Fifth Sunday in Lent - John 11:1-46
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 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.” Accordingly, 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. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 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.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 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. 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.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him
As some of you know, about six weeks ago my family got the news of my father-in-law’s sudden death. In that moment, the hope of the Resurrection became immediately and intensely important to me. As I held my sobbing children through the first devastating moments of their grief, resurrection was the one solid, meaningful comfort I could offer them, beyond the love of my arms around them, and the tears I mingled with theirs.
“This pain is not forever.”
“We will see Papa again, and there will be no more tears there, because we will all be with God.”
“It’s OK to cry. I know this hurts so much, but it’s not forever. This pain will pass.”
I believe that all of that is true. And it is an irreplaceable comfort. But it also requires a patience that is hard to manage in the depths of grief. It is an imperfect comfort, and it can tend to draw our hopes into the foggy reaches of the future, leaving the present grey and cold.
“I know it will be better eventually – but the right now is so hard.”
You don’t have to have suffered a recent death to know this, although some of you have.
This same pain applies to other kinds of losses:
losses of health
losses of jobs or income
losses of relationships
losses of dreams
loses of faith in our country’s ideals,
or in the neighbors or friends whose politics you just cannot understand…
Whatever we may mourn, the promise of resurrection in the end times doesn’t quite seem to soothe the deep pain of present losses.
Maybe it is just my recent experience with death, but I hear echoes of this pain in Martha’s response to Jesus’ promise of resurrection for Lazarus:
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day….Yes, I know Jesus. My brother will rise again. My faith has not been shaken… but this still hurts. Can’t you see my tears? I don’t need your theology right now, I need your comfort and your power.”
It’s probably too easy for preachers to move on past that pain, or even to criticize Martha for her response – this week in my study of this text I read some gentle scolding for her “catechism answer”– but I don’t want criticize her.
It is clear to me that there was NO failure of Martha’s faith.
She had sent for Jesus because she had faith that he could save her brother from death.
Even after Lazarus has been dead 4 days – a full day beyond the statutory 3 days point where Jews believed the spirit would leave the body – Martha says “even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Martha has POWERFUL faith.
And it is also clear to me that grief is not an inappropriate response to death and loss.
Grief, and even regret for what has happened, is an expression of love. The language of love flows throughout this story:
the sisters refer to Lazarus as “he whom you love” when sending for Jesus.
And the gospel writer tells us that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
And when the Jews saw Jesus weeping they said “See how he loved him!”
Tears… mourning – even from Jesus who clearly knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead – grief is an expression of love.
So I don’t want to criticize Martha’s answer to Jesus’s question. But I do want to point us toward his response to her answer – especially those of us who are in some form of mourning today. Because the resurrection that Jesus offered her was not the foggy, future promise that this goodbye is not forever. The resurrection Jesus promised was active, and present.
“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.”
Jesus is talking about a present-tense resurrection.
On the physical level, of course, this reflects an actual, bodily resurrection for Lazarus – but the miracle is not the deeper point. After all, Jesus did not make Lazarus immortal – he brought him back to life, but he would die again.
And Jesus didn’t say “I will perform a resurrection.” He said “I AM the Resurrection, and the Life.” Jesus’s very being – his identity – is one of resurrection and life. And that means that our relationship with Jesus – our identity as the body of Christ – is a living relationship… a resurrection identity.
Today’s reading from Ezekiel can help us to understand what that might mean for us, in the middle of our times of mourning. When I first read this vision of dry bones being turned into living bodies, I assumed the pairing with today’s gospel was about physical resurrection. But the commentators taught me differently.
The “dry bones” in this text are the living, but hopeless people of Israel who have been deported from their homes, held as captives in Babylon, and are crying out to God:
“Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (Ez. 37:11).
This prayer is an expression of despair. But to this broken, grieving people, God sends a prophet with a vision of dry bones given flesh, and – here is the important part – breathed into life by God’s Spirit.
Since I regularly inflict on you all my Bible-nerd obsession with key words in the original biblical languages, you might remember the Hebrew word for breath: ruach.
It means breath, and also wind, and also spirit. And the ruach of God breathes through this 11-verse passage 9 times. God hears the cry of a despairing people, and God responds with the life-giving breath of the Spirit.
And this same Spirit of God is what Paul exhorts us to set our minds on in the reading from Romans. Paul recognizes the ways that the brokenness of our world, and bodies, and lives can steal the new life we have in Christ, and draw us back into the desire to reject God’s good law… just like the pain of our grief can draw us into despair that dries out our very bones.
But Paul exhorts us:
“If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness”
And Christ IS in you! That is the promise of our baptism… the promise of a resurrection identity:
The brokenness of our flesh… the parts of us that fall into despair at the painful realities of death and exile, and the parts of us that are hostile to God because we want to be in charge of our own lives… that despair and hostility is drowned in the water so that we can rise again with a NEW life.
I know… believe me, I KNOW how hard it is to believe in genuinely new life. We look at our world, or our families, or our bodies and they do not look resurrected. We are still broken.
But this is God’s promise for us – Jesus says “I Am the Resurrection and the Life.” And this promise is for us – not just us individually, but us together. Resurrection is not a personal, private experience – it is a community activity.
When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead he called the people to unbind him.
It’s was God’s power that raised Lazarus, but Jesus included the people in the resurrection. He called them to help Lazarus experience the freedom that came with his new life.
And that’s our job too. God invites us to be active participants in each others’ resurrections.
We already have God’s Spirit… the Spirit that makes dry bones breath again… the Spirit of Life and Resurrection. We received that Spirit in our baptism as God’s loving gift, and nothing we will ever do can separate us from the love of God.
That love does not mean we will never cry – the loving response to the reality of loss is to weep, so if you are grieving, your tears are evidence of your love. And Jesus weeps with you.
But the Spirit of Jesus also promises new life, resurrection life that is NOW, not in the foggy future at the end of time. And the voice of Jesus calls the community to unbind the grave clothes.
So in your mourning, do not despair – breath in the Spirit that calls you out of death – and reach out a hand to unbind each others’ bonds.
We are a resurrection people. Do not despair, God’s Spirit dwells in us.
Thanks be to God.
 Ezekiel 37:1-14
 Romans 8:6-11