March 29, 2020
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
(Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)
The greatest book of all time. An unforgettable story told by an incredibly gifted author. A few at the top of the list are:
~ In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, a recollection of the narrator’s childhood.
~ Ulysses, by James Joyce, the passage of a man through Dublin on an ordinary day in 1904.
~ Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, the story of a retired man who becomes obsessed with chivalry.
~ The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a chronicle of the Roaring 1920s.
~ One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo
~ Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, the tale of Captain Ahab and his pursuit of a white whale.
Yes, these are great books to some people maybe, all of them. The top six, according to a website called “The Greatest Books,” which created a master list out of 122 other best-books lists. I have only read one of them on the list, so I would not be a good promoter of them.
But what is the most influential book of all time? Which story has had the greatest impact on human life?
The Yale Alumni Magazine recently published a list of books that have changed people’s lives, and you might be surprised by what they found. A Yale professor of military and naval history chose Winnie-the-Pooh, “because each of the animals has a distinctive personality.” He has found it to be an excellent guide for navigating life, classrooms and department meetings. Oddly curious.
A professor of World Christianity says that his life was changed by Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life. The professor grew up in Africa and discovered her book in a trash dump. He remembers that he read with avid attention to “her testimony about knowledge as power.”
The director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History realizes that his life was changed by Jane Werner Watson’s Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles, published in 1960. Even if the science is now outdated, he says, the illustrations in the book “remain just as powerful as when they ignited in me a passion to understand the natural world.”
Winnie-the-Pooh. Helen Keller’s autobiography. A giant picture book of dinosaurs. These are books that have changed people’s lives.
We could add the Gospel of John to this list. John 3:16 alone, the verse that the reformer Martin Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell,” has transformed the lives of countless thousands of people. Then there’s the story of Jesus meeting a woman at a well, a story we read a couple of weeks ago — a story that has helped so many understand how cultural and ethnic relationships can be forged.
And, of course, today’s text tells the story of death, resurrection and belief — a story that has generated faith in the lives of millions. John’s account of Jesus, Martha and Lazarus — an account that does not appear in any of the other Gospels — has all the drama of the world’s greatest and most influential books.
John tells us that “a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.” We can imagine Lazarus and his two sisters as vivid characters, as distinctive as Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore. In fact, let’s turn this sermon into a fun analogy - you might think of Lazarus as Pooh, friendly and spirit-filled. Mary is Piglet, intelligent but timid. And Martha is Eeyore, sardonic and pessimistic.
Eeyore and Piglet sent a message to Jesus, “Master, the one you love is ill.” They knew that Jesus loved upbeat and cheerful Lazarus, and they assumed that he would rush to his side.
But Jesus brushed their message aside, saying, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God.” And he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. While he was there, Lazarus died.
Eventually, Jesus traveled to Bethany and found that Lazarus had been lying dead in the tomb for four days. Martha left her house to meet Jesus in full Eeyore mode — glum and pessimistic. She probably said, “It’s all for naught.” Did she have her hands on her hips when she said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. But since Martha also had strong faith in Jesus, she went on to say, “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Jesus responded to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha / Eeyore said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
But Jesus was determined to change her thinking about new life, so he announced, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
What a crisis for Eeyore, who was in the habit of saying, “Wish I could say yes, but I can’t.” Martha could see the facts around her: Lazarus was dead, his body rotting in the tomb, and he wasn’t scheduled to rise until the resurrection on the last day. But now Jesus was saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?”
“Wish I could say yes,” she thought to herself. But instead of agreeing completely, she said, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” And then she went home and reported to Piglet that Jesus was calling for her.
Mary jumped up and ran out to see Jesus, like Piglet feeling small and helpless in a crisis situation. When Mary came to Jesus and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said, “Lord, it is hard to be brave when you’re only a very small animal … if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She sort of made the same statement as her sister, but the emotion was different, because when Jesus saw her weeping, he was disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He wasn’t moved when Martha confronted him, hands on hips. But now, he’s moved. He’s touched. He’s feeling something in his gut.
And then, suddenly, Jesus is crying. In public.
The Son of God, the Savior of the world, is crying. Lazarus was his Winnie-the-Pooh — his friendly, thoughtful, and spirit-filled friend. And now he was dead.
Christ (Christopher Robin) walked to the cave that served as the tomb of Lazarus and saw that it had a stone lying against it. “Take away the stone,” ordered Jesus. Eeyore said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench;
he has been dead for four days.” “It’ll never work.”
But Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” For Jesus, the key is believing — faith is the attitude that changes your life. What makes the Gospel of John a life-changing book is that it is a story about the power of belief.
~ “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16).
~ “Very truly, I tell you,” said Jesus, “anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (5:24).
~ “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35).
Anyone who believes may have eternal life. Anyone who believes has passed from death to life. Whoever believes in Jesus will never be thirsty.
The power of belief … of faith … of trust.
So, they took away the stone. Jesus lifted up a prayer, giving thanks that God had heard him. But he was really praying for the sake of the crowd, “that they may believe.” Then Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
The man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said, “Untie him, and let him go.” Releasing him, they saw that Lazarus was alive and well — upbeat, cheerful, full of spirit. Pooh was back! And when the people in the area saw what Jesus had done, they “believe(d) in him.” Once again, the power of belief.
Later in the gospel of John, we learn that the chief priests were furious at Lazarus, “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”
When you look at a list of great books, you might wonder about their purpose. Ulysses talks about a man in Dublin. Why do we need to hear this? The Great Gatsby captures the spirit of the Roaring 1920s. But why was it written? And Moby Dick’s story of Captain Ahab and a white whale? Is it an adventure story or a whaling manual? What is its purpose?
No such question needs to be asked of the Gospel of John. The book was written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
John changes our lives by inviting us to believe in Jesus, so that we may have life in his name.
The Gospel of John is a book that can change your life, because it tells the story of Jesus overcoming death. Do you believe it?
Let us Pray.
For those who, like Martha, are in mourning. May they be comforted by the words of Jesus, who assured Martha that he is ‘the resurrection of life. We pray to the Lord.
We remember those who, like Lazarus, have loved ones to interceded for them, and those who have no living friends and family to pray for them, may they rest in peace. We pray to the Lord.
For all who minister to the dying, that by their care, words and example they may bear witness that God has robbed death of its power. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are sick, especially those affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, that the healing power of the Lord of Life may be theirs. We pray to the Lord.
For all who are unable to stay home during this crisis, may God protect them in their serving the public, protect their family and friends and keep them healthy. We pray to the Lord.
For our physicians, nurses, research scientists and all healthcare workers, and for all who support them in their mission. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Holy God, Creator of Life, you call us out of our dark places, offering us the grace of new life. When we see nothing but hopelessness, you surprise us with the breath of your spirit. Call us out of our complacency and routines, set us free from our self-imposed bonds, and fill us with your spirit of life, compassion and peace.
Most gracious and loving God, there are times in our lives when being extravagant is the only way we can express how profound and deep our love is. We know that our extravagance is wasteful. People are dying as we speak, dying for lack of basic needs, dying because of a terrible virus sweeping our country and our world. But Lord, we want to express the profoundness of our love, the depth of our thankfulness and our continuing desire for more of you. In so doing, help us all to follow the directives given us by the health community so that we can turn the tide of its spread. We know that you cry with all those lost from this virus, just as you wept for Lazarus. It is in this time, that we are like Martha and Mary, and so we ask you to help our faith just as we ask that you heal all who suffer in this time. We ask all this, Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, Ca