“Hope, Help, Love.”
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
April 26, 2020
Hope is, by definition, an act of desperation. As Scripture reminds us, we do not hope for something that is seen, for who would hope for what is. Rather, we hope for that which is unseen. In other words, when we hope, we are conjuring a future that doesn’t exist, and may never exist. Think of the ways in which you use the word. I will give you a scenario to help. Let’s say next October 10 you and your young child or grandchild are walking in to Reynolds Stadium to watch Arkansas play Alabama in football. This scenario is, in itself, an act of hope but I digress. So let’s say you are going to the game and the child with you looks up with a hint of a smile and huge eyes and asks, “Do you think the Hogs will win today?” The absolute best answer you could possibly give in that scenario is, “I hope so.” See what I mean, hope is, at its core, an act of desperation. We hope for what we do not see.
And hope is one other thing. It is an admission. What is it an admission of, you ask? Well, it is an admission of powerlessness. For example, if the same child in the same situation says, “can I have a hot dog,” then, “I hope so” would be a pretty poor reply. Either they can or they can’t but it’s a decision you control. Hope is no good in this scenario. It is no help. Hope only applies to that which cannot be controlled. So when we act in hope, we are admitting that we no longer really have any control.
Now that we have laid the groundwork, I think we can start to look at verse 3 of our reading. The Lazarus story is a familiar one to most of us, but let me briefly summarize since we did not read the whole story. Lazarus gets sick and dies. Jesus delays arrival and shows up, in the eyes of Lazarus’ sisters, beyond the stage when he could have helped. Both confront him. He weeps. They take Jesus to where Lazarus is buried, and in a powerful act which foreshadows Easter, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Now, back to verse 3. Here is where we begin to understand the situation. Jesus is off across the Jordan doing his thing; teaching, healing, preaching. He gets a message from Mary and Martha, “he whom you love is ill.” That’s the message.
Now in this message we can hear all the echoes of hope. First, we can see that this plea is undercut with despair. The way they write it tells us this. When they say, “he whom you love,” we know they are desperate. They are appealing to Jesus’ care for their brother, hoping that since Jesus has a personal relationship with him that he will drop what he is doing and travel to Bethany. Then second, we can hear the powerlessness. The message itself testifies to the fact that the women cannot do anything to help their brother. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” It really tells us the entire situation. Lazarus is sick. Gravely. His sisters have gone to the effort and energy to send a message to Jesus in the hope that he can change things, because they know that if he does not do it then Lazarus is in real danger of dying. They are asking in, and searching for, hope.
This sermon is not about hope, rather it is the beginning of a sermon series on friendship. But for me, the way the Lazarus story unfolds is a great testimony to the beauty and power of friendship. At its core, friendship is not just about hanging out, or sharing the same hobbies, or going to the same church. It’s not just about liking the same sports team, complaining together about the situation at work, or knowing each other for a long time. Friendship is an act of hope. It is a belief we have that, should things in our life go south, this other person would be someone we can turn to. It is the belief, ultimately, that we are not in this alone. It is the belief that, should we ever find ourselves at the end of our rope, we could send out the call, and they would turn up.
When we think about Jesus we don’t think of him as our friend, and yet so many of the elements of this story reflect the best parts of friendship. The beauty of the 11th chapter of John is that it authentically reflects a meaningful relationship and then infuses it with the power of God. The sisters sent their letter to their friend as an act of hope. They believed Jesus could help their brother, and further they believed he would want to. When Jesus tarried and did not return promptly this upset them. Both sisters confronted him with the words, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The death of hope hurts. That, of course, is not the end of the story. John 11 contains the shortest verse in all of Scripture. Jesus wept. When he was confronted and saw how sad everyone was, he too wept over the death of Lazarus.
So we can see that in friendship hope gives way to help. It doesn’t do much good to have hope in someone if they never show up. If you dialed 911 and the police never came when you were in trouble, then they wouldn’t be much cause for hope. If you went to an emergency room and the doctors ignored you then they wouldn’t be much cause for hope. If you called someone you thought was a friend for help and they blew you off, they wouldn’t be much hope. Hope, in a friendship, gives way, always to help. Help in some form. I think most of us realize that we cannot raise people from the dead like Jesus did. But you had better believe we can show up. You had better believe we can weep with those who weep. And isn’t that a great gift? Doesn’t it mean something when someone is there who doesn’t have to be; when someone cares who is not obliged? Jesus arrived. He came. He showed up. And after hearing from his friends, he wept for their brother. Hope gives way to help.
And it is all undergirded by love. I think we make a mistake when we don’t think of our friendships as spiritual. The best ones are, you know. The best ones are undergirded by the type of selfless love revealed in Scripture. Mary and Martha and Jesus aren’t just casual acquaintances. Mary poured perfume on Jesus’ feet and washed them with her hair. Jesus risked his life to return to Bethany and resurrect Lazarus. There is deep selflessness there. And this can only come with a greater sense of faith and purpose. Hope gives way to help which is rooted in love.
I think too often we throw the word friend around casually, as if we have a ton of them. We don’t. Friends are precious and rare but man do they make a difference in this life. It should hearten us to see Jesus in true and authentic friendships. It should mean something to us that the Son of God walked in this world and didn’t hold himself apart but entered into deep relationships, and allowed people to love him, call for him and chastise him. As we begin our reflection on friendship over these next few weeks, if we do nothing else, let us remember that our true friendships are gifts from God, undergirded by the teachings of Scripture. They remind us, over and over again, that in friendship hope gives way to help, and that love is there the whole time. “Lord, he who you love is ill.” Help us friend, the sisters said, we believe you can help. And he did. And we do. Amen.