Reverend Philip Stringer
LET US PRAY: Bless us, O God – you who have given us every good thing – bless us with ears that hear you speaking to us, and eyes that see you revealed, and hearts that are dedicated to your will for the sake of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the coming of his kingdom. AMEN
There I stood – in the middle of the river, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere – afraid to move.
Patty and I had decided to take the girls for a vacation in northern Wisconsin to a cabin in the woods, about 10 minutes from the tiny, unincorporated town of Iron River.
On this particular night, I had decided to try night fishing in the Iron River. I am a fly fisherman, and with a fly line flying through the air, standing on the bank can be a problem because of the trees – so my plan was simple enough:
Get there before dark.
Put on my waders.
Get in the river and work my way up stream. Then…
As darkness falls, slowly work my way back downstream to my entry point.
The entry point was a remote, dirt parking area that I had visited the previous day, with a path through the woods that was about 100 yards long leading to the river.
Everything went according to plan – arriving, getting in the river, working my way upstream.
There were only two errors of judgement I would correct if I were to do it again.
FIRST – the only light I brought with me was a feeble little reading light that I had borrowed from one of the girls. Not bright enough to see by, but bright enough to tie a fly by – and it clipped to the top of my shirt.
SECOND – I WENT NIGHT FISHING ALONE IN A RIVER! Stupid. Not only was it dangerous; when I got back to my entry point in the river, I had a problem….
It was pitch dark – miles and miles away from any human being. Patty didn’t even know exactly where I was. And as I prepared to approach the bank – about 10 yards away – I heard an unmistakable noise: “huff, huff, huff.” There was a bear on the bank, right where I needed to get out! I never saw it (thanks to my feeble light), but there was no denying the sound.
No cell phone (No signal, anyway).
No one coming to help.
I couldn’t stay there all night. I was going to have to get out.
I yelled and stood there for several minutes… and then I went to the shore and got out.
It was a good thing it was dark and no one was there to see me – because I can only image how ridiculous I looked, frantically screaming and running through the woods in my waders.
It was the most terrifying 100-yard dash of my life!
Have you ever been afraid to do the right thing – the necessary thing – or go somewhere you didn’t want to go? Or to take the next step into an unknown future? Today, the gospel reminds us that whatever we face, we never do so alone, because Jesus, the Lord of Life is with us.
When Jesus told his disciples that he was going to travel to Bethany – about 2 miles from Jerusalem – to see Lazarus, they thought it was a terrible idea. In Jerusalem only a few days earlier, the people had taken up stones to stone Jesus to death, so they had withdrawn beyond the Jordan River. Now Jesus wanted to go back?!!!!
They tried to talk him out of it, but when they couldn’t, Thomas said something that tells us a lot about their devotion. “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”
It is beautiful. Clearly, the disciples loved Jesus and believed in him. There are some things worth staking your life on – and to be close to Jesus was so important to them that they would rather die than walk away.
So, as terrifying as the idea seemed to them, they did go with him – every one of them – to a place they didn’t want to go. But they were wrong about one thing: they didn’t die.
After Jesus had spoken with Martha, she went to tell Mary that Jesus was asking for her. When Mary heard this, she got up and ran to him. The women who were in the house with her were there to help her grieve – so when they saw her get up and run out of the house, they thought she was running to Lazarus’ grave, so they followed. But they were wrong about that: she was going to see Jesus; not her brother’s grave.
When Jesus began to weep, the people said, “see how much he loved Lazarus!” Tell me one time in the gospels when people around Jesus understood him. They never do. Jesus did love Lazarus – but that’s not why he was crying. They were wrong about that.
“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”
Jesus wasn’t crying for Lazarus – he has already stated that Lazarus will be alright. Jesus is crying because he sees their grief. He sees the burden of their loss and it pains him to see their suffering and sadness. It pains him to witness the mortal futility of the human condition.
At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus tells them to remove the stone – but they think it is a bad idea. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” The stone separated them from the painful experience of seeing their brother rotting before their eyes. They did not want to go to where Jesus was telling them to go. But they were wrong.
The disciples were wrong about following Jesus to his death by stoning.
The women were wrong about the path to Jesus leading to death.
The sisters were wrong about Jesus’ authority reaching only as far as the grave. But their faith and trust in Jesus led them onward.
The story of Lazarus being raised was a story of Jesus not only surpassing our expectations, but a story about the power and will of Jesus to conquer anything and everything that we fear. Even death is defeated by the love of Jesus for us.
I believe there is something for us to learn from the disciples, the sisters and the women at the grave. Their trust in Jesus was so deep that they were willing to go to the places they feared, because that is where Jesus was going, too. They followed Jesus, even when they didn’t understand why.
You and I don’t know what the future holds for us, but the trust and faith of Jesus’ followers should give us courage – And not only from the story of Lazarus. Yes, the disciples’ devotion led them to follow him to Bethany even when they thought it could cost them their lives – but we know when it actually came down to it, they didn’t have the strength. When Jesus was arrested a short time later, they all ran away. Their human weakness failed them.
But later, after the resurrection, and specifically, after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Thomas’ words from today’s reading proved to be prophetic. Because the disciples did follow him, even to death.
James was the first to die. He was thrown off of the temple wall – and when that didn’t kill him, they beat him to death with clubs.
Non-biblical accounts record the fates of the others.
It is said that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome.
Bartholomew was filleted alive on a cross in Armenia.
Andrew was killed in the British Isles.
Philip in North Africa.
And the others met similar ends.
Thomas went into Asia – as far as India, where he was killed with a spear.
Only John is said to have died a natural death at the age of 100 – but even he endured great suffering for the sake of the gospel.
Every one of them could have walked away. But they didn’t. Even when they must certainly have heard the news of the others, they kept going.
Faith. Trust in the Lordship of Jesus, even in the face of their greatest fears.
You and I don’t know what the future holds for us, but the trust and faith of Jesus’ followers should give us courage, even when we don’t know what tomorrow holds.
Will we die for him?
Will we live for him?
Paul reminds us that, “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” We live in a world of uncertainty – and there is plenty for us to justifiably fear. We will each endure suffering, pain, hardship and loss. But we will not face these things alone, and when all is said and done, they will not be our end. Even as we endure them, we are already delivered from their power through the cross of Christ.
Like the disciples, we will have successes and failures when we face life’s burdens, but through it all, we are the Lord’s.