Sermon November 7, 2021
All Saints/Souls Day
Today our Gospel reading from John is about the death of Lazarus and the desperation both of his sisters feel in their time of loss. It is often read for All Saints Day which was last Monday, the 1st of November. Commentators describe the Gospel of John as organized around seven “signs” that reveal Jesus’ identity and mission. The turning of water into wine is the first of these signs, and this week’s reading, the raising of Lazarus, is the seventh. John’s name for these events — “signs” explains their purpose; they were meant to catch the attention of his followers and of the readers of this Gospel to draw us toward life with and in God. Much like a road sign, these events point beyond themselves to bigger, deeper realities. When death comes, life is often changed for those who loved the individual they are now mourning. This past week, it was shared that more than 5 million people in the world have now died from Coronovirus since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020. And in the United States, there have been more than 746,000 deaths from this virus. We pause at this time of year to remember those who are precious to us who have died during the past year, and we pray for all who have lost friends and family in recent years. Many people, many children are piecing together new lives in the wake of these losses and so we pause. Let us pray, O Holy One, we carry in our hearts the memories of those who have touched our lives and are now with You; help us to treasure the ways in which they brought love and joy to us. May your comfort be with those who mourn this day. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Years ago, I went to visit a college student at Boston children’s hospital when I worked as a Chaplain at BC. I remember stopping to pick up a little gift for Marykaye who was suffering from bone cancer. When I got up to her room and shared the little teddy bear holding a small green balloon, their eyes lit up. They began to tell me how the green balloon had become a symbol of hope for them since she first was diagnosed in high school. She had been scheduled for an important surgery and on that day, people throughout the town all flew green balloons in their yards. Since that time, that balloon had become a sign for them of hope. After Marykaye died, the family has continued to look for those green balloons as a sign to remind them of the love they shared and still carry in their hearts for her.
The story of Lazarus reveals Jesus’ response to the death of someone whom Jesus had come to know as a friend. In the Gospels, we hear several stories about Jesus visiting with Martha in the town of Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem, and it appears that they had become friendly with them and their brother. and so when he hears about this death, he travels to be with them.
Lazarus’ name means, “God is my help.” and he is a friend whom Jesus loved (John 11:3). Jesus, having just narrowly escaped death by stoning, had left the area, but Mary and Martha sent someone to let him know that Lazarus is gravely ill. Jesus decides to visit Lazarus — and this decision itself is striking. As his disciples remind him, Jesus’ opponents in Judea have just tried to stone him — and now you’re turning around and going back there again? (John 10:31; 11:8). Thomas’ valiant proposal — “Let us all go, that we may die with him” — underscores how, from the disciples’ point of view, returning to Judea seems like suicide (John 11:16). If the decision to return to Judea is striking, so is the decision to delay an additional “two days longer” before doing so (John 11:6).
As one commentator says, “By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus “had already been in the tomb four days” (John 11:17). Why the delay? The time span is telling: a traditional belief in those days was that the soul lingered around the body for three days after death; by the fourth day, it was thought, the soul had left the corpse behind for good. Jesus seems to postpone his arrival until just this point — the better to call attention to “God’s works” and “God’s glory” through this seventh and final sign, “so that you may believe,” and so that the ancient vision may be all the more vividly enacted: “You shall know that I am the LORD when I open your graves” (John 11:15; Ezekiel 37:13).
In the previous chapter, Jesus has just declared himself “the good shepherd,” who “lays down his life for the sheep” so “they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10-11). And so, we hear that he proceeds to do just that, to risk his life to try to save Lazarus’ which seems to trigger the backlash he will receive that soon leads to his own death on the cross.
It is not long after Jesus performs this miracle in raising Lazarus that the religious authorities come to a decision that Jesus himself must be dealt with, that he must be ‘put to death for believing that he could be the Messiah or act on behalf of Yahweh. Their reasoning goes like this: Signs such as raising the dead will inspire the masses to believe in him, and the Roman occupiers, fearing an insurrection, will crackdown on all of us, destroying our temple and nation. We might wonder why this sign, raising Lazarus, is the one that would have the most profound effect on the people who have become enthralled by him. This could provoke a popular uprising, or at the very least a credible rumor of one — and the Roman response would likely be brutal. Better to get rid of Jesus sooner rather than later…
For the Gospel writer John, Jesus not only calls forth Lazarus’ resurrection; somehow Jesus is resurrection: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says to Martha (John 11:25). Martha then calls him “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” but she doesn’t seem to really grasp what this confusing claim, “I am the resurrection and the life,” might mean. When Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away from the tomb, Martha’s still skeptical: she points to the stench as evidence that Lazarus is truly, completely, four-days-worth dead. Jesus turns to her and says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40).
The key to the passage, and in a sense to John’s Gospel as a whole, is contained in this question. Jesus isn’t saying, If you believe, the glory of God will shine. After all, despite Martha’s skepticism, Jesus raises Lazarus; God’s glory shines forth in any case! The issue is whether or not Martha will truly see it. She’ll see her brother raised from the dead, and she sees it for what it truly is, “the glory of God,” a sign which points to Jesus’ identity and mission? If she believes in Jesus as “the resurrection and the life,” and understands her brother’s rising as a glimpse of that larger reality, she will. She will see God’s glory. She will catch sight of Jesus’ identity and mission. She will understand her brother’s rising as an icon, a window into something even bigger: the seventh and final “sign” before Jesus’ descent to the cross.
St. Augustine, who was a North African Bishop of the fourth century spoke about “faith seeking understanding.” It’s not that we understand everything first, and then decide whether or not we can fully trust. Rather, it’s only by seeing through the eyes of trust in the first place that we have an opportunity to see and understand what’s really going on. John conceives of faith in a similar way, sort of like a pair of glasses that allow for clearer sight. The seven “signs” in John (and the eighth, Jesus’ resurrection) point beyond themselves to even bigger, deeper realities about who Jesus is and what he’s all about. Faith, we might say, is a pair of glasses through which we can see dimensions of God’s glory we might otherwise miss. Jesus frequently taught through his use of parables, but almost all of his parables may be read in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and not in John. Instead, in John it’s as though Jesus shapes events around him into living, breathing parables, “signs” through which larger realities can be glimpsed.
As we observe All Saints Day today and remember those we have loved and lost, we’re invited to consider how God’s glory shined in them. What signs did they share in the way in which they lived their lives that have provided us with a glimpse of Jesus’ message for our lives?