February 18, 2018 Sermon
Bad Stuff Happens
First Scripture Reading: John 11:1-6
11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Second Scripture Reading: John 11:7-16
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Bad Stuff Happens
I was very much surprised a little more than a month ago when I began planning for today’s sermon. I was surprised when I read the text provided by the makers of the Narrative Lectionary. I was surprised because the lectionary makers began this season of Lent, this season of our journey with Jesus to the cross, with a story about resurrection.
Oh – by the way – SPOILER ALERT – the end of the story, the part that comes AFTER what we read today, reveals that God resurrected Lazarus through Jesus. And the makers of the lectionary included that part of the story to be read.
But that seems like jumping ahead of our liturgical season to me. Lent is NOT about resurrection…so I decided to have us read only the beginning of the story, and I want you to try to imagine the story and the scene EXACTLY the way we read it…without looking ahead to what you KNOW happened next. Imagine the story:
- With Jesus’ friend Lazarus getting sick and even dying;
- With Jesus choosing to be at a distance seemingly too far away to do anything about Lazarus’ terminal illness;
- With the Jewish leadership actively trying to kill Jesus, and so with a sense foreboding hanging like a dark cloud over the disciples;
- With all of these things working together to lead one of the disciples, Thomas, to declare, “Let us also go that we may die with him.”
- And yet with Jesus somewhat cryptically – more cryptic for the original disciples than for us who know the ending of the story – providing hope amidst the gloom;
Y’all, THIS story, the one that ends with thoughts of death rather than resurrection, at least on the part of Jesus’ disciples, THIS is the story to help us begin the journey of Lent.
Because Lent is the liturgical season that can best help us deal with some of the less-than-jubilant realities of life. Sometimes in life, death happens. You know it. I know it. You’ve LIVED it. I’ve lived it. Sometimes, death happens. Literally and metaphorically.
Even if you’re a follower of Jesus, things don’t ALWAYS go the way you want them to go.
- Sometimes a loved one dies.
- At some point, we all will get the news that WE are going to die.
- And well before that day, all of us will get injured or sick and at least WONDER whether or not it’s time to receive that news;
- Sometimes, you’re not sure you’re going to have enough money to pay the utility bills…or the mortgage…or the grocery bill;
- Sometimes, your investments crash, and you wonder whether or not you’ll outlive your ability to pay for living;
- Sometimes, you experience relational pain: maybe a divorce, or a child or parent or other relative decides to no longer be an active participant in your life, or an ex-spouse or partner tries to separate you from your children;
- Sometimes some stupid thing happens in life that just gets you down or torques you off:
- Someone cuts you off in traffic,
- Or the news on television or over the internet or in the newspaper or on the radio is particularly distressing,
- Or you don’t get something you want or something you’ve been hoping for;
- Or you’re just having a bad day;
Y’all, Lent is for THESE times. Lent is for the times when life feels a lot more like it’s leading toward crucifixion than resurrection. Our gospel story about Jesus and the disciples facing the death of a friend, while they were away doing God’s work and so felt helpless to do anything and felt hopeless about the future, it is for THESE times. Our gospel story about the Jewish leadership ramping up their efforts to end Jesus’ ministry…and his LIFE…is for these times.
Today’s gospel reading is a clear reminder that sometimes in life, even for Jesus and his disciples, BAD…STUFF…HAPPENS. It really does. Everyone who has lived KNOWS this to be true. And so, as followers of Jesus, it’s important that we don’t gloss over this reality. It’s important that we don’t pretend God has already conquered all the bad stuff through Jesus. Because, when we practice or preach a kind of Christianity that doesn’t connect with what people experience in the real world, other people cannot possibly relate to our faith. Worse, WE can’t relate to our faith, and so it slowly fades away into nothingness.
I’ve heard so many stories about people who were great followers of Jesus and trusted in him all day everyday, until…some kind of bad stuff happened that shattered how they had understood what Jesus was about. And so they gave up on God, gave up on Jesus, gave up on faith. Please, don’t do that. When something tragic happens in your life, remember the story of Lazarus. Remember, even Jesus knew that bad stuff happens. Such bad stuff, that just a little while later in John chapter 11, Jesus wept. Bad stuff happens.
However, even in Lent, the story CANNOT end there. While I don’t think it’s time for us to end the story with resurrection, we CAN end it right where Jesus ended it in our gospel story this morning…with hope that no one else could see.
The situation in our reading appeared so hopeless that Thomas, representing the other disciples in this moment, was ready to die. What Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”, is a little confusing. Did Thomas intend to die with Lazarus, whom the disciples don’t seem to comprehend has died, or with Jesus, whom the disciples are afraid is going to die if he travels to Judea? It’s not clear. I can’t find a definitive argument for either. And maybe that’s the way it should be: ambiguous, confusing. Because when bad stuff happens, life can feel ambiguous and confusing.
So the disciples were ready to die – very little hope there. But Jesus offered a hope the disciples could not see:
- “For your sake I am glad I was not there”;
- “Let us go to him”;
- “I am going there to awaken him”;
The disciples didn’t get it, but Jesus offered hope of what God might do, what the disciples couldn’t even begin to imagine after being told but what God WOULD do anyway, through that situation.
And Lazarus’ death, that’s not the only bad stuff that happened. Jesus was about to lead the disciples into Judea, where the religious leaders really had tried to kill Jesus the last time he was there and would almost assuredly do so again (in fact, would succeed in doing)…which meant the disciples were about to be placed in great peril. The disciples feared they would die.
The bad stuff REALLY…DID…HAPPEN…and there were threats of more bad stuff.
And all Jesus offered was a promise of hope. No resurrection…yet. Just a promise of something good in the future.
Y’all, isn’t that where WE ARE, especially when the bad stuff happens? When bad stuff happens, we KNOW God has allowed it. Just like Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death but didn’t, God has the power to prevent our bad stuff…but doesn’t. And so we are left in that weird place of having nothing but the knowledge that God allowed it…and a promise of hope with no tangible EVIDENCE that the promise will be fulfilled. That’s where we are.
And I for one believe Jesus knew we would be right here, in the midst of the bad stuff. Jesus knew it wasn’t going anywhere, and so he gave us something WAY more powerful than what so many Christians I encounter seem to carry with them when the bad stuff happens. Because Jesus’ promise of hope, if you let it sink deep into your being, it’s VERY powerful.
About 12 years ago, I co-directed a church camp for 3rd through 5th graders in the state of Missouri. And the topic of that camp was grief: you know, how to deal with death, dying, and other bad stuff that happens in life. And I’m guessing a great many adults would be surprised that the directors of a camp for 3rd-5th graders would choose such a challenging topic; some parents probably wouldn’t want to send their kids to such a camp. But I’ll tell you something, those kids were absolutely STARVING to talk about this topic in a real way…because each and every one of them had experienced bad stuff. What’s more, every single one of them was absolutely frustrated with the way other people in their lives – their parents and other adults, even in their churches – had responded to their grief. We asked the kids to share the kinds of things people were saying and doing that were NOT helpful when the bad stuff happened. They mentioned things like:
- Telling the grieving kids that it was all part of God’s plan. (Let me tell you: the kids didn’t want any part of that plan – even if people told them it came from God.);
- Telling the grieving kids to get over it more quickly than they were ready to get over it;
- Or sharing any other platitudes that seemed to the kids to be more about helping those OTHER people feel good about themselves for caring than they were about helping the kids cope with the bad stuff;
Y’all, those kids, they wanted something more REAL, something that was meaningful to actual life and actual grief. When those kids learned that Jesus – on multiple occasions – actually ALLOWED bad stuff to happen, bad stuff that Jesus could have prevented, they were RELIEVED. They were relieved because it meant the Jesus of the scriptures wasn’t inconsistent with what they encountered in real life.
And when they discovered that Jesus wept WITH his disciples and Lazarus’ grieving family, they felt like God was a God who could BE there for them, cry with them in their grief. Oh, by the way, I said a little while ago that all Jesus offered was hope, but he did offer this one other thing. He offered his presence. Jesus wept with them. And Jesus weeps with us.
And then, then when those kids discovered the HOPE Jesus offered the disciples – not hope of a Santa Claus who would do whatever the disciples and grieving family wanted, a Santa Claus who would do what these kids so desperately wanted God to do but KNEW God had not yet done and likely would not ever do – when those kids discovered the kind of hope Jesus actually offered, the hope that out of real pain and suffering God could STILL make something wonderful happen again, God could still do something that would make life worth living…AGAIN, those 3rd-5th graders rejoiced.
And y’all, these things Jesus offered so long ago when the bad stuff happened, they are STILL what Jesus offers you and I today. When the bad stuff happens:
- Don’t worry that the bad stuff means Jesus isn’t real or that God is somehow small. Bad stuff happening is biblical;
- Remember that Jesus is WITH you; GOD is with you. Jesus wept with his disciples and a grieving family. God weeps with you today when you encounter difficulty or tragedy;
- And God offers hope of something better to come – not something to erase the pain but something that WILL…MAKE..LIFE…WORTH…LIVING again. I can’t tell you what it’s going to be. It probably won’t be the one thing you want more than anything else. All I can tell you is that it WILL be something wonderful, something wonderful enough to convince you that even after the bad stuff, life can be worth living, life can be wonderful…STILL.