Fifth Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: John 11:1-45

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.” (John 11:1-3)

Now, here’s something strange: even though we’re told that Jesus loved Lazarus, he does not seem to be in any hurry to rush to his side when he hears that his friend is gravely ill. Quite the opposite, in fact. Jesus stays where he is for two more days—with the result, of course, that Lazarus is already dead when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany.

To quote William Shatner: “Is that weird, or what?” How can Jesus show such apparent disregard for a beloved friend?

That’s the question on Martha’s mind, too, as she comes down the road to confront Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

“Where were you, Jesus, when we needed you?”

Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”

Now, this is not the language of the funeral parlor or the condolence card. We are not used to it. Martha, however, recognized his meaning immediately. Like most Jewish people of her time, she had been taught that at the last and final “Day of the Lord” there would be a general resurrection of all the dead.

She is, I think, bitterly disappointed with Jesus for saying this. To her, it sounds like a platitude. Her response has this impatient tone: “Yes, yes, I know he will rise again at the resurrection at the Last Day. That’s not what I meant.”

But here is the theological core of this story. Jesus means to teach us something about his power, and about what he has come to do. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus is continually revealing his identity to his disciples. One of the ways he does this is through what are called his “I am” sayings. You know them:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life …” (14:6)

“I am the bread of life …” (6:35)

“I am the light of the world …” (8:12)

“I am the good shepherd …” (10:11)

There are several more of these “I am” statements in John, and each of them conveys something about who Jesus is and what he is doing. Here we have another one. Jesus tells Martha, “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.”

And then he asks her, “Do you believe this?”

I think that must have been a very hard question. Martha had, no doubt, been to lots of funerals. She had seen many people buried in tombs. And while she may have witnessed Jesus doing some amazing things …

Well, there is, after all, something final about death.

“Okay, Jesus. You are the resurrection and the life. But there is no hope for my brother, is there? He’s been dead four days now, so he is not coming back.”

But then he asks her, “Do you believe?”

The question is direct and straightforward: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live … Do you believe this?

And now we have been drawn into the story, haven’t we? The question demands a response, and we hang on Martha’s words, waiting for her reply. And her answer, when it comes, is an expression of faith. She says to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

With these words, Martha confesses Jesus Christ as the incarnate presence of God and the Lord of all life, and the rest of the story will be a ratification of her trust. But there’s more going on here than that. John the Evangelist is a consummate story-teller, and—in his recounting of this exchange between Jesus and Martha—he is posing the question directly to us: “Do you believe this?”

The story continues. Martha runs back home to tell her sister that Jesus has arrived, and Mary runs out to meet him. She falls at Jesus’ feet, and—weeping—she echoes her sister’s bitter words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Some people from the village have followed Mary, and they also are weeping. They knew that Jesus could heal—but where had he been, when they needed him? Jesus is now moved to tears himself. John tells us “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”

He asks to be shown to the grave, and they lead him there. The tomb is in a cave, sealed tightly with a large stone.

Like I said, the theological core of this passage tells us who Jesus is and what he has come to do. Now we have come to the story’s dramatic climax.

Jesus says, “Take away the stone.” Despite her confession of faith, at this, Martha protests. Lazarus has been dead four days! There will be a terrible odor. As the King James Version bluntly puts it, “He stinketh.” No gentle passage into the afterlife here, no resuscitation of a body medically dead but still intact. In the old paintings of this subject, the bystanders are depicted holding handkerchiefs to their noses. We are talking about a decomposing corpse.

But Jesus says to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

Overcome by the authority in his voice, they take away the stone, and Jesus prays aloud in a way that publicly demonstrates the unity of the Father with the Son. And then he cries with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

So instantly does new life follow upon the Word of the Lord that Lazarus is still bound hand and foot in his grave clothes when he appears at the entrance of the tomb.

Jesus did it. He turned death into life. He turned mourning into celebration.

Wow. This is quite a story. But what does it mean for us? What does this story about Jesus and Lazarus—and Martha and Mary—have to do with you and with me and with our walk with God?

This text goes right to the centre of our human lives. It touches on our own questions about death, and on our own relationships with Jesus.

We have all been to too many funerals. We have lost too many loved ones, too many friends, parents, children. We know what it is to mourn, and grieve, and weep. And it is natural that we do that. We need to do that. Jesus did it, too.

Before I say anything else, I want to tell you this: I am not one of those people who will say to you, when you are mourning a loss, that you should expect to “get over it” after a period of time. Because you won’t! And besides, who would want to?

But I do know that deep grief—if you hold on to it and don’t move through it—can turn into despair, which will destroy you. And so, to those who grieve—including myself—I offer this counsel: remember that you are a child of the living God. Remember that you are in a relationship with Jesus, the one who has power even over death. Jesus demonstrated this time and again throughout his ministry. Remember? He raised Jairus’s daughter, and also the son of the widow at Nain. He brought Lazarus back to life, and then—ultimately—he himself was raised from the dead.

This is the hope of the Christian. It’s not a fanciful, “I-hope-that-I-will-win-the-lottery” type of hope. No. Ours is a sure and certain hope of resurrection. Death is not the final word for any of us.

Today, we are able to rest in the assurance of those familiar words: “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.”

If we believe this—if we know this—then we can get on with living, with the priorities of life sorted out. Our Christian faith tells us that what happened at the tomb of Lazarus is a foretaste of what will be for each of us. We are Easter people. During Lent, we journey with Jesus to the cross and the grave—but we know the story does not end there.

Thanks be to God.

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