This past week, it seems like our current situation and the health crisis we are experiencing has become more real. We have experienced a lot of changes over these last few weeks, but for some reason, this week, it has sunk in that we are in for a long battle and not a short-term halt to daily life.
We’ve seen confirmed cases, based upon testing, of the coronavirus top the triple digits in West Virginia. We’ve heard of the first confirmed case in Cabell County. We’ve heard stories of nursing homes in Morgantown with multiple cases. We’ve heard of hospitals in our region running short on necessary supplies. We’ve seen orders for non-essential businesses to close for an unknown period of time. We’ve seen school closures extended. We’ve seen phrases like “stay in place” and “social distancing” become part of our common vernacular.
Life does not seem normal. When we travel out and about, we witness an eerie quiet that is symbolic of where we are today. Walking to the store becomes a challenge of trying to stay six feet apart. We’ve seen our lives changed and we’re not sure when any semblance of normal will return. We’re looking for a day, perhaps even a particular day to return, yet deep down we’ve come to realize life is going to be altered for longer than we had expected as we seek to provide care to the most vulnerable among us.
It is an odd time. That is a word I have used to describe this period. As well, it is a word many of you have used to describe it in our conversations. It is odd not to be physically present, but still worshiping through the means of technology. It is odd to be away from friends and family. It’s odd to be away from loved ones in the hospital. Because it is odd, I wonder if you are like me and need some hope to cling on.
As we near the start of the Easter season, hope – the confidence of God’s eternal presence in our lives and world – seems to always be upon our mind. It is a hope we celebrate each Sunday and, specifically, on Resurrection Sunday when we rejoice that the tomb is empty and that Christ is alive. We cling to that message of hope, but to be honest, we need that reality and to claim it every day. Claiming it doesn’t just mean remembering it in a way that shows we know Christ is alive and that gives us hope for the future, but to share it as a living witness in the places of death and destruction in our world today and now.
Our passage from John 11:17-44 is a message of hope in the midst of grief and despair. It is a landmark passage in the Gospel of John that includes both a sign and a message of identity about who Jesus is. In John’s Gospel, there are two dominant themes that carry throughout the narrative of Jesus’ life. One is that there are seven signs – miracles – that give a glimpse in the nature and power of Christ. The other is that there are seven “I am” statements, where Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah through various characteristic statements. This passage has both a sign pointing to the nature of Christ and an “I am” statement revealing the character of God in Jesus.
We pick up the story at the middle point of the narrative of Jesus with Martha, Mary, and their brother, Lazarus, who has already died of an unknown illness. Before Jesus arrives in Bethany, which was located just outside of Jerusalem near the Mount of Olives, he had huddled with his disciples outside of the area when news came to him that Lazarus was sick. There was an expectation that he would come and heal his friend and disciple, yet he remained where he was. His disciples likely thought it was because of the death threats surrounding him, but he waits for a greater purpose. He waited so that God’s power and hope could be revealed.
He finally leaves and arrives in Bethany on the fourth day. That was a significant marker. There was a Jewish belief that on the fourth day the soul would leave the vicinity of the death. This meant that there was no hope left for the family. As well, by the time Jesus had arrived, Lazarus had been in the grave for that same period of time. The Jewish custom was to place the body in the tomb on the same day as the person’s death.
As Jesus arrives near Bethany, he is greeted by Martha and the mourners who are grieving with the family. She expresses her sorrow that Jesus had not been there in time. She knows that if he had, then Lazarus would have survived. But now, she expresses her grief and pain to Jesus. In the meantime, she confesses that he is the Messiah and that she knows she will see Lazarus again at the resurrection. Martha’s thoughts were centered on the Jewish belief of the resurrection that focused on resurrection of the dead on the day of judgment. Martha is not thinking of the resurrection as providing a living hope for that moment.
Jesus, though, is. He reminds Martha that he is the source of hope. He is the living witness of life. He reminds her that he is the resurrection and all who believe in him will receive life. This is a life, not just for the life everlasting, but life now in this world, in this moment. Hope can be experienced now, Jesus tells Martha, because he is the source of life.
Jesus goes to the grave to show what he means. Going to the grave moves him deeply, grieves his soul, and brings him to tears. Why? Because he is standing face-to-face with death, both physically and metaphorically. He is faced with the physical end of life and, as well, the darkness that can separate people from the hope of God. He weeps for the pain of his people.
At the grave, he tells the grievers and mourners to roll away the stone. There are protests, especially from Martha, claiming the smell would overwhelm them. Jesus reminds Martha of who he is – the source of hope – and she agrees. It is at this point that Jesus offers a prayer to God for the sake of the people, so they would know that Jesus is of God. What happens next is a true expression of hope and the power of God. He shouts out for Lazarus to come. Immediately, as if awakened from sleep, Lazarus walks out of the tomb, wrapped in the grave clothes, alive.
Jesus, in this scene, gave a witness to the power of the resurrection. A sign of hope that death cannot and will not win or defeat the mission of Christ. Jesus has the power of hope that raises people from the death that overwhelms and consumes them and raises them to a new life. A hope that is rested within his love, his grace, his teaching, and, truly, what is to come through the cross and his own empty tomb. In Jesus, there is no death, no fear, no pain, no sorrow, but only light, life, and hope.
This is not a hope for a tomorrow, but a hope that is real for today. That Lazarus was raised into this world, and that Christ was raised in this life gives testimony to the power of the resurrection to offer hope and life in this moment. The hope that Christ offers is a reality for this life and this moment to speak peace, hope, love, and joy into the realities of death and despair that can consume us. This is not about a future promise, but a present reality of God’s life and hope that are found in the One who is victorious over death. Jesus’ hope is real for us today, in this moment, and especially in this time that faces us.
There are many places in our community and world that need hope. When we think of death, we are not just thinking about what happens to our bodies when we can no longer go on. We are thinking about, as well, the things that break us, bend us, and prevent us from experiencing the true life in God’s love. Truly, these are the places that are consumed with brokenness and pain.
Where are these places? We see it in the growing number of cases of the coronavirus and its physical and emotional toll. We see it in the opioid crisis that affects our community. We see it in our emotions of grief, sorrow, sadness, fear, anger, or negativity. We see it in our self-focused attitudes that put ourselves upon a pedestal as the highest authority and influence. These places, and many others, affect our faith and connection with God and one another. It breaks us and weakens our faith.
Jesus comes and walks right into these moments and offers hope and raises us into new life. He comes to lead us into a life that is everlasting that brings us out of these places of despair and loss and into life, grace, hope, and peace. It is a life that is offered to us freely and calls us to claim today, tomorrow, and always. Through this hope, Jesus raises us into a new creation where we are no longer what we were, but we become what God always knew we could be.
The unique thing about this hope is that we are called to partner in it to share it with others. We are not just recipients of the new life, but we are called to help others to experience it for themselves so that they are no longer held in bondage by the ravages of death. Notice how Jesus responds to the community as Lazarus walks out of the tomb. He calls them to unbind him from the death clothes. Those who have witnessed the new life for themselves are called to partner with God to allow others to experience that hope.
We are not to just claim it for ourselves, we are to be living partners with God to share that hope of new life with those who need to know and experience God’s love. The call of those who follow Christ are to walk into the places of death and despair, to walk with the people who are experiencing them in our presence, and to share the hope of Christ with our words of compassion, our acts of grace, and our empathy of a warm embrace that walks with the person and points them and encourages them to a deeper way of life.
In this time, with anxiety and fear all around us, perhaps there is no better time than now for us to be a witness of hope. To remember that Christ is life and we have experienced no greater joy than the life of Christ’s hope. To remember, as well, that we are not just to receive hope, but to share hope in the midst of despair.
People are looking to the church now more than ever. What better time than now to remind the world that the church is more than a building. The church is about a living hope that is found in the One who raises people from death of life. We are about the life and mission of Christ. We are about hope. We are to share hope. Today. Tomorrow. Always. From any place to be about the work of Christ and the hope of the Lord, so that death is defeated through the hope of Christ.