Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Whispers in the Dark

I was up to preach on Nov. 4th, less than a week after Hurricane Sandy hit. The church had no heat or light and no actually bulletin either, but both services were packed. Here is what I said about Lazarus and the hurricane.

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I’ve always know that I can be pretty impatient sometimes. It’s hard for anyone to wait for something that they really, really want. But the other day, what I really, really wanted was electricity! Some of us already have our power back, and some of us are still waiting. But a few days ago, we were all pretty much in the same boat, waiting for the storm to go by and for the winds and rain to die down, and in many parts of the state, for the floodwaters to recede.

Some of us made it out better than others. I know a few people who didn't lose power at all. Others, like ourselves, got it a few days ago, after only a few (but very long-feeling) days without it. But others still don’t have it, and still others have homes and property that suffered damage, and still others no longer have homes at all. At a friend’s, we watched the news which showed people being rescued from their homes by boat, carrying in their arms whatever they were able to save – a bag, a pet, their shoes. We are all waiting for life to return to normal, though for many of us, the “normal” may be long in coming, and life in the future may look very different than it did before.

Waiting is not a new thing, unique to the situation of Hurricane Sandy. As long as there have been people who are unhappy or suffering, there has been waiting. Waiting for things to change, waiting for the suffering to pass, waiting with a hope that life will someday be better and that our distress will be a just memory.

Sometimes, our waiting is rewarded. The power comes back on. The pop quiz is postponed. The biopsy comes back negative. A potential employer calls and wants a second interview. There is just enough in the bank account to make ends meet this month.

But sometimes we wait and we wait… and we seem to wait in vain. Either nothing happens at all, or worse… the thing we fear the most comes to pass.

Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, was not just sick. He was dying. And his sisters Mary and Martha knew that his only hope was for Jesus to come and heal him on the double. They sent word to Jesus, urging him to come quickly. Then they waited. And waited. And waited some more… until it was too late.

When Jesus finally arrived, Lazarus has been dead and buried for FOUR DAYS. There was no mistaking it for a coma. There was no chance of a sudden recovery. The memorial service was long over and the luncheon had long gone cold. He was beyond any miracle that Jesus seemed capable of. Mary and Martha have resigned themselves to the fact that they will never see their brother Lazarus again in this lifetime. Their waiting and their hope seem to have been in vain.  

Then suddenly, they heard that Jesus is just outside of town, that he just heard the news of Lazarus’ death. Martha heard first and dashed out to confront him. She is the first to say what is also on Mary’s lips, which we heard a moment ago: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

We don’t have audio cues, so we can only guess how these words were spoken. Was Martha angry at Jesus? Was she crying and grieving? Or had she cried out all her tears by that time and was just accepting of the reality of her brother’s death? Mary, we read, was still crying when she repeats her sister’s words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

We join in asking their question:  Where were you, Jesus, when Lazarus breathed his last? And where were you, Jesus, when Grandma Louise got cancer and chemo failed time after time? Where were you when Mom got laid off the same week that the car broke down? Where were you when a life is cut short too soon, leaving a young family behind to pick up the pieces? Where were you when wind and rain combined into a rogue mega storm that ripped a path of devastation across the eastern seaboard, where people lost power and property, and some lost their homes and even their lives? Where were you, Jesus?

 “Lord, had you been here.” …

Jesus, amid his own tears of grief, went to the place of Lazarus’ burial. And in front of the giant stone shutting the cave where Lazarus lay, Jesus said, “Take that stone away.” It is no longer needed here.
Undeterred by the heavy stone, by the four-day-old grave, the reluctance of the sisters, the heckling of the crowd, unaffected even by the smell coming from Lazarus’ decaying body, Jesus called forth

“Lazarus! COME OUT!”

And Lazarus… CAME OUT.

Nobody was expecting THAT. You see, when our loved ones die, no one in their right minds expects LIFE to come from DEATH. But with Jesus, that is exactly what we should expect.

Mary and Martha thought that Jesus’ job was to PREVENT bad things from ever happening. Jesus was supposed to come and SAVE their brother from having to die – well, really just postponing the inevitable. Jesus was supposed to heal Lazarus BEFORE his illness became fatal. But we all know, deep down, that life IS fatal. There is no escape. Life leads to death.

But with Jesus, death … leads… to lifeIn Jesus, we trust that, even in the midst of grief and suffering and death, Jesus IS present, and he is also working through us to bring about new life.

Jesus has been our pioneer. He blazed a new trail across the landscape of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Jesus has “been there” in every sense – grieving the loss of loved ones; physically suffering pain, ridicule, and abandonment; and dying a death that the whole world saw as pointless. He knows what it’s like all too well. In fact, at the end of John’s gospel, Jesus shows the disciples the marks of the nails on his body to show them that it really did happen.  

Death may have left its mark on Jesus, but that is ALL it was able to do. No grave could hold him; no stone could keep him in. Behold – all the first things, the way that things were, have passed away - have DIED. See, all things are being made new! Even destruction and death.

This was my second hurricane. And while I would never desire to repeat this experience, I can say that I have learned a lot. I have learned that a time of crisis really does reveal who people are at their core. I have seen God can and does use the compassion and generosity of people in times like these, and I hope you have seen these moments too. And I encourage you to share these moments with one another. Where have you seen God at work amid the storm and its aftermath?

We of course feel compassion for the people who lost their homes and their loved ones this week. We mourn with their families, but we also TRUST that those who died are in the presence of God, that their crying is forever over, and God has wiped away their tears. We also place our HOPE in God who mourns with us and will someday remove from us the shroud of sadness and loss, even as we literally pick up the pieces from our lives. Together we wait and we watch for how God continues to be at work in our midst. AMEN.

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