Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
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 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,
Unbind Him: John 11:1-45
Jesus starts this story in the wilderness. He has gone there to seek safety. How many of us who are able-bodied, with good sized properties, or the privilege of a working car have gone to the wilderness for some comfort in the last few weeks? We who have been working from home, protecting our neighbors through social distancing, are venturing into the woods to find some space and fresh air. Jesus went into the wilderness for protection. He had been preaching and teaching. And, some felt he was blasphemous in his teaching and set about to punish him. They threatened to stone him, an appropriate response in their shared tradition, if one was teaching wrong things about God. So, like us, he went to a familiar wild place, one where John had been baptizing people, and he stayed there teaching. People still found him, but they were eager to learn from him. They came to believe out there in the wilderness.
Suddenly, though, word came from two of his close friends that a third friend, their brother, was sick. It was serious. He could die. Who here has gotten that phone call or email? I know I have. Usually the first thing I did after it was figure out how quickly I could get to my sick friend or family member. Jesus stayed two more days in the wilderness. I don’t know why he stayed those two days. Scripture tells us that Jesus loved Mary and Martha, the ones who called for him, and Lazarus, the one who was sick. Scripture also tells us that Jesus was sure this illness wouldn’t lead to death but to God’s glory. But, I still don’t know why he waited.
When he decided to go, he told his disciples that they were leaving the wilderness of Perea and going to back to Judea, they had some questions. “Jesus, um, our people just tried to stone you there. Why would you go back?” Jesus gave them a strange and convoluted response about walking in the light and not stumbling that they didn’t understand. This happens a lot in John. He says something else strange. He says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples, reasonably I might add, say, if he’s asleep, then he’s going to be fine. Why do we need to go? Jesus then, finally, says something clear. Lazarus is dead. I don’t know how he knew, but he knew. In John, Jesus always knows things. But then he goes right back to something obscure. He says “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. Let us go to him.” Then, Thomas, assuming the worst will happen, tries to help their friends be braver. “Let us also go. If Jesus is going to be killed, we will die by his side.” And, yes, this is a kind sentiment, but unnecessary bravado at this moment. Jesus probably rolled his eyes. This shows us that the disciples still don’t understand. That’s ok. We really don’t either.
We don’t know how far it is from where they are to Bethany. It could have taken them 2 days to get there. How far do you think you could walk in two days? We do know that Bethany is two miles from Jerusalem. It is a little over two miles from Paris Farmer’s Union to the Winthrop Veterinary Hospital. In traveling to tend to Lazarus’ death, Jesus is now the closest he been to his own death in the book of John. That proximity to the place where he will be crucified is important in this story. The thing that happens next, the most important of the big 6 miracles in John, will happen in the shadow of the crucifixion. Renewed life will come in the shadow of death.
Mourners have gathered at this point. Lazarus has been dead and in his tomb for four days. It is Martha who comes out to meet Jesus. This Mary and Martha might be the same Mary and Martha mentioned over in Luke, the ones who had the disagreement about how to host Jesus in their home. It might not be, though. All we really know is that this is the first time they are mentioned in John. Martha has asked Jesus to come help for a reason and I can’t imagine what she was feeling at that moment. It had been four days since she and her sister called for his help. Now, we don’t know exactly how far away Jesus was from Bethany. But, Martha did. And she expected Jesus to have been able to get back to them fast enough to help Lazarus. Instead, it took four days.
She says to him, “Had you been here, my brother would not have died. But, even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Such a statement of faith even in the depths of grief. Then they have this interesting back and forth about resurrection at the end of days. Both, Mary and Jesus were among the portion of Jewish people who believed that bodily resurrection would happen when the Messiah came. Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again” and she assumes that he is reminding her of a future resurrection, perhaps to comfort her. Jesus is quick to tell her that’s not what he was talking about.
This is the game-changing part, the part that they hadn’t quite expected, the part that is still confusing. He says “I am the resurrection and the life.” He, the Word come to life, human and divine, carries within his very life the resurrection. New life, renewed life, is not some far off hope. It was as close as he was standing to her in that moment. It was closer than six feet! New life, renewed life, was possible if only one believed. The ones who live will die and the ones who live in him will never die. Then, he asks her if she believes. She said yes. That she believed he was the Messiah, the one coming into the world. This is the first moment of transformation in the story.
She goes and get her sister Mary. The mourners follow them back to Jesus. Mary states a similar faith to Martha, that she knew that Jesus could have saved him. Then, Mary, Martha, Jesus, and the mourners all weep for Lazarus. It’s quite beautiful. But, it’s not the end. It says that Jesus was greatly disturbed and went to the tomb. He asked Martha to take away the stone and she is shocked. She knows what four days of death smells like. Jesus assures her that glory will be all they perceive. She rolls the stone away. Jesus prays. Then, he talks to his very dead friend and tells him to “Come out.” And, he does... still wrapped in death clothes, face shrouded and unable to see. Lazarus’ sisters and friends unbind him, the last steps before he is free.
This is what Jesus offers in John. Not some far away future promise. But, new life, right now. Relationship, right now. Care, right now. Way back in the poetry of John 1, where the Word became flesh and lived among us, it says that from the fullness of Jesus’ being, we received grace upon grace. Scholar Karoline Lewis puts it this way, “What does grace upon grace sound like? It sounds like when you are deader than dead and you hear your name being called, by the shepherd who knows you and loves you, and you are then able to walk out of that tomb, unbound to rest at the bosom of Jesus.” What would it mean for you, right now, to live as though the resurrection were within your grasp? What would it mean for you, today, socially distant or essentially working, to feel new life in the shadow of this new death? How might you live differently knowing that Jesus is abiding, even here, in this place, in these connections over the internet?
Renewed life is possible only two miles from certain death. And, it is possible right now, though maybe not in the ways we imagine. May we tell the ones we know can help us when they are too late. And, may we be confident that new life can still find a way.
Resources consulted for this sermon:
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Melinda Quivick: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4411
Joy J. Moore: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5423
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.