You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.
I love sports. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. The comradery with fans who smile at a Roll Tide or a Go Steelers. The smack talk with fans of rival teams. I love it all. Of course, I enjoy watching my teams play, but I’m quite content with having non-descript college football games on the screen all day long on a fall Saturday. Like many sports fans, I can also happily watch a game where I’m actively rooting against some archrival, real or imagined. Historically for me, those teams have been Florida State, Auburn, Penn State, and UConn. So, it was with a mixture of excitement and disappointment that I woke up yesterday morning to see that I had missed the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs overtime, buzzer beating, upset win over the UConn Huskies, snapping a one-hundred-eleven game and four national championship winning streak. After checking to make sure it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke, I was eager to see the highlights and read the stories.
The game was an instant classic, ending on a last second floating jump shot by the smallest woman on the court, Morgan William, but the drama didn’t begin there. After storming out to a 29-13 lead, the State women did the unthinkable; they let UConn back into it. Slowly, the Huskies clawed their way back, until with six minutes left in the third quarter, they finally took the lead, forty to thirty-nine. After one-hundred-eleven wins, one of which was a sixty point beat down of State in last year’s sweet sixteen, the end result seemed obvious. The Lady Bulldogs were as good as dead. UConn was about to do what UConn always did: win. There was no reason for Mississippi State fans to hold out any sort of hope. And yet, Morgan William and her teammates believed.
In this somewhat forced extended metaphor, Mary and her sister Martha are Mississippi State fans. Their brother was dead. Really, really, dead. Lazarus had been dead for four days. In the religious understanding of the time, it was believed that soul hung around the body for three days. In that window, there was the chance, albeit a slim one, of resuscitation. Not for Lazarus. He’d been dead four days; his soul had returned the bosom of Abraham and there was no coming back. Further, John tells us that Lazarus’ tomb had been sealed, the mourners had arrived in full force, and as Martha would make clear, there was no way the burial spices would still be working. Lazarus’ body was going to stink because he was very much dead.
Dead people don’t come back to life. Mary and Martha knew that, and had given up hope that their friend and Rabbi could heal their brother. In fact, they had all but given up any hope that Jesus was who they thought he was by the time he arrived. Both sisters greeted Jesus with their raw grief and frustration. Both welcomed him with the same compliant, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Yes, Jesus could have saved their brother. Yes, Jesus had delayed two days before he left Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan, but Lazarus had been dead four days. The travel time to from Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan to Bethany was only a couple of days. Lazarus was likely dead by the time word got to Jesus that he was sick in the first place. Yes, if Jesus had been there, maybe Lazarus wouldn’t have died, but Jesus couldn’t have made it there in time, no matter what. Instead, as Jesus tells his disciples, this whole thing is a part of God’s larger plan.
Jesus was in Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan because he had to leave the Jerusalem-Bethany metro area after an angry mob tried to stone him. He managed to leave the Temple unharmed, but wisely headed to the Wilderness to let things cool off for a bit. It was because the crowd had rejected his teaching that Jesus wasn’t close enough to Bethany to heal Lazarus. They had begged him to tell them plainly if he was the Messiah, but instead, Jesus knew he would have to show them, and that in showing them, he would solidify their rejection of him. And so it was that Lazarus died and his sisters lost their hope while Jesus was still across the Jordan.
If Mary and Martha are Mississippi State fans in this story, then Jesus might just be Morgan William: hoping against all hope. People don’t come back from death, and Lazarus was really, really dead, but Jesus knew that there was still hope. Jesus believed in the plan of salvation set in motion by his Father in heaven. That’s not to say that Jesus wasn’t nervous. No, he carried on his back the full burden of “what if?” What if Lazarus didn’t come out? What if he really was too dead to come back to life? Jesus wept, John tells us, not in sadness at the loss of a friend, but in the midst of a struggle that disturbed his soul. These same tears would return, late on a Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane. They were the anxious tears of frustration that it had to come to this. Yet even here, Jesus remains faithful. “Roll the stone back,” he tells the crowd, looking to heaven, he thanked his Father, and then called for his friend to come out.
In the split second that Morgan William’s jump shot hung in the air, the sports world stood still. Nothing else mattered in that moment except whether or not that ball would go through the hoop. In the split second that Jesus’ command “Come out” hung I the air, the whole world stood still. Nothing else on God’s green earth mattered in that moment except whether or not Lazarus would come through that door. All of salvation history hinged on that moment. With the swish of the net, Mississippi State experienced the thrill of victory and UConn tasted the agony of defeat. As the still wrapped face of Lazarus first came into the light of day, the Kingdom of God shared in both thrill and agony. The restoration of Lazarus would be the final straw for Jesus’ opponents. Immediately, plans were put in place to kill him and make sure Lazarus died for good. Things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got better, and yet, in that moment, none of that really mattered. Jesus had wept knowing that this miraculous healing meant his time was soon at hand. Jesus knew that Lazarus wasn’t going to live forever. And yet, Jesus raised him anyway.
Here on the fifth Sunday in Lent, the agony of Jesus’ passion is close at hand. Next Sunday, we will wave palm branches in joyful expectation one moment while we cry out “crucify him” the next. The thrill of Easter is only two weeks away. We, the faithful of God, will join with millions of others walking the way of the cross. As we prepare for the roller-coaster of the next two weeks, do you have faith? Are you hopeful that restoration is possible? Or are you, like Mary and Martha, ready to find Jesus and say, “If only you had been here, things wouldn’t have gotten so bad”? Are you hopeless or hopeful? Over the next two weeks, I hope you will walk with Jesus along the path that leads through the agony of defeat to the thrill of victory. In walking the way of the cross together, we will no doubt find it to be the way of hopefulness, life, and peace. Amen.