In the series “Heart-to-Heart Talks”

John 11:1-45

Get the Sermon Reflection Questions 2020-03-29.

        “Too little, too late.”  Have you ever heard those words? Have you used them in a particular situation?

         I said those words to my high school math students who would come to me at the end of the grading period and ask if they could do extra credit to bring their grade up or pass the class.  Invariably, there was too little they could do in their last-minute effort to pass, and it was too late to make enough of a difference.

         Our team’s surge in the final minutes of the game came up short – it was too little, too late, and they lost in a close one.

         A retail business tried to reinvigorate its earnings by branching into online sales, but it was too little, too late, and the company went out of business a few months later.

         After a lifetime of bad diet and little exercise, Lorna tried to save her health by improving her habits, but it proved to be too little, too late.

         In the news recently, people are asking, “Will our efforts to flatten the curve of this pandemic work, or is it all too little, too late?”

         “Too little, too late” is a sad story. They might even be the saddest words we ever hear. Sentences beginning with “I wish I had” or “If only” are sure to end disappointingly. They tell of missed opportunities, of what-might-have-beens.

         Lazarus was already dead for four days when Jesus arrived. His sisters, Mary and Martha, had been going through all the expected customs of grief. The burial on the day of death. The long procession to the tomb. The long litany of empty-sounding words, all those well-intentioned words of sympathy that can sound a bit hollow to one in the immediacy of loss:

  • I’m sorry for your loss
  • Let us know if there’s anything we can do for you
  • He’s no longer in pain
  • He knew the Lord, so he’s in a better place now

Imagine for a moment you’re Martha. Can you picture the scene? Tearful hugs and empty tissue boxes. Flowers and more on the table. Lots of family members you haven’t seen in a long time. And because you’re Martha, with your servant heart and attention to detail, there’s also the memorial service and the reception afterwards to plan.

But, deep down, Martha would rather not have faced any of this at all. She had tried to avoid it. Four days earlier when Lazarus was in a bad way but still alive, Martha had sent a message to Jesus. She knew the things that God in Jesus had been doing in the broken lives of people; she knew he could help. She was sure he had gotten the message.

But he didn’t come. Now she was grieving the death of her beloved brother.  “If only Jesus had shown up in time,” she said to herself, like everybody else who knew and loved Lazarus.

When Jesus finally arrived and was met by Martha, she said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know God will do whatever you ask.”  It’s an expression of grief, but it’s also an expression of faith. It’s as though she had said, “I don’t know what you can do now, Jesus, but I have hope that you can do something.”

Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”  His timing and his words seemed too little, too late.

         We can understand and forgive Martha for dismissing Jesus’ words to her as yet another empty-sounding expression of sympathy.  Like most Jews of her time, Martha believed in some distant future resurrection.

         “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” she responded.

         What Martha didn’t realize in that moment is that Resurrection was standing right in from of her in the form of a person, a person who said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” a person who has healed all sorts of strangers around the countryside, but then failed to show up for his own friends – Martha, Mary and Lazarus.

         In the face of the loss of a loved one or dear friend, we can be like Martha. There are lots of other kinds of loss to contend with. The child we thought had a bright future becomes trapped in a life-threatening addiction. The relationship we thought was with our soulmate is now in pieces. The mass layoff at work in the job we were planning to retire from. The untimely diagnosis of cancer. The unexpected disruptions and stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic. Everyone has our hidden griefs to bear – those things we keep quietly to ourselves. It’s hard to imagine resurrection in them, so we find ourselves with Martha saying, “If only you’d been here, Lord.”

         Yet, even in her disappointment, Martha acknowledged her belief in Jesus. “Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:27).

         Further on the way to the tomb, Mary and the mourners met Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32) It’s as if she’s saying, “Thanks for coming, Jesus, but it’s too little, too late.” Even the gathered crowd wondered, “He opened the eyes of the blind man; couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” 

Jesus was greatly disturbed and deeply moved, and he began to weep. Then he ordered the tomb opened, over Martha’s very practical objection that the smell would be too bad. In the presence of Martha, Mary, the disciples and the rest, Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb. 

         And, amazingly, miraculously, Martha and Mary and all the onlookers saw Lazarus obey. Martha no longer has to believe in a far-off resurrection of the dead, because, right before her eyes, she has seen her belief come to life. Maybe Jesus’ seemingly delayed ways are far better than our own “I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now” ways.

         When Jesus says he is the Resurrection and the Life, he is saying that God is the God of second chances. God is as faithful as the dawn of each new day, offering newness of life to us in every moment of life. Resurrection and new life are entirely acts of God to which we can only surrender at any given moment.

         A Marine on his way home after serving overseas told his military chaplain, “This story is about me!”  The soldier had gotten into a lot of trouble as a youth.  He could not stand the thought of facing his family again.  But the story of Lazarus gave him hope and courage to face them back home.  He had new life because of Christ.

Pastor Kristina Robb-Dover shares the story of a friend who served as a corrections officer in a juvenile rehabilitation center in Kansas City, Missouri, for 12 years.  One day, a large 14-year-old boy became belligerent. The officer grabbed him in an iron-tight bear hold to restrain this young man who had seen more death and violence in his young life than she could imagine, who everyone thought was a useless “throwaway.” She realized this boy had probably not been hugged in a long time, and so she relaxed her grip. The two stood there, locked in a great big bear hug, the corrections officer and this rough and tough kid who began to sob like a baby who just wanted to be held and told everything would be alright.

Resurrection for Martha. Resurrection for a Marine reuniting with family, for a no-nonsense corrections officer and a hardened, underage criminal. Resurrection for you and for me, too, whatever our circumstances. On God’s terms and in God’s time.[1]

Where do you need resurrection in your life today?  Jesus has come near to you, wherever you are. He hears your plea, “Lord, if only you had been here, if only you were here in my life now, but it’s too little, too late for me.”

Many people struggle with fear. Fear is about struggling with the unknown. It involves worrying about how to live, work, or relate to others. And in these days, it’s being afraid that we’ll get the virus or perhaps pass it on to someone we love; or we’ll lose our job or our investment portfolio. Fear is part of the human condition, even among the faithful. That’s why more than 300 times in the Bible, God reassures people with the words, “Do not be afraid.” For example, in Isaiah 41:10, God says, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” Because God is with us and cares for us, we are raised to new life over fear.

Low self-worth is another, both a psychological and spiritual matter. For some reason, many people struggle to accept their worth in God’s eyes. They feel unworthy, pitiful and even hate themselves. They feel trapped by their circumstances and can only see the negative and hopeless about themselves. But scripture say, “God so loved the world” – that includes you, me, and everyone. You are loved by God, even now, even today.  Even if you may not feel it or believe it, that doesn’t change the fact that God loves you. When we share love with one another and listen without judging others, we are demonstrating the fact that God loves and accepts them.

Another place we might need resurrection is around unforgiveness.  There are many people around us, and some listening today, who are bound by guilt and shame, who can’t forgive themselves.  Unforgiveness of others limits or breaks relationships with others.  They don’t feel accepted.  When we don’t forgive ourselves, we don’t accept ourselves and we struggle with pain, fear and loneliness.  We aren’t free to be who God calls us to be.  Jesus came to give himself for us so that we might rise with him to new life, forgiven and free.

There are many matters that can keep us entombed and in need of resurrection:  grief, anger, bitterness, apathy, and others.  In the midst of your situation, he holds you and weeps with you.  But that’s not all. Jesus called Lazarus to come out, to experience new life and new hope through the power of resurrection.  He calls us in the same way: “Jeff, come out.”

Martha, Mary and Lazarus discovered that, with Jesus, it is never too little, too late. He is the Resurrection and the Life, giving us new life and unbinding us to experience the fullness of God’s grace when we put our trust in him. 

[1] Rev. Kristina Robb-Dover, “The Resurrection and the Life: A Sermon,” Fellowship of Saints and Sinners, https://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2012/07/the-resurrection-and-the-life-a-sermon-2.html. Accessed 03/26/2020.

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