Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Personal

Text used – John 11:1-44

  • Stories make up the realm of who we are – our past, our present, and even our future. Stories build meaning. Stories construct our shared experiences. Stories connect us to one another and to the world around us. And it’s been this way as long as humans have been communicating with one another.
    • Oldest known form of written language from ancient Mesopotamia[1] (northern edge of the Persian Gulf → modern day Kuwait/Iraq/Iran) dates back to around 3400 B.C.E. → But long before that, people were telling stories.
    • Oldest known cave painting recently found in limestone caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are at least 45,500 yrs. old[2] → But even before that, people were telling stories.
    • People told stories to explain natural phenomena. They told stories to remember and pass on their history. They told stories to teach and entertain their children. And, of course, they told stories that connected them to the Divine – to whatever god or set of gods they worshiped.
      • Stories of their understandings of the Divine
      • Stories of their worship of the Divine
      • Stories of the actions of the Divine that either they had seen or perceived themselves or stories of those in the past who had seen and perceived the Divine
      • Yes, friends, stories and faith have gone hand-in-hand for millennia – as long as human beings have been worshiping.
    • And as Christians, we are no different. Every Sunday, we read a part of our Story of faith. We try to glean knowledge and insight and understanding from the stories of others’ experiences with God and apply it to our own lives and actions. We base our actions in worship – both corporate worship and our own individual prayer times – on the stories passed down to us in the Scriptures, especially those pertaining to our sacraments. And we share our own experiences of God in our lives and in the world around us – the glimpses and whispers and nudges (sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle) of God moving and working in us, guiding and protecting us. In short, we share our testimonies – our own stories of faith. → 2 reasons we do this according to Thomas Long
      • FIRST, it’s about speaking Truth – Long: Christians believe that we cannot tell the truth, not the whole truth, without talking about God, and if we cannot tell the whole truth, we cannot be fully alive as human beings.[3] → Telling our stories – particularly those parts of our stories when we experience God’s presence in our own lives, those places where the threads of our own stories are so interwoven with the threads of God’s story that we cannot tell them apart … telling particularly those parts of our stories is an integral part of who we are. A part that we cannot ignore if we’re going to live fully into our identity as Christians.
        • Important to notice that this has nothing to do with converting others → If someone else hears your story and chooses or feels led to embark on their own journey of faith or, even more dramatically, to become a Christian, then that’s incredible! But we don’t share our testimonies for the sole purpose of bringing about change in someone else. We share our testimonies because we can’t not share them.
          • Long: Even if every person in the world were already a Christian, we would still need to talk about God in the same way that a mariner needs to talk about the sea. We would need to talk about God to be truthful, to be whole, for life to be full.[4]
      • SECOND, it’s about continually discerning what we believe – Long: We don’t just say things we already believe. To the contrary, saying things out loud is a part of how we come to believe. We talk our way toward belief, talk our way from tentative belief through doubt to firmer belief, talk our way toward believing more fully, more clearly, and more deeply. Putting things into words is one of the ways we acquire knowledge, passion, and conviction.[5] → Our faith journeys are just that – journeys, ongoing and in process, always changing and developing and becoming. And talking through our faith in terms of the ways we see God moving and working in our own lives is a huge part of that journey.
  • In their essence, this is what the gospels do. They are the written accounts of people trying to work through their faith – people coming to believe – as they work through experiences of the Living God in Christ Jesus. → particularly the case for John because it was written so late
    • Already some established faith practices and early theology about Jesus as the Son of God by the time John wrote his gospel roughly 70 yrs. after Jesus’ death and resurrection
    • And it’s because John is such a testifying gospel – because John’s gospel is such an inextricable mix of experience/story on one hand and theology/belief system on the other hand … it’s because of this particular combination that we’re focusing so much on testimony throughout Lent this year.
  • Today’s gospel story = what I think is the most powerful story of Jesus’ own testimony, his own, personal experience and expression of faith in one of life’s rawest and most difficult moments: a moment of grief
    • Today’s story begins by explaining Lazarus is ill → his sisters, Mary and Martha, send for Jesus → At this point in the gospel, Jesus and the disciples has been in Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Dedication – what we know more commonly as Hanukkah. After leaving Jerusalem, they had headed “back across the Jordan [River] to the place where John had baptized at first.”[6] This is where those sent by Mary and Martha find Jesus and relay their message: “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”[7]
    • Then we come to what is probably the most challenging section of today’s text – this portion where Jesus chooses to linger at the Jordan River for two more days before heading to Bethany. Initially, he tells the messengers and the disciples that Lazarus’ illness will not be fatal, but as they prepare to set out, Jesus reveals to the disciples that Lazarus has, in fact died.
      • Difficult because we all know the worry and desperation that Mary and Martha are sitting in as they wait for Jesus … even as Jesus, himself, chooses to wait a couple more days
        • Sat by the bed of loved ones who have been ill
        • Received news of diagnoses in doctors’ offices and over the phone that has brought our world to a screeching halt
        • Prayed for healing and wholeness with every ounce of our being
        • Wept tears of grief and even anger at funerals of those who have died because of their illnesses
        • We’ve been in those places – in those moments – because of our deep love for the people we were with – a love that spans miles, a love that endures treatments, a love that sparks hope even into the darkest moments of diagnosis and side effects and illness and pain. And because we know just how hard those moments are, we can be frustrated with Jesus in this part of the story – because the “Why, Jesus?” on our minds and our lips in this moment is a “Why, Jesus?” we’ve voiced before. The waiting part of this story makes us uncomfortable … because the waiting part of life makes us uncomfortable.
    • But it’s also in this moment and in the rest of the story as it unfolds that we see Jesus at his most vulnerable, at his most human, at his most personal in John’s gospel. When Jesus and the disciples finally reach Bethany and Jesus is confronted with the grief of Mary, Martha, and all the others who had come to mourn Lazarus, Jesus grieves as well. – text: When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!”[8]
  • And it’s in this moment – this moment when Jesus allows the grief of the community to overcome him, this moment when Jesus is fully personal and fully present and fully human, this moment when the Son of God, indeed when God Incarnate!, weeps in response to the shock and pain and grief of illness and death … it’s in this moment that we witness Jesus’ own, personal testimony in his actions.
    • Plenty of places throughout the gospel – and even plenty of places just in today’s reading – when Jesus testifies with his words
      • Jesus’ conversation with Martha before they go find Mary: Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”[9]
    • But when Jesus weeps at the tomb of his friend – when Jesus grieves in and with the community that surrounded Mary and Martha – we see Jesus’ testimony in his actions. We see him embodying the tender blessing of love and kinship as well as the stinging pain of loss. We see him embodying the reality that steadfast faith doesn’t always mean a life of ease and joy, a life without hardship or suffering. To the contrary, we see him embracing suffering and pain as an unavoidable part of a life of faith as is experiencing that suffering and pain within the loving embrace of community.
      • Rev. Erica Schemper (who led worship here back in January) wrote a daily devotional piece for the These Days publication on this passage: It’s easy to move quickly to the miracle when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But here, right in the absolute center of John’s Gospel, is this beautiful story of Jesus grieving with a community. He weeps when he realizes his friend is dead. He weeps when he sees the depth of sadness in those around him. We all need the space to sit with our sadness. John 11 reminds us that God came among us not just to raise us from the dead but also to stop for a moment and weep with us.[10]
    • Yes, at the end of today’s story, Lazarus is miraculously raised from the dead – a powerful foreshadowing testimony to what is to come for Jesus himself, especially since this is John’s last account of any kind of lengthy encounter for Jesus before he turns to the Passion Narrative that will lead Jesus to the cross … to the tomb … to his own death and resurrection. And when Jesus resurrects Lazarus – when he instructs those with him to remove the stone from the mouth of Lazarus’ tomb and calls Lazarus forth, when he lifts up a prayer of thanks to God and give the final command to “Untie [Lazarus] and let him go” – Jesus is completing the testimony of his actions. With his own tears and his grief, Jesus testifies to faith in the struggle – in the “valley of the shadow of death.” And with his own act of resurrecting Lazarus, Jesus testifies to the eternal hope and truth that even death cannot defeat the power and presence of God’s love. It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again. Amen.

[1] Aisling Serrant. “The World’s Five Oldest Written Languages” from DigVentures, https://digventures.com/2013/10/friday-five-five-oldest-written-languages/.

[2] Sarah Cascone, “Archaeologists Have Discovered a Pristine 45,000-Year-Old Cave Painting of a Pig That May Be the Oldest Artwork in the World” from ArtNet, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/indonesia-pig-art-oldest-painting-1937110.

[3] Thomas G. Long. Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 5.

[4] Long, 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jn 10:40.

[7] Jn 11:3.

[8] Jn 11:32-36.

[9] Jn 11:21-26.

[10] Erica Schemper. “Sunday, October 31, 2021: Good Grief” in These Days, Oct-Dec 2021. (Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation).