A Sermon for 2 April 2017 – Fifth Sunday during Lent
A reading from the gospel of John 11:1-45 (NRSV). Listen for God’s word to us.
“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.”
This is the word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God!
Blogger and highly-sought-after speaker Rachel Held Evans quickly is becoming the Millennial voice to the church. She freely admits she’s a bit older than those born between 1982 and 2000 – the definition of a true Millennial. But as she personally identifies with many Millennial characteristics, she’s looked to by the church to speak for this missing generation. To tell us why they do not feel they belong. In a Work of the People clip called “Creating Something New,” she passionately discusses the death of the church. She says: “A lot of people are talking about the death of the church like it’s this big horrible thing. That we’re on the precipice of doom. . . .” She goes on to say: “We see the numbers changing, at least in North America, and the demographics shifting; and we all freak out. And say well the church is dying and unless we do all this change then it’s going to die. And,” and these are Rachel’s words, not mine. She says: “And I can’t help but think to myself: maybe a little death and resurrection is exactly what the church needs right now.” She says: “Maybe this means that for Christians in North America we’re learning that Christianity isn’t about empire. Maybe our empire-building days are over. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the church isn’t about power and money and numbers,” Rachel says. “Maybe being the church is about something else. And maybe dying to those old ways of doing things is exactly what needs to happen.” Rachel explains: “Death is something that empires worry about. It’s not something gardeners worry about.” Hear that again: “Death is something that empires worry about. It’s not something gardeners worry about. Death is not something resurrection people worry about.” Rachel declares: “If the church in North America needs to die to some of its old ways, then let it die.” With a wisdom that far exceeds her years, she goes on to remind us. “Maybe this is just God creating something new.” As the clip comes to an end, the message flashes across the screen: “Do not be afraid to die. Life comes from death!” (www.theworkofthepeople.com/creating-something-new).
These are the words of an astute disciple of Christ. A voice that echoes the wisdom declared to the prophet Ezekiel by God about the dry bones that live again. This is the sentiment of a faithful follower who obviously trusts the One we encounter in the gospel of John. The One who probes proclaiming: “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?” (John 11:25b-26) . . . We’re nearing the culmination of the season of Lent. Inching closer to the deepest mystery of Christian faith that shows us most clearly what our God is all about. Life, death, life-again. It’s a spiral that defies human logic. A paradox we cannot intellectually figure out. All we can do is anticipate it. Pay attention to witness it. Trust it is true – even when waves of grief over any loss wash over us. Life. Death. Life again – not just someday at what’s perceived to be our end. But every day all along the path of life. . . .
This week, the gospel of John takes us to the raising of Lazarus. Now, I know it’s another extra-long gospel of John reading. It can be hard to follow it all. The bottom line is: Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha – which is the family in whose home Jesus likely stayed on each of his visits to Jerusalem. After all, Bethany was just outside the city and the gospel never records him actually staying overnight in Jerusalem – except his last night when he was being held as a prisoner. Well, Lazarus was very, very ill. So much so that Mary and Martha call for Jesus. It wasn’t just one of those you best come see your loved one before they are no more calls. Rather, it was a call for Jesus to come help. Heal Lazarus from his disease. Make him well again. Isn’t that what we all want for our loved ones? For ourselves? . . . We may find it odd that Jesus intentionally stays away once he gets the call. He had just narrowly escaped the stones of an enraged crowd in Jerusalem. We can understand a desire to avoid any further conflict. What we may find difficult to grasp is a plan to stay away – to let his dear friend die. To know his sisters are filled with distress. To let the ache of mourning sink all the way into their hearts, before Jesus turns to make the trek back to Bethany. The writer records the story a bit crassly, as if a high and mighty Jesus had loftier things on his mind than the anchor of sadness that descends when a loved one dies. He just keeps on telling all with ears to hear that they are about to see the glory of God. Something better than fixing blind eyes is about to take place. According to the gospel of John, which is the only gospel that records this miraculous story; the great I AM is in their presence. The Eternal Word is living in and through Jesus. One utterance from him – one command like: let there be – and it is as if the Creator of all speaks again – breathing once more into Lazarus’ lungs. And out he steps. Living again – still bound hand and foot in his burial cloth, so that Jesus’ next command is to “unbind him and let him go” (John 11:44). The Eternal Word brings life out of this death. He frees Lazarus and all whose hearts had turned heavy at his loss. He rouses a new beginning in them all. As if he is a master gardener who trusts that winter must follow the harvest in order for a spring of new life to be. Jesus might be moved to tears at the tomb of his friend; but he does not fear. Not even death itself. He knows that when we go down to the grave, the force of Life, which is God, finds a new way – a new way to push through to create something new.
Here, just a few weeks before all the pageantry of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter morning; the Scriptures bring us to the story of One about to die who is intent on new life. . . . Right after he commands Lazarus to be unbound, the gospel records: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’” (John 11:45-48). . . . What a shame to let fear creep in like that. To deny the cycle that life comes from death so that they would do such a thing as to connive for the One of Life to die. . . . It’s a mystery before which we stand. The great mystery of Christian faith that has the audacity, with sister Martha, to stare I Am right back in the eyes to declare: “Yes, Lord, we believe!” We trust the Way: life, death, life-again. And while we may not always like it. While we may ache deeply within at our loss. While we take great comfort that at Golgotha he experienced in full our despair; we vow to live as those who do not fear. We keep alert to see the ways in which life comes from death. After all, maybe it’s just God creating something new.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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