Spring began last week which means we are moving into the beginnings of the prime season for working in our yards and cultivating a garden. For some of us, working in the garden means planting flowers, working with our rose bushes or tending to beds and landscaping around our house. For other of us, working in the garden brings to mind our annual vegetable garden full of tomatoes, squash, okra, zucchini, cucumbers, bell peppers and the like.
As these vegetable gardens are planted in the coming weeks and as we work them, tend them and later enjoy their abundance, we’ll find ourselves talking about them using common phrases. First, we’ll say things like “my tomato plants are really getting tall. Why their already over three feet high.” Then we’ll move along with the passing of time to making statements like, “I’ve got squash plants covered in blooms. Won’t be long now!” Then, a little later, we’ll share “I’ve got cucumbers coming out my ears. Those vines are taking over my garden. Would you like some cucumbers? I’ll be glad to bring you some. Maybe you would like to can some pickles? I can help you make that happen.”
Think about those measuring sticks of our gardens for moment – plants getting taller, blooms that suggest vitality and finally fruit that exhibits most vividly a plant that is healthy and thriving. Of course, these are all signs of growth.
We as people of faith should be growing too. Part of this we understand. We recognize that we should be growing in our understanding of the Bible, in our lives of prayer or in our service to God and God’s world. Yet our faith in God should also be deepening, expanding and developing as our lives go forward and as time goes by too. Just like the plants in our yards and in our vegetable gardens, a growing faith is a sign of health and well being.
This all leads me to share a quote from the fine North Carolina minister Prince Rivers who once said, “the growth point of faith is often the point where we are faced with a crises that we don’t understand.” Now, Prince Rivers didn’t say this in recent days. Instead, he wrote those words in a book published a few years ago. Yet, they are powerful, important words for this very moment in which we find ourselves. And so today, I want to invite us to think about this for a moment. What does it mean for this very crisis that we find ourselves in right now and that we certainly don’t understand, to be a critical place for our faith to grow, deepen and mature? (John, I-III John, Preaching the Word, Rivers & Abby Thornton Hailey, Smyth & Helwys, 2019, pg. 139-140)
I think we have help in answering this question through our text for today from John 11 which at its core is the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha, dealing with a crisis. Their crisis, as you know, is the illness and the death of their brother Lazarus. At the same time, their secondary crisis is that Jesus doesn’t do what they had wanted when they had wanted.
The story begins with Lazarus very sick. Out of desperation and need, Lazarus’ sisters send for their friend Jesus with whom they had a strong friendship. Their desire is that Jesus would come to their home in Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem and do whatever is within his power for their brother. As you know, Jesus receives the word, but he lingers. He doesn’t rush and pack a bag. He doesn’t walk all night to get there as fast as possible. He lingers – for two full days according to the text. In turn, when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has already died. And, as Jesus arrives, it seems to me that Jesus encounters these sisters who have developed two very strong emotions which are grief over their brother’s death and frustration over Jesus’ delay. We see this most vividly in Martha who once she sees Jesus coming their way, rushes out to meet him halfway not even able to let him get to the house first. The sense here is that she cannot hold it in any longer but rather pours out all of her pent up feelings of grief, anger, frustration and bewilderment.
With a calmness, compassion and understanding, Jesus listens to Martha, responds to her concerns and in the end helps her to think about this moment of crisis in a very different and much more healthy way. Yes, Jesus will ultimately raise Lazarus from the grave as we all know. But this moment with Martha where, in conversation, Jesus helps to reshape her thinking may very well be just as critical a moment in the story as is Lazarus’ return to life.
It is a pivot point for Martha. To use Prince Rivers’ statement, it is a crisis point, which she does not understand, where her faith matures. It is an occasion that teaches us about these types of moments for our lives too.
What are the lessons? Let me name a few. They are not new or novel, but they are most needed for a deepening of our own faith in this crisis point that we are currently living through as well.
First, Martha’s faith deepens as she understands that Jesus is at work even when he chooses not to do things her way. Martha had a plan for how Jesus’ should have acted but he didn’t follow the blueprint. Nonetheless, Jesus was at work in his own way. Today, we have an idea of how God should act and what God should do. A deeper faith, however, develops when we have peace with the way God in God’s wisdom chooses to act even when our script isn’t followed.
Second, Martha’s faith deepens as she let’s go of her timetable and embraces God’s timing. This is one of the hardest elements of faith for us to grow into. Like Martha, we want God to act and we want God to act now. I have no doubt that if we are honest, on this last week of March in 2020, we have the same question as Martha. God, why are you lingering? A deepening faith born out of crises comes as we trust God to act as God will and as we trust God to act when God deems best.
Third, and most importantly, Jesus deepens Martha’s faith as he helps her to understand that his primary mission at all times is for us to have life in both this life and the next. This very passage offers us the last and greatest of the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s gospel as here Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life” (vs. 25). Jesus would raise Lazarus but more importantly he would help Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the others present to recognize that his daily desire is for us to find and discover the life giving goodness of God in all places, in all things and at all times. Our God is a God of resurrected life. Sometimes this means miraculous healing, sometimes this points to life after death and sometimes this means finding abundant, rich, full life even in dreadful places.
We don’t get to this type of faith easily or overnight. It is the result of growing and maturing even in the hard places like this very one in which we find ourselves. It is the result of experiencing God’s goodness, mercy and life giving nearness in crisis.
Paul Brand spent his career as a physician, missionary and as the director of a facility for people with leprosy in Louisiana. Ultimately this gifted physician was awarded the Surgeon General’s Medallion which is one of the highest healthcare honors given in our country. Brand also wrote a book with a strange title. It’s called The Gift Of Pain. You heard that right The Gift of Pain. The book opens with Brand telling the story of a little girl named Tanya who was brought to him one day for an evaluation. Tanya had numerous bodily injuries that were primarily self-inflicted. After examining the little girl, Brand made the diagnosis that she was suffering from an unusual disease called Congenital Indifference to Pain. In other words, because she didn’t feel pain, she didn’t realize how badly she was harming herself. What Brand goes on to write about is how his work with patients who had diseases that limited their ability to experience pain had changed his perspective on this element of the human experience. It had helped him to see that human beings need to be able to experience some level of pain in order to remain healthy. Pain says remove your hand from the stove or rest because your ankle is not well. In these regards, pain is a good thing.
Brand, a devout believer, goes on to say that pain and painful situations can also be equally good in life. It is not that we wish pain on ourselves or others but that we realize that life’s painful places can get our attention and grow us in ways other moments simply cannot. (The Gift of Pain, Paul Brand, Zondervan, 1997, pages 3-5)
I don’t think Martha was glad she had to live through her crisis with her brother. But, she did find her faith deepened because of it. The crisis point grew her faith, matured her understanding of Jesus and deepened how her relationship with God helped her to view life.
What about you and I in this crisis point? Can this painful time teach us and grow us? Can we mature to trust God’s ways and God’s timing? And, can we see that God in Christ wants to be a giver of life to us even in these days?
This is a time for hope. This is a time for a deepening faith. It is a painful time. But also a time in which both of these disciplines can grow and flourish.
Be well. Stay healthy. Live into hope. Grow your faith. Remember that this too shall pass. Amen.