Monday, 08 November 2010 19:55

November 7, 2010 Sermon

"Jesus’ Best Friend"
John 11:17-44
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 7, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

The old Baptist hymn goes,

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.  
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.  
Oh what peace we often forfeit. Oh what needless pain we bear.  
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

I remember singing that song at a Sacred Harp singer’s home.  We were gathered around her aging mother-in-law as she was fading out of this world and welcoming the next one.  We sang lots of old hymns in the raw Sacred Harp style.   She finally got a word in edgewise and asked if we knew what a friend we have in Jesus.  Being the Baptist preacher, I lined it out and we sang it making up harmonies as we went.

At those dark moments of our lives, we ache against the loneliness.  We cry out against it.  We sing of our longing for companionship on the journey.  We all need that.  Charlie told how Cindy gave the gift of companionship to all of us.

Who are your companions when things get you down?  To whom do you turn when you need someone to just be with you?  Not explaining away your hard feelings, but content to just let you be you and stand by your side in spite of yourself.  Lots of people go to their families or their friends. Some turn their lives over to Jesus. But to whom do you think Jesus went? Many people might say God. Others might say Mary Magdalene, the disciples or possibly John the Baptist. My money, however, is on Lazarus.

Jesus would go to Bethany whenever the going got tough. When he got out of sorts, he would hibernate in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It was an oasis in the midst of despair. In my mind’s eye, I imagine when Jesus was struggling with his mission and up against the bull-headedness of the disciples, he went to his buddy Lazarus to kick back and hash it all out.  Mary and Martha both seemed to have agendas, like which way was the best to follow, listening or cooking.  But we hear none of this in Lazarus.  What we do hear is that Jesus loved him.  
There’s a clue in the Greek.  Verse 5 of chapter 11 says that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  The word is Agape.  It’s the word reserved for the love of God, the unique love embodied in Jesus and the ministry he evokes.  But when Mary and Martha send word that Lazarus is ill, they use a different. Word.  They call him the one you love, Philea.  This is the kind of love that is of an equal, a brother, a companion.  Not Agape, holy love.  Not Eros, romantic love.  Philea, the love of a friend.  It’s a human love.  A grounded love.  Mary and Martha were disciples.  Maybe Lazarus wasn’t.

Lazarus, I imagine, was someone who could challenge and support Jesus at the same time. Someone who would listen to him and give him a loving and honest response whenever it was needed, without being asked. Jesus trusted Lazarus.

Jesus must have loved Lazarus in a way he couldn’t or wouldn’t love the disciples.

At Bethany, Jesus could just be Jesus Josephson, not Jesus Messiah, Jesus Christ, Lamb of God Savior of the world. I can see Jesus talking with Lazarus late into the night about his calling, letting out self-deprecating belly-laughs and shedding tears. Lazarus, I imagine, saw something in Jesus that Jesus couldn’t see in himself. That’s the way it is with really close friends. I bet Lazarus encouraged Jesus to come out of his Nazarean closet and get down to the business of his ministry. I can see Lazarus saying, "Yes Jesus you have to go down and see John the Baptist and get this ministry started. You’re almost thirty for crying out loud.  You’ve been talking about this for years.  Yes, it’s going to be hell.  But it’s also going to save your soul and ultimately it will save the world." Jesus was eternally grateful for Lazarus’ love, honesty and trust.

I bet when the disciples drove him nuts, that he went to Lazarus to talk it all out, without fear that anyone else would write it down and post it on Bethany YouTube.

Do you have a Lazarus in your life? If you don’t, you should. We need people to support us, comfort us, confront us, challenge us and most important, just be with us. Lazarus, I think, helped liberate Jesus from his own self-doubts. He helped to set him free to be the child of God he was and to fulfill his mission. Jesus longed to return the favor to his friend, to one day, set him free to do his ministry.

John Chapter 11 begins with the message, "Jesus, the one you love, Lazarus is ill." By the time Jesus makes it to Bethany, Lazarus is dead and already in the tomb.

Jesus meets the accusing words of Mary and Martha.  “If you were here, he wouldn’t have died.  You could have saved him.  Where are your priorities?  Is he not the one you love?  Are we not the ones you love?”

Those must have been cutting words to Jesus.  We can all think of those calls in the middle of the night.  “Get home now.  Your loved one is ill.”  Sometimes we arrive in time, sometimes we don’t.  The guilt-trip doesn’t help.

But Jesus was able to heal.  How could he not heal the one he loved the most?

I’m sure there were people amongst the grieving that tried to shift blame onto God.

One of the worst things you can say to a grieving person is God wanted them more than we did.  God needed them more than we did.

The scripture even seems to point out that Lazarus’ death was a teachable moment about the priorities of God and the nature of Jesus.   Jesus raised him from the dead maybe a month before he too was in the tomb waiting for the words of loved ones to raise him from the dead.

I remember in those holy moments in the last days of Cindy Kissee’s life.  Charlie and she were gathered in their house, which had become not simply a place for each other, but a wider circle of love by her community.  At the end, Cindy waited for death with an expectation and a strong resolve that this would not be the end.  What we were creating was something that lived on.  Cindy told me that she believed that after someone died, they would visit them again in prayers, in dreams and in visions.  As I left that last afternoon, I told her that I would either see her next week or I’d see her in my dreams.  She did not disappoint.

Did she rise from the dead?   Is there a part of us that is made new because of her life, her death because she was so open about her transition from this life to the next?

Think about those who have gone before, whose names are on these banners, whose voice is still alive in our minds eye, whose influence is still felt in our mannerisms, in our way of viewing the world.

Death is not the enemy, friends.  Indifference is.

I think the most profound teachable moment was when Jesus wept.  It’s not the only time he is given that reaction to emotion in scripture.  I’m sure his life was filled with laughter and tears.  The only other time was when he wept over Jerusalem for their murderous short-sightedness, a vortex that eventually engulfed his very life.

But this grief was a profound one for Jesus.  And in a snapshot so uncharacteristic of John’s Gospel, we see a side of Jesus we have never seen.  His human side.  The side that weeps at the death of a friend.  And the resolve that death will not be the only or final answer.  We will not be stopped by this moment.  We will continue to live as Charlie and Cindy said, a love-drenched miracle.

In a moment, we will gather around this table.  We will remember those who have gone before.  We will celebrate their lives.  We will remember the love of God, Agape.  We will remember the love of family and friends, Philea.  We will mix them all together in the miracle of life and take the steps we need to take to get beyond the graveyards of life.

Lazarus did not stay in the tomb.  The risen Jesus did not stay in the garden, but moved beside us as a friend.  I bet that Jesus needed Lazarus to deal with his most difficult journey.  The scripture even says that he retreated to Bethany in suburban Jerusalem during the last week of his life, probably to be with Lazarus who understood him better than the disciples.

Whenever you are dealing with a tough task, take a good friend with you.  And if your best friend is not here in this life, then take them with you in prayer.  You’ll be better able to face it all.  For we do not face it alone.

I imagine Lazarus told Jesus to get over his doubts.  I bet Lazarus held up a mirror to Jesus and showed him his potential instead of pointing out his shortcomings.

I bet Lazarus held him when he cried, when he raged against the machine, when he laughed at his own short-sightedness.

I bet Lazarus promised him to never leave him comfortless.  And Jesus repeated those words, for they seemed to be ones that had some staying power.

Lazarus, Jesus’ best friend, wove his life into Jesus’ and showed him how to live a life of substance when he was tempted to live a life of safety and security.  And because of Lazarus, Jesus’ best friend, we too have the strength to hold on.

Hold on and see the light.
Hold on and not focus so much on our weak knees.  
Hold on and remember that we are part of a bigger picture.
Hold on and know that God is always nearby.
And our closest friends are as close as our dreams.  Always pushing us toward health and hope, even resurrection.

Are we weak and heavy-laden Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious savior still our refuge Take it to the Lord in prayer
Do thy friends despise forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee Thou wilt find a solace there.