Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
The power of death to awaken us to the presence of God speaking to us is particularly urgent in our times. We live in an age that values control. Theologians like to be able to explain things so there are no questions, young executives want to be on top of their work, and new pastors wish to appear to their people to have their lives together. Death comes and renders these assumptions of control a shambles. Then in our chaos and our dependency we cry to God. Then and perhaps only then we can hear. Urban Holmes
The Voice that Wakes the Dead
In some ways the story of Jesus raising Lazarus is an unusual choice for today. We are in the middle of Lent, a time for repentance and reflection on our spiritual journeys. Yet the story is about resurrection and life. It seems more like an Easter story.
Then two days before we left for our pilgrimage I heard that Horst Endress had died. While we were in Israel Tanya and I learned that Leslie Holt, a 46 year-old lady from one of my former churches had died. Her funeral was last Saturday. Then last Sunday Susanne Udvari called me and told me that Joe had died. Monday morning I came in to the office, looked up the passage for today’s sermon, and was stunned at how appropriate it was.
Mary and Martha appear several times in the gospels and we know a bit about them. Martha was hard working and driven. She tried to please everyone by what she did. Mary was more contemplative and emotional. When she went out to meet Jesus she fell at his feet and wept. These two sisters had a brother named Lazarus. We don’t know much about him. He was sick. Then he was dead. And then he was surprised.
Lazarus lived with his sisters in Bethany. Bethany is a small village at the top of the Mount of Olives. It’s about two miles from Jerusalem. When Jesus came to the Jerusalem area he stayed at their home. He ate dinners with them. Jesus was friends with Lazarus, Mary and Martha.
We don’t usually think of Jesus having friends. We know that he had the disciples. There were people who came to him for healing and to listen to him teach. There were crowds around him, but friends? Wasn’t he too busy being the Messiah to have any friends? Yet Mary and Martha and Lazarus were Jesus’ friends. Our passage says that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).
In the 15th chapter of John’s gospel, at the last supper, Jesus said to the disciples “I’m not going to call you my servants. You are my friends.” That includes anyone who is a follower of Jesus. That includes you and me. We are Jesus’ friends. Yet, what does it mean to be Jesus’ friend? Do friends get special treatment? Are there privileges that come with being friends? Does it mean that when we are in trouble Jesus drops everything else and rushes to help us? That is certainly not what Mary and Martha experienced.
Lazarus got sick. Mary and Martha knew that Jesus had healed many people. They sent a message to Jesus. “Lazarus is sick.” They didn’t ask Jesus to come and heal Lazarus. They just expected him to come right away. We expect the story to say that “Since Jesus loved Lazarus he rushed back to Bethany and healed him.” Instead, the passage says that “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” (John 11:5-6). By the time Jesus finally got to Bethany, Lazarus was already dead and had been buried for four days.
Have you ever noticed that Jesus never hurries? There are no stories of Jesus running. He didn’t even jog. He doesn’t rush or seem frantic. That drives me crazy because I often feel frantic. By the time I got the office Monday morning I was running as fast as I could. There were 65 emails that had come in while I was gone. Vera Crookshank’s funeral was on Monday, The funeral for Horst and Anneliese was yesterday. I had to meet with Susanne, Kristen and Matt to plan Joe’s service. I had to plan today’s worship and sermon. And there were a number of other tasks that should have been done but I never got to. I spend a lot of time rushing from one thing to the next, trying to get done all the work that Jesus wants me to do. You would think that Jesus would rush to keep up.
Yet he doesn’t. Jesus is not dragged around by our agendas. His timing is often different than our timing. And because Jesus doesn’t always show up when we expect him to and doesn’t follow our agendas, we sometimes get disappointed with him. Jesus is not interested in fulfilling our dreams and desires. His goal is to bring glory to God.
Lazarus is whatever you count on Jesus loving and blessing. Maybe it’s your family. You want your children to be healthy and to have good jobs and live close by. Maybe it’s your dreams for your career or your retirement years. Maybe it’s your hopes for this church or some great mission project. These desires are not necessarily wrong or bad. But if we cling to these desires rather than clinging to Jesus we just might end up disappointed. Jesus doesn’t want to rescue our lives. He wants to give us new life.
During our pilgrimage we went to the traditional site of Lazarus’s tomb. The picture on the screens is that place. On the left hand side there are 15-20 steps down from a small road, into a little waiting area. Then you have to duck through the doorway and go down 5 or 6 more steps into the actual crypt. Above those steps there is a little window where you can look down into the actual burial area. These widows are very common in burial chambers.
Usually a burial happened within 24 hours of death. The body would be wrapped in spices and cloth and then put into the crypt. A stone was rolled across the door of the crypt, but the little window was left open. The belief was that the spirit of the person stayed around the body for three days before it went to Sheol, the place of the dead. When it left after three days it would go out through the window. Jesus showed up four days after Lazarus was buried, which means that his spirit was already gone. Lazarus was dead and all that was left was the grief and putting life back together with an empty place in the hearts of Martha and Mary.
When Jesus got to Bethany Martha came out to meet him. She was mad. “Why didn’t you get here earlier? You could have healed Lazarus.” When Mary came out she asked the same question, but it seems that her emotion was more sorrow than anger. She fell at Jesus’ feet and wept. Both sorrow and anger are a normal and healthy part of grief.
Jesus doesn’t reject or scold either of the two sisters – Martha for her anger or Mary for her sorrow. He accepts them just as they are, with all of their emotions and struggles. Jesus even shared in their grief. When our passage says that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33) it could be translated “he was angry,” just like Martha. And of course, we know that Jesus wept. That verse is one of the great trivia questions about the Bible. What is the shortest verse in the Bible? “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). However, Jesus’ tears are anything but trivial. He shares in our grief.
In his exchange with Martha Jesus makes an incredible claim. “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” (John 11:25-26). Then to prove that he has the power to give us life Jesus called Lazarus back to life.
I love the way John describes that event. First Jesus prayed. He didn’t ask God to bring Lazarus back to life. He simply thanked God for the miracle that was going to happen. Then he “cried with a loud voice” (John 11:43). It ought to say, he shouted. “LAZARUS, COME OUT!” I wonder if he shouted because Lazarus was not likely to hear him, or was it because we so often don’t hear Jesus’ voice. We are so overwhelmed with the voice of death that we miss the good news that Jesus brings us life. We are so focused on our fears and the life-squelching, life-destroying message of the world that we miss the good news that Jesus came to bring us life, abundant life, eternal life. “LAZARUS, COME OUT!” Then Lazarus came out.
This story is the good news that Jesus’ love reaches beyond death, and whenever Jesus shows up there is life, new life, resurrection life. Jesus has power over death and the power to give us new life, the life that God wants us to have.
The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is a precursor to Easter, pointing to Jesus’ resurrection. Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. Lent is the 40 days before Easter, not including Sundays. The reason Sundays are not included is that every Sunday is intended as a celebration of Jesus’ power over death. Every day is a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Let us celebrate that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have life – abundant life, new life, eternal life! Amen.