“O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” — excerpt from Psalm 130
“’I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live… 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.’” — excerpt from John 11:1-45
Opening: The story of Lazarus, whose funeral shrouds trail him out of the tomb, offers us a metaphor of new life as we recognize that true love is that which unbinds us, that wants us to experience more freedom and life. Jesus says to us, “Come out!” Walk! Live! Love! Shed your funeral clothes and offer your deepest self, your deepest love, for the world.” Of course this kind of love can be dangerous, as we will see as the events of Holy Week loom closer. But the price of continuing to look for love in the wrong places is higher than the blessing of life lived boldly.
Our story of Lazarus this morning is an important in which the one in which the Gospel of John helps us to approach Lent. Shortly after Lazarus rises from the dead, we hear of a secret meeting of the Sanhedrin–involving the chief priests and the Pharisees. This story in Lent is a foreshadowing of the coming death of Jesus by the hands of his own people and the occupying Roman government. What was so dangerous about Lazarus being raised from the dead? This Gospel story comes just two weeks before Easter and may help us consider how Jesus felt about loss and death and what his followers learned from him about both death and life. Let us pray,
C.S. Lewis, the writer and scholar once wrote, “The first fact of Christianity is what the witnesses said about the resurrection of Jesus.” And what they shared in the earliest communities was their understanding that love prevails over death. We know that Easter is considered the holiest day in the Christian calendar, not Christmas or Good Friday. That is because of this essential understanding that the love of God is stronger than any forces of destruction and even of death. We know that there is so much in our lives that causes despair and pain, suffering and grief and often such experiences may feel like an experience of death in some way, but at the heart of the Christian message is a story of hope, of a love that is stronger than any other force that might overwhelm us or leave us feeling lost or hopeless. As one of my former Scripture professors once said, the Gospels, as good news, are meant to be life giving. The early disciples believed that and told that story of the triumph of Christ’s love again and again.
In today’s reading, something exceptional happens that creates enough fear for a conspiracy to unfold that will lead to the death of Jesus. What should be considered a miracle worth rejoicing about is instead received as a threat by the powers that be. Is it possible when Jesus performs this miracle that the priests like Caiaphas began to feel that their religious authority was being undermined? Jesus completely upended the sense of what was possible for the people who witnessed and heard about Lazarus’ resurrection.
Where there once might have been a sense of mystery around the priesthood, the raising of Lazarus is a miracle by Jesus who, to his people, would have appeared just like them. He wasn’t a priest or a religious scholar. He was called rabbi, sure, but Jesus was an unassuming figure, a teacher who traveled about, going into the communities of those who did not have power or prestige; he himself was not caught up in the trappings of power. He likely seemed poor in their eyes. How dare someone who looks like everyone else disrupt the hierarchical certainty that maintained order in the community? Miracles aren’t for common people–if they happen at all then it should be someone like a priest who would enact it!
Our story about Martha and Mary, Lazarus and Jesus, is also a story that demonstrates the deep humanity of Jesus. These are his close friends and they have experienced a terrible loss. As Jesus teaches us in Matthew 5:4, “blessed are those who mourn.” Yet who would ever choose that kind of blessing? There are so many ways that we find ourselves mourning. Life can brings us hard challenges: “Dreams that may never become a reality. Children we will never have.
Perhaps a childhood that was so traumatic that we never got to be a kid. Some of us grieve because our own child lost their innocence because of a terrible situation. Others grieve the deaths of their loved ones whom they lost far too soon or because there just is never enough time left to share all that we had hoped. We grieve our beloved
pets and the loss of bodies that stop working like they used to. We grieve for careers or cities or homes we have to say goodbye to. We mourn the realities of broken relationships—breakups, divorce, friendships that end, or difficult family members who never could understand or apologize. We grieve for people in our communities or around the world who face natural disasters or diseases or the consequences of hatred, violence, and war. When there is so
much to mourn, we might wonder what Jesus was talking about. What blessing could ever come in this?”
The story of Lazarus in the 11th chapter of John is clearly a story for those who mourn, those who are left behind to pick up the pieces of unexpected grief. Jesus receives what feels like that dreaded phone call or knock at the door that transforms your life into a before and an after—“the one whom you love is sick.” I recall a line from a song a few years ago, “We’re all one phone call away from our knees.” Jesus, the son of God, could have returned to Judea where Lazarus lived, but in doing so, it would be likely that he would be arrested and killed. Instead, Jesus waits and returns four days after his beloved friend, Lazarus, has died. Even in the face of his own impending death, Jesus chooses to join the community that is walking in the shadow of death, so he can mourn with him.
Jesus enters into the tough questions that we all ask when faced with tragedy: Why? Where is God? What could I have done differently? How could I have prevented this? Jesus knows that there are no simple answers to these questions because pain, sickness, and death are part of what it means to be human. But Jesus also knows that there is part of the story that Mary, Martha, and the disciples do not yet understand. Soon, Jesus will “humble himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), so that we can live in the face of pain and loss with hope. For Jesus, who wept at the death of his friend, understands our tears and broken hearts and unmet expectations. He weeps with us—tears that can only begin to encompass the full extent of the anguish, anger, frustration, and grief that Jesus knows too well. Jesus life work has been to encourage his followers to be there for one another, to encourage those who have come after to show up for one another in love… to take on the hard, necessary work of mourning and comforting each other. And, through the disciples, we come to understand that it is through Jesus’ own death that the sting of death on earth is defeated once and for all.
Benediction: A Blessing for Life After a Loss
Blessed are we, who feel the wound of fresh loss. Or of a loss…
no matter how fresh…that still makes our voices crack all these years later. We who are stuck in the impossibility of it. Frozen in disbelief.
How can this be? It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Blessed are we, fumbling around for easy answers or quick truths
to try to make this go down easier. We who are dissatisfied with the shallow theology and trite platitudes.
Blessed are we, who, instead, demand a blessing. Because we have wrestled with God and are here. Wounded. Broken. Changed.
Blessed are we, who keep our relationships and friendships
and jobs afloat, and who stock the pantry…because… what choice do we have but to move forward with a life we didn’t choose with a loss we thought we couldn’t live without? One small step. One small act of hope at a time. Amen.
(adapted for a communal setting from The Lives We Actually Have, page 86) Lectionary Text: John 11:1-45
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