I don’t know if you’re fans of Oprah or not, in my house we pretty much are. There’s all sorts of things you can poke fun at, her singsongy way of introducing a guest (“It’s John Tra-vol-ta!), or her exuberance at distributing product placements (“a car for you, a car for you, a car for you!); but in the end we get the sense that for all her wealth and celebrity, she’s still interested in having a conversation with us — with ordinary people, who may attend a taping but will likely never be the featured guest on one of her shows.
When she interviews celebrities, she asks them the kind of questions we might ask: Why did you choose this? How did you become successful? To whom are you grateful? But there’s one question she’s taken to asking, and to answering herself, that I kind of love. She says she got it from the late, great film critic Gene Siskel, who used to ask the people he interviewed, “what do you know for sure?”
It’s a powerful question, “what do you know for sure?” Oprah offers answers like, “love yourself and then learn to extend that love to others in every encounter” and “every day brings a chance to start over.” These are good answers, solidly theological answers, really. She also says something that is at the heart of the stories we’ve been reading as the season of Lent presses on toward Jesus’ death and resurrection, something the early church might have taught those who used the season of Lent to prepare for their baptisms. She says, “what you believe has more power than what you dream or wish or hope for. You become what you believe.”
Listening again to these Lenten stories from the gospel of John, it’s become apparent that belief is a central concern for Jesus. In his encounter with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to him under the cover of night looking for answers, Jesus said
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:14-16)
Then, at the well in Samaria, where Jesus spoke to the woman who’d been passed from man to man, belief comes up again. After addressing her as a subject, a person with inherent sacred worth, and engaging her in a conversation about what really gives us life, that woman goes and gives her testimony to everyone in her community and John’s gospel says,
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. (John 4:39-41)
Then, near the waters of Siloam, Jesus meets a man born blind who had grown accustomed to living his life unseen. The healing he receives from Jesus provokes a controversy among his neighbors that ultimately leads to a bold confession of faith by a man who has moved from the margins to the middle. After standing up to the religious authorities he is cast out of his community, and that is where he finds Jesus, who asks him,
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him. (John 9:35-38)
Which brings us, today, to the most dramatic confession of all, made by a family that Jesus loved in the face of death. If you’ve grown up in the church, you likely know this story by heart — not all the words, but the general outline. If I asked you to recall it from memory you’d likely remember that Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were close friends to Jesus. That when Lazarus died, they sent for him. That Martha was angry, but still faithful. That Mary fell at his feet. That Jesus wept.
Once again, the question of belief is front and center. In fact, it seems to be the point of the entire tale. When Jesus is confronted by Martha he says,
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. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26)
Martha answers faithfully, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27), but when I read her response, I hear the voice of someone who’s already heard all the pat answers, the voice of the confirmand who’s memorized the creeds but wants answers that matter, that make a difference here and now. Both Mary and Martha say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They are stating something as a fact that is actually an expression of faith and doubt in the same moment. They are saying, “I believe that in you there is life, but what does that mean in the face of death?”
It is the question floating behind this entire gospel. It was the question asked by those first century Jews for whom this gospel was written, who were being cast out of their communities, a kind of social death. It’s also the question that many of you have, that I have as well. I know that God in Christ Jesus brings life and healing to we who are alive, but what about my grandmother in her hospital bed, my father as he loses his mind, my sister fighting breast cancer? And what about my friend, who has died and will never be coming back?
“What do you believe?” is not a question that can be answered with creeds and other recitations, though those are useful for teaching the outline of the story that brings us to faith. “What do you believe?” is the equivalent of “what do you know for sure?” It’s a question that requires a story, your story.
Who were you before you met Jesus? Were you, like Nicodemus, so full of answers that you couldn’t take in the most important truth? Were you, like the woman at the well, so judged by others and yourself that you couldn’t remember that in God’s judgement you are always precious. Were you, like the man born blind, so used to being overlooked that you’d started to wonder if you were actually a person at all? Or were you, like Lazarus, dead to yourself, to your family, to the world. Not just a little lost, but four days dead. Beyond recovery, beyond hope, beyond life.
Who were you before you met Jesus, and who were you afterwards?
Who were you after all your truths and certainties were shattered to make room for more a more life-giving law? Who were you after you came to know yourself as forgiven and free? Who were you after you began to see yourself the way God sees you, with love? Who were you when the graveyard of misery, of failure, of addiction, of depression, of death lost its grip on you and your bones found the strength to hold you up once again. And breath returned to your lungs. And you could tell that you were alive, and not dead?
Once that had happened, what did you know for sure? What did you believe?
I know that not all of you have experienced the new life that comes when God pulls you out of the graveyard and breathes new life into dry bones. That’s alright. Maybe that’s why you made yourself come to church this morning, to find out if there was any hope for a person four days gone, or more. If it’s you I’m talking about, please hold on. New life is coming, it’s on the way. It gets better. I promise.
But many of you have already experienced the kind of resurrection life that Lazarus experienced when Jesus called him out of his grave, and I’m here this morning to tell you that with your new life comes a new calling. God needs you to tell the story of your own rebirth. Over and over that has been the pattern in scripture: God gives a sign and a story. Why? Because a story lives on, in our memories, on our lips, over coffee, on the phone, late at night, posted online, in a letter or face-to-face.
A story can save a life. Maybe your story. Maybe your life.
Jesus said to the sisters, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice,
“Lazarus, come out!”
Bring your stories out, O people of God. Unbind them, and let them go free, out into the world, where people are keeping vigil at their own graves, wondering if there is any life left to be had.
Don’t you know that in your baptisms, you have already died and been reborn? You already live on the other side of the grave. Your resurrection is not waiting for you, it has already come. Here and now, but not yet, not completely. So, find your voice, share your story, offer your testimony, tell me what you know for sure, what you believe.