Palm Sunday - Illness and Death for God's Glory
Whether intentional or unintentional, the scriptures frequently express irony. What is ?irony?? Irony comes from the Greek word ?eironia? and it means ?the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: the irony of her reply, ?How nice!? when I said I had to work all weekend.? One infamous example is John 21:1-15, when the risen Christ appears to Peter and the other disciples who are fishing. Peter, as was customary at the time, did not have any clothes on while he was fishing. When he recognizes Christ standing on the shore, it says he put back on his clothes and then jumps into the water to swim to Jesus (v.7)
Let us look more closely at the example from yesterday?s gospel about the raising of Lazaros from the dead (John 11:1-45). Lazaros had two sisters, Martha and Mary and all three of them were close friends with Jesus. Lazaros became seriously ill and his sisters sent word to Jesus so that He could come back and heal Lazaros. Now here is the ironic part in verses 5-6 it says, ?Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazaros. So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.? It seems odd that Jesus does not leave immediately to go see Lazaros.
The reason for Jesus? delay is not hidden from us. In verse four, Jesus tells His disciples, ?This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.? Later, in verse 15 Jesus knowing that Lazaros has died, says, ?And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe.?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, setting aside any appearance of irony, let us take this message to heart: Any sickness and death we experience in life can be for the glory of God and for the building of belief in Him. Yes, this is easier said than done. Yet, the weakening of our body through infection and disease, can cause us to depend on others and ultimately on God for help, for comfort and a cure. In other words, illness forces us to face the delusion of our dependence on self-sufficiency. It is no coincidence that the Gospels are full of numerous examples of people approaching Jesus for the healing of all types of illnesses?mental, emotional and physical.
In our day and age, we do not hesitate to visit the doctor when we are ill, hoping for a prescription, remedy or treatment that will return us to full health. We place our hope and trust in his/her knowledge and ability to heal. This is good because we know that medical therapies are God-given for the relief of suffering and the curing of illness. However, in these same times of sickness, do we place our hope and trust in the knowledge and ability of our Lord Jesus Christ to heal us? I am afraid that often we do not. Not until the illness has become very serious, chronic or terminal do we begin to turn our hearts and minds towards the true Physician of soul and body. This is good too because it is better to humble ourselves before the Lord later than never.
Yet, a problem occurs if we place conditions on our trust and belief in God. We say, ?I will believe if you heal me. I?ll know you are the true God if you save me from this illness and I will change my life and do whatever you want if don?t die.? We bargain with God, ?You give me this and I?ll give you that.? In order for physical illness and death to be salvific, in order for it to save us, we have to first understand that it only saves us from clutches of sin and spiritual death and that is only if we place our unconditional faith, hope and love in our Lord Jesus Christ, the true Physician of soul and body. Even if we do this, there is no guarantee that we will be cured of our illness or raised from the dead. That?s up to God, not us and the sooner we realize this, the closer we are to spiritual salvation.
Jesus says to Martha in verse 25-26, ?I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?? I ask all of us today, ?Do we believe this?? Jesus says it right here, ?though he/she may die physically, he/she shall live eternally.? Sure Lazaros was raised from the dead but to what end? In today?s gospel it says the Jewish leaders were trying to kill him also and of course he ended up dying his second and final physical death some time after this.
Once we place our unconditional trust in Christ, then we see our illness not only for our own salvation but for the salvation of others around us. In other words, how I view and handle my illness and death can give glory to God and help others to believe in trust in Him. Sadly, in times of illness we see people chasing after every cure, manically focusing on their worldly possessions as they try and assert control over their fleeting life. What a different witness it can be if we think instead how we can give glory to God in our illness and death.
The question is how can we view and handle illness and death in this God-centered way? Let me tell you about Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago when I served there in 1996. He fell ill to pancreatic cancer and realizing it was terminal began to see and live his episcopal ministry as an example of how to ?greet death as a friend? as he would say. One of the fruits of his ministry is the book ?The Gift of Peace?, a must-read. In his last days, someone asked the Cardinal, ?What will heaven be like?? He said he didn?t know but he related the story of his visit to his mother?s home town in northern Italy. He had never been there before but because he had viewed his mother?s photo albums numerous times over the years, he immediately recognized the town, his mother?s house and many other places.
We too can recognize heaven if we constantly read the stories and view the pictures that are provided to us in the scriptures, the icons, the architecture, the lives of the saints, the writings of the fathers. They all are pointing to the same reality. Why did we talk about Lazaros Saturday on Palm Sunday? Because they are intimately connected and together form the Great Feast of the Lord?s Entry into Jerusalem. Through the scriptures and worship services of the coming Holy Week, we must journey together with Christ. Through fasting, repentance and confession we must realize and acknowledge the many illnesses of our own soul and body. We must voluntarily deny our own busy schedules and responsibilities to enter into the Passion of our Lord?to co-suffer with Him. So, we may raise us like Lazaros to a new, different, better, more God-centered and God-dependent life. Amen.