Year A Lent 5 A sermon from April 10, 2011, on John 11
We have spent this Lent with John’s gospel. Jesus encounters. To successful Nicodemus, Jesus offers new birth. To the woman at the well, living water bubbling up inside. To the man blind from birth, he gives sight. Now Jesus comes to a man in a tomb, or, should we say, to a family in grief. This deepest extremity of human helplessness.
We scarcely know what to make of a story of a dead man raised, just as we are unsure where to file stories of near death experience. The book so many of you have talked about lately, Heaven is for Real or Ninety Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. Or . Diane Komp’s Images of Grace, which reports her experiences as a physician with children facing death.
We wonder if such people were truly dead, or if as they neared death they were seeing heaven or only dreaming. We reason if they were resuscitated then it was not a death.
There’s an old tale that Pat fell from the scaffolding on a construction job and was knocked unconscious. Mike ran for the doctor. The doctor came, he took one look at Pat and said, “He’s dead.” Just then Pat came to and heard what the doctor was saying. Bleary-eyed, he said, “I ain’t dead.” “Lay down, Pat,” said Mike. “Lay down. The doctor knows best.”
And surely we do need to distinguish what happened to Lazarus from Christ’s resurrection. Lazarus is given a reprieve from death, but Christ when he was raised was raised to die no more. “Death has no more dominion over him.” Christ’s body was transformed into a resurrection body.
Nevertheless that does not diminish this sign. The implications are staggering. Jesus can breach the boundary of death. Heaven can trump death. This sign as all Christ’s miracles in John are called, points to something beyond itself. As the secret council saw it, “Now the whole world will follow this man if we do not get rid of him.” He who can give life to the dead.
The pivot text is Jesus encounter with Martha. “I am [for you] resurrection and life.( The breacher of death and the source of unending life.) Whoever dies grafted into me will live again, and whoever lives into me, even if they lose life in this world will live on. Whoever abides with Christ have unending life. Jesus years for us to abide in him.
This is what Paul is certain of after his own encounter with the risen Lord. “For me to live is Christ. (As long as I live my life has its meaning, source, definition, strength in the abiding presence of Christ.) But when I die I will have even more.” Death for a Christian is not some diminished state, but more life. (Philippians 1:21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.)
John Bunyan pictured the death of a Christian in his great work Pilgrim’s Progress,:
“After this it was noticed abroad, that Mr. Valiant-For-Truth was taken witha summons… When he understood it he called for his friends and told them of it. Then said he, ‘I am going to my fathers.’When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to theriver side, into which, as he went, he said, ‘Death where is thy sting.’ And as he went deeper, he said, ‘Grave where is thy victory?’ So he passed over,and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”
Jesus asked Martha “Do you believe?”
Well, that is the question when we face death, our own or the death of one we love. Can you believe, can you even imagine that death is not the last you will ever see of your dear friend?
Martha says she believes. Or rather, she says she believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. She believes if you die God can bring you back to life, and that is indeed much to trust God for. But it is not clear how much she trusts Jesus will do that now. Does the Lord give resurrected life to us in this world or only in the world to come?
When Jesus at the tomb asks the stone to be rolled from its entrance, she gets terribly pragmatic. “Not a good idea. He has been dead four days. His body will stink.” Keep tombs closed. Avert your eyes if you must. Some things in life are too far gone. “Can these bones live, son of man?” We are as unsure as Ezekiel.
And we have these unanswered questions.
First, why did Jesus wait till Lazarus was dead to come to him? God moves in a mysterious way not just in the methods God chooses, but in the timing. “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” Many is the time we wonder that God does not step in and intervene in tragedy before things go too far. It can be excruciating. If we had the power we attribute to God, we would stop the suffering of the world.
(Oh, grant that we do not know how much mess our wishes would create. The stories that are told of people’s inability to use three wishes so that the last one is that the first two could be cancelled. (Monkey’s Paw, e.g). )
Once things really reach death, we may believe that God is all powerful and still think that there is nothing God can do now. Time has run out for making a difference.
Actually it would have been safer if Jesus had healed Lazarus before he died, because what Jesus does now creates a crisis. The way John tells it the reason the council decides to pursue Jesus and kill him is because of this miracle. They feared he would become a leader of rebellion, mess up Temple,.draw fire from Roman occupiers. Better to kill Jesus to prevent losing their own power. In raising Lazarus from the tomb Jesus is destined for his own tomb.
“If you had healed Lazarus, Jesus, he would not have died then and perhaps you would have had more time as well.”
God’s mysterious timing. Why does God let things get so bad before acting?
But of this I am sure. The delay made the stakes higher. Would it not have been simpler for Jesus to wave his hand in the direction of Bethany and heal at a distance. He had done did it before. In John 4 the second sign Jesus performed was healing the son of a king’s servant just by his word. But as it is the cost of raising Lazarus will be his own death. “Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Second, why does Jesus weep? If he had known he was going to raise Lazarus, why did he cry?
We should draw form this that even the certainty of resurrection does not stop tears at a funeral. Even if you know you will see them again, we can weep at partings. ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow” even if we expetc a reunion. How much more when death separates us. Who can explain all their own tears?
Jesus weeps for Lazarus and all he has been through.
Jesus weeps because the others are weeping.
Jesus weeps because death is so real.
Jesus weeps because there is so much else wrong with the world.
Jesus weeps because he is immersed in the human condition with all its hardship, losses, suffering and incompleteness. Because the flowers fade and the grass withers.
The Latin poet Virgil coined a phrase that captures just this sense of what tears can express. “Lacrimae rerum”, “the tears of things”, suggests an image of the world’s tears, the sad wrongness of stuff. (Martin Warner)
We read in the NT of three time Jesus wept.
Jesus wept in Gethsemane as he faced his own death. Hebrews 5: 7 During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
Jesus wept over Jerusalem. As Jesus drew near to the city of Jerusalem he wept over it saying “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side and level you and your children to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” . Luke 19:41f
And Jesus wept at the grave of his friend.
Jesus wept that he would die, that his friends would die, that Jerusalem had rejected to offer of peace and it would die. Jesus wept along with all the tears that had ever been shed. You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? (Psalm 56.8)
Artist Makoto Fujimura has just finished illuminating the four gospels for Crossway publishing for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. To introduce the gospel he painted his mediation on “The tears of Jesus.”
For all the admirable qualities of Buddha here is one grave difference between Buddha and Christ. Buddha had compassion for the suffering but taught that suffering is not finally real. If we just think about it the right way we will be able to see it as an illusion. Disappearing into the blessed void. Buddah smiles. Jesus weeps.
The tears of Jesus show that our suffering is real to God and that God shares our pain. The tears of Jesus are sacraments of incarnation. We are saved by that incarnation which is completed on the cross.
To the crowd around the tears showed his love. “See how much he loved his friend.”
But if the tears tell us Jesus shared our human light, what happens next reveals something beyond the human. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we held his glory….”
These witnesses give testimony.
Nicodemus will say, “He taught me I could begin a new life.”
The woman at the well, “He knew all my secret sorrows and offered me joy.”
The blind man says, “Once I was blind but now I can see the light of the world is Jesus.”
Lazarus’ – well maybe Lazarus needs only say his name, for “Lazarus” means “God is my helper.” His names contains it: “Once I was dead and buried, but he called me out and death could not hold me back when I heard my name.”
It is not simply for hope after our physical death. Jesus calls us out to new life after deaths of all kinds.
And when we were dead in our trespasses and sins. Ephesians 2:4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
Can these bones live?
Where is it life is over for you? Would you say with Nicodemus, can someone enter their mother’s womb or a fresh beginning at life? Can we turn back the clock and try life again? No, Jesus says, but you can receive life from above. Whoever believes shall never die.
Where is life over for you? The woman at the well who journeys alone, who has been abandoned by husbands or widowed and who has run out of joy. Jesus tells “If you knew who I am you would ask and I would give you a fountain of living water in your soul and you would never thirst again?”
Where is life over for you?
Maybe it is something that you never had and never expected to have. Jesus touches and says, “Wash in Siloam and see.”
Do you believe that Jesus can make you live right now? Not in some distant future beyond the tomb but in the midst of this world of tombs and crosses?
That the Spirit of God can blow into the dry corners of our soul and put flesh on bones and breath in your body?
William Barclay was asked once on the BBC about the miracles in the Bible. He defined them as symbols of what God can do today. He used as an example Jesus calming the Sea of Galilee. He said that in any storm, Jesus can give confidence and calmness. He stills the storms of our hearts. When asked where he was with this in his life, Barclay explained that years ago his twenty-one year old daughter drowned in a boating accident. He said God did not stop the accident, but he did still the storm in Barclay’s heart and restored his spiritually dried-out soul. (Dr. Wiley Stephens)
Romans 8:10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
The old has gone the new comes – even now, even here even in the tombs of our life. Heaven is seeping into the world.
1 Timothy 3:16 (New International Version, ©2011)
16 Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.
Still there is so much of death that sticks with us even as we begin new life in Christ
(See below on “unbind”)
It was nearly Passover a few days later when they made a feast in Bethany. Martha serving up a wonderful meal. Lazarus sitting next to Jesus, people ogling at the man who once was dead. Mary slips out and comes back with the precious box of nard and in a gesture of gratitude she pours out the most precious gift she owns on the feet of Jesus.
Jesus who poured out himself in tears for us and who would pour out the last of his life on the cross.
To such a gift as God gives, were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine.Demands my soul, my life, my all.
I love the thoughts of Rev. Samuel G. Candler:
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.”
“Unbind him, and let him go!” I like these words more than I like “Lazarus, come out.” Indeed, these words may be more powerful than the words “Come out!”
Because now, the community needs to assist in the resurrection. “Unbind him, and let him go.” There are some people yearning to live resurrection lives. There are some folks who have been born again; they have risen from the dead!
But they are still tangled up in burial clothes. They still have the sheets and coverings of death all over them. They are still bound up in something, bound up in old bondages, old arguments, old sin.
You know what that’s like. You know you are living a new life, but you seem somehow to still be in bondage to the old life.
This is where we need community. We need others. Often, it is the task of Christian community to complete the action of Resurrection. Jesus has called forth new life: Lazarus, come out!” But Lazarus still has burial clothes on.
So Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Those should be the words which are our orders every day, every new day. Unbind somebody. Where you find someone in bondage: your friend, your wife, your husband, your companion, even the stranger. Where you find someone struggling to be free, unbind them and let them go. Do not keep them tangled up in the old affairs of sin and death. Those clothes constrict and make us ill.
When we refuse to let someone go, when we refuse to forgive, when we refuse to see new life, it is we who are keeping them dead. The community has that power.
Jesus, therefore, proclaims to us, to all of us, to the Christian Church: “Unbind him, and let him go.” Those are really the powerful words of today’s gospel. Don’t hold on to the past. Don’t hold on to sin. Don’t hold on to death!
Let someone go today. Release someone!