Getting Back on Track: When It's Hopeless

[audio] Psalm 24 John 11:32-44

Over the past few months, we've gone with this topic of Getting Back on Track. We have used the journey of faith, this metaphor of progression (or so we assume), of following along with the footsteps of Jesus. But the journey of faith does not necessarily always move forward. The question is: what we do when we’re knocked back? What do we do when the path is gone, when we can’t see the way before us? Our worship has included music from South Africa. How long did the people there have to sing the songs like “Freedom is coming, oh yes, I know,” all the while wondering if it really was?

If you're looking for a sermon the easy answers, you will be sorely disappointed. This text is a challenging one and it is also one that points to the complexity of life that we already know in our own experiences, how the journey of faith has its twists, turns, detours, and steps back. There is a key point in the text that comes up again and again: Jesus is upset in this text. Maybe he knows the way this story is going to end, but the writer makes the point of saying that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”; “Jesus began to weep”; Jesus, again, “was greatly disturbed”. If Jesus gets knocked back, how can we expect that the same wouldn’t happen to us?

What do we do what it feels hopeless? What do we do what we're faced with death of ourselves or loved ones? What do we do when we hear news of an illness that is incurable, of a relationship that we’re in and we treasure, and yet it's impossibly fractured? What do we do when stress piles up on us, when debt makes us feel like we're drowning, when the responsibilities we carry on our shoulders crush us? What do we do when we are in the midst of imprisonment, or in the face of apartheid or injustice?

There's something in this lesson for all of us, the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead in the town of Bethany. Bethany is to the East of Jerusalem, up on a hill overlooking Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. It is the same place that Jesus sends the disciples to get that donkey to go down on Palm Sunday into Jerusalem. Today the town of Bethany is known in Arabic as Al-Azaria, named after Lazarus, this famous resident of the town.

The first that may jump out is that this story has parallels with the resurrection story, which appears several chapters later in John’s gospel. We have a death that’s at the center of the story. We have a stone that is rolled up against a cave tomb. But there’s a huge difference. Jesus does not give Lazarus resurrection; he gives him revivification. He brings him back to life. Yes, Lazarus died, and Jesus raised him. But Lazarus remains mortal. He is raised from the dead to go on to die another day. Why did Jesus do this? It fits very well into the “signs and wonders” of the miracle stories of the New Testament. This is a revelation of the Messianic age, to say, “I'm the one that you've been waiting for. And the proof of it is this: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.”

But when Jesus dies and is raised, Jesus is changed. When he encounters the disciples on the road to Emmaeus, they don't even recognize him. They are telling Jesus about Jesus and what happened to Jesus and they don't even know it’s Jesus. He has been transformed by being resurrected. And he does not raise from the dead to die other day; he ascends into heaven.

My question is: How often are our prayers, in the midst of feeling hopeless, for revivification and reanimation? Not resurrection, but having back what we used to have? Think of the Israelites in the wilderness. They have been freed from slavery and they are there in the desert with God providing for their needs. They say, “We had it better back in Egypt.” For them, new life means returning back to the way it was because it’s better than the way things are. What they missed is that they're being led into a land of promise.

When we yearn for an economic turnaround in our society, do we want to go back to the way it was? Really? Or have we recognized how flawed our system is, and that there might be better ways of being in economic relationship with one another? If responsibilities are weighing us down, do we simply want the strength to carry them, or does that run the risk of helping us fool ourselves into thinking that we are independent and can carry in the first place? If the stress is on us, do we simply want the stress to go away, or do we recognize that life is a series of stresses that come and go, and if they leave they will surely come again?

The trick that this story introduces to us is that we have to remember that the life of faith in Christ isn't as simple as, “I want it, I ask for it, I get it.” The life of faith is not one of asking for what you want and then opening your mailbox and finding there. God is not a puppet master. Life is complicated, painful, difficult. My hunch is that each one of us knows exactly what I mean in some personal way. It could be recently or in the distant past. But we know that life is not perfect. The good news is that God is with us. Jesus weeps with us.

What would it mean for us to pray for resurrection instead? What would it mean for us to pray for new life in Christ in whatever that hopelessness is that we find? What would be the difference between living in order to die other day instead of opening ourselves to transformation to point that we are unrecognizable, changed by life in Christ? That, to me, is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism feels like going back to those times that were really good. Hope is what holds us fast in the midst of the kind of situation that South Africans faced under Apartheid: “Freedom is coming. Oh, yes, I know! I may not be able to see it. I may not believe it with my mind. But my heart and my faith teaches me that it's true.” And when Apartheid ends, we have just a taste of the truth that we already know.

It reminds me of the woman who was asked what her favorite verse of Scripture was, and she said, “It came to pass.” In another words, life moved on. Things changed. Or another way of putting it: even the snail made it onto the ark.

Hope implies trust in God. When it’s hopeless, hope reminds us that we serve a God who is trustworthy. It is not always going to be easy. But it is always going to be true that God is with us, that Jesus weeps with us, that the Spirit surrounds us and uplifts us. Freedom is coming. Oh, yes, I know. Amen.