April 2, 2017, Doubters Welcome – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000015
We have an image in our heads about what faith is supposed to look like. When we think of people with great faith, we picture giants of the faith like St. Francis or Charles Wesley from the past, or contemporary people like Billy Graham and Pope Francis. People of great faith, we imagine, are unflappable, serene, fearless people who never have to struggle with doubt and anger and frustration and regret, but always trust that God is in control. It is easy to think that great faith is a power that is beyond our capabilities as plain old fearful, insecure people.
But then we read the Bible, and we see the real people that Jesus chose for his friends, and the people he chose to carry on his work after he was gone, and hopefully we begin to see that we have that all wrong.
The story of Lazarus, Jesus’ good friend who died and who was restored to life, is a story all about faith:
Before Jesus and the disciples set off to go to Bethany, Jesus knew that Lazarus had already died. And when he told the disciples, he said, “For your sake I am glad I wasn’t there, so that you may believe. “
When they got to Bethany, Martha came out to meet him, sad and angry and frustrated, “Why didn’t you come when I sent you the message? If only you had come right away, my brother wouldn’t have died!” And Jesus answered her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And Martha, sad and angry and frustrated as she was, answered him, “Yes, Lord, I believe.”
And then, at the grave, after the stone had been rolled away, Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
This story is all about faith, but it’s not perfect, saintly, doubt-free faith. The faith in this story is as human and as wobbly as our faith is. It’s not ‘great’, impressive faith; it’s real faith, because it’s faith in action.
I think one of the people in the story whose faith is worth paying attention to is Thomas. This is our old friend ‘Doubting Thomas’ – the disciple who saw Jesus after the Resurrection, but who wouldn’t believe Jesus was who he said he was until he touched the wounds in his hands and feet and side. And here, in the story of Lazarus, Thomas is still the realist. They all knew that going back to Bethany, so near to Jerusalem, Jesus was risking his life. They had just come from there and the Jews had tried to stone him. And when Jesus made it clear that he was determined to go, Thomas had no doubt they’d all end up dead, and yet he had no intention of staying behind. “If he’s going to go,” said Thomas, the pessimist, “let’s go die with him.” He’s not talking about Lazarus’ death here, you see; he’s talking about Jesus’ death. Thomas seems to have been a bit of a pessimist, not a real positive, cheerful guy. But he had real faith, because despite his fears that Jesus was going to his death, Thomas was choosing to stick with him.
We know that Martha had faith, too, because she told Jesus, “Yes, I believe you.” But before that, when she saw Jesus and the disciples approaching, she left her house full of mourners and came out to meet him, with the grim determination of someone who wasn’t about to let Jesus off the hook. “If you had been here,” she reproached him, “my brother would still be alive.” But she had more to say than just to reproach Jesus. She was sure that he would have been able to heal her brother, but she believed more than that. “Even now,” she said to Jesus, “even now that he is dead and buried, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” It’s impossible to say what she expected Jesus to do. Did she really think that he would do what he did – call her brother out of the grave, alive? She doesn’t seem to expect that at all, because when Jesus tells someone to roll the stone away from the grave she warns him, “You don’t want to do that, Lord. It’s been four days; my brother’s body will have begun to decay and there will be a terrible odor.” I don’t think Martha had a clue what Jesus might do, but what she knew is this: that no one but Jesus had power to do anything good in the face of her grief and loss. God would listen to Jesus, that she knew. And Jesus would know what to do. And she held onto that.
The faith we see in the story of Lazarus doesn’t have anything to do with being serene and super-spiritual. But it has everything to do with believing that Jesus is the one to trust, and holding on to that in the face of all our doubts and fears and uncertainty and sadness and loss, and even our anger. There are times when having faith takes all of our mind and heart and strength and will. But God doesn’t ask us to have faith in a spiritual vacuum. He gives us solid reasons to have faith. That’s why Jesus cried out in thanks to the Father when the stone was rolled away and there was no stench of death like everyone expected. “I thank you for the sake of all these people here, because now they will believe that you sent me.” Lazarus walking out of the tomb, bound with the gravecloths like a mummy, was a sign those people could hold onto in their times of doubt and fear, a handgrip for their faith.
It’s OK for people of faith to doubt. It’s perfectly fine for people of faith to get mad at God. If you aren’t sure about that, read the Psalms. Maybe we think those things are frowned upon by the “truly spiritual” but the doubts and reproaches we hurl at God are actually signs that our faith is alive and well, because if we didn’t believe that he is there, and that he is powerful, and that he cares what happens to us, we wouldn’t bother to wrestle with him in our times of doubt. I love knowing that the risen Jesus didn’t rebuke Thomas for his doubts, but he held out his scarred hands for Thomas to touch, and he invited Thomas to put his hand in the wound in his side. He didn’t rebuke Thomas for doubting, because doubt is not opposed to faith. Despair is opposed to faith. Apathy is opposed to faith. Desperate self-reliance – trying to raise ourselves by our own bootstraps – that is absolutely opposed to faith. But doubt is just a normal, healthy part of human faith in action.
The thing we so often don’t understand is that our faith doesn’t have to be strong or impressive or unwavering – Jesus told us all we needed was faith the size of a tiny little seed, and we could tell a mountain to go jump in a lake. If we wanted to. The size of our faith isn’t the important thing at all. The important thing – the one and only thing – is that we put our faith in the right object. That is EVERYTHING.
One of the books I was reading this week told a beautiful true story about a young man who had gotten himself in serious trouble while serving in the military in Japan. He had done something really terrible, and he was so overwhelmed with guilt and shame that he had even thought about taking his own life. But then, as he traveled back to the states on a troopship with 1500 other marines one of the other men invited him to join them in a Bible study. And they just happened to be studying John chapter 11 – the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. For this young man, the story spoke to his heart. He felt that he had been dead and that Jesus had called him back to life. It changed his life radically. “That young man’s troubles were not finished; he had a hard road ahead of him;” the author wrote, “but in his sin and his sense of guilt he had found Jesus as the resurrection and the life.” It was a very moving story, and I know that God can and does use Scriptures to speak to people in very personal ways through his Spirit.
But then the author went on: “….he had found Jesus as the resurrection and the life. That is the end of the whole matter. It does not really matter whether or not Jesus literally raised a corpse to life in AD 30, but it matters intensely that Jesus is the resurrection and the life for everyone who is dead in sin and dead to God today.”
And that’s where this beautiful story went totally off the rails. Because the truth is, it does no good at all for us to have faith in spiritual realities that have no real power in the world of flesh and blood and life and death where we live out our lives. We don’t need a Savior who makes us feel better about ourselves. Oprah can do that. We need a Savior who can literally knock the hell out of the things that separate us from God, not only spiritual or psychological realities like guilt and shame, but real, larger-than-life things like sickness and poverty and racism and hatred and greed and war and temptation – the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, as John described the temptations of sin, and those are pretty earthy, tangible things. Oh yeah, and death. We need a Savior who can face down death itself – and win. We need Jesus, who stood at his dead friend’s grave and called him to come out – and he did. Nobody else is worth hanging onto with all our little faith.
These are the words of Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”