Audio of this sermon can be heard here. A collection of sermons from St. John's, Decatur, can be found here.
November 1, 2015 – All Saints’ Day, Year B
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
If you could ask Jesus for anything, what would it be? Remember: this is the guy who can heal the sick and feed the hungry and still the storms of life. He can give sight to the blind and open the ears of the deaf. He can make the lame leap like a deer and has the power to set the captives free. This is Jesus. He can do anything. If you had the chance to ask him to do anything for you, what would it be?
In a few minutes, we are going to baptize my fourth child, Emily Mae Garner, and today, as much as on any day, I find myself thinking about all the many things that I hope for her. And I wonder, if I could ask Jesus to do anything for her, what would it be?
I want her to be happy. I want her to grow up knowing that she is loved by her parents, by her siblings, by her friends, and, of course, by God. I want her to sense that her life has purpose and meaning—that, in this unfathomably huge universe, she still matters. I want her to have the opportunity to pursue her dreams. I want her to be confident enough to try new things and to take risks. I want her to know that even when she screws up and falls flat on her face she will always be loved. I want her to find someone whom she can love with all of her heart. I want her to know the joy and security of sharing a life with someone. I want her to know what it means to care as much about another human being as I care about her. I want all of those things for my daughter and, indeed, for all of my children, but, if I had the chance to ask Jesus for just one thing, I wouldn’t ask him for any of that. Why? Because my daughter doesn’t need any of those things as much as she needs a savior.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus comes upon a great tragedy. His dear friend Lazarus has died. The dead man’s sisters are overwhelmed with grief. The whole community has gathered at the family home to offer words of comfort and signs of support, but it seems that sadness has overtaken everyone. When Jesus finally arrives, four full days after Lazarus’ death, he is met by a host of weeping mourners. Even Jesus himself is caught up in the emotional loss, and he begins to weep for his dead friend.
Mary, when she comes out to meet him, falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Those are the same words her sister had uttered only a few verses earlier in John 11. And I can’t tell what meaning those words carry. Are the sisters blaming Jesus because he did not make it in time to save their brother? Or are they simply acknowledging a painful truth—that his healing powers could have—would have—saved Lazarus had Jesus arrived before it was too late. Or might it be a quiet statement of unwaivering faith even in the midst of a deep loss? Regardless, those words ring in our ears as a devastating reminder of what might have been. Even the crowd picks up on the terrible irony, murmuring to themselves, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” If only…If only Jesus had gotten there sooner…If only he hadn’t been delayed…If only he had left as soon as he got word that his friend was sick…then Lazarus might still be alive.
But it is too small a thing for Jesus to have saved Lazarus from the brink of death. This story is bigger than that. There is a God-given purpose behind Jesus’ delay, which is, as Jesus himself explained, so that we might see the glory of God and believe. It was no mistake that Lazarus died before Jesus got there. His death became the opportunity for Jesus to invite the world to believe that he is more than a healer—that he has powers that are greater than even the most skilled physician on earth. In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus invites us to believe that he has the power even to save us after we are dead.
Defying the stench of death that lingered in the tomb, Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Confronting the darkness that held his friend, Jesus cried, “Lazarus, come out!” Confirming the miracle that had brought the dead man back to life, Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.” And those who saw this great moment unfold knew that they had witnessed something that had never been seen before. This Jesus was more than a healer. He had power over life and death. Even the absolute darkness of the grave was no match for him.
That is the sort of savior in whom Jesus is inviting you to believe. It is everlasting life that he can give you. Why would you settle for anything less? Every day we are surrounded by offers that promise to improve our life: newfangled diets, exercise equipment, an assortment of pills, financial opportunities, vacation property, undergarments that hide fat bellies or fat thighs, things that grow hair and things that remove it. We are inundated by ads and commercials and e-mails that promise to give the life that we seek. But where can we get the power of life that never ends?
Jesus did not come to earth and die on the cross and rise from the dead so that you might have a better life now. Jesus did not come so that you could start all over and try again. Jesus was not born in Bethlehem to heal you or comfort you or make you happy. The Word did not become flesh and dwell among us so that your life might have meaning. God did not send his only begotten son so that those who believe in him might live out their days in peace and prosperity. God sent his son to save us from the power of death itself. Jesus came and lived and breathed and died and was raised from the dead so that we, too, might escape the clutches of death. It is too small of a thing for us to hope that Jesus might give us a good life—the kind of life we want for our children. Jesus came to save us, and salvation is what we need.
Today is the feast of All Saints, all those holy people of God who knew that Jesus has the power to save them from death. We celebrate his victory and claim it for our own. We put our faith, not in someone who can give us a helping hand, but in the only one who can deliver us from the grave. There is only one reason to baptize someone: to proclaim that Jesus’ death and resurrection have the power to save her. Today, as we baptize the newest saint in God’s holy church, we remember our own baptism as a sign that we belong to the one who came to save us. We are desperate for salvation, and salvation is what he gives.