine - but in those days, being ill meant, effectively, the death sentence. Mary and Martha did not have a doctor or a pharmacy to run to - so they thought of the best option available to them - they called for Jesus, who was out of town. They believed that Jesus would be able to help them - and just to make sure that he would do so, they appealed to the fact that he knew Lazarus as a good friend.

Now, before I mention the second problem, let's look at purpose, as this is the next stage of the story. Jesus received the message from Mary and Martha, and recognised it for what it was - a plea for help. As can be seen in many of the stories about Jesus, and similarly in this one, he appears to not react to the news. In fact, he does absolutely nothing, remaining where he is for two more days. Then, he communicates to his disciples that he needs to go to Judea. It would appear that this was the last place that his disciples expected to go, as it was dangerous for Jesus to go there.

However, Jesus responds to this by saying that he will not be in danger. But then he explains that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and that he needs to go and wake him up. Naturally, the disciples believe that Jesus means that Lazarus is asleep - but he disabuses them of that notion by explaining that Lazarus is in fact dead, and that he did not go sooner because they (his disciples) must believe (in Jesus). This is the first purpose in this story.

Now this leads directly to the second problem of the story .... and that is that Jesus did not 'come'. Mary and Martha had settled on Jesus as the solution to their first problem ... but now because he did not come, this caused a second problem - Lazarus died - when they had been certain that Jesus would be able to fix the situation. It is no wonder, then, that both Mary and Martha's first words to Jesus, upon his arrival, include 'if you had been here, he would not have died'. Clearly, they place the blame for Lazarus' death squarely at Jesus' feet.

How familiar is this scenario in our everyday lives? If we have a problem, we believe that someone or something can fix that problem - and if that solution is unavailable, then we are quick to blame the problem on it's absence. We get blinded by 'what might have been'.

But now let's look at Jesus' reactions to, in turn, Martha and Mary as they come to greet him, because in this lies the second purpose of this story - and a question. First of all, we see Martha come to Jesus, blaming him for Lazarus' death, as illustrated before. Interestingly, Jesus immediately tells her precisely what is going to happen - that Lazarus will be alive again. This is an ambiguous statement that Jesus makes - intending it as a present hope in that he will raise Lazarus immediately, but also in general reference to the fact that those who are godly, having died will rise again. Martha appears to understand that this will surely happen in the last days, when the dead will all rise again at the final resurrection - but even this image gives her no hope or encouragement. Jesus again very clearly - and yet in a way obliquely - tries to explain to her that he IS the resurrection (that the resurrection is present with her NOW?). While Martha by her words believes that he can pray to God and that God will do the work, Jesus tries to make it clear to her that he himself does the work - that he, while being fully human, is fully God. To some commentators, it seems that Martha doesn't appear to get the message yet, although she does clearly believe who he says he is - the Messiah - it is apparent that she does not take the leap in logic to understanding that he is the resurrection and the life, as he tries to explain to her. There are others who argue that, in Martha's acknowledgement that Jesus is the Messiah, and that he is who he says it is, she does take this leap in logic and accepts that he has the power to do the work of God in and of himself - and to me this interpretation of the text makes more sense.

Next we see Mary coming to greet Jesus - with the same words as Martha. Except this time, we observe Jesus reacting in a very different way - possibly because he clearly understands the different natures of the two women and relates to them accordingly. This time he sees Mary clearly very upset, and crying - as well as the people with her - and this appeals to his compassion and empathy - he is moved and troubled in his spirit because of their broken hearts, and asks where Lazarus is. In response, the people take him to Lazarus' tomb. In this, we see that Jesus is not 'superhuman', devoid of all emotion and detached from the crowd (as could be deduced from some of the stories told about him), but human, and very capable of emotions, as he is clearly moved to tears by Mary's sorrow.

Here, Jesus proceeds to do exactly what he told Martha he would do - but even in his actions she still does not understand what he is about. As he requests the stone to be moved away from the cave, Martha protests that Lazarus' body will be decaying, and will therefore stink. And here, we find the second purpose to this story. If the people believe in Jesus, they shall see the glory of God. In other words, if they believe that he is the resurrection and the life, they will see him doing the work that only God can do - perform a miracle. This statement appears to be a reassurance to Martha from Jesus that he is about to do something, and that she needs to let him do what he is going to do. It is also a reminder that we need to believe in Jesus - not that he will necessarily do a specific thing, since in this instance he has not spelled out his future actions, but that we need to simply believe. We are more likely to look at the circumstances around us and interpret them literally than to have the child-like belief in God that allows him to work.

So we see Jesus pray to God - not because he needed to, but so that those around him may know that he works together with God and for God's glory - and then, finally, he accomplishes what he set out to do - he raises Lazarus from the dead, so that the people around him can hear what he says, and see the results of his words.

The question to ask here is - do we believe in Jesus? Do we, like Martha, believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Resurrection and the Life, fully human, and yet fully God? Do we believe that he is willing and able? As this story teaches us, sometimes this action is delayed in our understanding of the situation - but the only reason for that is so that people (possibly MORE people?) may believe, and as a result, God may be further glorified.