Fifth Sunday in Lent – Year A
St. Paul’s Cathedral, April 2, 2017
Jesus learns that one of his best friends is gravely ill. Lazarus is the brother of Martha and Mary, friends who had welcomed Jesus into their home. It was a home filled with love, a home that served as a welcome refuge during Jesus’ earthly life.
It seems natural that Martha and Mary would send for their friend and Lord at this time. Who better to offer healing and consolation? But when the messenger arrived with news of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus’ response was not what we might expect. He loved his friends deeply, but did not leave immediately for their home. He stayed at the Jordan River for two more days before making the 20-mile trek to Bethany.
Why didn’t Jesus come earlier? Mary and Martha were heartbroken, and I imagine his delay left them wondering if he was, indeed, who they believed him to be. Their friends came from Jerusalem to offer support, but they could not explain Jesus’ odd behavior.
And haven’t we all been there? We experience suffering, we turn to God for help, and, often, it feels like we get no response or that the answer is not what we hoped for. It is a time for tears and trust and for recognizing that we do not always see things as they really are.
When Jesus arrived in Bethany, he learned that Lazarus has been dead four days. Think about this…the timing is interesting. It is a two-day journey from the Jordan River to Bethany. This means that by the time the messenger reached Jesus, Lazarus was already dead. The reality of the moment was distorted; what Jesus was told by the messenger was no longer the truth.
When was the last time you looked up into a clear night sky and pondered the twinkling stars and glowing planets? You probably know that when we look at the stars we are looking back in time. The tiny specks of light look very similar to the naked eye but, in reality, they are massive bodies of energy that vary from hundreds to millions of light years away from the earth.
Polaris, the North Star, is a constant presence overhead. It is the star by which sailors have navigated and a metaphor for finding our way home. It is a yellow supergiant with a luminosity thousands of times that of our sun, and yet it only appears as a soft glow in our northern sky. When we look at Polaris, we are seeing it as it existed over 400 years ago, in the late 1500s. That is how long it takes the light from Polaris to reach us. It will be around the year 2450 before our descendants see it as it is today. Other stars in our galaxy are much farther from us, many nearly 100,000 light years away. Some of these may have already imploded and no longer exist, and there likely new stars we cannot yet see because their light simply hasn’t reached us. *
In the material as well as the spiritual, there are some things we cannot see as they really are, no matter how hard we try. Our human senses inform us on many levels, but they cannot be counted on to give us the full picture of reality. In today’s gospel story, I wonder how Lazarus and his sisters felt when, after Jesus had moved on and their friends had gone home, they had a moment to look up into the night sky and ponder what had just happened. Lazarus had died, but was now alive. They couldn’t explain that. They couldn’t know what was going to happen next. And yet, they put one foot in front of the other, drawing on their faith to step out of the chaos of the day and move forward. Something from the past…and the present…and the future lit their path in that moment, and they were transformed. Their experience gives us a different perspective on God’s love for us. It asks us to recognize that, even though God is present in the here and now, God does not always work in the logic of human understanding.
As hard as it is, I think it is crucial to rest in this time of self-refection, to resist the temptation to turn away from difficult feelings, and to rest in ambiguity for a while. God may not always prevent heartbreak, but God is always with us. We do not know what lies ahead, but we do know we are never alone. Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb. He was and is present to our sadness, our anger, our fear, our confusion, and he transforms it into a new way of being, a resurrection into a new kind of life.
We are given only enough light for the next step. Anything we think we can see beyond that needs to be held very lightly. Like the stars in the sky, what we think we are seeing may not be reality. By the time the light reaches our eyes, the truth may have changed. We wait, we watch, we mourn, we pray. Our faith tells us there is more to come, that truth is a process revealed over time and in our ongoing relationship with God-in-Christ. Resurrection is happening right now, but we need to be willing to stand in “not knowing”. We cannot see them, but even now, the seeds of new life are being planted. Even now, new stars are being born.
*I am indebted to the Rev. Claire Ranna for the metaphor of stars.