Take Away the Stone

Take Away the Stone
John 11:1-44

Rev. Louis Timberlake
May 27, 2018

Did you see this story last week? A guy from North Dakota accidentally ran a marathon. How do you accidentally run a marathon? I mean, I’ve had those runs where you’re just feeling it. Where you feel like you can go on forever. But, at most that means I’ll run like a couple miles more than I had planned. Never once have I thought, “Maybe I’ll just go ahead and, instead of running five miles today, I’m going to run 26.2 miles.” That just has never happened!

But, this guy, Mike, a plumber from West Fargo, ND, accidentally ran a marathon. Now, he was planning to run a half marathon. He showed up at the race at the wrong time and ended up in the marathon group. Folks, this is why it’s important to pay attention to the directions. After the race, He said he thought it was a little strange that the signs didn’t seem to say anything about “half,” but he didn’t realize his mistake until he was after the point of no return. So he just kept running. And, over six hours later, he accidentally completed his first marathon. (1)

Now, if you ever run a marathon, I hope that it’s intentional. But, Mike’s story reminds us that we tend to set our expectations way too low. What we believe is possible and what is actually possible so often are two completely different things.

I’m trying to instill this in my son. His expectations of how clean his room can be and the reality of how clean his room can be are not the same thing yet. Now, he’s not quite three, but my goal as his father is to help him continue to raise those expectations.

We do this with God. We set our expectations way too low. God is perpetually in the business of exceeding our expectations of what is possible.

I love this story of Lazarus. It’s important that you know something. This wasn’t some ordinary family. Jesus loved this family deeply. They had a special relationship.

In college I interned at a church for a summer, which means the pastor went on vacation. I mean, it was only for a week, but for that week I was handling visitation, worship, and preaching. I was so nervous that the Sunday I was to preach my first real sermon, I woke up at 5am covered with hives. Anyways, that’s not the story I’m telling today. So, the pastor went on vacation and, of course, someone died. But, it wasn’t just anyone, this man was a pillar of the church. He had held every leadership role, his family took up the same pew--an entire pew--every Sunday and then had a massive Sunday lunch after church back at their farmhouse. Now, we pastors tend to be protective of our vacations, because we’re so used to always being on call. To truly disconnect is a rare thing. But, when this pillar of the church suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack in his garden, that wasn’t something you get to later or delegate to the intern. So, the pastor dropped everything, left his family at the mountain house, and came home.

That is what you’d expect from Jesus in this story. That he’d drop everything and immediately go to this family. But, he waits two days. There’s not something important going on, he just waits. By the time he arrives, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Martha, Lazarus’ sister, comes to him first and says, “you’re too late. If you had only been here.” You can tell she’s grieving. But, she’s not only grieving, she’s angry. “Why did it take you so long to respond to my message? If you had only been here, my brother wouldn’t be dead!”

Jesus responds, “He will rise again.” This doesn’t seem to help. If you’ve lost a loved one, even though you believe in Jesus and the resurrection, it still hurts. And someone says, “Oh, but the resurrection.” But, right now, I hurt. She says, “Yes, yes, I know. There will be a resurrection someday.” Martha is a good church woman, she has the right answer. She learned it from the preacher and from the Sunday School lessons. But, you can tell that it’s an abstraction to her. It’s not real. What’s real is that her brother is dead.

But Jesus says, “No, you don’t understand. This isn’t an abstraction.” Sometimes we have those beliefs that feel so distant, so separate from our daily reality that we believe them, but they almost don’t seem real. He’s saying, “This isn’t something distant. I am the resurrection and the life. Standing here in front of you. But, it’s not enough to tell you, let me show you. Let’s go to the tomb.”

The tomb was a cave with a stone covering the entrance. It’s a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own tomb. Of Easter. They get to the cave and, by this time, they have a crowd. As a part of the Jewish tradition, people had been sitting with Mary and Martha as they grieved and when Jesus and the sisters went to the tomb, they followed. Jesus tells them, “Roll away the stone.” And this is just about it for Martha. “No, don’t do that. He’s dead. Dead things smell.” And, Jesus calls her on it, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” She says, “Of course I believe.” But, she doesn't feel it. It’s in her head, but it hasn’t seeped into the marrow of her bones. It is an intellectual belief, not a visceral belief.

Is your faith an intellectual exercise, or is it something that affects you at the very core of your being? I love the way Rob Bell talks about it in his book, Velvet Elvis. He talks about the springs on a trampoline. That the doctrines of our faith, the traditions, the practices, these are good things, important things. But, they’re springs. Springs are important to the trampoline, but trampolines aren’t about springs, they’re about the pure joy of being propelled higher than you could ever jump on your own. Our faith propels us into a life that we cannot live by our own power. A life marked by subtle miracles, sustaining hope, and a deep resonance with the Creator and the rest of Creation.

“Roll away the stone and see the glory of God.” They roll away the stone and Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!”

And he who was dead walks out alive.

God is perpetually in the business of exceeding our expectations of what is possible.

Roll away the stone and see the glory of God. What are the stones in your life? What are the stones in our churches? What barriers exist that prevent us from seeing the glory of God? From having our expectations blown out of the water?

I cannot tell you how excited I am for this new season of ministry. Christ Church and St Tim’s have been in partnership for the past four years and have a relationship that goes back to the very beginnings of this church, but that partnership is about to get deeper, and together I believe we are going to do something pretty incredible to further the mission of God in this city. As Christ Church merges with Glenwood and adds a campus in the heart of that community and as we deepen our partnership with one another, there are amazing opportunities to minister in new ways. To build relationships with members of one of the most diverse neighborhoods in our city, full of college students and people who struggle to break the vicious cycle of poverty, professors with PhDs and people who didn’t finish high school, blue collar families and local artisans, Caucasians, African-Americans, Latinos, and others from a variety of places and cultures.

Friends, together we have the opportunity to build community that truly looks like the kingdom of God, that offers both needed resources and a sense of God-given worth to all people, that combats the divisions and unholy hierarchies of our world with a message of love and peace.

I believe that this new thing will be hard, I believe that it is risky, and I believe that it is fully worth the work and the risk, because it is an opportunity for us to embody the hope that we have found in Christ and if there’s anything our world needs today, it’s hope. God is at God’s best when hope seems gone. When the tomb is already sealed and the mourners have gathered. That is the moment when Jesus walks onto the scene and says, “Roll away the stone and see the glory of God.”

Right after I finished college, I had the opportunity to visit Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio. If you’re not familiar with Ginghamsburg, it’s a cool church. It’s a church that has taken its mission to the community seriously. I remember a member of the church telling us about his first couple of times worshipping there. He said, the worship was great, but I quickly learned that if you’re not serving in some way you get uncomfortable. It is that fundamental to the DNA of this church.” And now he is one of their key leaders, helping thousands find ways to serve others based upon their gifts and passions.

But, I experienced something else up there that changed my understanding of what it means to be the church. They had actually just gone through a process of merging with a dying church (not unlike Glenwood) in a community with a lot of diversity and needs. And, through some creative approaches to ministry, they developed it into a new campus that connected with the community in a powerful way. And, it started something for them. They began to see themselves not as a single church, but as a network. They started new campuses and cultivated new partnerships that allowed them, together, to impact the broader community in a much more significant way. Each campus or partner could focus models of ministry that worked for their particular community, but being connected to something larger than any one location, they had resources, connections, and knowledge that allowed them to follow Jesus in a way that impacted hundreds of thousands of lives, all while cultivating small worshipping communities where people knew one anothers’ names. This is the type of vision for ministry that has made the Methodist Church so effective for centuries and I believe that we are living into a new manifestation of it.

It’s going to cause us to take risks, to make sacrifices. But, that’s exactly what Jesus does in this story. At this point in his life, he is in danger. He is being pursued by people who want to see him punished and silenced. So, when he says, “Let’s go to Judea and see Lazarus’ family,” his disciples are pretty alarmed. The leaders in Jerusalem are the ones who want him dead and Lazarus’ people lived in the suburbs of Jerusalem. Jesus is heading into the belly of the beast and the disciples know that following Jesus can be just as risky as being Jesus. Eventually, Thomas turns to the rest and says, “Well, I guess we’re going to die with him.”

Now, that’s a little more extreme than the risks were facing, but with this merger and partnership we are heading into uncharted waters, together. And we may have reservations. We may have questions. We may be saying, “Wait, wait, wait!” But then you hear Jesus saying, “Roll away the stone and see the glory of God.”

It’s interesting, this story is written so that you initially experience it as a spectator. As part of the crowd gathered around the tomb. But, the one perspective that we usually don’t consider is the one that is most fundamental to who we are as Christians. The man who was dead and is now alive.

At the heart of our faith, at the heart of what it means to follow Christ is this movement of death to life. This story of resurrection. Jesus says, “Roll away the stone and see the glory of God.” And, for the spectators, those words mark the penultimate moment. But, we are not the spectators, we are characters in the story of Christ, the story of death to life, we are Lazarus. And the words for us are “Come out. Become alive. See with new eyes what is possible.”

There is a reorientation that takes place for Lazarus as he moves from death to life. And, it’s not all that different from the reorientation that takes place when we follow Christ. “Come out. Become alive. See with new eyes.” I think GK Chesterton captured this reorientation in poetry far better than I could in prose. Let me end with his poem, “The Convert.”

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead

The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


1. http://time.com/5288532/marathon-mistake/