I’ve had my share of hard times. I guess we all have. And we get through them. But it sure is hard. I remember back to a time when I was a retail store manager. I like to say that because it sounds more impressive than what I really was. I was a dime store manager. There aren’t any dime stores around anymore and I imagine that a lot of you young folks here don’t even know what a dime store is, or was. Dime stores started a very long time ago. They were stores that sold a little bit of everything and everything they sold was pretty cheap…hence, dime store. Everything was under a dime. Of course, it hadn’t been like that since the great depression. I used to manage a T. G. & Y store in Torrance that was just a little under 10,000 square feet. That’s pretty small. A modern supermarket is over 100,000 square feet.
Well, when you manage a store of this size, you still have to do a lot of physical work. I had to move counters around and help unload the freight. I had a lot of heavy boxes to carry around. One particular week, I spent a lot of time moving counters around and I noticed a pain in the back of my leg. I thought I had pulled a hamstring. But, in fact, I had herniated a couple of discs in my back. Herniated discs are what some people call “slipped discs”. They are not really slipped at all, however. Discs are made of a jelly like substance and when one herniates, the jelly like stuff leaks out and touches the nerves that radiate thought your spinal column. The discs in my back were touching my sciatic nerve, and it hurt…a lot.
No amount of pain medication seemed to make my leg feel better. And then, pretty soon, the pain had extended to just under my butt and down to my foot. I went to the doctor and he ordered me to bed, because that’s what they did back then. They would never recommend that today. I told my supervisor, a guy who oversaw about twenty stores, that I had hurt my back and would need to be off work for at least a month. So there I was in bed, in a great deal of pain. And it didn’t seem to be going away. Even the Tylenol with codeine failed to help.
A month later, I called my boss again to tell him the doctor wanted me to stay in bed longer. That’s when he told me I was fired. The bastard. I should have expected it. It was an unwritten company policy to fire anybody whose back was injured on the job. They wanted to make sure there would be no subsequent injuries. On top of everything else, I had an abscessed tooth, and strep throat. So I had a toothache, a fever, a sore throat, and a back that hurt so badly that it was impossible to get any sleep. On top of everything else, my wife at the time began talking about divorce. I was not a happy man.
It was during this time that I began to study the bible more closely. It’s not that I was such a religious guy. I mean, I did believe in a divine power. And I did have an interest in spiritual thought. But I wouldn’t say that I was any kind of holy Joe or anything. I was not going to church regularly or anything. But there was nothing worth watching on daytime television. These were the days before cable. I had seen one television preacher by the name of Gene Scott, who was pretty weird in a lot of ways, but one thing he did that interested me was that he frequently referred to the ancient Greek texts of the New Testament. It hit me that the original Greek was quite different from the English text in many ways. So I started to study the bible in Greek. It’s not as hard to do as you might think. And hell, I had the time. I wasn’t going anywhere.
Eventually, my wife asked me to leave the house. She gave me until the first of the month. I was still disabled and unable to work, but I could walk a little bit. I moved into a trailer in the same trailer park in which my parents lived. Most of my friends had quit visiting me because, let’s face it, I was depressing to be around. I was depressed and in pain. I can’t say I blame them. So now I was depressed, in pain, and lonely. And I did a lot of praying, but nothing seemed to happen for me. Let me tell you, it was not a good time. But I’m sure you all have your own dark times and they were just as bad for you as mine were for me, probably worse. I think there are times when things are bad and we all wonder if anybody is listening to us at all.
I am sure it was that way for Mary and Martha. According to the gospel of John, they were friends of Jesus. It was Mary who had washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. I guess you would say that she must have liked him. Their brother, Lazarus, was very ill, seriously ill. So they sent for Jesus to come. He had healed so many people. Surely, he would quickly come and heal their brother. He was only two miles away. He could be there in less than an hour.
But when Jesus gets the word, he says that the illness is not life threatening, and he waits two days before heading off to Bethany, where Lazarus lived with his two sisters. After two days, he ups and tells his friends that he is going back to Judea. And his friends say, “Are you crazy? These are the people who just tried to stone you not too long ago. Why do you want to go back there?”
Jesus answers them by saying, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If anyone walks during the day, then that person won’t stumble because he or she sees the light of the world. But if anyone should walk at night, that person will stumble, because the light is not in that person.” Then he said (I assume before they could ask what the hell he was talking about), “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”
So the disciples say, “Well, if he’s asleep, then he will be okay.”
So Jesus says flatly, “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad that I wasn’t there, because now you will see and believe. Let us go to him.”
Thomas (the doubter, remember) says, “Let’s go along and die with him.” So they left and went the two miles and when they got there, they found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. And there were a lot of people there comforting Mary and Martha. And when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she met him on the way, leaving her sister at home.
“Master, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
“Your brother will rise,” said Jesus.
“Yes, I know he will rise at the resurrection on the last day.” (which shows that the many Jews already believed in a life after death long before Jesus). Jesus answered her.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who has faith in me (faithes in me, actually), although dead, will live. And anyone who lives and has faith in me (faithes in me, again) will never die. Do you have faith (faithe) in this?”
“Yes, I have come to believe that you are the anointed one, the one who is to come, the son of God.” After she said this, she went, secretly, to her sister and told her that Jesus wanted to see her. So she went to Jesus.
“Master, if you had been there, my brother would not have died.” Jesus looked at her weeping and then saw all the other people weeping for Lazarus. At this, Jesus became troubled.
He asked, “Where have you laid him?” So they took him to the tomb. Jesus wept. And when people saw him weeping they remarked about how much Jesus must have loved Lazarus, and wondered why this man, who had so recently healed a blind guy, couldn’t have done something to keep the poor man alive.
Jesus said to lift up the stone, but Martha said, “Master, it has already been four days and it will stink!” Jesus reminds her that he had told her to have faith. So the stone is lifted, and Jesus looks up toward the sky and says a prayer so that all the people can hear him, because he wants them to, “Father, thank you for hearing me.” Then he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, Come out!”
Then, the dead man came out, bound hand and foot, and Jesus ordered them to release him. After that, many of the people who were there saw what he did and then believed. (John 11: 1-45, Big Daddy Translation)
It must have looked kind of funny to see Lazarus bunny hopping out of the tomb with his legs tied together. It is interesting to note that he had been in the tomb for four days, because in the Jewish faith, four days in the tomb means he ain’t coming back. After four days, it is assumed that anybody in there is totally and completely dead as a doornail, no mistake about it. And of course, four is the biblical number of completion.
Of course, this story is from the Gospel of John, and that particular gospel is the least biographical of the four. The other three, the synoptic gospels are more interested in the life of Jesus. John is more theological. It is the only gospel that mentions this story, and it is the longest narrative in that gospel with the exception of the passion and death of Jesus. So, in other words, it is quite possible that this story never happened, or that it never happened in this exact way. But it doesn’t matter if the story happened or not. It still teaches the same truths.
For one thing, we all feel from time to time that somehow we have been abandoned by God, or whatever you want to call that force. And we get pissed. The first thing Mary and Martha say is that if only Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died. Man, the Jews are good at guilt, aren’t they? They’ve had thousands of years of practice. We pray, and we want an answer. And we want it right now. We don’t want to wait the two days for Jesus to come. We want our prayers answered right now. But sometimes there are other things at play, not the least of which is that the universe doesn’t revolve around our needs and wants. But notice that Jesus never chastises either of those women for their comments. He just tells Martha to have faith and relax.
This is further proof that God doesn’t mind a little questioning. God doesn’t mind that you want proof. Even Jesus makes a point of saying that he had delayed their journey, and made a big deal of the whole affair so that people would see and believe. And it should be noted here, that everybody, the two sisters, the disciples, all did what Jesus said to do, even though it sounded crazy. They complained, alright, but when push came to shove, the disciples all went back to Judea with Jesus, even though it meant putting their lives in danger. And I’m sure Martha and Mary must have felt really stupid having the tomb opened up in front of everybody. Still, they did it.
And then, we have our own tombs in which we have locked ourselves. For some of us it’s alcohol, for others it’s gambling, or drugs, or just an empty day to day existence that seems to be going nowhere. We are all in our own tombs. And that divine power is calling all of us to come out into the light. I’m sure we all hear that little voice that is telling us to stop those destructive things we are doing to ourselves and live, that voice that is telling us to change our way of thinking. And we know we ought to listen. We tell ourselves that we will one of these days. And some of us pray, like I did, for someone to come and lift us out of our personal hell.
But nobody carried Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus called him forth, and he came, bound hand and foot, as was the practice. Think about it. It would have been so much easier, and kinder, for Jesus to either go into the tomb and heal Lazarus, or at least have him brought out so he could heal him. But he didn’t. He required Lazarus to come out, as difficult as that might have been. I wanted someone to lift me out of my tomb. But in the end, I came forth. I started taking walks as soon as my back got a little better. And then I went back to school. I came forth. I heard the call. I heard it for a long time. I finally, came forth into the light. And now, all those prayers I said in the depths of my despair, have long since been answered.
You see, that’s the deal. God, or whatever you want to call God, wants you to have life, and life more abundant than you’ve ever known, but you have to do something too. You have to make the first move, because that’s faith. Faith is an action based on a belief. Faith makes things happen. And then things happen when they are supposed to happen, when it is the right time. Most of the people I know have something that is holding them down, keeping them back, keeping them from enjoying life to its fullest. We all have our own little tombs, the places we hide ourselves. Come forth. Come into the light. It’s nice out.