John 11: 1-45
This week I read a quote that made me smile. It says, ”It’s never too soon to give up hope!” “It’s never too soon to give up hope!” These words also made me think about our human propensity to give up when we face obstacles and road blocks. You probably went through the experience of belonging to a group that had an exciting new vision or proposing a new initiative, and when the idea encounters some initial resistance someone starts to say, ‘It will never work. Why should we bother or make another effort if they would not even listen to us.’ You might have worked on a project that did not unfold as expected and then been told to trust the process, there was a way out of this, a solution would eventually emerge and there is light at the end of the tunnel, before someone adds, ‘yes, and the light is a train that will run over us. We better give up before while we can still do it.’
This sort of hopelessness can be very contagious. We might be truly convinced of the validity of our beliefs and aspirations, but, at the same time, we are also influenced by the people and society surrounding us. We can invest ourselves in the construction of a better world based on inclusivity, justice and peace. Then we turn on our TV and we are told over and again that we ought to be scared of strangers and the next tragedy can happen here, at any moment. We listen to our politicians who keep repeating that our system is broken. Even our churches are stuck in their decline-and-death narrative. In front all of this, we begin to wonder. Is it possible that I am wrong? If he and she and they say that it is over, they cannot all be wrong. They must read the situation accurately. They must be right. We are sometimes tempted to give up, even if we still want to believe, even if we know that hopelessness is not the solution, even if we are hearing this little voice from inside inviting us to keep hope.
Hopelessness plays an important part in today’s reading from Gospel according to John. The story of the death and raising of Lazarus is not necessarily the easiest one to understand. Jesus and his disciples were on the other side of the Jordan, outside Judean territory. Over there, he receives a message from Martha and Mary of Bethany. They wrote, ‘Lazarus, your friend, our brother, is gravely ill.’ Surprisingly, Jesus responds to this disturbing news with an apparent indifference. His answer feels like, whatever. For two more days, Jesus hangs “in the place where he was” before finally deciding to go.
Quite obviously the disciples do not want to follow their master back in Judea. They rapidly remind him of what happened during his previous visit to Jerusalem, just a few verses before. The crowd tried to stone him. For the disciples, those people were a lost cause. They will never listen to Jesus. They will never see the light. Why should he care about their fate? Nevertheless Jesus says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples reply, “Jesus, you do need to go. If he has fallen asleep, it is a good sign. The worst of his illness has past. Let him rest.” Once again Jesus has to draw the line between the dots for his disciple by telling him that Lazarus is death. The disciples surely believed that it's sad, but since he is already death, what is the point to go. Eventually, Jesus has to put his feet down like so many parents and says, ‘Ok. Enough of this. We are going.’ Thomas, probably speaking for the rest of the group says, ‘The master wants to go back, so let us go and die with him, because there is no way this journey will end well. There is no hope there will be another outcome.’
Jesus and disciples eventually arrive at Bethany. He is welcome by Martha and then Mary, and both of them, separately, rebuke Jesus for his tardiness with a passive aggressive comment. “Lord, if you were here, my brother would not have died. But since you did not show up on time, I guess he is dead now. What is the point to have a powerful friend like you if we cannot get a little miracle once in a while? Maybe it is too much to ask.” Jesus tries to comfort Martha by saying, “Your brother will rise again.” But Martha replies to him, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection in the last day. But today he is dead. His body has been in the tomb for 4 days. It began to decay and stink. There is simply no more hope for him now. It is over.”
As we read this story, we cannot but feel the presence of a dark and gloomy cloud wrapping up everyone. Jesus tries to speak, explain and reassure, but nobody seems to listen. The people’s hopelessness only generates even more hopelessness. To break this cycle, Jesus has to do something big, something that will catch the attention of everyone, something spectacular that will force all to understand that it is never too late. There is always hope. Jesus decides to bring back Lazarus to life. Jesus says, “Take away the stone". Jesus cries with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Then he orders the people present to unbind his friend, and let him go.
Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone believing in me, even if they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. Jesus is not speaking of immortality or resurrection, but a different way to engage our world. Through him, his disciples of all time have become convinced that brokenness, despair and death do not have the last word. Because of Jesus, we are still allowed to dream of a new world based on equality, mercy, justice and peace. We know that when we struggle, face tragedies or reach the deepest point of our existence, we still can believe in hope, which is maybe the most irrational and unyielding of all emotions, a mystery that makes life bearable for those lost in a bewildering universe.
After the raising of Lazarus, many came to believe in Jesus’ message. This powerful sign also set off a chain of events leading eventually to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Jesus has become too dangerous for too many, because hope is maybe the powerful thing in the whole universe. With hope in our lives, nothing can stop us, nothing is impossible. With hope in our lives, we can continue our journey forever. Amen.