All the Good We Cannot Do | Lent 5 | April 2

Text: John 11:1-45 (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

(The sermon began with an abridged dramatic retelling of the short story, “The Fix,” by Percival Everett.  Listen to the audio above or read the full text at the link HERE.)


This is how Percival Everett’s short story titled “The Fix” ends, with a literal cliffhanger.  It is a story I first heard over 5 years ago, but it is one that has always stuck with me because, as any good short story does, it raises provocative questions without giving easy answers. 

And I couldn’t help but come back to it this last week as I studied the scripture passage from the lectionary for today.  Mary and Martha are hardly an angry mob with torches and pitchforks, but their incessant pleading with Jesus and their slightly passive aggressive insistence that he could have done something couldn’t help but make me think of this story.  It’s dangerous to try to start drawing too many direct parallels between the two stories, but as I reflect on both of them, I wonder if we don’t start to miss something if we think that Jesus just came to be our fix-it man. 

Fixing things is complicated business. 

But I think that so often this is how we treat our faith, how we think about what it means to believe in Jesus, even if we wouldn’t admit it outright.  Surely Jesus will fix the broken things in our lives whether it’s our radios or our relationships.  Maybe with a piece of gum or a little mud, Jesus will put things right in a jiffy.  Maybe if we pray hard enough, or get enough likes on that Facebook post Jesus will move us to the front of the line and get to work on whatever it is that we need fixed. 

But fixing things is complicated business.

And likewise, if we have this view of what it means to believe in Jesus as the world’s fix-it man, then following after him, being a disciple, will likely mean that we too find ourselves attempting to be fix-it people.  We too can sometimes allow our faith to become only a burden if we think our job is simply to fix all the broken parts of the world.  Maybe as you’ve walked this inward journey during Lent, you have found yourself feeling overwhelmed by the weight of the world, not knowing what you are supposed to do, where you are being called, feeling stretched in too many ways like a sea that is slowly being emptied in order to fill the world’s dry valleys. 

Perhaps you too sometimes feel burdened by all the good you cannot do.

When I first read the story of Lazarus, one of the things that jumped out at me was that if you look at the numbers in this story and assume that there was about a day worth of travel between where Jesus was and Lazarus’ home in Bethany, then by the time Jesus got the message that his friend was ill, Lazarus was likely already dead.  The Jesus of John’s gospels is ever the stoic character, so at first he seems to treat the situation as if Lazarus’ life is just a convenient object lesson, telling his disciples that he’s glad he wasn’t there so that they might believe.  Ouch!  Notice that he doesn’t say anything like that directly to Mary or Martha. 

Sure, Jesus was able to show up a little late in the game and bring Lazarus back, but I find myself alongside both Mary and Martha feeling a little indignant about the fact that if Jesus had just been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have had to suffer and all those who love him wouldn’t have had to go through all that pain watching him die. 

Jesus could have fixed it all if he had just been there.  But fixing things is complicated business.

We could speculate endlessly about what Jesus knew and when and what he could have done, but to me the more intriguing question is what are we to do with a savior who, much like us, apparently couldn’t be everywhere, who couldn’t always keep those he loved from suffering, who sometimes shows up late.

Do we assume that saviors are like wizards and they always show up precisely when they mean to?  Or perhaps do we need to reexamine and adjust our understanding of what salvation really means?

The first half of John’s gospel is filled with a series of miraculous signs and long speeches by Jesus often related to those signs.  Jesus feeds the 5,000 and then spends some time talking about how he is the Bread of Life.  Jesus turns water into wine, he walks on water, and heals some people.  There is some speculation as to what counts as an official “sign,” but it is traditionally thought that the raising of Lazarus from the dead is the seventh and final sign.

I think we run into trouble when we confuse the sign for the thing it points to, when we think salvation means that every little thing will miraculously be fixed by God if we just believe enough, or if God isn’t busy at the moment. 

The miraculous signs displayed the power of God present in Jesus, but they, themselves, were not the point and we shouldn’t let them become the point.  I have to believe there were probably plenty of other people around Galilee who could have used some healing.  There were probably plenty of other people around Bethany who had died, who were hungry, who needed things fixed in their lives. 

But if this is all Jesus is good for, then our faith rests on pretty shaky ground.  If our faith is contingent on everything turning out alright, we might not have that faith for long. 

When Martha comes out to meet Jesus along the way, their conversation helps make this point clear.  Martha assures Jesus that she knows that her brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.  This is mainstream Jewish thought.  But Jesus looks at her and says, “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.”  He asks if she believes this, and it is here that she makes her declaration of faith, telling him she knows that he is the Christ, the anointed one. 

This declaration of faith from Martha comes before Jesus raises her brother from the dead, and even though Jesus seems to be trying to tell her that Lazarus will live again, her faith in him does not seem to be contingent on that happening in the immediate future. 

The salvation that Jesus offers us, the eternal life that he gives to us, is not something that happens in some far off future.  Eternal life is available now, in the present moment. 

The good news is not that following Jesus means we will not face death.  This shows just the opposite.  The really good news is not that Jesus came to fix every little problem, but rather that Jesus came to show us that none of the problems of the world, not even death, can separate us from God.  Likewise, the good news we are called to is not to fix all the world’s problems, but to call forth awareness of God’s presence all around. 

Even though we cannot bring people back from the dead, like Jesus we can enter into places of brokenness and weep, sharing the world’s pain and insisting that even here, God is with us.  Even in the darkest night or the deepest pain, nothing is lost on the breath of God. 

In the end, even though Lazarus was brought back from the dead, I think we have to admit that even this, in all its miraculous glory, was mostly just a temporary fix.  The official lectionary passage cuts off right before we read about how the raising of Lazarus led the religious elite to become even more determined in their efforts to kill Jesus and now also to kill Lazarus as well.  

Fixing things is a complicated business, and real salvation must be more than just a temporary fix.

And so my wish for us, my friends, is:
-That we would come to know a savior who is more than a simple fix-it man.
-That even in our deepest despair, we would find God with us.
-And finally, that we would understand our calling as followers of Jesus to be about bringing an awareness of God to every moment.