[Editor’s note: Again this week, as we remain separated by the Coronavirus pandemic, Pastor David Mueller and John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, have collaborated to provide a message and special music for the fifth Sunday in Lent. Pastor’s message is drawn from John 11: 1-45.]
With the link below you can listen to Pastor’s voice as you read the text.
As we begin, please allow me a few brief if also redundant announcements:
- Those of you with email, our bulk emails often go to spam. Please check yours daily.
- It is extremely important that you mail in your green sheets. The Transition Team is meeting regularly so as not to get too far behind during the crisis.
- We hope all St. Markians are joining in prayer between 6 and 6:10 p.m. daily. We are adding a prayer component at the end today, but will be praying in general as we want to avoid publishing names and conditions.
We begin now with prayer.
Dear Lord, during this critical period for the whole world, we ask that You enable us to keep the faith, indeed, grow in the faith. Through these humble efforts that we are making as a congregation to communicate and celebrate with each other, enrich and deepen our gratefulness for grace, mercy and love, which we know You are blessing us with. Guard and protect us from severe impact of the virus upon us, others dear to us and all the unknown people who also are cared about by You. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
During the year I was in a Clinical Pastoral Residency at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, a book was published by an adjunct professor at the university. Dr. Raymond Moody was the author; “Life After Life” was the book. Inevitably, upon checking patient needs with nursing staff on any of the units to which I had been assigned, I would be asked: “Chaplain Mueller, so what do you think of ‘The Book?’”
My answer was consistent and most often met with bewilderment and disappointment: “I don’t care!” I suppose folks expect something a bit more spiritual from a Chaplain or Pastor. So I would go on to briefly explain: “There are certain mysteries in life and in the faith which I simply believe must be left alone. Preserve the mystery, even mysticism, of the sacred. After all, St. Paul wrote (Romans 8:24, 25): ‘Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’”
I believe in eternal life as a gift from God in Jesus Christ by grace through faith, to put it in pure Lutheran/biblical language. If I did not believe that, I had to be lying at literally hundreds of funerals. It is well beyond my pay grade to make judgments of any kinds about other than Christians getting in. Doing so feels like being the Commandant at a German Concentration Camp, saying: “You go to the right into the fields or factory; you go to the left and into the ovens!”
Also, the issue of eternal life or “life after life” CAN be a distraction from other more pressing and current issues which require our attention. Here I am talking specifically about matters Jesus would have us attend to.
Turn to John 11:1-45 about Lazarus, which I invite you to read on your own later.
The first thing I notice is that the Disciples were reluctant to go back to Judea because “The Jews were just now trying to stone you” (7) on the one hand; and “… many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother” (19) on the other hand. I simply must point out that any speaking of “The Jews,” which is characteristic of John, can never be thought of as “all Jews.” Jews can too easily be the enemy for Christians so we must remember that most Jews were not bad guys. In 11:45, we read: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”
Lazarus, whose name means “God Has Helped,” brother to Mary and Martha, had become ill. The sisters sent for Jesus. Curiously, upon hearing about his friend’s sickness, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Since it is said that Lazarus was four days dead and a stench had developed, it is safe to presume that it took about a week for Jesus to get there. I bring this up because one of the issues we take hardest when it comes to the promises of God is the time it takes for God to get things done. Even back then, now was too late.
Jesus finally arrives and each of the sisters takes a turn at receiving him with words that are often read or thought of softly, when it was more likely they were angry with him for being so slow to act. “WHERE IN THE HELL WERE YOU?” might have been more like it. In the meantime the Jews were doing the consoling.
Jesus and Martha have a brief discussion about resurrection of the dead, the conversation ending with Martha confessing that she believed Jesus was the Christ, which at that moment changed nothing; Lazarus was still dead NOW!
After encountering the two sisters separately, Jesus goes to the tomb, prays to the Heavenly Father “for the sake of the crowd” to believe and then shouts: “Lazarus, come out!” With the burial cloths still hanging on him and the stench not yet worn off, out came Lazarus!
The incredible thing is that from then on, we hear nothing from or about Lazarus. If one stands at the top of the Mount of Olives and looks down toward Jerusalem, immediately behind about two miles is Bethany. Am I to believe while Jesus was soon suffering in Jerusalem, Lazarus was too lazy or unappreciative to come and lend some support? And, by the way, why is there no book of the Bible written by Lazarus about the post death experience? Inquiring minds want to know! One would think that Lazarus especially would wait outside the tomb of Jesus genuinely believing that he too would be raised from the dead!
The Bible works that way, however, that is certain people come on the scene, do their part, and leave never to be seen or heard from again. Think about Joseph the carpenter. What on earth happened to him? Another mystery! And really, just how much time need we spend on trying to figure it out?
It is interesting that in Luke 16:19-31, another Lazarus is featured in a parable of Jesus. God helped him too, but for the rich man who failed to see let alone help the poor Lazarus, it was too late. He asked to go back to warn his five brothers to get their act together, for not caring about others must have been in their genes. They have Moses and the Prophets and if they don’t listen to them, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
The resurrection of the dead is not in a biblical sense a feat performed by God just to prove God can do such a thing. Clearly, it is a promise of a holy and heavenly hope for us who believe. The promise is in the now, however, so we can be free to live in the now in worship and in service. The rich man and his brothers had Moses and the Prophets and we have the words and will of Jesus to be His disciples in the world as it is: dangerous, diseased, war-ridden and the like.
To that world, in the event that we have not already come on the scene and performed our purpose, which is highly unlikely, we can bring help, healing and hope. We are alive and in Christ free to live creatively, generously and lovingly! While we cannot be absolutely sure, my hunch is that Lazarus learned quickly and surely to live that way. Amen.
Post Script: Any number of books have been written and movies have been produced in recent years about Heaven. Since Dante’s “Inferno,” however, few if any have written about hell. Have any of these been helpful? Perhaps to some! For the most part, such concepts remain a mystery. Even after the 43 years since Life After Life and my comments about it, the mystery is still fine with me!
That said, deaths due to COVID-19 are on the rise and are projected to skyrocket soon. There are those arguing that we older ones ought to sacrifice our lives for the sake of others or the economy or both. There is nothing in our beliefs to suggest that anyone ought to be in a hurry to go to glory. Were that the case, why not let more of us, young and old, be willing to die and “go to that better place?” Since that is ludicrous, all of us can do what we can to preserve lives and, in due time, discover “Life After Life,” as Moody entitled his book.