Meet Ted Lasso. Ted Lasso is the lead character in a new comedy on Apple TV that bears his name. It’s got a lot of foul language, by the way, so don’t tell your kids to go watch it. But one of our Knox members told me this week that it’s an incredible show about leadership, so I checked it out, and he was right.
The concept for the show is as this: Ted Lasso is a Division II college football coach in Wichita, who is hired to move to England and coach a professional soccer team. Ted knows nothing about soccer; he has never coached a team at any level. The team owner, who recently won the team from her ex-husband in a bitter divorce, has hired Ted Lasso with the secret hope that he will ruin the franchise.
It seems like her plan is foolproof. Ted’s obstacles to success are easy to see. He is a classic mid-western loud American. He knows less about England than he knows about soccer. He’s as folksy as they come and appears to have no idea what he’s doing. But everyone who doubts him is about to be very surprised.
Ted recently led his American football team from the bottom of the league to a championship, and his success has nothing to do with sports. Ted cares about people. He says he doesn’t care about winning, and that instead he coaches to help young men become the best version of themselves—and he means it. He is boundlessly enthusiastic. The insults the locals hurl at him roll right off his back. Ted pays attention to details—the ones that are important. He remembers birthdays; he notices when people are upset; he never forgets a name; and he celebrates the gifts of other people every time he gets the chance. And without seeing it coming, people are constantly surprised that they are happier in Ted’s presence—that just like he intended, he is helping them to become the best version of themselves.
Ted’s secret has to do with a quotation I recently encountered: “One of the greatest hindrances to imagining possibilities is perceptual distortion. Obstacles appear larger and more ominous than they are, keeping us preoccupied with trying to avoid danger rather than discerning alternatives.” So much of the time, we focus on obstacles—obstacles that seem larger to us than they actually are.
Obstacles keep us from being able to see possibilities. This sermon is about seeing possibilities, and that quote I just mentioned wasn’t about Ted Lasso, it’s from a biblical commentary on the story of Lazarus.
So…meet Lazarus. The story of Lazarus appears only the Gospel According to John, and it is the longest story in any of the four Gospels about Jesus’ encounter with another person. In fact, it is the other people Jesus encounters because of Lazarus who really make up the story, and the variety of reactions Jesus gets is one of the things that adds to the richness of the message.
First, a little background and context, and then we’ll look at what this story is trying to tell us about possibilities. From what the story tells us, we gather that Lazarus is a friend and follower of Jesus. He is the brother of two women who have their own story in the Gospel of John, Martha and Mary. The disciples, who are traveling with Jesus, also play a role in the story.
The story of Lazarus is a story of a man who dies and is raised from the dead. It is told near the end of the stories of Jesus’ ministry, and right before he begins his journey to the Cross, so it is a story meant to point to Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
It is helpful to name the function that this story serves in the Gospel of John: it is a thread that ties together John’s whole telling of the life and meaning of Jesus. Not only does the story look forward, it looks back, too. The words and phrases that make up the story—life out of death, light out of darkness, the importance of believing, the glory of God being revealed—all this language is drawn from the prologue that makes up the first chapter of the Gospel of John. This story projects both backwards and forwards, and is intended to show us the most important themes in the life of Jesus. And one of those themes, again, is seeing possibilities.
So, in this story where we see the impossible become real, let’s take a look at how people react to Jesus along the way.
First let’s talk about the disciples—Jesus is with them when the story begins. To appreciate what is happening in the story of Lazarus, you have to remember what happened immediately before. Jesus and the disciples have just narrowly escaped from the festival of the Dedication in Jerusalem, where a group of religious authorities, threatened by Jesus’ growing influence, threatened to stone him to death. Immediately following, in the story of Lazarus, when word reaches Jesus that Lazarus is ill, he agrees to go right back to the place where his life was being threatened. The disciples agree to go along, but not before arguing that it’s a bad idea.
Jesus, though, never flinches. This comes as no great surprise to any of us who have read our share of Bible stories. But reflect for a moment on what it means in the context of today’s lesson about seeing possibilities instead of obstacles. Most of us can find countless, often insignificant reasons to avoid doing the right thing; we name all the obstacles that will keep us away, we know all of the personal shortcomings and situational limitations why a thing cannot be done. Jesus, whose very life has just been threatened, can only see the possibility of helping his friend Lazarus.
Martha and Mary are the other two characters who react to Jesus in this story. When Jesus is on the way to see Lazarus, his sister Martha leaves the tomb of Lazarus and goes out to meet him and when she meets Jesus, she says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus arrives at the tomb and the other sister Mary sees him approaching, she says exactly the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
It’s an interesting phrasing because you can’t tell if what’s they’re saying is an affirmation of their faith in Jesus or an accusation that he has let them down. But Jesus’ response is telling. He says a verse many of you may have heard before, perhaps out of context. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus isn’t pointing to some future reality in which he’s going to help Lazarus or anyone else; he’s talking about the new life that is possible now. Jesus has the power to transform a life right away and every single minute. Jesus is resurrection power for today. And it is with those words hanging in the air that he proceeds to the tomb to do the impossible, to raise Lazarus.
It is not so much Lazarus’ reaction to Jesus that is worth talking about, but Jesus’ reaction to Lazarus. There’s a familiar verse in this story; some of you may know it as a bit of Bible trivia. The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” When Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus and sees his sister, Mary, weeping, Jesus, too, begins to weep. He joins her in her sorrow and pain.
It is a total surprise, for this story paints arguably the most divine and least human picture we have of Jesus—raising someone from the dead without a shadow of doubt in his mind. Yet, suddenly we see this beautifully vulnerable moment in Jesus’ life where he takes on the sadness of another; he shows his own capacity for friendship, loss, and grief. In this story where we see so much miraculous, hopeful, superhuman behavior from Jesus. We see one for whom there are all possibilities and no obstacles, this is the very same story where we see him cry.
I’m hoping to help us see the down to earth qualities of this miraculous Bible story, so here at the moment of resurrection, I’m going to flip back to my opening illustration. I’m going to link this divine and miraculous story back to that struggling soccer team and their coach who seems so deeply flawed.
Ted Lasso is a complex character; it wouldn’t be much of a show if he were just a ridiculous optimist; he is a regular flawed person with demons of his own. And one of the reasons people rally around him is because he allows other people to see him struggle. This can be one of the most important characteristics of a leader.
In spite of his struggles, Ted chooses to believe in possibilities instead of obstacles. He broadcasts out loud his belief in the possibilities for his team, and his belief in each of the individuals who are on it. And maybe it’s by believing so vocally in other people that he learns to believe in himself. I’m not trying to argue this morning that Ted Lasso is a Christ figure; but one of his Christ-like qualities is that he’s not preoccupied with himself, the way so many of us tend to be. Ted is focused on others, and in his love for them, he finds healing for himself.
In another episode, Ted challenges his team in a locker room speech before a big game where the team is up against a much stronger opponent and faces elimination. Ted tells them “you don’t need to tell me if you believe in miracles, but you’d better decide for yourself…”
Most of us are not simple people, always optimistic or pessimistic, but instead we’re some mix of both. That means that each day and in every situation, we have a challenge before us: Sometimes we will believe in possibilities, other times we will not, but the challenge is always there—you have to decide for yourself. This is precisely the way all the other bystanders react to the Lazarus story. The conclusion in verses 45-46 says, “Many who had seen what Jesus did believed, but some went and told the Pharisees what he had done.” Some of the bystanders do not go along with Jesus; they can’t get there.
I am not going to tell you this morning what happened to Ted and the team on the other side of the final game. Suffice it to say that if there was a simple win or loss, there’d be no chance of a second season, and the writers are smarter than that.
This sermon also is not meant to tie up all the loose ends about miracles or believing in possibilities. There are good reasons to pay attention to obstacles. I have four young children; every time we go around the block on our bikes, I know that it is important to assess risks and understand obstacles so that we don’t kill ourselves. That’s the simplest of possible examples. But I will say this: far too many times in life, we allow the amplified obstacles in our minds to keep us from grasping the possibilities, the adventures, the chances for new life to emerge all around us.
The big question in this story of Lazarus is whether you are going to live life now as if you believe. Will you live as a skeptic or as a believer, as a slave of obstacles or an owner of possibilities, as one stuck in a tomb or one gifted by the hope of resurrection?
What possibilities might you explore as we continue these Lenten encounters with Jesus?