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Sermon for Lent 5 – 6 April

Note:  A version of this sermon was written for the Sermon Archive at Goettingen University and can be found here

The text is John 11:1-45.

The audio of the sermon can be heard by clicking the triangle in the embedded player below.


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.raisingoflazarus-giotto

The text for this fifth Sunday in Lent is the Gospel lesson for this day, the raising of Lazarus.

I’ve been saying that all of these Gospel readings in the season of Lent have emphasized the humanity of Jesus and today, at the heart of this text is the love that Jesus has for His friends.

I’m sure almost all of you have lost a loved one or someone very close to you, a relative or a very dear friend.  There are those phrases that well-meaning people say to you in the midst of your grief that resemble Christian comfort but aren’t really.  I think you know what I’m talking about.  Phrases like, “It was his time.”  Or “God decided to take her home.”  Some of those phrases work pretty well when someone dies of old age.  They fall a little short when a young father of school-aged children dies.  They also don’t hold any water outside of our almost insulated corner of the world where people either die of sickness or accident and the demon of violence is seen infrequently if at all.  Please don’t try to use those lines on a teenager from the Congo who watched men come into her village and kill her parents.  And please don’t use them on a new Gold Star mother, who just lost her only son to shrapnel from a terrorist’s improvised explosive device.  Those lines do far more than fall a little flat, they confess an unreal and unconcerned God high off in the heavens somewhere watching some mystical kitchen timer set for each of us.  They certainly do not confess God the Father who loved the world so much that He would send his only begotten Son so that those who might believe in him would never die.  And they certainly do not confess a Lord Jesus Christ, who grieves at the death of His friends, even those He knows will rise again.

And yet, early on in this account we have some reason to pause for a minute.  When Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus about Lazarus, Jesus dear friend being very ill, Jesus says in their hearing this rather enigmatic sentence, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  (v. 4)  We know Jesus loved these folks, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha.  (v. 5)  And then verse six, “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”  Huh?  Wait a minute.  That’s not how it’s supposed to read, right?  When you hear that your friend is very ill and has been admitted to the hospital, you head over to the hospital right?  These were Jesus’ very dear friends and so when He heard that Lazarus was ill, our Lord rushed to Judea to the side of Lazarus His friend and to the support of his sisters Mary and Martha.  That’s how it’s supposed to read.  That’s how we want it to read, right?  Now, I’m certain that God does not play games with us like a cat with a mouse, and yet, we say, His ways are not our ways, are they?  Jesus did not even send word that He was on His way.  He stayed where He was, doing what we’re not sure and poor Mary and Martha watched their brother die.

When people get sick, they don’t just get sick, they get scared.  Because no matter how good our medical technology gets and no matter how much our physicians learn, people still suffer terribly with disease and they die.  People who are sick need reassurance.  By now you all know that I’ve been in the Navy but my last tour was at Bethesda Naval Hospital just outside Washington, D.C.  I can tell you firsthand, it doesn’t matter if your 19 and you’ve survived a sniper attack or you’re over 70 and one of the leaders of this great nation, when you’re sick you need the reassurance that in this vast universe which now seems to be conspiring against you, the God of the all the universe is intimately concerned about you and about your loved ones.  You want to know that God cares and that you matter to God.  And dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I assure you that God does care.  We have full proof of that this morning in our Gospel reading but it doesn’t come in the way that we would expect.

Yes, this reading is here on this last Sunday in Lent and as we head into Holy Week next week so that we know Jesus is Lord even over death itself.  And yes, this text provides the link we need to see why the Jewish leadership would plot to take Jesus’ life.  It’s all about that.  And these are no insignificant theological matters.  The salvation of the world is cosmic.  But this Lent 5 Gospel is also a text we use at funerals and memorial services if for no other reason than for these words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  But they come in an interesting context do they not?  That’s the great thing about hearing or reading great big chunks of Scripture, you don’t lose as much context.

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed close to home. They walk and talk.

21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

28 And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

The situation is now reverse from what we remember from having met Mary and Martha before.  Remember, it was Martha who’d been hustling and bustling to try to take care of everything while Jesus had been teaching and it had been Mary who had sat to hear Jesus teach.  From the way John records this encounter, either Martha has been going to a lot of Bible study or she understood it better than Mary.  Two sisters, one confessing the faith even in the midst of bitter loss; the other, awash in the pain of her loss and at least the way I read it, almost accusing Jesus of neglect.  But she still knows whom to accuse.  And that’s still faith.  We could be tempted to see these two sisters today and say, well that’s pretty clear.  Believe like Martha don’t complain like Mary.  But that’s not why John records this seventh sign of the glory of God being revealed.  It’s “Look at Jesus.”  Watch Jesus.

Sure the salvation of the world Jesus came to bring is cosmic, but it’s also deeply personal.  Watch what your Lord does when He loses a close friend.  Watch what the Lord of the heavens and the earth does when He sees His dear friend Mary wailing at the tomb and fallen down at His feet wailing.  He, too, is deeply moved.  He does not glibly walk to the tomb, share a couple of jokes and raise Lazarus.  He weeps.  Unconcerned with the reeking stench of death, He orders the stone of the tomb rolled away.  He prays so that others know that it is the glory of the Lord that is about to be revealed.  And He commands Lazarus, “Come out!”  And Lazarus comes out.  The glory of the Lord is revealed.  The Son of Man has come.  Jesus waiting for two days is now perfectly clear.  He waited so that there was no confusion about whether Lazarus was really dead or had just gone into a deep coma.  Jesus raised Lazarus out of the stinking rot of death.  Jesus proved that death is now nothing more than sleep for those who are friends of Christ Jesus.  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Watch Jesus.  What Jesus did for Lazarus, He does for you.  What Jesus did for Lazarus He does for all His friends.  Watch Jesus.  See how the infinite God thinks of you or your loved one whom you grieve.  He said He loves you.  Wrap your head around what that means.  And remember that this is no mere act of pure sympathy.  Jesus had in mind to display the glory of the Lord and his power over death, over your death and my death, over the world’s enslavement to death, not just Lazarus’ death.  He sent His only-begotten Son to rescue you us from death.  Just as the disciples realized they risked their lives to re-enter Judea and comfort Lazarus’ family in their loss, Jesus knew going to Jerusalem would cost Him His life.  But He did it because He so loved us, His family.  If there’s any doubt that Jesus has power over death, remember that what He does in Bethany is but a precursor to what He does in Jerusalem two weeks later and be raised on the third day.

Watch Jesus.  He suffers when you suffer.  He mourns with you when you weep because those you love have fallen asleep.  But do not forget that what He did for Lazarus, He has promised to do for your loved ones, your husbands, your wives, your children, for you.  He has conquered death by the power of His rising to life again.  Death for all those who are in Christ Jesus is now but a short sleep and a blissful rest.  All of it, He does, because God so loved the world, and all of it He does because Jesus loves His friends, because He loves you.  Amen.

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