Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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The Death of Lazarus
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.’
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for 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?’
Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
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 for 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 upwards 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.’
The Plot to Kill Jesus
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
The scholar Osvaldo Vena calls today’s scripture “the hinge” for the whole Gospel of John. It is the axis on which the Gospel opens, revealing what the Gospel writer thought was most important about Jesus' story. This story, of illness, friendship, mourning, and, ultimately, new life is important enough that it might actually tell us something about how to read everything that came before it and everything that will come after.
Lazarus' resurrection is the final of seven major miracles that the Gospel writer calls “signs” so that the reader "may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God" (John 20:30). While the other miracles are important (turning water into wine, healing the sick and blind, feeding the 5,000, walking on water), Lazarus' resurrection is our hinge. It is the final, and most important, public demonstration of who Jesus is, at least until we get to his own resurrection.
What, exactly, does this sign show us? For one, it shows us Jesus deeply invested in his closest relationships. Meda Stamper, in her commentary on this text, notes Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are three of the four specific people in the whole book of John that Jesus is said to love. While he is shown embodying love to many more people, the author says that Jesus loved this family specifically. Of course, they would ask for his help when Lazarus is near death and of course Jesus would go. Strangely, Jesus says that Lazarus' illness would not lead to death. Even more surprisingly, Jesus does not rush to Lazarus' side.
Secondly, this story shows us that Jesus doesn't fear death. He is confident that there is a power within him that can overcome even death. So, he goes right towards death, first the death of his friend, and later, his own death. In his commentary, Vena points out that some scholars describe the first half of John as Jesus going out into the world from God and the second half is Jesus returning to God, but that return goes through the shadow of death. Maybe it’s because Jesus lived in the face of death every day that he lived under Rome. Maybe it’s because his loyalty to his mission mattered more than his safety. For whatever reason, he was not afraid. When he arrived at Mary and Martha's home, he did not shy away from the death he found there. And he did not shy away from the grief. He stood in the midst of the mourning and felt it all.
This story also shows us that deeply felt relationships include accountability and honesty. Martha is very clear with Jesus about how she is feeling. She says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." How did you hear that line when our readers read it aloud today in worship? With anger? With sadness? With resignation? I think each one of those feelings is a valid interpretation of this text. Notice that Jesus is not surprised by her anger and sadness. He doesn't shy away from her pain, either. He listens. He is present. She goes on: "But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." How did you hear that last part? With desperation? With hope? As a demand for Jesus to do what Martha knows he is capable of doing? Maybe all three?
Initially, when Jesus says to Martha that her dead brother will live again, she presumes he means eventually, at the final Resurrection. In her book on John, Karoline Lewis notes that Jesus, his followers, and these dear friends would have believed that the faithful would eventually be resurrected. It makes sense that Martha thinks Jesus is reminding her of the hope already present in their shared faith. But it is clear that he means something more. He goes on to say, "I am the resurrection and the life." He says that his insight in how to follow God will be the key to new life, Lewis says not just in the future, but right now. The ones who can follow him on this path will see a life that they couldn't have imagined without him. He looks her right in the eye and says, "Do you believe that?" She says yes.
I am fascinated by this turn of phrase that Martha uses to describe Jesus: "the one coming into the world." In her book, Karoline Lewis notes that it doesn't say that Jesus came into the world, like it happened once and is over now. It doesn't say will come in the world, putting the hope, once again in the future. It says, "coming into the world," happening right now, still on-going, not yet complete. "You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." The new life that he can show you can happen in the here and now. And, his work is on-going... not yet complete.
Jesus encounters Mary., Lazarus’ other sister. She, too, calls out his tardiness and weeps at his feet. He is deeply moved by her weeping and wants to see where Lazarus is buried. He is taken to his tomb. He weeps. Remember, Jesus’ work is not yet done. This weeping is part of it. Jesus is not set apart from pain, but feels it with the people he loves. Others observe him. They know that Jesus loved Lazarus. They also wonder why he didn't save him.
Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled away from Lazarus' tomb. Because his work is not yet done, Jesus assures his friends that God can still be at work in the midst of their grief. And, Jesus thanks God for hearing him, and trusts that long-dead Lazarus will hear him, too. Jesus tells a four-day dead man to get up, and that four-day dead man will. Jesus tells his friends to unbind the man, and the crowd will set Lazarus free. Remember, we need each other to fully live. Jesus affirms this when he asks the crowd to help Lazarus. Maybe this is part of what Jesus was and is right now doing... reminding us of the power we have to unbind those whom he loves and raises from the dead.
Karoline Lewis argues that the power of this story lies in the idea that resurrection, that is new life, isn’t a faraway future hope of divine reconciliation. When Jesus says that he is “the resurrection and the life,” he means that there is a promise of new life right now. He is still coming into the world, not to push us away from the depths of our humanity, but to settle right down in it with us. To hear our mourning, to face our pain, and to hear the lament when we cry out, "if you had been here, none of this ever would have happened." The life he promises is lived, with him, right now, in the face of all that would wound us. The life he promises stares death in the face, unafraid, and knows that there is the possibility of something greater. That doesn't mean that there will be no pain. It just means that the pain doesn't have to be the end of the story. Our love, and Jesus’ love for us, can instead be the hinge, opening us to great life beyond what now seems possible. Jesus will call each one of us, asking us to come out into new life. Will you be able to rise to greet him? More importantly, will we, the Marys and the Marthas and the people who loved them, be able to unbind all the ones Christ has called out, freeing them into new life, too?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3192
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4847
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=904
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=42
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.