Hurry Up and Wait
Grace United Methodist Church
November 1, 2009
John 11: 32-44
2When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Years ago on a TV show, a guest appeared that was a body builder. He entered the stage with his huge muscular body, and the crowd went crazy as the body builder began to flex his muscles and show his power. The first question asked of him was this: “What do you use all those muscles for?” Without answering, the body builder again began flexing his muscles while the crowd cheered wildly.
A second time, the question was asked, “What do you do with those muscles?” Again, the body builder flexed his muscles and the crowd became almost ecstatic. After asking a third time, “What do you do with all those muscles?” the body builder just sat in silence. He had no answers. The man was all power but his power had no purpose other than to show off and bring attention to himself.
For something to have meaning, it must have purpose. We easily associate the meaning of Lazarus’ life with his walk out of the tomb after being dead four days; and how Jesus’ miraculous work in Bethany helped show his close association with God the Father. But Lazarus’ life, the events surrounding his death, and Jesus’ miracle in raising Lazarus from the dead have significance far beyond that single moment. Jesus wasn’t just flexing his muscles in a fancy show for the grieving crowd; he was showing us how to grieve, but also how to live.
Today, we mark All Saints’ Day; a day of high celebration in which we traditionally commemorate all the saints, known and unknown, who are joined with God eternally. But this is also a time when we as a Christian community remember the departed faithful who are close to us. We cannot engage in such remembering without acknowledging the feeling of grief, perhaps profound grief, that comes as we recall the friends and family who are no longer with us here. This is one of the things that is important about the story of Lazarus’ death. This is one of the few places in the Gospels where there is a deep show of grief from Jesus. We are told three times that Jesus was “deeply moved” or that he wept. In classical Greek, the usual usage for what is translated here as “deeply moved” is that of a horse snorting. With this in mind, we can only assume that Jesus was seized by such deep emotion that he let out a great involuntary groan from the depths of his heart. Jesus had lost his friend to death, and death is a difficult thing for those of us left in its wake.
When my grandfather passed away 10 years ago, I was a sophomore in college. I returned to school after his funeral and the next day I went to the Wesley Fellowship. The campus minister, aware of my recent loss, approached me and putting his hands on my shoulders, he asked how I was doing. Tears welled up in my eyes, but as I tried to choke them back, he looked and me and said, “It’s okay to cry.” And so I did. Jesus wept when his friend died. We, too, can weep when loved ones die. Yet even as we grieve, we can continue giving meaning and purpose to the lives of those who have gone. We can help them live on by honoring the impact that so many have in our lives. Isn’t that what we celebrate on All Saints’ Day; the lives of those who have inspired us in some special way? What better way to help them live on than by living out that inspiration in our own lives.
Our thoughts of saints often take us to the disciples or early church fathers; Saint Matthew, Saint John, Saint Augustine. Yet, I firmly believe that there are many more saints in this world; toiling away daily, even when their work goes unnoticed. When I think of a saint, the first thing that comes to mind is someone who devotes her life to following and serving Christ, and who inspires others to do the same. How many such people have we had in our lives? We can imagine them even now. As many of you are aware, my grandmother died recently. When my grandmother’s mind began to fail her a few months ago, she thought everyday was Sunday. And each day, she would get up and lay out her dress clothes to go to church. This was a mark of who she was. She was a devout Christian; her apartment was full of Bibles and devotionals and notes from her time studying the Scriptures. She offered her time and her resources to the church and to God’s causes in the most generous of ways; unlike anyone I have ever known. She followed Christ with her whole life, and she inspired me to do the same. She was a saint, and my life is better because she was a part of it. So the question for me now is how will I honor her life through my own living? This is the question for all of us. How will we honor the saints who have gone before us?
For me, the answer to this question is that I will strive to follow Christ more closely each day. God wants us all to be saints. God wants us all to follow and serve Christ and to inspire others to do the same, just as we have been inspired. We are ordinary people, but God wants us to be ordinary saints, and when we seek to follow God’s will in our lives, we honor those saints who have gone before us. The Gospels tell us how to do this, and we can find direction even in the events surrounding Lazarus’ death and resurrection, and through the actions of Jesus and his disciples.
One of the great mysteries of this story is the fact that Jesus did not come to Bethany before Lazarus died, when Mary and Martha had summoned him with the news that Lazarus was sick. “Hurry up!” Mary and Martha say. But Jesus says, “Wait.” And when Jesus arrives four days later, as we heard, Mary tells him that if he had been there her brother would not have died. But Jesus’ late arrival does not indicate inaction on his part. The people rolled the stone away from Lazarus’ tomb and there was no smell. Before Jesus called Lazarus out, he lifted a prayer to his Father, thanking God for hearing him. And when Jesus summoned Lazarus out, he emerged a whole man. When Jesus had received word of Lazarus’ illness, his response was this, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory.” Biblical scholar Tom Wright says that we can only assume that in those days Jesus spent away before returning to Bethany, “he was praying: praying that though Lazarus would die, he would be preserved from corruption; praying that when eventually they arrived in Bethany, the body in the tomb would be whole and complete, ready to be summoned back into life. And when they took the stone away he knew that his prayer had been answered.” And so Jesus thanked his Father for hearing his prayers. The clue to the miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead was Jesus’ steadfast faith and fervent prayer. If Jesus needed to spend time in prayer, how much more will we as we seek to follow God more closely in our lives?
Then there is a lesson from the disciples. Though there are some things that only God can do, like raising Lazarus from the dead, there are also those things that God wants us to do; those places where God wants us to participate in Christ’s work in the world. In small town New Mexico, a few years ago, Mary Bratcher accidentally ran over her own pet dog, Brownie. The family tearfully buried the mutt in a field near the house. Mary’s young son, Toby refused to believe Brownie was gone, and so did Brownie’s mother! The hound dog dug up her offspring, and the following day the family found Brownie on the porch, caked with mud and dried blood. He was barely breathing as they rushed him to the veterinarian. Brownie suffered a broken bone in his shoulder and a lost eye; but he has recovered, and the family has given him a new name — Lazarus!
Unfortunately, such stories are not very common; and in the Gospel story, the real Lazarus really was dead. Unlike that determined hound dog, we have to deal with grief in the face of real loss. And, unlike Jesus, we do not have the option of bringing others back to life. Only Christ has the authority to command the dead to “come out,” to emerge with the breath of life once again filling their lungs. But once that miracle has been accomplished, Christ turns to the disciples and encourages them to join in that blessed work as he instructs them to “unbind [Lazarus], and let him go.” We are to be workers together with Christ. Jesus invites us to walk with him, and he also calls us to serve in his name; to continue the work that was begun in him. The great saints of this world are the ones who do this work faithfully. We honor their memory when we seek to do the same, and we also draw nearer to being the saints that God would have us to be.
On this All Saints’ Day, we do well to grieve the loss of loved ones near and dear to us. It doesn’t do any good to hide grief, or pretend it does not exist. Jesus wept when his friend died, and we too should weep. But even as we say with the mourning crowd at Bethany “Come and see,” leading Jesus to the place of our deep grief and sorrow; he is also saying “come and see” to us, showing us that even in the deep sorrow there is a place of light and love; a place of resurrection hope that God wants all the world to know about. Jesus prayed that God’s glory might be made known when Lazarus emerged from that tomb, and he thanked God when it was clear that God had acted. We, too, should offer our prayers and thanksgivings to God just as Jesus did. And with Christ’s life-giving sacrifice and resurrection before us, we must follow his call and continue his work. Our task is to take the message of God’s light, love, and hope, into the world. When we engage this task, we honor the lives of the saints who have gone before us, we celebrate all who have inspired us, and we ordinary people become the saints that God would have us to be.
 John 11: 4
 Tom Wright, John for Everyone: Part Two (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 15.