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Lent 5A Sermon
John 11: 1-45

April 2, 2017


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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But 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.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after 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.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9Jesus 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. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

Thus begins the story which falls right smack-dab in the middle of John’s Gospel. It is the hinge in Jesus’ life where the religious leaders can take no more, and decide that they must do something to get rid of this man.

Some say that there are three themes or movements to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The first one is heartache. Not just the heartache of Lazarus’ death, which was undoubtedly significant, but also the particular heartache of Jesus’ delay. As I read the next section of the story, notice how Jesus’ delay actually intensifies the pain of Martha and Mary, both of whom begin their interactions with him by sharing their distress and perhaps even accusation using the exact same words. This is pain, disappointment, and hurt, and it is something that every single one of us has experienced at some time in our lives.

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She 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.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The 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. 32When 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.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep.36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

The second theme or movement in this story is miracle. It comes first as a promise, though only later does the force of the promise take hold. When Jesus initially declares that Lazarus will be raised, Martha assumes he is speaking about the promised resurrection of all at the end of time, and her response sounds like us professing one of our creeds: “Yes, Lord, I know that he will rise again in the resurrection of the last day.” But Jesus means something more, something immediate. The life he offers is not merely an end-times promise – pie in the sky, by and by - but something that makes a difference here and now. And that promise provokes from Martha the confession that Jesus is Messiah reserved only for Peter in the other gospels.
The promised miracle comes to fruition when Jesus comes to Lazarus’ tomb. We get the feeling that he is not necessarily a welcome presence - not only did both sisters confront him with their disappointment, but the crowd also voices their belief that if Jesus had cared more he would have come sooner, this tragedy would have been averted and their grief avoided. But in the midst of this disappointment and doubt, Jesus surprises them all, first with his command to remove the stone from Lazarus’ tomb and, second, with his call for Lazarus to come out. And Lazarus does. Remember, in John’s Gospel the miracles are called, “signs”– those things that reveal the character and commitment of God to God’s children. Interestingly, this sign provokes different reactions. Many come to believe in Jesus, but in the verses that follow those of our appointed passage, this same sign will prompt Jesus’ enemies to plot his death.

Isn’t it strange that something as fantastic as raising someone from the dead gets responses that are anything other than pure joy? The truth of the matter is, God’s activity will change us; we are never the same after we witness God’s goodness in life, and it will comfort some and threaten others. Even the promise of new life comes only as good news to those who recognizes that the old life is not enough and only threatens or upsets those who don’t want to change.

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The 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.

The passage goes on to one further theme: invitation. After he invites the once-dead Lazarus from his cold tomb, Jesus invites those around him to participate: “Unbind him and let him go”. This is the part of the story that should really grab your attention. I mean, Jesus did not have to issue that command. He might have gone over to Lazarus himself and unwrapped him, embraced him, and walked him over to his teary-eyed sisters. But rather than linger in the drama and limelight of his miracle, Jesus invites those around to get involved, to play a part in seeing this miracle move forward. The same is true of Jesus’ church today. We are not only called to merely be witnesses of God’s action in our lives, but we are also to be changed by what we see and thereby invited into the ongoing activity of what God is doing. God does the miracle, but God also gives us a part to play as it unfolds in our life.

I wonder today in light of this invitation, where are we as a church family in the movement of this story, movement that is not limited to this one story but can be traced throughout Scripture and, indeed, throughout the history of God’s people right up to and including us here as we worship today. Where are we experiencing some element of heartache, in our personal lives and as a congregation? How have you seen God perform miracles here, maybe in the simple everyday accomplishments of life, and maybe in surprising ways like with Lazarus and his village? How is Jesus’ promise to raise us up to something new going to change us as we hear an invitation to participate in this miraculous presence in our world? How are we resisting this – are we ready to celebrate and rejoice with that, or are we ready to do everything that we can to resist it?

We live in a reality that focuses on death and failure. It is real, and we saw it this week when the sister of one of our members died unexpectedly following surgery. We saw it in our national news as a busload of church folks were killed in a crash on the highways of Texas. Our congregation can get bogged down in the challenges that we have financially and with attendance. How many of us not only expect Jesus’ presence to provide a sign for all of us of life, peace and joy, but are also willing to accept Jesus’ invitation to live in new ways as that life, peace and joy are experienced?

This story about Jesus raising Lazarus is long, dramatic, kind of funny, and when all else is said, pretty awesome . It moves from heartache to miracle, and the good news is that it’s not done yet. We have the invitation from Jesus to unbind the one who is alive and set him loose on the world! No matter how old or young we are, our political affiliation, our gender, our orientation, God invites us into this reality which points us to the powerful life-giving presence of Jesus among us! Thanks be to God for Jesus’ life-giving presence set loose on the world today! Amen.