“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” Psalm 130:1
I’ve titled this sermon The End of Hope. On the one hand we might think of a sense of hopelessness. The end of hope as in, my hope has run out. But the word “end” has another meaning, as in “goal.” What is the end or the goal of Christian hope? All of our readings this morning bring us into contact with both of these meanings.
For example, we know of no other life than one marked by pain and suffering. We are born, we live, we strive after things that we can never quite attain, we hurt others, we’re hurt by others, our loved ones fall sick, we lose our money, our health, and in the end we die. All of us. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” We are acquainted you and I, as is the Psalmist, with the depths.
Consider the story in today’s gospel involving our patron saints Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus is ill so the sisters send a message to their friend Jesus. They were convinced that Jesus is not one who loves and then abandons those he loves. Yet, Jesus did not mention this request to his disciples nor did he send a message back to say, “We’re on our way.” Rather, he stayed where he was for two more days. And back in Bethany, Mary and Martha watched their beloved brother die. For Christ, it was more important to conquer death than to cure disease.
Perhaps we think that because we are Christians that we should not suffer. That we should be permitted to avoid pain and loss. That we should get a pass. But friends, here is an important truth: the Christian life is no escape from suffering. And, moreover, the hope of the Christian faith is not that we would get through life unscathed.
So, what was Jesus doing during the two days he waited? Perhaps he was praying, not only for Lazarus but for himself and the journey that lay ahead of him. After all, Jesus knew that he was headed to his own death on a cross. A death which was being prefigured now in Lazarus’ own death. Perhaps, as some of the Church Fathers said, he was granting free reign to the grave, allowing the realm of darkness to seize his friend, drag him down to the underworld, and take possession of him (Peter Chrysologus). Perhaps Jesus permits this so that human hope may perish entirely and human despair reach its lowest depths so that the deed he is about to accomplish may then clearly be seen to be the work of God, not of man.
Have you ever felt the pain, the loss, of your hope coming to an end?
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” Mary and Martha, their hope it perished along with their brother, didn’t it? As he was wrapped in burial clothes and laid in the tomb they entered their own tomb, the depths of despair. And from that very place they, like the Psalmist, cry out to our Lord.
Martha upon hearing that Jesus was on his way ran out to meet him: “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
At first glance, Martha’s proclamation of faith in light of her deep sense of grief and loss seems admirable. However, I can’t help but wonder if Martha was short-circuiting or even perhaps denying the pain of her loss. She mentions it but then refuses to stay there. It seems almost as if her proclamation of faith is an attempt to climb out of the depths herself. To be strong. Can we sometimes be too quick to rush from the sorrow of Good Friday to the joy of Easter Day?
Contrast this with Mary who later runs out to meet Jesus. Her words are the same as Martha’s except she does not include the, “But even now,” of her sister. All Mary has is grief: “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she cries as she falls at Christ’s feet and weeps. “If only…” “If only you had been here…”
As Mary falls at Christ’s feet weeping, she embodies what it is like to truly cry out to God from the depths: “Lord hear my voice!” I was overwhelmed this week by Jesus’ response to Mary. Does he try to fix the pain of her loss with words of comfort and encouragement? He does not. Rather, when he saw her and those with her weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” and he himself began to weep. I love N.T. Wright’s translation: “Jesus burst into tears.”
“If only…” You know this pain. It’s a kind of nostalgia, not for the past as it was, but for the present that could have been, if only the past had been just a little bit different.
If only my father hadn’t of left when I was so young; if only I hadn’t of lost my job when I did; if only I had of been able to carry my child to term; if only my wife’s health wasn’t so fragile; if only I hadn’t of spent so many hours at work when the kids were young; if only I could have kept my promise. “If only…”
The “If only” of suffering points us towards another “If only.” The mystery of iniquity, the “If only” of sin. This was Israel’s idolatry, their abandonment of God that left them cut off from God’s Spirit to become a valley of dry bones, void of life. This is what Paul in his letter to the Roman’s calls “the flesh”, which is hostile to God and which when we set our minds on it is death (8:6, 7). And like Lazarus, this is the tomb in which we are trapped, death has come over us and the stench has filled the air. Yet just here Christ met Lazarus, and he has met us here also.
When you are in the midst of chaos and confusion, pain and suffering; when your sin catches up to you and you can no longer hide; when all of your striving and grieving is drawn out; when your tears dry up and your hope is exhausted and you come to the end of yourself, cry out! Cry out to the Lord from right there in the middle of it all, in the depths of your sin and suffering, cry out! “Lord, hear my voice!”
The Lord does hear. He hears the cry of Mary and Martha and what does he do? Does he sweep onto the scene and declare that tears are beside the point, that Lazarus is not dead, only asleep? No. He weeps.
Even though he has no doubt about what his Father will do through him there is no sense of triumphalism here. There is, rather, the man of sorrows, acquainted with our grief and pain, sharing and bearing it to the point of tears (N.T. Wright). There, right there, when Mary and Martha had reached the end of their hope they met the end of their hope.
And the tears that he pours out are the living water that we heard about two weeks ago, the Spirit of life for whom we and that Samaritan woman thirst. And Jesus Christ takes the tears of Mary and Martha, and he takes our tears, up into himself and pours them out with his own tears. A holy offering of prayer before the Father Almighty.
And his weeping is active, it means that he is fighting for them. On the way to the grave of Lazarus, as he wept with those who wept in the face of the undeniable reality of death, Jesus’ tears were themselves a resolute “No” to this reality. No! Sin and death will not have the final say. Jesus is going to the cross. And standing there outside of Lazarus’ tomb, on death’s doorstep, he gives them and us a glimpse of the glory of God that had come into the world in him: “LAZARUS, COME OUT!” And the dead man came out.
He calls you out as well, out of the depth of your pain and despair, out of the tomb of your sin. Jesus, the resurrection and the life, enters into the midst of our sin and suffering and calls us out. The sweet aroma of his words cast out the stench of death. In the words of the Psalmist, the Lord indeed hears our cry from the depths and in him there is forgiveness.
The hope of the Christian faith is not that we would get through life unscathed. Rather, the hope of the Christian life is that Jesus has taken all of our wounds, all of our pain, all of our sin, to the cross and that if we are courageous enough to go there with him, to be united with him in his death, then we will also be resurrected with him.
This very hope is given to us every time we gather like this. You receive this very hope, a hope that reaches beyond your hopelessness, when you receive the bread in your hands and the wine on your lips. Every time you receive Holy Communion you are brought near to his body on the cross and nearer still to his risen body and given a share in his very life. His body broken, his blood shed, his love poured out to heal our wounds and sorrows and forgive our sins.
I began by saying that we know of no other life than one marked by pain and suffering. This is true but it is incomplete for what we have witnessed this morning is that when we come to the end of our hope we can cry out to the one who is the end of our hope, Jesus Christ. And we can trust that when we cry out to him from the depths he will hear our voice, and he will meet us there, and he will take our sorrow, and he will call us out, and he will give us himself, and he will raise us up.
So, we need not fear. We can say with Thomas: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Indeed, is this not the Lenten journey itself? Following Jesus to the cross? So let us go with Jesus for we cannot live with him except by having died with him! And if we go with him, even if it’s into the jaws of death, we will be walking in the light (N.T. Wright). Amen.