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.” 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
A Tricky, but Important Topic in Times Such as These John11:1-45, Lent 5, Mar 29, 2020
I was out at a local cemetery yesterday officiating at the graveside funeral of a neighbour and friend as I have done some 170-plus times in my 18 years as pastor of Golden Valley Lutheran Church. Of all those funerals, I can probably count on one hand the people I have not known personally. Many are people from this parish and/or community. Some I have known for a very long time, and some are dear friends. Some have been members of my own family. I have attended many, many more funerals besides those where I serve as the officiant. One thing I have become relatively familiar with over these past years…is death.
I was a bit hesitant to take on this topic in light our current situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic that has inundated the world and the entire news cycle for the past several weeks, but perhaps now more than ever we need to consider this topic in light of the Biblical witness, and our Christian faith. I can appreciate those who are posting meme’s and videos trying to get our minds off this topic (and I applaud you for doing so), but being a lectionary-based preacher, I tend to preach the texts as they come to me (both from those who draft the lectionary, and the Holy Spirit who guides this process). And so with that in mind…here we go.
This text form John chapter 11 and the rising of Lazarus is one of the more familiar texts in the Bible. Many even casual church-goers have heard it read and/or preached at funerals I expect. I use portions of it at every funeral where I am involved. For those for whom this text may not be as familiar, I will briefly (many think that word should never be used by a pastor, for their understanding and use of that word, and that of the pastor’s are not one and the same)…anyways, back to the sermon.
Word comes to Jesus via Mary and Martha that their brother (and Jesus’ friend) Lazarus is sick. There is no particular request stated in the text, but the assumption is that Jesus would attend to this urgent matter- and do so quickly. For reasons not fully specified, Jesus delays two days before he and his disciples leave for Bethany in the region of Judea.
Upon arriving they discover that Lazarus has already died and has been in the grave four days. Although the exact location of Jesus’ prior leaving for Bethany is not given, it would seem that he must be at least a day’s journey away (30-some kms) (reasoning that if it took a day for the message to arrive, Jesus waits an additional two days before leaving, and it take takes one day
to travel from his locale to Bethany, this would mean that Lazarus could well have died shortly after the messengers leave the home of his friends with word of his illness, thus accounting for the days).
Again, although we are not told exactly the reason for Jesus’ delay, one possibly could be related to Jewish belief regarding death, and time between the ultimate separation between body and soul. From what I have read and can best discern, upon death, it was thought the soul could remain close to the body for up to three days in hopes of reuniting with it at some point. After the third day- all bets were off. It very well could be the two-day delay of Jesus could be to reveal the source of his friend’s reviving from the dead could not be accounted for in any other way than through Jesus’ Divine intervention. For more reading on Jewish understanding on death, cremation, the body, and the soul, etc. read https://www.aish.com/sp/ph/Cremation_or_Burial_A_Jewish_View.html
Whatever the case, Jesus arrives at this friend’s home and is immediately met by Martha. Her comments will be later shared by her sister Mary and are not uncommon to those who have had similar experiences of disappointment with God…”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” One of the basic principals in ministry to the giving, is to allow each to have their own voice in their grief. Often certain strains of spiritual formation do not readily give voice to comments such as Martha’s-“if you had been here…”. The unspoken assumption is plain- “why weren’t you here when I needed you, Jesus”? Rather than an experience like that expressed in the old gospel song “In the Garden”, where Jesus is right next to the person as they walk and talk together, Jesus was nowhere to be found in their hour of need. When others, are hurting, and perhaps feeling abandoned by God, don’t be too quick to hush them up, or school them theologically about the attributes of God. Many of the psalms give voice to similar experiences and feelings as those of Martha and Mary (we call these Psalms of Lament). Even our Lord seems to be expressing a similar lament from the cross when he cries out, “my God my God, why have you forsaken me” (quoting Ps 22:1).
After expressing these words of seeming disappointment, she goes on to express words of possibility and hope, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”. Even in her disappointment/unbelief, there yet remains some hope that even now God might intervene. Disappointment/unbelief and faith often live closer together than we care to admit. I’m glad the Holy Spirit saw fit to include words such as these, and those expressed by the father who bids Jesus to heal his son, but is not overly confident he has the faith to believe it possible- “Lord I believe, help my unbelief”. Mk 9:24. If I’m honest with God and myself (and with you), my faith at times is not so dissimilar to this man’s, or to Martha’s. Thankfully my faith is not centered in my understanding of its strength or weakness at any given moment, but on the object of that faith- the Lord Jesus Christ. Even here Martha believes that Jesus may in fact be able to do something at this late hour…but she’s not exactly sure what.
The words of Jesus that follow are words that I use at each and every funeral at which I minister, “I (Jesus) 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.” When these word of Jesus find a central place in our thinking and in our believing, something very significant begins to take place. Much of the fear and dread that formerly accompanied death (and any mention of it), begins to be replaced by a future hope and confidence regarding ourselves and our loves ones. St Paul begs the question in writing to the church at Corinth, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. As the Holy Spirit works faith in and through these words- death doesn’t seem quite as overwhelming, or as scary as it once did.
Martha responds with as strong and solid proclamation of faith as one can find in all four Gospels in saying, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” As I recall it, only the disciple Peter makes a confession of this magnitude, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mat 16:16). Martha here proves herself to be a theological and confessional heavyweight, rather than simply someone who gets a bad rap for worrying about the menial things of life, like whether or not the food is ready on time (see Lk 10:38-42).
After greeting Martha’s sister Mary, Jesus makes his way to the grave of his deceased friend. Although a short passage (only two words), the significance of the two words “Jesus wept” is great. Here we see the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Very God of Very God, weeping at the grave of his friend. I think we can well imagine that our Lord still weeps at the graves of all His beloved. Even with the knowledge of what is about to transpire in the rising of his friend Lazarus, he still weeps at his graveside. These are important words for those who minister to the grieving, and to those who grieve. Jesus knows and sees our grief…and he weeps.
There is some speculation as to Jesus’ emotional state in what is happening here. The Greek word translated “deeply moved” carries with it a sense of indignation. Is Jesus’ indignation directed at death itself, and what it does to people and to their friends, relatives, and families? Is this what Paul has in mind when calls death “an enemy”…an enemy that Jesus would go on to meet on the cross at Calvary, and defeat on the third day after, and will ultimately defeat in its totality at his Second coming? Even if we can see in some particular deaths a reprieve from temporal suffering…we instinctively know that death is not our friend…it is in fact an enemy, and as such gives cause for indignation.
The text ends somewhat abruptly as Jesus prays to God the Father regarding what is about to transpire. I wonder if at this point Jesus himself needed a word of reassurance from on high. He then bids those present to remove the stone, and Martha slips from her solid proclamation regarding the Messianic and Divine nature of Jesus, to cautioning him regarding the offensive smell they are about to encounter. Martha, as do all believers, lives with one foot in the Kingdom of heaven, and the other foot still planted firmly on the ground…were death has a certain odor. Once again- Lord I believe…help my unbelief.
Jesus calls out in a loud voice for Lazarus to come out…and he does just that. Those gathered around remove his linen wrappings, and off he goes. Although Lazarus was clinically dead by any definition, his was not a “resurrection”, like that of our Lord’s, or that which believers await at Jesus’ final coming. The resuscitated Lazarus would go on to die at some further point, and his physical body would once again be wrapped in burial linens, and returned to the grave (perhaps even this very one)…to await his true bodily resurrection at the end of the age.
It would appear the “brief” retelling of this account has, as you may well have guessed, been anything but brief…but has become the essence of today’s sermon. Jesus’ friend Lazarus, along with Martha and Mary in this moment in time were given a foretaste, or a sign of what all who hope in Jesus will one day experience. As we hear and believe this for ourselves, death needn’t be something we fear or dread, but rather the gateway from this life to an even more blessed life in the company of our Lord Jesus, and all those saints who have gone before us.
Now that we’ve got that question dealt with, we can get on with life, and with living. And btw, does anyone have any funny cat or dog videos they could share with us online? Amen