Saturday, April 05, 2014

Stubborn Salvation

Sermon Notes for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A


Most of us gingerly dip our toes in the waters of faith through hope. I hope there is more than this life. I hope the virtues like love and fidelity are worth it. I hope death is not the end. Hope is given as a Christian virtue, of course, but I find it somewhat remarkable that I can’t come up with a single verse in any of the gospels that Jesus commands us to hope. It’s only a word that appears in his absence or expected presence.

And so we come to another of the great “I am” statements in John this day – John’s rewriting of the familiar and ancient Torah, beginning with the creation narrative, disclosing as he did to us last week that by working in Jesus, God has not yet arrived at the seventh day sabbath rest… and this day recounting another play on the “I am” of the burning bush, the divine disclosure of being both primordial and eternal, both transcendent and imminent, both wholly other and fully present.

The focus is on the stinking tomb of Lazarus, that festering wasteland of death that haunts so many of our worst fears and wrecked dreams. John does not hesitate to ladle every possible oppositional force into the story, reminding us that Christ, the Word of God’s great “I am…” is up against every conceivable human obstacle.

On discussing making the journey to Judea, the disciples are rightly worried their teacher is walking into the inevitable, deadly trap of the religious and Roman authorities in the Jerusalem orbit. Thomas, ever the realist bordering on cynicism, offers resigning snark worthy of twenty-first century:

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

John must want us to feel the inevitability in this story we all feel about the finalities of this life, the surrender to forces beyond our control, the undeniable reality of our suffering and the press of death.

Mary is too grief-stricken to greet her friend and savior. Martha, the more pragmatic of the two sisters meets Jesus with a thinly veiled accusation:

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died…”

followed by a thin sliver of hope:

“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

But when Jesus offers unwavering assurance that her brother will rise again, Martha retreats to an abstraction about the resurrection of the dead on the last day, somewhere off in a murky future where hope for a struggling life might find some projected justification. The present suffering of loss –a brother, breadwinner, and kin companion in life’s brief journey gone – is just too much for hope to bear.

And so it is for Jesus when he arrives at the tomb and weeps with his companions. John compels us to consider a God who does not will our suffering or plan it to test us or use it to punish us, but rather who enters into it with us. This is a dangerous God who is not manipulated by clever prayers or incantations or pleased by the bribes of priests or even by our most righteous piety. This is a God who suffers with us, sheds tears, breaks with our hearts, and feels the gnawing reality of our finitude. This is a God who knows our limited vision, the real humility of our impotence, and the uncertainties that grind away at even the most vibrant faith.

This is a God who risks all danger to be with us at the very end, in the dark and bitter deaths we all inevitable experience.

And, a bit like Ezekiel, Jesus, when confronted with the undeniably dead and dry bones of every broken dream, promise, and ended life, does not respond to the question, “Can these bones live?” with a tepid “I hope so.”

Hope is not enough, at least not as we understand it these days as a shrug in the face of all human limitation. Instead, Christ, like Ezekiel, surrenders to the sublime power of the Creator: “Oh, Lord God, you know.”

“I am the resurrection and the life,” God in Christ says to a hopeful Martha and to us in the sacraments, at our deathbed, in our suffering, and in our darkest hour of despair. So stubborn is our promised salvation, it will not yield to our tepid hope or our deepest hopelessness. So stubborn is God’s love for us, it will not be confined to platitudes or vague projections about an afterlife. So stubborn is the resurrection that Jesus embodies, we can only respond with the silence of Lazarus as we are raised from our own stinking tombs, and ordered set free by the great I AM.

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