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Coming Attractions

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A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

John 11:1-45

April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11

Two weeks ago today, I unknowingly stepped onto the movie set where Cowboys and Aliens was filmed about an hour north of Santa Fe. Ghost Ranch may be a retreat and conference center for the Presbyterian Church, but it’s also a land artfully painted by God and blessed with the colorful wilderness needed to make movies. All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men were shot there. So was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. City Slickers and 3:10 to Yuma were also shot there. Painter Georgia O’Keeffe couldn’t get enough of the place, and neither can Hollywood.

Over the years countless movies about aliens, zombies and caped crusaders have been made. But now there’s a wave of Bible-themed projects as the heroes of the Good Book are inspiring major Hollywood movies. Sixty years ago, Bible epics reigned at the box office in movie theaters of unimaginable seating capacity. Today’s movie theaters are relatively small but massively big with CGI and sound effects that are startling and larger than life. They’re so good, they make earlier generations of movies look and feel like ancient film relics of the past.

Noah has been out for a few weeks now. Last year, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett produced a TV miniseries for the History Channel called, The Bible. It was so successful they adapted the story of Jesus for the big screen titled The Son of God.

But wait! There’s more to come … Warning: Hollywood rumors abound! Director Ang Lee could be taking over the reins of a movie project starring Christian Bale about Moses called Gods and Kings. Brad Pitt is being talked about for a movie about Pontius Pilate. Will Smith is rumored to be involved in a movie about Cain and Abel. There’s even talk about a reboot of Left Behind. What’s next after that? Perhaps Bad Girls of the Bible will become a series for late-night cable?

But did you know Jesus produced his own trailer for the final chapter of his life? If Jesus starred in his own bio-pic, the foreshadowing story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus would serve well for what we would call “A Preview of Coming Attractions.” Let’s read it …

Read John 11:1-45

Of all the signs and wonders done by Jesus in his ministry, there is none greater than this one. And the one question that looms over us is the question we have about the mystery of death and the realms of existence beyond the doorway of death. On this side of the mystery, we ponder what is beyond death and we seek to understand all its meaning.

So we can’t help wondering what’s just around the corner when death comes. Mostly we don’t know. We claim belief but when pressed, we still wonder. Not even the Bible gives us much to work on other than a few mysteries it doesn’t know how to describe. “Through a glass dimly” isn’t much of a hint.

As a pastor, I’ve come to see that everything in the Bible about heaven or hell is necessarily metaphorical and no one knows much more than that in what to surmise.[1]

The intertwined stories of Jesus and Lazarus stand as a witness to the power of God over the despair and emptiness of death. In short, as Jesus stands in front of Lazarus’ grave, he stands in front of his own. This makes this incident of Lazarus a preview of the main attraction that will follow.

Yet Jesus stood resolutely before Martha and Mary and Thomas and all the other doubters and claimed boldly, “Your brother will rise again.” In that proclamation, Jesus was pointing beyond the power of death to a realm of faith few of us have achieved. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live … Do you believe in this?”

The question is at the heart of this story it seems to me. Jesus asked a question that continues to reverberate down through every generation of people who gather together in moments of deep grief to comfort one another. It’s as if Jesus has turned from the two sisters and towards the eye of the camera to ask us all, “Do you believe?”

The story gives us such a paradox of emotions that we scarcely know what to think. At first, Jesus appears cavalier about the news of Lazarus’ illness. He doesn’t jump into action and we are not given enough justification to explain his dawdling. It’s almost as if Jesus intended to not act immediately.

We assume love must always arrive in a breathless rush. We assume that one must act in the moment for it to be love, but as Steve Shoemaker says, “sometimes love keeps (a) careful distance. Sometimes (he suggests) love’s intensity can cripple both the one loving and the one loved.”[2]

And so Jesus waited. It’s the waiting in times of distress that create the most havoc. We ride the emotional roller coaster in such moments and lose any sense of balance we may have achieved in more temperate times.

Or perhaps you’ve wondered why Jesus doesn’t just intervene in our lives and keep the shadow of death from falling across our doorstep. But that’s not what he does with death. He doesn’t stop it; he overcomes it. It’s in the resurrection that Jesus breaks the power of death.

In The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese depicted Jesus as physically taking on the power of the grave as he contemplated raising Lazarus from the dead. As he called Lazarus forth, he reached into the tomb and tugged at the hand of Lazarus. The struggle came when Jesus himself was almost pulled into the tomb. Only by pulling with all his strength did he extract Lazarus. It was Scorsese’s way of giving the clutches of death its due that Jesus struggled to break the barrier of death.5

Nevertheless Jesus looks at us and challenges us with a probing question: “Do you believe?” We stand along the fringes of the crowd gathered around the living, joyous Lazarus. His two sisters are in the background beaming their great happiness at having him back. And the question hangs in the air unanswered by us.

Do we believe? The world waits to hear from Christian believers who have just enough faith to say with trembling words, “I believe.”

Dan Bagby tells the story of Jean Albert Vignant who was placed in solitary confinement in a French prison in the 1830’s. For months he paced his cell alone, longing for freedom. One day he walked to his prison door and for a moment of rest, he leaned against it. To his surprise, it swung open! Something was wrong with the mechanism so the cell door could not be secured. None of the guards knew this. Vignant was stunned by the realization:  All this time he had been locked in a prison with an open door. He was free! All he had to do to escape his misery was walk out the door.

Sisters and brothers, the door of death and fear has been kicked open by the one brave enough to stand in the entrance and shout into the mystery, “Lazarus, come out!”

Do you believe this?

[1] For more on the speculation about death, cf., “What awaits us after death? Words can’t describe,” BCE, 2/25/14, https://ethicsdaily.com/what-awaits-us-after-death-words-cant-describe-cms-21562

[2] Stephen Shoemaker, “Rescued Time,” Myers Park Baptist Church, Charlotte NC, 3/17/02