The Life Giver
John 11:17-44
Sunday, March 4, 2018

In the mid 1960s, the famous Hollywood star Harrison Ford was just another struggling actor trying to make it in Southern California. For a number of years during that decade, Ford was under contract to two different studios, Paramount and Universal, as a contract player. This meant that he sporadically received very small parts in the occasional movie or television show and was paid a minimal amount of money for his work.

With a wife, child and a home, Ford struggled to make ends meet on his meager acting salary and turned to being a carpenter. In fact, he trained himself as a carpenter through studying books from the Encino, California Public Library. Thus Harrison Ford, the would be actor, spent the better part of the next ten years taking care of his family primarily through the carpentry trade.

One day, Ford was installing cabinets for the director Francis Ford Copola. As he worked, another director at the time named George Lucas happened by and remembered Ford from a small role he had played in a move that Lucas had also been involved with. Remembering that Harrison Ford the carpenter had done some acting, Lucas asked for help. You see, Lucas was casting a film at the time that was to be called Star Wars and he needed some help. Lucas had actors coming in to try out for the various parts in Star Wars and he needed a few extras to help with the read through. The extras would not be trying out for parts themselves but merely offering the voices of other characters in the various scenes so that things seemed realistic. This is why Lucas wanted Ford’s help – as simply a reader.

In one of the more famous examples of Hollywood rags to riches stories, Harrison Ford the carpenter, merely helping out as a reader for the day, was recognized as superior to many of the other real actors who were there to try out for parts. And, it was in that moment, that his prolific career really began as he was offered the role of Hans Solo – the role that made him famous in the numerous Star Wars films that were to come. (compiled from biography.com, wikipedia.com and an interview with Harrison Ford on the website cinequest.org)

I share that story because Harrison Ford’s big break came at a time when his acting career was all but over. Yes, he was still doing bit parts. But, he made far more money as a carpenter and had done so for several years. Yet, what he learned in that fateful moment, was that all hope was not yet lost.

The Lazarus story, as told in John Chapter 11, teaches numerous lessons about faith and also about the power of Jesus. One of those lessons, the one that I want to focus on, is this very same idea that in that moment of Lazarus’ death when all hope seemed lost; hope nonetheless remained.

Interestingly, John 11 works very hard to present to the reader just how hopeless things appeared to be as Jesus arrived in Bethany to hear the news that Lazarus was dead.

For one, the text makes the case that this was a hopeless situation by pointing out that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days by the time Jesus arrived. The significance of this statement is connected to the fact that in Jewish thought, a person’s spirit exited the body three days after the person had died. This meant that from their perspective, by day three, when the spirit was gone, the person had absolutely no life left in them whatsoever. They were completely devoid of life., Lazarus, we are told, was at day four.

Second, both Mary and Martha who were Lazarus’ sisters and also Jesus’ good friends, meet him with the same sentiment. They both say to Jesus’ “if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” Again, in their minds, no hope now remained.

Third, when Jesus speaks to them about the possibility of life after death, both Mary and Martha speak of the resurrection. There is no thought, no idea, no possibility in their mind that Jesus was thinking that Lazarus’ life on this earth was not over yet.

Finally, as Jesus, Mary, Martha and others arrive at the tomb, one of their fears is that opening the tomb will bring with it the stench of death which only further intensifies their clear, unwavering belief about what they clearly felt had happened. Lazarus was dead.

Over and over again, John Chapter 11 makes the point clear. Lazarus was gone. His life was over. His body was already beginning the natural process of decomposing. This was their natural, obvious perspective on the situation.
The only problem is, they were wrong.

We do the same today. Naturally and logically, we regularly take stock of the reality that our lives present to us and using all that we know come to the conclusion that no hope remains.

When I say this, I am not primarily speaking of coming to these conclusions, as did Mary and Martha, in the face of physical death. Instead, I am talking about all sorts of other experiences in our lives where based on everything we know, we see no reason any longer to be hopeful.

I am speaking about moments in our jobs when we have done everything we can and come to believe that this situation cannot be redeemed or solved.

I am speaking about moments in our careers where we have been searching for a new opportunity with absolutely nothing on the horizon.

I am thinking of moments in our marriages when we have done all that we can do and the situation feels totally irreconcilable.

I am thinking of times with our children when we have given them all of the guidance, grace and love we can and there seems to be no change in their attitude or behavior.

I am describing the experience with a loved one in which the doctors tells us they are not sure what else can be done.

I am describing moment when in our grief we sense that we will never get beyond the pain we feel.

And, I am eluding to all of those general moments in life where we look at a given situation and say to ourselves, this is simply never going to change.

All of these are occasions where we feel that hope has walked out the door, that the inevitable has come and that the final chapter has certainly been written on this particular episode in our lives.

This morning, the last thing I want to do is to give any of you false hope. And, I also don’t want give any of you the false impression that an unexpected reversal of fortune is right around the corner for you or for those that you love if you just pray more, believe hard enough or if you add more service to the church to your plate. The truth is your observation that things are not going to change in whatever situation you are in, might be spot on and exactly correct.

But, I do want to say this and I do believe it with all of my heart – with Jesus as the Lord of our lives hope does remain even in the bleakest of moments. So too, as people of faith, with the Holy Spirit present with us each second of each day, the possibility of the unexpected happening remains until the very final note has been sung. We truly never know what might yet take place.

After all, we cannot deny that this is one of the great truths of the Lazarus’ story. Every thing about that situation said to Mary and Martha that death had come and that their brother’s life was over. But, they were wrong. It was not over, hope remained.

We never know either. Hope remains for us. And, therefore, as a people of the Easter story and resurrection that followed Jesus’ own death, we must maintain hope as long as there is any clear reason whatsoever for doing so.

Perhaps the best word I can invite us to hang our hats on is the word balance. Balance not in our behavior but rather balance in our thinking. Again, we are not after false hope in any of life’s situations so we must take seriously the signs in front of us and think carefully through what they may indeed be telling us about doors closing, opportunities ending and possibilities no longer existing. At the very same time, we must continue to be followers of the life giving God we serve who teaches us through stories just like the Lazarus story that God’s hope remains, exists and is present even in the bleakest of occasions and this means that just when we think all hope is lost, the truth is it might not yet be.

Such hope, which is to say God centered hope, teaches us that even when some doors do close, God is often in the process of opening another. Again, God is a life giver, not a life taker and thus the ending of one dream, the dying of one hope is often the beginning of or the birthing of another. It may not be the same or have the same aspects of that which has ended. But it is an expression of hope and it provides us an important idea to believe in, to trust and to live into. The Lazarus story fits here too. Remember, had Lazarus not been raised, his life still would not have been over. Through Jesus, he would have been ushered into life after death, which is to say a new way of living and being albeit different from his life on earth.

When our group was preparing to leave Alaska last Fall, we had a final meal together on a Friday night and then were to leave by plane mid-morning the next day. As we prepared to leave the meal that night, our hosts told the group that they had some going away gifts for us and that we needed to stop by the dining room the next morning and picked them up so that we could pack them in our luggage. When I went by, I was surprised to find that among the gifts were three jars. One jar contained a small sampling of smoked Alaskan salmon caught in the nearby waters. The other two jars contained homemade jellies made from two different edible flowers grown on the island. While I was grateful for these and the other gifts, I was immediately concerned. First, my bag was absolutely stuffed and I didn’t know how I could get one more thing in it. But second, these gifts were so fragile. With such a long way to travel and knowing how my suitcase would be thrown around as it was moved from plane to plane alone the way, I was very fearful that one of the jars would break. I could just imagine arriving home after all of that travel and having jelly all over my dirty clothes. Again these gifts were fragile and the journey was going to be long and bumpy.

Hope is God’s fragile gift to us. It is easily jostled, tossed about and broken as we make the journey of life with all of its ups and downs, highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies. Our job is to keep it safe, to not let it break, to guard it safely every step of the way. For it is this hope and trust in God who is always the life giver that will see you and me safely through to the other side. Amen.