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When Jesus Arrives Late - Sermon from Pastor Kevin 3-29-2020

posted Mar 29, 2020, 6:51 PM by Bowmansville UMC

John 11:1-16, John 11:17-37

It is very easy to move too quickly past the beginning of this story about Jesus and Lazarus.  We rush past the beginning because the rest of the story appears, at first glance, to be far more fascinating.  Indeed, most of the time it is what Jesus did all the way at the end of the story that galvanizes our attention.  There, after all, is the main drama, since it was at the end of the store that Jesus performed his most astonishing miracle:  raising Lazarus, deceased four days, from the dead. Jesus had done a number of other miracles in the Gospel of John, of course.  He had turned water into wine, healed a paralyzed man and restored sight to a man blind from birth. But to raise someone from the dead?  This was breathtaking, unheard of, a remarkable sign of the inbreaking of the eternal, an anticipation of Jesus’ own resurrection. No wonder the end of the story attracts our gaze; it is where the fireworks are.

Sometimes, however, when we have finished our amazed gazing at the end of the Lazarus story, we still have enough energy to shift our sights to what Jesus did in the middle of the story - namely, he wept.  This piece of the narrative is fascinating, too. “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) is the shortest verse in the Bible, at least in the King James version, but it is not the easiest verse to understand. Why did Jesus weep?  Is he moved with grief over the death of his friend Lazarus? Is he in sorrow over the unbelief around him? Is he anticipating his own death, too? John does not say. But even though the reasons for his feelings remain somewhat mysterious, we are still drawn to this picture in the middle of the story of an emotionally affected Jesus, tears slowly falling down his cheeks.

Because Lazarus’ raising at the end of this story is so dramatic and Jesus weeping in the middle so enigmatic, it is, therefore, easy to overlook the beginning of this story.  What at the beginning could possibly rival the action in the middle and at the end? To do so, however, would be a loss, for there is something curious and important work there as well.

What is most intriguing about the beginning of this story is the fact that Jesus is intentionally tardy, that he plans his schedule so as to arrive on the scene belatedly.  Jesus receives word that Lazarus is ill in the village of Bethany, but John makes it clear that Jesus was in no hurry to respond. In fact, John draws attention to Jesus’ delay.  John says that even though Jesus loved Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, nevertheless, Jesus waited two days after he heard the news to go to Bethany (John 11:5-6). By that time, of course, it is too late.  Lazarus is dead.

Both Martha and Mary pour salt into the wound by pointing out to Jesus that his tardiness has cost a life.  “Lord, if you had been here,” they both say, “my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32). Indeed, Jesus was not there, intended not to be there, and Lazarus did die.  John waves a flag over this fact so that we will not miss it.

Our temptation is to judge Jesus harshly here.  What kind of person would dally around while a friend lies dying?  What could possibly have kept Jesus where he was while Lazarus, whom he loved, sweated out his last few breaths on his deathbed?  What Jesus did seems to be a violation of basic human compassion not to mention a scorning of the elementary instincts of pastoral care.  Why in heaven’s name, we ask, was Jesus late?

And that, it turns out, is precisely the question the author of John wants us to ask.  Why in heaven’s name was Jesus late? John knows that if we keep asking that question, we will discover something profound about heaven’s name, about Jesus and about God’s ways in the world.  But what? What good can we find in Jesus’ tardiness?

Part of what we will find is that Jesus sometimes saves us by being absent rather than present, at least not present in the ways we demand or expect.  Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that he will soon depart from them. “You will look for me,” he says, “....[but] where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33).  This announcement that Jesus plans to separate himself from the disciples causes fear, perhaps even panic, to set in. The disciples cannot imagine being apart from Jesus. They plead that they will be lost without him (John 14:5), beg to be allowed to follow him (John 13:37), but Jesus refuses.  He clearly intends to be their Lord by being absent from them.

What this means is that Jesus will be obedient to God’s will and not theirs.  Jesus will accomplish the saving work of God and not their small and local understanding of who he should be.  They want him to be the leader of their little band, but Jesus is the light of the whole world. They want him to teach them, heal them, protect them, save them; Jesus teaches, guides, heals, protects, and saves all humanity.  They want him to respond to their immediate concerns, but his mission is not captive to their sense of what is urgent. He is their Lord because he transcends their little world; he is their Lord because he is Lord of all.

On Sunday morning, July 17, 1966, arguable the most newsworthy worship service in the world that day was held in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva.  A great congregation had gathered, including Christian leaders from all over the globe. Reporters from around the world were present to cover this event.  The service had been planned as a part of the World Council of Churches Conference on Church and Society, and there was an exceptional air of expectation that day since the sermon for the morning was to be delivered by the world famous civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. 

But Dr. King did not show up for the service.  The hymns were sung, the prayers were prayed, and the ecumenical affirmations were spoken, but the pulpit was empty that day.  Dr. King was absent. He had canceled his trip to Geneva because racial rioting had erupted in the city of Chicago, and his presence was needed there as a mediator.  He sent a video tape of an excellent sermon to Geneva, and it was played over television monitors at the appropriate time, but, as one of the worshippers pointed out, “Even more powerful than his sermon that day was the simple fact of the preacher’s absence.”

“Even more powerful...was the preacher’s absence.”  In other words, Dr. King chose to be absent in a place where he was expected to be present because of his larger sense of mission.  If he had been a politician looking for a photo opportunity, he would no doubt have shown up in the Geneva pulpit, smiling for the cameras, rather than risking his life and reputation amid the chaos of Chicago’s violent streets.  But, given the wider scope of Dr King’s ministry, what appeared on the surface to be the most important place for him to be, St. Peter’s Cathedral, was not, in fact, where his vocation took him.

In an even deeper sense, Jesus’ mission transcends our tiny definitions of urgency.  A man was dying. More than that, it was Jesus’ friend Lazarus who was dying. Lazarus’ body grew weak, hot with fever.  Mary and Martha were wringing their hands with worry. The whole village of Bethany was troubled. Naturally, from Bethany’s perspective this was the most urgent, important, life or death crisis in all of creation and Jesus should have dropped everything in the world to be there.  But Jesus will not drop the world; he will save it - all of it. Jesus is not controlled by illness and death, even his dear friend Lazarus’ illness and death; to the contrary, Jesus is the one in control. Jesus does not jump when illness and death say “jump,” he conquers illness and death for the entire human race.

Not only will Jesus not allow illness and death to set his agenda, neither will Jess allow death to be the ruler of time.  In the world as we know it, death is in charge of time. When the hospital's intercom crackles with the message “Code Blue”, a signal that a patient has suddenly gone into cardiac arrest, all normal time ceases.  Physicians and nurses abruptly interrupt their customary duties and rush with emergency equipment to the afflicted patient. Routines are halted; all other activities must wait. Death has sounded the alarm and pushed the stem on the stopwatch, and all must urgently obey death’s timetable.

But not Jesus.  He gets the “Code Blue” on Lazarus, receives the word that the old clockwatching slavedriver death has punched in “911” and his immediate presence is demanded.  But Jesus does not respond to death’s timetable. Jesus is Lord over death and Lord of all time. No longer will death set the times and seasons, but only God. So, Jesus takes his time, because it is, after all, his time.  He is the Lord of the sabbath, and he is the Lord over Monday, and Thursday, and all the ticking minutes and desperate seasons of life. He is Lord over all time. He was there in the beginning, before all time, and through him all creation, including time, came into being.

There is a couple in Arkansas who have given their six-year-old son strict instructions to come home from playing every afternoon no later than 5 p.m.  He is allowed to play with his friends, but his parents are quite serious about his curfew. If he is not home by 5 p.m., they begin to worry and call around the neighborhood to find out where he is.  The boy knows this, though, and is careful to arrive every day on time.

One April Monday, however, the day after Daylight Saving Time went into effect, the boy was late coming home.  When he finally arrived, a few minutes before 6 p.m., his mother scolded him for being late. “You know you are to be home by five,” she said, “and here it is nearly six.”

Puzzled, the little boy pointed out the window.  “But the light” he protested, “the light; it’s the light that tells me when to come home.”  Realizing what had happened, his mother smiled and gently explained the day before the time had been changed, that everyone had reset their clocks and, now, the daylight lasted longer.  The boy’s eyes narrowed. “Does God know about this?” he asked suspiciously.

In a childlike way, this little boy shared John’s theological vision.  Time finally belongs not to human beings, not to the corruption of illness and death, but to God.  We know what time it is not by death’s clock, but by Jesus’ light. Jesus arrived in Bethany on his schedule, not death’s.  When he got to the tomb of Lazarus, now dead four days, Jesus, the Lord of past, present, and future, reached into the future of his resurrection victory and reversed the past of Lazarus’ death, thereby displaying the glory of God in the present.

“God so loved the world,” John writes, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him” can change their clocks.  Instead of watching the clock, wondering when death will finally come calling to stop the hour hand from moving, those who believe recognize that Jesus came calling with life eternal.  When Jesus at last came calling on the little village of Bethany, it was the common verdict that he was woefully late. But when Lazarus danced away from the tomb of death, the light of eternal life in his eyes, the whole world could see that Jesus was right on time.