Sunday, April 3, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 17:00; sermon starts around 22:34)
When I was growing up, one of my all-time favorite action movies was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. For my money, it’s the best out of the original trilogy. It’s an exciting movie: fighting Nazis, solving puzzles, finding clues – watching Sean Connery! But looking back, even as a kid, I think one of the things I actually connected with most about the movie was its themes of faith – which, you know, looking back now as a pastor, makes a lot of sense!
In the movie, Indiana Jones is racing against the Nazis to find the Holy Grail – and for Indy, this becomes personal when the Nazis shoot his father and the Grail is the only thing that can save his life. To reach the Grail, Indy has to face three challenges, all of which are related to faith in some way. In the first challenge, he figures out just in time that he needs to “kneel before God” in order to avoid having his head sliced off! In the second challenge, he figures out – after a brief misstep – that he needs to spell out the name of God in Latin: Jehovah (which, of course, we know in Latin starts with an “i”!).
Indy’s cleverness and his obscure knowledge help him make it through the first two challenges unscathed. But the third challenge is different. In the third challenge, Indy has to cross a massive chasm, so deep and so dark that the bottom of it isn’t even visible. Also not visible is any way to get across; it’s way too far to jump, and there’s no bridge across it, no ropes, no puzzle to solve, no traps to spring, no nothing. Knowledge and cleverness won’t help him here; this challenge requires something more from him: a leap of faith. He has to step off that ledge, trusting that God will reveal to him the way across.
So Indy looks deep inside himself, musters up his faith, and steps straight out over the darkness of the chasm… and is shocked when his foot connects with solid stone – he discovers that there actually is a very narrow stone bridge there, hidden by an optical illusion. And the kind of funny thing is that the bridge was there the whole time, even when Indy didn’t believe that there was a way across. But without his faith, he never would have found out that there was, in fact, a way.
It’s been a long time since I watched Last Crusade, but this scene in particular came to my mind as I was reading our first reading for this morning. Isaiah writes that God is the one “who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,” the one who makes “a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” These images are meant to call back to God leading the Israelites safely through the Red Sea and their subsequent journey through the wilderness. But also, in an era long before planes or cars or GPS, crossing an ocean or an uncharted desert was virtually impossible. And so Isaiah’s words paint God not just as one who leads us through the wilderness; God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.
Isaiah writes these words to people who have no way forward – to the people of Israel, living in exile. The Babylonian Empire had conquered their land and divided their people, taking many of them from their homes to live out the rest of their lives in Babylon. Their position was powerless and hopeless. I would venture to guess that probably none of us gathered here knows what it’s like to be conquered or deported or violently forced to leave our homes. But I can imagine I’m not the only one here who feels overwhelmed and even hopeless sometimes when I read the news about what’s happening in our world these days. From new strains of corona to climate catastrophe to the rising costs of… well, everything, the bad news can feel overwhelming. I feel so powerless to turn the tide in a world that seems hell-bent on violence and destruction – powerless to stop leaders like Putin and others who are driven by their own greedy ambitions, who don’t care about the well-being of others.
But the words that Isaiah wrote to a people lost in exile are words that still ring true for us. God will act to bring life and peace and healing, even when division and death and destruction make that seem impossible. Just as God has done before, God will make a way where there is no way.
And there is no one who knows this truth better than the family in our gospel reading for today. In this reading, we encounter Lazarus and his family – post-resurrection – as they welcome Jesus and his disciples for dinner at their home in Bethany. As you probably remember, this family had been in a pretty hopeless situation. Lazarus had been extremely sick, and the family sent word to Jesus, begging him to come and heal him. But Lazarus died before Jesus arrived and his family lost hope; there was nothing left for them to do, no way forward – after all, death is usually pretty final. But Jesus shows up anyway and marches right into their hopeless situation. He doesn’t get there just in the nick of time to miraculously snatch Lazarus back from the jaws of death. He shows up and resurrects a man who has been dead for four days to show that death itself is no match for the power of God. He makes a way where there is no way.
And now, in the last days before his own death, it kind of makes sense that we find Jesus here, in the company of this family. He spends time with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus because he knows they get it; they understand the importance and the meaning of this moment. And they know how to be caring and present with someone in the last days of their life. Jesus walked with this family and wept with them during their darkest hour, and now they are here for him in his darkest hour.
And they don’t shrink away from the reality that Jesus is going to die. Instead, Mary pours out perfume and lovingly anoints Jesus for his burial. It actually reminds me of a post I saw the other day from someone I grew up with; she recently lost her mother and wrote this really moving post about how hard it was to go and do her mother’s hair for the last time – but she wrote that she “wouldn’t have it any other way.” The gift that Mary gives Jesus is extravagant, not just because of how much it cost, but because of the costly love with which she gives it. But she and her family wouldn’t have it any other way.
The one person who doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of this moment is Judas. He criticizes Mary’s generous act and sees it as a waste – he complains that this expensive perfume should have been sold so that the money could be given to the poor. But Jesus calls his bluff. He says to Judas, “you always have the poor with you” – if you really cared so much about them, you could have given to the poor literally at any time, but you didn’t. Jesus sees that Judas isn’t sincerely concerned about the poor; he’s just trying to deflect the heavy reality of this situation. Judas isn’t willing to sit with Jesus in the shadow of death like Mary and Martha and Lazarus. He’s in denial about what comes next, because he’s too terrified to deal with it.
Fear keeps Judas clinging to the edge of the chasm rather than stepping out in faith. He doesn’t trust God enough to discover that there actually is a way across, even though he can’t see it. And what’s sad is that Judas should have known – he was there with Mary and Martha and the other disciples when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. If he’d had just enough faith to follow Jesus into the shadow of the cross, he would have found out, as they do, that with God, death is not the end. Lazarus was just a foretaste of the feast to come. Christ has turned the valley of the shadow of death itself into the path of life.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have faith in in the power of God’s goodness and life – faith that God makes a way where there is no way. And this faith enables them to walk beside their friend Jesus into the darkness he is facing, just as he once walked with them. This is the same faith that has now been handed down to us. It lives on in our ministries of prayer and care for the neighbors sitting next to us in the pew and for our neighbors around the world. This faith gives us the courage and compassion and hope to walk beside one another through the hardest moments of our lives – faith to walk with one another into the darkness, just as God has walked with us.
This is the Way of Christ, the path of discipleship. And as his followers, we know that this isn’t the path of fear; this isn’t the path of keeping it light and avoiding death. The way of discipleship is the way of the cross. And so we step forward off the ledge, into the unknown, trusting that even where there is no way, God is the one who makes a way.