I am not, by nature, a patient person. I’m not impatient in an “angry” kind way, like getting mad if someone cuts me off on the freeway…that’s not what I’m talking about. No, it’s more the kind of impatience where I don’t like to wait for things. If I decide to do something, I don’t want to wait. I want to do it now. It’s kind of more of an “immediate gratification” sort of thing. If we make a plan, I want to get it in gear, so that we can get to the outcome. I don’t like to wait.
So this idea…of sitting…and waiting…of quarantine…I mean I know it’s critical…but I may go bonkers.
So I find myself sympathizing mightily with Mary and Martha, the friends of Jesus, in our Gospel story today. “Come quickly!” is the message they send to Jesus. “Because our brother Lazarus…your friend…is ill and may die.” And Jesus’ response to their plea for emergency medical assistance? “Ok. I’ll get there.”
And Jesus, he then waits two more days before leaving to see Lazarus, and then it’s a full day’s walk.
And so now it’s four days later, when Jesus finally makes it over to Mary and Martha’s. And Martha just gives Jesus a piece of her mind. And as an impatient person, I’m kind of right there with her: “Hey, don’t rush right over, Jesus…Mr. Savior…Mr. Compassionate. It’s too late. Lazarus is dead. He’s already been entombed…for 3 days…”. or as it says in the elegant translation of this story, from the King James version, “Already yet he stinketh.”
Excuse me? Shouldn’t Mr. Compassion have rushed right over, and save these two sisters, not to mention Lazarus, all of this grief? Isn’t that your definition of “friendship?”
What was Jesus doing that was more important than aiding a friend in dire need?
John just says “Jesus waited.”
Am I the only impatient person who finds this 3-day delay to be a bit insensitive and strange?
When our son, Samuel was 6, he wasn’t feeling well and so Lori took him to the doctor. The doctor said “he has an infection. It could be serious. I want you to take him down to Minneapolis Children’s Hospital now. I will call and tell them he’s on the way. Do not wait. Do not go home. Go there right now now.”
It was maybe the fastest I ever got anyone anywhere. I’m not even sure that the wheels of our minivan touched the ground.
So Jesus’ 3 day delay is weird to me. And when I read it, my impatient personality gets a little bent out of shape.
Now, it’s true, that when Jesus does get to the cemetery, he pulls off a spectacular resuscitation.
“Lazarus! Arise! Unbind him! Let him go!” And Lazarus wanders out of the tomb. That’s impressive. And yes, “all’s well that ends well…right?” But still…a 3 day delay?
You may have heard people use the responsive phrase “God is good…all the time. And then “All the time…God is good.” It’s a common enough phrase. I’ve used it myself. If it’s true that God is good, all the time, why then a 3-day postponement to do good? It seems to fly in the face of our understanding of God’s goodness.
I believe not only that God is love, but that God is love “for us.” I believe Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. But why the wait? Why these empty spaces? Why the wasted time? Why the hopeless despair of waiting? Why the grief and loss that Mary and Martha had to feel? Why the unanswered questions? Why the delayed salvation, if God is God, for us?
What good is God’s goodness, if God’s goodness is postponed?
This isn’t the first time that the actions…the results of God’s love and mercy have seemed “delayed.”
You know, from the day that the Jewish people, the Hebrews, were defeated and entered slavery, until the time that they were delivered from slavery, in the story of the Exodus, was 400 years. 400 years!
Just before Moses went to confront Pharaoh, do you remember the story of the burning bush? God shows up to Moses in the flames and says to him: “I am the God of your forefathers. I have heard the cry of my people. I have come down to deliver them from the hand of Pharaoh.”
Now, it doesn’t show up anywhere in the Bible, but don’t you think Moses might have felt just a little conflicted? “Hey Lord that’s great, thank you…but about time…we’ve been slaves for 400 years…I mean, no rush or anything…”
Don’t you know people who have been praying for something for a long time? Maybe it’s been a health issue…or maybe a family problem…or maybe it’s anxiety…I know people. I’m sure you do too. Who knows? Maybe it’s you.
And of course, I can’t not name the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Or in this case, not in the room. It’s Sunday morning, and here I sit in the Sanctuary with just a few of us, and you are at home. And we have for weeks now been praying for relief, and for health, and for protection…and instead of any of those things, we get quarantine and “stay at home.” The peak of the curve still seems to be pretty far ahead of us.
And I feel a little…actually a lot…like Mary and Martha. I’m impatient. “Oh Lord, if you had been here, people would not be sick…we would not be in quarantine…”
But then I catch myself. Really Todd? Is that how it works? Because clearly, the Lord is here. God is showing up in the work of the researchers, and the medical providers, and the nurses and lab techs, and the first responders, and in the community that is caring for each other.
Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian at Duke Divinity School, said that “Israel’s faith was long training in being out of control.” Will Willamon says that faith is “being out of control, in your relationship with God, without despising God, for God’s delay.”
These are actually a pretty good definitions, aren’t they? You’ve got to learn the patience to live lives that can sometimes feel out of control. To be vulnerable to the will, and the pace of God. To have faith is to learn to wait, even when we don’t understand why we have to wait, and even when we don’t want to wait.
It is hard to wait for God. And this is where my impatience shows through.
- God, I’d like some answers…now.
- God, I want our problems solved…now.
- I want health and healing for all of God’s people…now.
- God, I want your plans fulfilled…and I want them on my timeline!
We talk a lot about grace, here at Trinity. Grace means gift. And when we talk about it, we talk about the undeserved nature of grace. You don’t do a thing to earn it. But grace is not grace if it is predictable…or programmable…or happens on our demand. Grace is the work of God, and it happens in God’s good time.
Maybe that is the key reminder here for us. God works in God’s own time. Not in mine.
It makes me wonder: Perhaps the opposite of impatience is not just patience. Perhaps the opposite of impatience is trust. Maybe there is a deep link between being patient and trusting in what God is doing. We don’t have to understand what God is doing in order to trust God.
After all, when I was a kid, I never completely understood what my parents’ intentions were. If I would ask them for something…sometimes the answer was “yes,” and sometimes it was “no.” sometimes it happened on my timeline, but often it did not. And though I would sometimes be frustrated, I just had to trust.
Is it different now with God? I don’t begin to understand how God works. Instead, I need to trust that God works.
Here’s what the current health crisis has reminded me of:
- Our lives are not under our sole control.
- We live on God’s time, not ours, and;
- We are utterly dependent on God to do for us, what we cannot do ourselves.
I don’t have an answer as to why this health crisis is happening, and I don’t know how long it will last. I do believe that God has laid out a plan for us, and is working through the medical systems, the medical providers, clinics and hospitals, and that we need to follow as they ask. We need to trust.
And most importantly, I believe God is love. I believe that God reaches out to us in love and saves us…redeems us…it may not happen within my timeline, and I can’t begin to understand how it happens, but it always happens. And I need to continue to remind my impatient self, to simply trust in that.
Trust in the God of love who raised Lazarus from the dead. Trust in the God of love who walks with you through this crisis, and who walks with you every day of your lives.
We wait. And we trust.
Thanks be to God!
Note: The direction of this sermon was inspired by the writings of Wil Willamon and Stanley Hauerwaus.