A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
April 2, 2017 5th Sunday of Lent
Last week I got a note from a friend in New Hampshire. I had sent him a copy of the sermon you also received. It was the first part of the series of Born-Again sermons I have been preaching this Lent, and it was on Temptation. My friend thanked me, and commented. He said, “I have experienced spiritual warfare often, especially when getting closer to Jesus.” His comment was perceptive. We are all getting closer to Jesus, and this means we are exposed to greater risks from temptation.
You will recall that Scripture talks about temptation as a trial, test, ordeal or trap. Sometimes temptation is personified as a tempter. Other times temptation is identified as foolish and harmful desires, denial of faith, strangeness, wrong motives, pleasures of adultery, friendship with the world, a turn of heart, a wrong path, intent, enticement, shifting shadows…
The Gospels have a word for what happens when we fail to avoid the temptation of selfishness and nurture the character of selflessness: that word is death. Death is the consequence of turning away from God, and to avoid death, we need to fight for life.
We have all seen people, probably some who we cared deeply for, when they have been traumatized, or as they are dying from sickness or old age, fight for their life. Their struggle can be painful and heartbreaking to watch. The fight for life seems instinctual; at times we encourage it, at times we applaud it, and at other times it seems unfitting, but it is always hard. It is also a very real picture of what we undergo every day, when we are youthful and healthy and oblivious; every temptation is a skirmish, many temptations are full-scale battles.
We can win the war, but we need to recognize that we are in a fight. And we need to put on the armor of Christ. None of us, without it, can win. We need to align ourselves with the God of truth and beauty and light. We need to trust in the power of what is good, and then we will be saved.
Jesus was a warrior. He inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth by battling the forces that keep us from being fully alive. Coming to Lazarus’ tomb, we see an example of how giving ourselves up for others –the character of selflessness – might look. John tells us, Jesus wept. Empathy, compassion, and love are on the ground engagements with the forces that rob us our life. They are the antidotes to darkness, anxiety, and suffering.
Last week, Jesus sought out the man born blind, who had been banished from the synagogue and the community of his people. Jesus sat with the man, and restored him to life. In today’s Gospel, Jesus wept. And then he claimed Lazarus from the tomb. The tenderness of Our Lord is the tenderness of a warrior. Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. And he raised Lazarus from the tomb so that they – and we – could believe
Martha was at first incredulous, and yet she believed. First, she believed intellectually, i.e. conceptually; she believed death was not the end, and that her brother would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Then, after Jesus addressed her again, she gained a new insight: she could believe in a miracle. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
And now I ask, “Do you believe this?” Can you say, with Martha, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When Mary joins Martha and Jesus, Jesus shows his displeasure with “sickness and death, and the havoc they wrought in human life.” (Bruce, 246) He becomes agitated with himself, and when he comes to the tomb, he displays the glory of God for those who believe.
I believe. It’s a familiar phrase, we hear it often, people seem to think it means the same thing as “I think.” Which it doesn’t. We have many more thoughts than we have beliefs. I try – and I would urge you to try – to try not to say “I believe” when we mean “I think.” For instance, I don’t have any beliefs about space, time, the universe, dark holes or radio waves. I have thoughts about these things. On the other hand, I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord. This explains why I believe Jesus raised Lazarus, who had been dead in a tomb for four days, back to life. I believe Christ is Risen, and when Jesus raised Lazarus, he demonstrated that the impossible is made possible. I believe I too will be raised from the dead, as part of the church, which God regards for its faith, when he forgives our sins. That’s what it means to be saved: to be born again, into the eternal fellowship of a community gathered out of the world.
Today’s story has a sequel: the Easter story. Easter is a story with a happy ending. As we move through Lent, we discover all the suspense and conflict that comes before the end. The forces of death are everywhere: violence and hatred, greed and theft, oppression and injustice. Jesus engaged the forces of death, and we are called to do the same. We are not called to save just ourselves; we are called to give ourselves up for others; “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believed in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
And all the people said, Amen.