Powers and Principalities
Series:I am
Duration:16 mins 54 secs

This is the fourth week of a preaching series that we are following through the end of May. In a pivotal text in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do the people say that I am?” They respond that some believe he is John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets. Jesus continues, pressing them directly with the question, “But who do you say that I am?” It is still the question that all disciples of Jesus, that you and I, must answer for ourselves.
This series of sermons seeks to answer that question by first turning it around. Before we can truly declare who we say Jesus is, I want to suggest that we need to hear Jesus tell us who he is in his own words.

In the Gospel of John, seven times, we find Jesus say; “I am …” It is language reminiscent of God’s name given to Moses, YHWH: “I am who I am.” Yes, in these texts we find a glimpse of who Jesus really is in his own words. So far we have heard Jesus say, “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the gate,” and “I am the good shepherd.” Today we turn to the fifth saying. It comes in the middle of a longer story, so it is important to know what has already happened by the time we reach our text this morning.

A man in the village of Bethany named Lazarus was ill. Lazarus was the brother of two sisters, Martha and Mary, and all three of them were close friends of Jesus. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus to tell him that Lazarus was ill. Jesus gets this message but decides to wait two days before he goes to Bethany, saying, in a similar way to how he described the man born blind in chapter 9, that waiting will lead to God’s glory.

So let us hear this Word of God as it is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verses 17-27 as Jesus finally arrives in Bethany.

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Have you ever found yourself not sure what to say to someone who’s loved one has died? It is the same if the person has just been diagnosed with something dreadful, is it? After the hug or handshake in the receiving line at the funeral home, or when seeing a friend in the aisle at the grocery store, or arriving with a dish of food, what we do we say?

In that moment of awkwardness or loss, sometimes we fall back on clichés or empty platitudes. Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler has heard them all after being diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer at the age of 35. She writes:

Most everyone I meet is dying to make me certain. They want me to know, without a doubt, that there is a hidden logic to this seeming chaos. Even when I was still in the hospital, a neighbor came to the door and told my husband that everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” he replied.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“The reason my wife is dying,” he said in that sweet and sour way he has, effectively ending the conversation as the neighbor stammered something and handed him a casserole.

In fact, Bowler heard that one so often that it became the name of her recent memoir - a haunting, truthful, painful, and ultimately beautiful book called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. If you are interested there are some copies in the narthex of the most common things Bowler was told and what you might say in those moments instead.

In our text for today I get the sense that Martha has heard about all the reasons and clichés and platitudes that she can stand when Jesus finally shows up. She had sent word in plenty of time, but he comes several days late. That’s the biting part of her greeting, right? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” No, “thank you for coming.” No, “we are doing as well as can be expected.” No, “we have plenty of food from the friends who came down from Jerusalem for the funeral.” Instead of offering a platitude of her own Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus responds, “Your brother will rise again.”

Really? That is the best Jesus can do? Martha had heard them all by this point. So, she responds based on what she thinks she heard Jesus say. What she heard was something like: “You will see him again someday.” Martha is still convinced that if Jesus had been there, her brother would not have died. So, she says, “Sure, Jesus, all the Pharisees back at the house told me that, I know that he will rise on the last day with everyone else.”

Now we should note that belief in a general resurrection at the end of time was a fairly new theological development in first century Palestine. New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper writes,

The Greeks believed in the immortality of the human soul, that there is something in the human being that in inherently immortal. But the Hebrew belief was that there is nothing inherently immortal in the human soul. Life beyond death depends entirely on God and the power of God. … So recent was this belief that not all first-century Jews had accepted it. The Pharisees and the Essenes believed in the resurrection of the dead, but the Sadducees did not.

So, Martha is already making a theological move here to say that yes, she would see her brother again - on the last day with the resurrection of everyone.

But that is not what Jesus has in mind. Jesus isn’t talking about some day in the future, some moment a long time from now when the kingdom comes, a day to be determined when we’ll all fly away. No, Jesus is talking about today, about now, about this place, about this time, about this body lying in a tomb for four days, so dead that it’s started to stink. Yes, Jesus is talking about the circumstances of this world, of this life, of your life and mine. “I am the resurrection and the life” he declares and he really means it. Not someday, somewhere else. Today, this day, “I am the resurrection and the life … Do you believe this?”

And that is the question, isn’t it? You might have noticed I have asked you that question at the end of each of the sermons in this series. Do you believe this? Do you believe there is a force at work in the world more powerful than the forces of power, money, race, violence and death? Do you believe that even the most hopeless circumstances are not without hope? Do you believe that even a body so dead that it stinks can rise? Do you believe that tragedies and losses of the past and the present do not have to dictate the future? Do you believe that there is another way, a way that leads to life? Just as he asked Martha so many years ago, with so much more than clichés and platitudes, Jesus says to you and to me, “I am the resurrection and the life … Not just someday in the future, but today … Do you believe this?”

My friends, resurrection can never be an empty platitude. For as scholar NT Wright has said, “Resurrection isn’t just a doctrine. It isn’t just a future fact. It’s a person and here he is standing in front of Martha, teasing her to make the huge leap of trust and hope.”

It is the leap we are all invited to make as we seek to know who Jesus really is. In the face of all of all the clichés and platitudes, Kate Bowler writes of her struggle to see Jesus today:

I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. … Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is beautiful. Life is so hard.

Life is beautiful. Life is so hard. That is what Jesus brings when he shows up and declares “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is saying that in him the world is not stuck in the tragedies of the past. In him the future worries and all our grand plans fade away. He stands in the middle, arms stretched wide, crucified and risen, so that in him, in the present moment, we might see the world painted in bright colors. For all we really have, all any of us really have, is today.

Thus, Kate Bowler concludes her book with these words:

My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for [my son] Zach and [my husband] Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love.

Zach is beside me in our big bed as I write these words, rolling around like a polar bear cub. After we take him out of his crib in the morning he loves to come “up-up” to our loft bedroom and loll around like only two-year-olds can. It’s another beautiful morning, and it’s time to yell with the pitch of the coffee grinder and make him French toast. I will die, yes, but not today.

My friends, who do say that Jesus is? He declares in his own words, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is with us, here and now. Whether we speak or whether we are silent, he is our hope and our God so that we might live today. Do you believe this?

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: