Summary: The ’stones’ on the gospel road – those difficult verses we stumble over or just pass by – are treasures if we take the time to stop and pick them up; two such ‘stones’ in the story of the raising of Lazarus speak of the intensity of Jesus’ love for us.
I had to take my car into the shop in Binghamton last week, and I had a lot of time to kill. The waiting room didn’t look very inviting, so I decided to do something I haven’t done in a long time: I took a walk. At first it seemed as if the world had been put on pause, or at least slow motion; the scenery around me just wasn’t changing as fast as I was used to. But I was amazed at how quickly old memories – very old memories – began flooding back, memories of walking the blocks between home and grade school as a kid. Kids don’t hurry, and neither did I, back then. I knew those streets – every bush, fence, store, house. I knew every crack in the sidewalk and even the stones in the road. When a new one caught my eye I would pick it up and hold it to the light; if it sparkled it got stuffed in my pocket: a new treasure for my collection. That’s the kind of experience I was having that day, walking the streets of Binghamton. I stood before vestiges of grander times as well as signs of new life; I felt the whispers of its sorrows and its hopes; I touched its scars, read the memorial words of bygone generations. I encountered its people, and I heard its stories.
Before then, if Binghamton wasn’t my “Point B” for the day it was just the space I had to travel through to get from A to B. You know travel isn’t about the journey anymore, but just getting from here to there as fast as possible, as close to the speed limit – more or less – as possible. And for me the trips are usually made with a Bluetooth screwed into my ear so I don’t miss any of what passes for communication today, since we’ve come to want to ‘converse’ at about the same speed we drive. Taking it one step further, we’ve even stripped words down to their minimum meaning content, then packed them into one letter apiece so we can send and receive in staccato bursts of three- and four-letter groups that pass for conversation – or not so much, IMHO (in my humble opinion).
In this environment, what chance do the Gospel stories have? They tell of events that unfolded at the speed of life, not the speed of light. Of unhurried hours spent on hillsides and plains, absorbing the words and the spirit of the Master. Of long hours on the road, journeys made at sandal speed, watching the Master’s face, hearing the inflection of his voice, paying attention to how he treated the people he met. But we tend to hit the gospel road without changing gears or throttling back; so we race through them at the speed limit – more or less – and miss so much; sometimes the very heart of God’s word for us.
The gospel you heard as part of this morning’s liturgy was the story of the raising of Lazarus, from the 11th chapter of John. I’d like to park the liturgical bus for just a few minutes and walk this stretch of gospel road with you. And I want to take time to pick up a couple of the ‘stones in the road,’ the parts we tend to drive around and just keep on going because it takes too much time to stop, hold them up to the light and figure out if there’s treasure there or not.
The first ‘stone’ we stumble over isn’t far down the road. Jesus has been told that Lazarus is sick. Then in verses 5 and 6 we hear, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” Does that make any sense? Actually it does – it makes sense as God’s word, not as human words, and that’s what makes it a stone. This morning we’re going to hold it up and let the light of the rest of the gospel shine on it.
So let’s pick it up and backtrack one verse. Verse 4 says that when Jesus heard Lazarus was sick, he told his disciples, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Here is the first clue that something bigger than Lazarus’ life is in the balance. And if we stand still for a minute we will be able to hear in this verse the echoes of another story, just a short way back up the road, in John chapter 9, when Jesus and his disciples encountered a man born blind. His disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,…but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Lazarus’ illness, as was the man’s blindness, will be an occasion for the works of God to be displayed, the glory of God to be made manifest in Jesus.