[Below is the text of the sermon I preached at campus chapel this morning. I think it went well, judging by the response. I hadn’t preached in many years, and I’d forgotten how exhausting it is. Someone told me, “Of course you’re exhausted. You’ve been wrestling with the Word of God.”]
Chapel Sermon, Nov. 3, 2016
“The Ruthless Love of Christ”
“Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. Martha then said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give You.’
“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’” (John 11:20-21)
Many long years ago, I was involved with the ministry of an organization called Lutheran Youth Encounter, which, as it happens, just went out of existence this past year. It was similar to our AFLBS summer teams. We sent musical and ministry teams out to work with the youth in congregations. The musical group I was part of was somewhat unusual, in that we organized ourselves and wrote our own music. I was the lyricist. You’ve probably never heard any of our songs, and with good reason. But we had our own fan base, and were famous to a tiny public.
At the end of one summer’s ministry we had a big final concert for all the teams. Afterward I spoke with an old friend, who introduced me to his new girlfriend. I told them I was depressed. A rewarding summer of ministry was done. I was moving on to a different college ahead of my friends. I felt lonely and unsure of the future.
The girlfriend said, “Don’t be depressed. Didn’t you hear the song that one group sang tonight? The one that said, ‘If You Love Me, Live?’”
“I know the song,” I told her. “I wrote it.”
It was worth the depression to be able to deliver a line like that. I live for that kind of stuff.
I’ve always been a glass-half-empty kind of guy. I look at the dark side. I’m not bragging about that. I hold – intellectually – with the ancient wisdom that says that happiness is a moral virtue. Happy people generally make the world better. Unhappy people make it worse. There’s no sanctity in a long face. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
But I also mistrust those people whose Christianity seems to deny the dark side of life. There’s a strain of Christianity that suggests that if your faith is genuine, you will never suffer. That Jesus will roll away, not only your sins, but all your troubles of any kind.
This is not biblical. It is not true. It indicates a state of serious denial, or else a remarkably sheltered life. I fear that many converts who fall away from the faith become disillusioned because they were led to expect a successful, pain-free life after they accepted Christ. When that doesn’t happen, they decide the whole thing is a fraud.
The Bible has something to say about this question, of course. For those who have ears to hear.
I’ve heard several sermons on the raising of Lazarus in my lifetime. I may have misunderstood the preachers, but my impression is that most sermons on this miracle miss what seems to me the point. They concentrate on Martha and Mary’s lack of faith, drawing the conclusion that Jesus was disappointed in them. I don’t think that’s exactly what’s going on here. He was doing something much bigger than that, something very much harder and very much kinder. Or so it seems to me.
The first thing I note in this account is the silence of Jesus. Theologians, philosophers, poets, and pretty much anybody who attempts the life of faith always come up against the problem of the silence of God. To some, the silence of God is a scandal that proves He doesn’t exist. If He were real, and if He really cared, they argue, He wouldn’t be silent.
Jesus makes no secret of His silence. I call this “the ruthless love of Christ.” Here we have Jesus being willfully silent, willfully unresponsive to genuine human need. And He’s very plain about His reason: “I am glad for your sakes,” he tells the disciples, “that I was not there, so that you may believe.”
This is not the Jesus of the therapeutic preachers. This is not the Jesus of the prosperity preachers. This is a Jesus who recognizes and acknowledges genuine human need – Mary and Martha were not asking for trivial things or for luxuries or pleasures. They were asking for rescue in a life or death situation. Priority One. Code Red.
On top of that, they had personal history to appeal to. We know from Luke 10 that Jesus had been a guest in their home. They’d fed Him with food they’d prepared themselves. In the Middle East, that placed great obligations on Him as a guest.
And yet He was silent. Cruel, to all appearances. He could have acted, but He did nothing, and not because He had more important things to do. Not because He was prevented by circumstances. He did nothing on purpose. He delayed until He was sure Lazarus had died. It looked like nothing but calculated callousness.
“Ah,” we say – because we know the rest of the story – “but He was going to teach them a wonderful lesson.”
And yes, that’s certainly true. I will get to that presently.
But let’s not overlook how hurtful Jesus was here.
His friends called for help, and He ignored them.
They suffered, and to all appearances He did not care.
He loved them as much as He always had.
But His love was a ruthless thing. It acknowledged their pain, but it let them suffer. It set their pain aside in favor of something greater.
If someone had explained that to Martha and Mary at that time, we can all imagine what they’d have said: “There isn’t anything greater!”
But there is. They were about to see it.
They were about to see something unbelievably wonderful. Something that would knock the walls out of their world. But there was only one road that could take them to that blessed vision.
That was the road no one wants to walk. The road of death.
James Dobson calls it “the betrayal barrier.” I like that term. There comes a moment in every Christian’s walk when it seems undeniable that God has failed us. We feel that He has broken His promises and left us alone. That is the acid test. Many Christians lose their faith at the betrayal barrier.
The story of Martha and Mary and the meal in Luke 10 gave us a quick, vivid introduction to the very different personalities of these two sisters, Martha and Mary.
This account in John 11 is entirely consistent with that picture.
Verse 20 says, “Martha, therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house.”
How many times have we heard preachers preach on Luke 10? They praise Mary for her simple faith, and criticize Martha for her materialism, her shortsightedness, her concentration on worldly arrangements over spiritual matters.
This account balances that story. The Marthas of this world have their place in God’s service. They have their own strengths, and serve God in their own way. Mary’s tender, sensitive love of Christ was a beautiful and precious thing. But in a moment like this, this awful season of death, this terrible roadblock at the betrayal barrier, it was Martha who went to Jesus. It was Martha who had the faith to confront Him. Mary was too hurt to do anything but sit alone in her room and despair.
Some people probably think Martha was out of order when she confronted Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” I think it’s evidence of her great faith. Her sister Mary’s faith was founded on deep feelings. When those feelings were wounded, her spiritual resources were exhausted. But Martha was a practical woman. She was used to doing what had to be done, no matter how she felt. She was not afraid to say, “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.”
Let’s not forget that the confession of faith here comes from Martha, everybody’s second favorite sister. She lacked Mary’s transcendent heart, but she had a good head. She had the kind of rational mind that was capable of thinking, “In spite of what I’ve seen, in spite of what I’ve experienced and felt, there are things I believe. I believe them whether the sun is shining or it’s cloudy. I believe them when I don’t feel like believing them. ‘Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give You.’”
Listen to me. There may be exceptions, but in most cases, when you hit that betrayal barrier – which you will someday, if you haven’t already – it probably won’t be your transcendent experiences of spiritual ecstasy that will make it possible for you to survive the testing of your faith. It will be the truths you’ve stored in your head. The Bible verses you’ve memorized. The passages from the catechism you were forced to learn in confirmation class. The theology you’ve read. The killing ground in front of the betrayal barrier is littered with the broken faiths of people who depended on their feelings.
That confession of faith from Martha – given, I am sure, without enthusiasm – even with some bitterness – gave Jesus the opportunity to deliver a promise more wonderful than Martha could imagine:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”
Speaking as a writer, I’d say the climax of the story is yet to come, but this, right here, is the turning point. Everything changes after this difficult, courageous testimony of Martha’s, and Jesus’ renewed promise.
Martha goes to her sister, Mary, and tells her, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”
That’s all a heart-based person like Mary needs. Just an assurance that Jesus hasn’t forgotten, that Jesus still cares. That’s where Martha, the strong-minded sister, can help Mary, the soft-hearted sister.
Mary comes to Jesus, and now comes the most poignant moment in the story. Mary says to Him the same thing Martha said – “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus, we are told, was “deeply moved in spirit and was troubled.” He asks where they have laid the body, and then comes the famous verse, “Jesus wept.”
Shortest verse in the Bible. We all know that. But that’s not its importance.
Its real importance is in the peek it gives us behind the curtain of God’s mysteries. Jesus had not answered their prayers. He had been silent. He had acted in what looked like an extremely cruel and heartless way.
But He was not unmoved.
He cared deeply about His friends’ pain.
He was putting them through this fiery trial for one reason, and one reason only – to give them a gift. A gift that comes nowhere else than on the other side of the betrayal barrier. On the far side of death.
Now comes the climax. The moment for which all this had taken place. The giving of the gift that had cost so much.
Jesus tells them to remove the stone that blocks the grave entrance. “Lord,” says Martha, “by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.”
Again, there’s the practical mind of Martha. She believes in Jesus, but in the abstract. When it comes down to here and now, to this ugly situation, she doesn’t hope for much.
Jesus says, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” The problem here is that Jesus means exactly what He says. But it’s too wonderful for Martha to process. It’s time to go beyond words. It’s time to show them – and through them, all of us – what’s behind the locked door.
So Jesus prays. He explains why He’s praying: “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I know that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.”
Then He calls for Lazarus to come out of the tomb.
And Lazarus comes out.
Ever see one of the Magic 3-D pictures? They look like just a pattern of dots on first glance. But when you focus your eyes right, suddenly there’s an image in there. It’s in 3-D. If you move the picture, you can see the image move.
This moment is kind of like that, but much more so. For one of those rare moments in history, the veil of this world is pulled aside, and we get to see the reality that hides behind it. A bigger reality. An unspeakably better reality.
A reality worth suffering for.
Jesus did not put His friends through all this pain just to teach them a moral or a theological lesson. Not in the theoretical sense. He didn’t put them through it so He could give them a lecture on how they should have had more faith.
He put them through the pain to bring them to a wonderful new place. A place where they would never again be afraid of death. Because they could see and experience that He was more powerful than death. That death was nothing to Him. In a few days, He would prove all this in the greatest way of all – through His own suffering, death, and resurrection. But this was a foretaste.
Here’s the point, I think. That kind of certainty – that kind of joy and trust – the knowledge that you never have to be afraid of death again — it never comes from Martha’s doctrinal knowledge. It never comes from Mary’s ecstatic love. Those are both wonderful things, and we all need them in our Christian walk.
But this thing – this great thing, this perfect assurance – this only comes through dying. It comes on the other side of the betrayal barrier. The most wonderful thing that can ever be only comes after the most awful thing that can ever be.
Back in the days when I was writing bad songs, a chapel speaker like me could have looked out over a congregation like this and spoken of wonderful opportunities. He would say the whole world is before you. You will have the chance to excel in business, in politics, in the arts, in religion. He would have said, “Go out and serve the Lord in our culture!”
But the world has changed a lot since I was young. Most of the fault, I think, belongs to my own generation.
I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet. But when I look ahead, I see mainly one opportunity that awaits Christians today.
That opportunity will be to suffer and die for Jesus.
Coincidentally, that was the main opportunity that awaited Mary and Martha’s generation as well.
I’m not a prophet, and please bear in mind that I’m usually wrong. Maybe a happy change is coming for America. Maybe we’ll see a renaissance of faith and decency and freedom of conscience in this country. May God grant it.
But what looks likely to me is that if you hold on to your testimony of Jesus Christ, you may not get into that school you want to attend. You may not get that job you want and are qualified for. If you get the job, you may get fired from it. Down the line, we may see these schools here closed. We may see our churches closed. We may see pastors and faithful lay people going to prison, because they refuse to say they believe things that they do not believe.
Now is the time for each of us to consider how we will respond to the challenge of the betrayal barrier. Will we trust the ruthless love of Christ, or will we fall victim to disappointment and tragedy? Will we trust Jesus when He proves to be what He actually is, not what we imagine Him to be? Will we still trust Him after the worst thing in the world has happened?
Jesus said, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
You can see the glory of God.
I can see the glory of God.
But only on the other side of the betrayal barrier.
“But what’s on the other side?” you may ask. “You’ve talked all about death and the betrayal barrier, and you say that something wonderful waits on the other side. But what is that wonderful thing?
I can only answer that I don’t know. I’ve never seen it, or I’ve never seen more than a glimpse. Like you, I only have the testimonies of people who have seen it – people like the Prophet Ezekiel, and the Apostle John, and Saint Paul, who described it in images. The Bible describes it in various ways – as a great city, as a wedding feast, as a pay day. The one thing everyone who’s seen the other side seems to agree on is that it’s a surprise, something more wonderful than we ever imagined.
J.R.R. Tolkien imagined it this way in The Return of the King:
And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Revelation 2:10-11 says, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.”