Saturday, April 9, 2011

The courage of an obedient faith

A poor man walking in the forest feelt close enough to God to ask, "God, what is a million years to you?" God replied, "My son, a million years to you is like a second to me." The man asked, "God, what is a million dollars to you?" God replied, "My son, a million dollars to you is less than a penny to me. It means almost nothing to me." The man then asked, "So God, can I have a million dollars?" God replied, "In a second."

"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." Today's Gospel contains one of the most well known Bible stories to us - the raising of Lazarus from the dead. In this rich story, we see three people whom Jesus loves dearly: Martha, with whom Jesus carries on a profound theological conversation; Mary, who believes that Jesus has power over the life of her brother; and Lazarus, whom Jesus calls back from the very clutches of death. This account is primarily a story about faith and obedience to God's will. Speaking to his disciples, Jesus says, "Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him." He tells Martha, "Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." And at the end of the account we read, "Many...began to believe in him."

Of all the miracles Jesus performed, the raising of Lazarus ranks as the most astonishing to the people of his time. Traditional Jewish belief had it that the soul of a dead person remained in the body for three days. After three days the soul departs finally from the body never to return, and that is when corruption sets in. When Martha objects to the opening of the tomb and says, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days," she is expressing the common view that this is now a hopeless situation. Perhaps this is why Jesus delayed His arrival, to let the situation become clearly "impossible" in human standards before acting on it.In traditional Jewish mentality bringing back to life a person who is already four days dead and decaying is as unthinkable as Ezekiel's vision in which the dry bones of the dead are miraculously restored to life from our first reading.

For the early Christians, the story of the raising of Lazarus was more than a pointer to the resurrection of Jesus. For them this miracle is a challenge to never give up hope even in the hopeless situations in which they found themselves as individuals, as a church and as a nation. It's a reminder that it is never too late for God to revive and revitalize a person, a church or a nation. But first we must learn to cooperate with God.How can we cooperate with God so as to experience God's resurrection power in our lives and in our world? Well, we already know the answer: through obedient faith. Obedient faith is different from an expectant faith. An expectant faith has a confidence in what God can and will do. But, there is no one in this story with that kind of faith; no one believed that Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life after four days dead. No one expected him to do it, so expectant faith is not the emphasis here. Rather the emphasis in the story is on obedient faith: faithfully following God's will even when our confidence is perhaps weak. In other words, despite their doubts about the possibility of raising Lazarus, they still obediently followed Jesus' commands.

To raise Lazarus, Jesus issues three commands and all of them are obeyed to the letter. First, "Jesus said, 'Roll away the stone.' … So they rolled away the stone." Did the people understand why they should do this heavy work of rolling away the tombstone to expose a stinking corpse? No, but they had a faith in Jesus, expressing itself not through intellectual agreement with Him, but through obedience. Jesus' divine power was activated by human cooperation and obedience. It can also be stifled by non-cooperation. C.S. Lewis said, "God seems to do nothing by Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures." In other words, God will not do by a miracle what we can do by obedience.

The second command Jesus gives is directed to the dead man: "'Lazarus, come out!' and the dead man came out." We do not know the details of what transpired in the tomb. All we know is that Jesus' word of command is followed again by obedience. Lazarus gropes his way out of the dark tomb even with his hands and feet tied up in bandages, and his face all wrapped up. Even a man rotting away in the tomb can still have an obedient faith in God.

The third command again is addressed to the people, "Untie him, and let him go." Even though Lazarus could stumble himself out of the tomb, there was no way he could untie himself. He needs the community to do that for him. By unbinding Lazarus and setting him free from the death bands, the community is accepting Lazarus back as one of them. Again, all through obedience to God.

Many Christian individuals and communities today are dead much like Lazarus; but instead of a death of the body, we have fallen victim to the death of sin. Many are already in the tomb of hopelessness and decay, in the bondage of sinful habits and attitudes. Nothing short of a miracle can bring us back to life in Christ. Jesus is ready for the miracle. He Himself said, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

Are we ready to be obedient to His will for the miracle to happen? Are we ready to obediently roll away the stone that stands between us and the light of Christ's face? Are we ready to obediently take the first step to come out of the place of death and seek resurrection and new life through the gift of Confession? Jesus commands us as he commanded Lazarus, "John, Mary, Dave, Elizabeth, Tom - come out! Come out of the tomb of sin that has held you captive. Come out and be free!"

And, finally, are we also ready to untie, or forgive one another; to forgive the people who have wronged us; to stop holding grudges; to offer reconciliation, healing and at last let others go free? These are the ways we cooperate with God in the miracle of bringing renewal, and reviving us as individuals, as a church, and a nation. We are all called to obediently follow our God; to seek new life through reconciliation, and to become more and more a people who freely forgive the trespasses of others.

The Word of God today leads us past the inevitability of death to a consideration of life after death. But, Jesus asks us the same question He posed to Martha, "Do you believe this?" Do you believe this? Let us pray to have the obedience of the people in our Gospel, to have the faith of Martha, the trust of Lazarus so that we too may proclaim with our full heart, "Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world." Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that my obedience to You will bring me from the death of sin to abundant life. Yes, Lord, I believe that You can overcome any obstacle in my life; no matter how insurmountable it seems to me. Yes, Lord, I believe. I believe.

May God give you peace.

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