Sermon ~ 18 February

 A reading from the gospel of John, the 11th chapter:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ …53So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

This is a story about love. But it’s a love story the way John always seems to tell love stories – with a trailing edge of death, like Lazarus walking around trailing his shroud.

“For God so loved the world…” we keep circling back to that, “…that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will have abundant life.” “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus says in his farewell discourse, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 15:13

Love is linked inextricably to death in John, and that is also true in the story of this family.  Their intimate relationship with Jesus doesn’t provide immunization from sickness, death, grief, or questions.  His love for them doesn’t hurry him along at the first news of illness to prevent Lazarus from dying.  But, so that God’s love may be made real, visible, startling enough to change us, Jesus acts in inexplicable ways. In time, their sorrow and pain turn to wonder, belief, and joy as they participate as extraordinary exemplars in God’s glory.

Like the wine ran out, like the man was blind, Lazarus is dead. This is the reality, but it is not a limitation to God.

The danger is in reading this – as in the healing of the man born blind – is in thinking that God caused their suffering so God could show off through Jesus – as an orchestrated occasion for a blitz of glory and front page headlines in the Jerusalem Times. It is helpful information to remember that this gospel is beautifully woven theology. It’s not history. It’s not a first hand account. It’s not a biography. That doesn’t necessarily mean the characters aren’t real, but it helps us see them as players in this divine comedy – an apparent tragedy that turns at the last moment to joy.

And it helps to look carefully at what Jesus said to Martha.

When Jesus says to her, “your brother will rise again,” she hears only the promise of a distant future, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” she says. This was a common belief among first-century Jews. But Jesus seems to correct what she knows by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life.” 

We, too, tend to pair the raising of Lazarus with the resurrection of Jesus – as I’m sure we are meant to – and hear in it a promise for us, of salvation, of eternal life with God and Jesus one day, in the fullness of time. 

But what difference does Jesus’ correction make – and the life? Can we see that in believing in Jesus, we are raised to life, not a future one, but vibrant life right here; transformed as though from death to life right now? Lazarus is raised back to his actual life, goes on with his normal activities – although he has gained a certain notoriety. One day, at some point in the future, Lazarus will die again. But don’t you imagine this in-between life he’s been given will reflect some of the glory of that love borne of death?

In the next chapter, Jesus returns to Bethany and the home of this trio for a dinner at which Martha serves, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wipes them with her hair in an act of extravagant love, and Lazarus alive and well, reclines at the table with Jesus, sharing food and fellowship. New life in Jesus is this intimacy, this closeness, this dwelling. It is here and now, because in the Gospel of John, it is not primarily the death of Jesus, but his life that makes the difference, that brings us life and salvation.

When Martha hears this, she moves beyond what she knows to what she sees before her. She responds with a confession of faith akin to Peter’s confession in the other gospels. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Jesus not only brings resurrection, and can perform resurrection, but he is it – the real deal, the life of God for us. 

It is living out of the spirit of God that is authentic life – with all of its risks and surprises. Lazarus, briefly, becomes the example. He is raised … not to God, not to eternal bliss … but back to life! That is the point of rebirth, of life in the spirit, of life from above. This life! 

Belief in Jesus doesn’t resuscitate us, or protect us from illness or damage or death.  It sends us into the world! Lazarus was truly loved by Jesus, and truly died anyway. And he was raised only to die again – at some point. 

But after his rising, Lazarus lived outside of himself. That’s what we didn’t hear at the end of today’s reading. It wasn’t long before Lazarus had a price on his head. He was too bold, too dangerous, too popular – he was the living proof that God has power in this world. People were coming to faith because of his mere existence. 

But for the rest of his days, Lazarus knew the source of his life…he knew it was Jesus. The Samaritan woman knew it was Jesus, the man born blind knew it was Jesus. That is perhaps more of a challenge for us…

Much of the time, honestly, it does not feel like death has been defeated. Like Mary and Martha, we ask our agonizing questions — about job loss, wayward children, financial crises, chronic illness, loss of loved ones, war and terrorism — whatever casts death’s shadow across our lives.

We look for miracles and trust in an ending, but fail to see that this life is a gift of resurrection, too. We are called by name to come out from under the shroud of our fears and our reserve and complacency, our hesitancy to commit, our busyness with things (that maybe don’t matter that much after all). Rise up! Come out of a mindset of comfortable disbelief or apathy – come out and risk living. Live as though you bear the image of God! Live! fully, abundantly, openly, generously, unashamed, alive in the spirit of Christ.

Although some of the bystanders at Lazarus’ tomb believe, others go and report Jesus to the authorities. It is based on this, that they decide to put him to death. In the other Gospels, Jesus clearing out the temple is the impetus for the plot to kill him.  The irony of John’s timing is that the way to the cross and Jesus’ own tomb starts here where Jesus does what only God can do. He recreates life from death.

 If we can manage to trust, taking Jesus at his word despite our questions, would the depth of God’s love for the world, for our neighbor, for our enemies, for we, ourselves, change anything about how you live? 

Don’t you think it should?

“…from his fullness we have all received – grace upon grace.”