Today’s passage is another long one… most of what we consider chapter 11 of John’s gospel.
It is another description of a sign- a miracle that Jesus performs, bringing the presence and glory of God into full view.
We haven’t talked much about the way John structures the telling of these stories, but the story in chapter 9 – the healing of the man who was born blind that we looked at last week- that gives us a great example of the pattern he develops.
First, a sign. Like the man’s healing. Then a dialogue – a conversation in which people talk or ask about what happened. And finally a discourse – which is basically a sermon… Jesus explains what has happened and why.
Here in chapter 11, John reverses the order.
This particular event is the last of the signs Jesus performs. And for the Jewish leaders, it is the last straw.
In John’s telling, this event is the catalyst, setting in motion the events that will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion
So John wants us to pay attention to this sign… so that we might better understand what is coming. Thus the dialogue and discourse come first, as John carefully sets the scene.
Listen for the Word of God….
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus… of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
4 But 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.”
5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, 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.”
8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
9 Jesus 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. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”
11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”
12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16 Thomas, 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 four days.18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.
20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She 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.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.
30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.
31 The 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.
32 When 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.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?”
They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But 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.
39 Jesus 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 four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 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.”
43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
44 The 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.” (NRSV)
It’s an all too familiar story, really, the story of waiting at the bedside of a dear one, hoping against hope…
The story of crying out in prayer – sometimes literally crying out – sometimes silently but desperately bargaining and begging… but definitely calling out to the Lord…
I would venture to say that we’ve all been there in one way or another, saying to the Lord,
The one I love is sick… The one you love is sick.
You can change that right now!
Please… change it right now…
I can only imagine that sense of urgency and hope
that desire to see Jesus walk through the door….
It would have been even more acute for Mary and Martha…
Because he literally COULD walk through their door.
They know him well, they know for real that Jesus loves them, in the same way that you and I know that our friends love us. And they know for a fact that Jesus loves their brother Lazarus.
They know all that Jesus has done and is capable of…
Don’t think for a minute they haven’t been following all that Jesus has been up to, hearing about all the signs and miracles and teachings, both near and far.
So Mary and Martha know and believe that he could heal Lazarus.
They believe that Jesus would want wholeness for Lazarus.
That’s why they sent for him.
But Jesus doesn’t come rushing to Bethany. Not right away.
And the one they love
The one Jesus loves.
The women would have done the work of preparation, mixing the spices and oils, binding his body so that as his body returned to dust, his bones would remain together.
And then he was placed in the tomb, a stone covering its opening.
I know… Our hearts want to jump right on ahead to those last couple of verses, don’t they? But we need to sit with this a bit.
Because Mary and Martha… they didn’t know what was coming.
Not for them, not for Lazarus
And certainly not for Jesus in just a few days’ time.
As far as they knew, the next time they would see Lazarus would be at the Day of Resurrection. This is when all the dead would rise as if from sleep, and families would be reunited, the living and those living again.
It was a common belief among the Jews of Jesus’ time that the coming of the Messiah would hasten the Day of Resurrection. This was one of many reasons they were on the lookout for the Son of God.
And so… as we do to this day, Mary and Martha prepared and buried their loved ones, including Lazarus, looking forward to that day of reunion.
But until then… they would grieve.
Just as surely as we know the pain of wishing, hoping and praying in the midst of suffering, we know the many forms grief takes.
Sometimes it looks like Martha…
taking care of the details, working our way through the day, holding it together, at least on the outside.
Sometimes it looks more like Mary…
Perhaps more together internally than it appears from the outside. Needing to express the pain and sorrow physically through tears… tears that come unbidden and can seem unending.
Sometimes it helps to grieve in community… Surrounded by and surrounding others…hearing from those who have walked the journey before, drawing strength from those hurting along with us…
Certainly, we can understand how each of the sisters would have come to Jesus, saying
“If only… ”
“If only you had come.”
“It didn’t have to be this way”
Angry, sad, disappointed.
Matter of fact
Shattered and weeping.
What must have happened in Martha’s heart as she and Jesus spoke?
At first… Perhaps she heard from him the same mostly empty comfort others had offered… Lazarus would rise.
Of course he would.
As would she… and all those they’d already mourned in their lives.
Perhaps she even rolled her eyes a bit at this rabbi she still loved, even though he was 4 days late.
And then perhaps she looked a little deeper into his eyes, seeing something she’d missed before as he answered again.
No… it doesn’t have to be this way.
That is why I am here.
I am the resurrection. And the life.
This was a promise.
Not for someday. Some for distant unknown future.
This was a promise for today.
If she but believed.
And she did believe, didn’t she?
Didn’t she send word for him, knowing that he could heal her brother?
Didn’t she just tell him that he could have prevented this death?
This tearing apart of her heart, of Mary’s heart?
Didn’t she just…
She said it aloud
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
And in the saying, she believed it more fully, more deeply.
And she believed enough for Mary.
Mary who was shattered. Bereft. Unable to stop crying.
Mary, who was surrounded by mourners.
Mary, whose tears called forth tears from Jesus…
As if carried on a wave of those tears, Jesus knew it was time.
They went to the tomb.
They removed the stone.
And the shepherd who knows his sheep by name, called to the dead man
Lazarus… Come Out!
How a dead man could hear? I don’t know.
I mean… this is a miracle…
But I know this: the sheep know their master’s voice.
And they go in and come out at his bidding.
Lazarus heard his name
Lazarus came out.
Lazarus was alive.
Death was and is real.
All too real.
Death is real for the couple looking at the sonogram as the doctor tells them that their long-awaited baby’s heart is no longer beating.
Death is real for the 95-year-old who dies in his favorite comfy chair watching Wheel of Fortune…
Death is real for the soldier who watches as the humvee in front of him rolls over an explosive that they never saw, sending shrapnel flying in all directions.
Death is real for the high school freshman gunned down at school on a random Wednesday afternoon.
Death was real for Lazarus.
Death is real for us.
But Death was not and death is not final.
Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. And From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
Because The Word Made Flesh is also the Resurrection. And the LIFE
Lazarus came out to show us that life is real.
Life beyond what we imagine
Life beyond what we could earn
Life that is available to us as we abide,
As we remain and rest in relationship with God.
And that life, when we unbind it, is powerful.
Powerful enough to bring change to the world
Powerful enough to heal
To weep with those who weep
To rejoice with those who rejoice
This is LIFE that is powerful enough to tear down systems and structures that perpetuate injustice
Life that is ready to be unbound and released to bear witness to the love and glory of God.
Life that is grace and reveals grace upon grace
This is life that will be lost and regained, unbound and released again.
Because yes… yes… the resurrection of Lazarus is a preview…
a sneak peak of what is to come in the days to come.
The tomb won’t be able to hold Jesus any more than it could hold Lazarus once Jesus showed up. In Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, death has met its match.
Now, as we gather this morning, I have to confess:
Too much of the time it does not feel like death has been defeated.
Like Mary and Martha, we cry out in pain and ask our agonizing questions — about all of life’s woes… job loss, wayward children, financial crises, chronic illness, gun violence, war and terrorism — all of the ways that death’s shadow is cast across our lives.
And yet, even as we cry out of the depths, we live and wait in hope.
And that hope is what enables us to see that the only way is through…
Through the days of waiting and wondering
Through the the valley of the shadow…
Through the grief
You know, Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite worship services of the year. But it’s also really hard. In no small part because I have come to love each of you.
I know that in life and death we belong to God. I believe that with all my heart.
But as I place that ashes on your foreheads and repeat those words:
that we are dust and to dust we will return,
the truth of our mortality…well… it’s hard..
Because I know chances are good that some of us won’t be here next time Ash Wed rolls around. I suspect that between now and then we will gather for a funeral.
And I don’t like that…
I was talking about this truth with another pastor friend this week. And it dawned on me that I would not be able to make it through imposition of ashes were it not for what comes next in our worship. If it were not for the other items on the table next to the ashes.
I don’t think I could make it without having the table set for communion.
Without the opportunity to proclaim not only Jesus’ death, but his resurrection
Without a time in which we claim together the promise of his return and cry out Come Lord Jesus!
In the eating of the bread of life and the drinking of the cup of salvation, we are nourished with the truth that humanity matters deeply to God
We remember that we are the ones Jesus loves,
the ones he weeps over,
the ones he comforts,
the ones he came to save.
Like Martha and Mary, we have learned that God rarely – if ever – acts exactly when, where, or how we think God should act. But we continue to learn that God will act in God’s good time. And we can believe that death will not have the final word. The day of resurrection will come.
And like Lazarus, we are beloved, known by name.
We have come to know the shepherd’s voice, we can hear and respond to the call of life,
We can and must emerge from the tomb ready to bear witness to the vividness and power of resurrection and so that we might all live with unbound hearts.
We remember together that the world, life, it really doesn’t have to be this way.