Apologies for getting this up late – I had the humbling opportunity to preach once again this past Sunday at First Community Church, and as luck would have it, the lectionary text was the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (I love preaching stories!). So, with much thanks to my excellent Gospel of John professor, Dr. Gail O’Day, here follows the text (John 11:1-44) and the sermon:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 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.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 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. 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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”
Would you believe me if I told you I actually cut the text down from what was in the lectionary for this week? By one verse… Just be thankful I didn’t read it to you from the King James version *shudders*. Although, I was told in our worship review meeting this past week, that our Senior Minister, Glen Miles, actually likes the King James version, because when Jesus tells the people to open the tomb, Martha protests, in the King James translation, “But, Lord, he stinketh!” Hopefully you don’t say the same thing after I’m done preaching!
So Jesus’ ministry is coming to a close, and he knows it. He has been to Jerusalem and was not well-received, and now the disciples are (rightly) worried that if he goes back there, he will most certainly face death. But he’s got this buddy, Lazarus, and Lazarus is really, really sick. Now, back then, you couldn’t just call someone up and let them know that so-and-so is sick. You had to send for them. And you couldn’t just hop on a plane and fly to go see so-and-so in the hospital. You had to walk, and it was a long journey to Bethany. So, first, you know it has to be serious for Mary and Martha to send for Jesus – they know that Lazarus’ days are numbered, and they clearly believe that Jesus is their last hope for saving him. Jesus, however, decides to wait two days before leaving. In fact, he waits until Lazarus dies before setting out for Bethany.
Now this is really odd; the Greek actually says, “Jesus loved Mary and Martha, therefore he stayed there two more days.” How does that make sense? He loved them, so he waited to leave until Lazarus had already died. Well it doesn’t make sense to us, but it certainly made sense to Jesus. He knows what we will only learn later in the story – that God’s power for life is greater than the sting of death.
So Jesus waits, and he actually waits the exact right amount of time. You see, at that time in Jewish thought it was believed that the soul hangs around the body for 3 days, but after the third day, the soul leaves the body for good. So we are told that Jesus gets there after Lazarus has been dead for 4 days for a reason. Lazarus isn’t just kind of dead; unlike Wesley from “The Princess Bride”, he isn’t mostly dead – he’s all dead! And with all dead there’s only one thing you can do – go through his pockets and look for loose change.
Well, Martha is understandably upset. Jesus came too late. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This isn’t just some casual remark – this is a serious complaint. This is an accusation! Martha is kind of ticked at Jesus – she went through all the trouble of sending for him, because she believed he was Lazarus’ only hope, and he didn’t deliver! He waited around, took his sweet time, and he was too late! You know, this isn’t something we do enough of – complain to God. It’s perfectly acceptable and biblical – very much rooted in the Jewish tradition of lament. Instead we tend to see God as being above reproach, beyond criticism, which makes sense, it does, but there are plenty of good, righteous people in the Bible who clearly don’t see God that way. You know, Moses, David, Job, etc. Martha is just being a good person of faith. And notice that her faith does not waiver, even in the midst of her complaint. “Yet even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask”, she says. So, look, Jesus! Look, God! Look at this pain that You have caused me – the pain that You could have prevented. How could You? How dare You? I trusted You, and this is what I get? And yet, You are God. And I know that through You anything is possible.
Now that is a real prayer. How could You? Why have You forsaken me? Where were You? And yet, You are God, and You are here now; You found me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. There’s a popular song by American rock band The Fray called “You Found Me” that I think perfectly captures this style of prayer: the chorus goes “Lost and insecure, You found me, You found me/Lying on the floor, surrounded, surrounded/Why’d You have to wait? Where were You, where were You?/Just a little late, You found me, You found me”. So many, I’m sure, don’t see it as a particularly Orthodox song, certainly not a Christian song; some may even see it as blasphemous (it starts out with “I found God…smoking his last cigarette”). But as for me, I see it as no less than authentic prayer. It is sometimes the only prayer we have to pray. “Where were You, God? You were too late…”
But of course, as we know, Jesus is not too late. He is right on time. In her pain and in her despair, Martha simply could not see it, yet. It is often only in retrospect that we are able to see God’s timeliness. It’s not that every tragic event in our life can be attributed to some greater “plan” that God has – that’s not what I’m saying. It’s just that often, the power of death is so strong that we are unable to see or understand the power of life that lies ahead.
This is the place the nation of Israel finds itself in the other lectionary text that I didn’t read this morning – a passage from Ezekiel, which was written at the time that the Israelites were exiles in Babylon. Everything they once knew – their way of life, their nation, their culture – was dead, seemingly lost forever. And so God takes the prophet Ezekiel out to an old battlefield and gives him this vision of old, dry bones scattered across the field. And God says, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “Lord, only You know.”
Will Israel ever return to the place where it once was? Will it ever be a nation again? Will Lazarus ever rise again from his eternal slumber? Will the Church once again find its place – its relevance – in the world? Will I ever get out of this addiction? Will I ever find another job? Can my marriage spring back to life again? Will I ever overcome this sickness? Can I ever begin to trust, to heal, to believe again? Can these bones live?
Lord, only You know.
Sometimes the answer is yes. Death is never the final word; sometimes, just as in Ezekiel’s vision, the bones spring back to life, take shape, and muscle and tissue and sinew all begin to form once again. Sometimes, Lazarus walks out of the grave. Because God’s power for life is greater than the sting of death, sometimes, we are revived; and even if we are not revived – even if we are not brought back from death – there is still a way forward. There is still resurrection. But that’s a sermon for Sunday after next.
Today, Lazarus walks out of the grave. Today, Jesus steps up to the tomb, and orders the stone rolled away. And Martha cries, “But Lord, he stinketh!” Today, Jesus hears the complaint of Mary and Martha, hears their pain and their grief, the anguish of their souls, and he weeps.
How many of us have ever lost a loved one? How many of us know that pain? Life is not all roses and butterflies – we know that. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian; it doesn’t matter if you believe in God or in Jesus. These things will not save you from the pain of life. Life happens. Things happen. And rationalizing that pain by saying it’s all part of God’s plan, or that God needed another angel – well, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors. And as we learn in the book of Job, we aren’t really speaking of God what is right. Death, and pain, and grief, are all very real parts of the human experience; they cannot be glossed over. Jesus understands this. He steps up to the grave and he begins to weep.
And he’s not weeping because he is sad that Lazarus died – he knows what he is about to do. Lazarus is not lost to the grip of death forever, because Lazarus is about to be raised. Because God’s power for life reigns supreme in this world, and Jesus knows it. But just as real as that power for life, just as strong, is the grief and pain that Mary and Martha have felt over the loss of their brother. It is the same pain that all of us must experience at one time or another, when someone we love is lost to us, and we cannot get them back. It is for this that Jesus weeps.
You see, we don’t have a God who just says, “Get over it!” We don’t have a God who says, “Didn’t you know that I am the resurrection and the life, and that you should be happy, you should rejoice, because your loved one is in a better place! Because your loved one may be physically dead, but he or she is alive, eternally, with me!” No, we have a God who comes to the grave, who witnesses our pain, our grief, and who weeps. We do not have God who stands at the top of the hole we are in and tells us why we shouldn’t be in that hole. We have a God who will climb down in the hole with us, and sit with us, and cry with us, and when we are ready, help us figure out a way to get out!
Our God is willing to show us that death does not get the last word. Death will not reign supreme over our lives, because God’s power for life will always be stronger. Jesus calls, and Lazarus, still bound, steps out into the light of day. Have you heard the call? The call to walk from death to life? Do you know who it is that has that power, in the end? Do you know who causes us to live when we are dead?
You see, Lazarus is still dead when he walks out of the tomb. He does not speak. He is still bound in cloth. He is still as one who is dead and buried. God’s power for life is stronger than death, but it is worthless if we do not act on it. Dead relationships will never come back to life if we do not put in the work. Dead careers will never start again if we do not put ourselves in the position to start them. Dead and dying churches will continue in death if we do not discern God’s call to life and act on it. The dead nation of Israel would never have been re-built if the Israelites had remained content in exile. Lazarus will remain dead if someone does not take the time to unwrap him.
I believe this story has powerful implications for all of us; in the way we approach God in prayer, the ways in which we allow each other to grieve, how to be present in the midst of pain and loss… But, mostly, for those of us who feel like we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death; for those of us who have been overpowered by death’s sting; for those of us languishing in the field of dry bones, asking if they can ever live again – this story offers a word of hope, a testimony to the power of life in the face of death. It is the Word of God calling us to unwrap the grave clothes, and live. Amen.