The Fifth Sunday of Lent, A
April 6, 2014
The text for the sermon
John 11:1-53 – The Raising of Lazarus
The Prayer of the Day:
Almighty God, Holy and Eternal,
who called Lazarus from the grave
into an unexpected and inconceivable life:
Help us hear your voice call us forth
into your paths, your truth, your eternal life.
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The text we have before us this morning has plenty of power to speak by itself. Verses from our reading are used in funeral rites and liturgies without needing any comment because of their power to bear witness to Christ, and to comfort and assure us in time of grief and loss. But I would like to fill out the picture of what’s going on in the narrative a little bit. I think it can help us better appreciate the depth and power of the drama and the message of this story.
Love & Friendship
The text says that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and describes Lazarus as Jesus’ friend. That word friend is very important. It was a unique relationship in the ancient world – implying all the obligations and solidarity that was incumbent on family. A friend was not a casual thing. A friend was, for all intent and purposes, a member of the extended family. Love, too, as I have told you before, was not primarily a term of affectionate feeling – although it certainly included that – it was that mutual commitment and solidarity that was expected within the family.
What is scandalous about the behavior of the prodigal son and his brother is that they did not love; they both profoundly betrayed their families. The older son belongs at his father’s side, but he is in the fields wanting to party with his friends. The younger son has a responsibility to keep the family lands intact, but he demands and liquidates his portion of the inheritance. They both betray their most fundamental obligations. It is a family where love has been lost – except for the father, who remains faithful though his children are faithless.
So Mary, Martha and Lazarus are part of Jesus’ inner circle. They are as family. They are ‘friends’. And what that is supposed to jog in our memories is Jesus saying to his followers: “I no longer call you servants… I have called you friends.” (John 15:15) We are ‘friends’ of Jesus. He has towards us all the obligations you would expect of your deepest commitment to another – and we have those obligations to him. I can’t be the elder brother; I can’t be the younger son.
Jesus has towards us all the obligations you would expect of your deepest commitment to another – and we have those obligations to him. As John’s community hears this story about Mary, Martha and Lazarus they recognize themselves in these sisters and their brother, for we, too, are Jesus’ friends.
So when Mary says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” we hear the voice of every believer in that first century who expected that the kingdom would come soon, would come in their lifetime. “If you had been here,” “If you had come,” “If you had brought the kingdom in it’s fullness,” our brother or sister in Christ – our fellow believer – would not have died. What does it mean that we have laid some in the grave?
The believers in the first century are not the only ones who struggle with this. Pastor Farness read this gospel at my brother’s funeral. I was 18; Ken was 22, and the implied question spoken by both Mary and Martha was the one rattling around my heart, too. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
What do we say about those we have laid in the grave? What does God say to us who have laid loved ones in the ground? – That Jesus is yet their resurrection and their life.
More than friendship
Jesus has these high obligations of friendship to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, but he does not come. It is deeply troubling, a great scandal, that in the moment Jesus is summoned, he waits. It is the same scandal as children who do not come when a parent is dying – except in our society we might wonder about the character of the parent and the family dynamics. In the first century all the shame and disgrace is upon the one who does not come.
The fact that they send for Jesus means Lazarus is not just sick; he is dying. And the fact that Jesus does not come is disgraceful. It does not matter that Jesus’ life would be in danger if he comes; he must come, but he does not.
Jesus’ absence makes us wrestle with the fact that Jesus has a purpose greater than his obligation to us.
I have a friend (who is a pastor) who told me about a beloved member of his parish, the high school football coach in a small town, beloved by the whole town, who got cancer. As he struggled with the diagnosis he asked my friend if God was going to heal him. And my friend said, “It depends on what will serve God’s purpose.” And as soon as he said it, my friend was aghast that he had said such a thing; it’s not the kind of thing they teach you in the Seminary in your classes and training for pastoral care. But it turned out to be exactly what this man needed to hear. It set him free to live or to die – whichever came, he would to it to the glory of God. My friend said this coach touched a lot of lives before he died, and the example of his faith had an amazing impact on the whole town.
God has a purpose higher than the obligations of friendship – though he has called us his friends.
So, Jesus waits. And he says to his followers, “This sickness is not unto death.” And again, “Lazarus is sleeping.” Jesus knows that through Lazarus, God will bear witness that in Jesus the life of the world is present. In the presence of Jesus, death is but a sleep. Death has lost its power to extinguish life. Death has lost its power to cut us off from him who is our source and goal, our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and end.
I am always amazed at the vitality of the natural world, the deep and profound drive towards life in all things, but it struck me with particular power when I was in Detroit. Detroit was so dominated by grey skies and boarded up buildings and windows with bars. The whole environment seemed dark. I used to joke that the primary industry in Detroit was fear. Every store, every church, every parking lot had a security guard. One of the members of the church planted flowers in her front yard and someone came that night and stole them. There were houses where the lawns and homes were very well tended – in fact many, if not most of them – but you didn’t find the flowers and rose bushes and landscaping we take for granted.
Death and its shadow was all too common. There was not a child in the Sunday School who had not had someone close to them die, often violently. Nevertheless, even if it was just weeds growing in the alley, we were surrounded by this incredible drive towards life that is written into the very fabric of creation. In places where you least expected it, brilliant wildflowers would bloom. All of that intense vitality, that profound force for life, is present in Jesus. He is life. He is the life of the world. He is life for Lazarus. He is life for my brother Ken. He is life for my daughter Anna. He is life for our own Martha. He is life for Nancy. He is life for every one of us laid into the ground. And he is life for us now. All that creating and recreating power is leashed anew upon the world in this Jesus of Nazareth. All that thriving vital reality is present to us – not only to call us forth from the grave in that day when all things are made new, but to call us forth into God’s radical and radiating and transformative life now. Jesus is our resurrection and our life.
Through Lazarus – and through us – God bears witness that in Jesus the life of the world is present.
We are God’s friends. But God’s purpose is greater than friendship. God’s purpose is our participation in his life. Now and forever.
A shared salvation
Another feature of the story that we don’t see right away is that Jesus brings salvation not just to Lazarus, but to Mary and Martha.
There is no mention of parents in this story. Mary seems to be the head of the household. Mary and Martha are unmarried sisters with an unmarried younger brother. In their society, Lazarus is the one who would represent the family in public. With his death, Mary and Martha become like widows. They lose their place in the society around them.
In our society this is not unlike losing your career or getting a divorce – there is a sudden and radical change in your social context. You lose your place. The difference is that we don’t think of such a loss as permanent. For Mary and Martha this is a sudden and profound change in their station in life. So this is not just a miracle of Jesus revivifying a dead man. Like the blind man last week, this is not about a bio-mechanical healing. This is also a social and communal healing. It is restoration of a family.
So, if Lazarus represents those in the Christian community who have died, then the promise of resurrection is a promise of the restoration of the human community. It is a raising up not just of bodies, but of the whole fabric of life. It is a raising up of the creation.
One of the things that troubles me about the search for the missing flight 370 is that they keep finding so much garbage floating in the ocean. Scientists tell us we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction event in our planet’s history; species around us are rapidly disappearing. The earth is scarred in many places not only with trash, but with slums, and disease, and the blood of hate and warfare. Places like Fukushima have been rendered uninhabitable. It is not only Detroit that lives under the shadow of death. Los Altos may be a little island in a sea of troubles, but even here, inside the walls of our homes and on our streets, are tragedies and troubles. The raising of Lazarus is about the salvation of the family, the community, and the world. Jesus is the resurrection and the life of all creation.
An elite family
One other thing we don’t usually notice in this story is that Mary, Martha and Lazarus are from a prosperous family. They are from the elite class. These are not peasant farmers and fisherman. Mary will anoint Jesus’ feet with a fragrant oil that’s worth a year’s wages. They live near to Jerusalem and members of Judean society have come to join them in their observance of the rituals of death. There is a crowd of women mourners. The number of mourners is an indication of your importance in society.
Why does this matter? Partly because we have this mental picture of Jesus’ disciples as fishermen and it’s important that we understand that Jesus had an impact on a wide and diverse cross-section of society. The Gospel is a gospel for the poor – but it is also a gospel for all of us. Jesus is the life of the world, not just the hope of the poor. We all live under the shadow of death – no matter how much we may pretend otherwise – no matter how green our lawns, no matter how successful our children, no matter how comfortable our lives, sin and death hunt us. And Christ is our true light and life.
The fact that Mary, Martha and Lazarus are from elite society also matters because people will go back to Jerusalem and report what happened. The power of life threatens the privileged leaders of society. The possibility of new birth, of new creation, of the transformation of the human community, cannot be controlled and kept in its place. So the leadership will hear of what has happened – and they will gather and decide that this threat must be eliminated. This Jesus must die.
But they don’t understand that they cannot kill him. They cannot keep him in the grave. They cannot stop the rebirth of the world. They cannot prevent God’s redemption. The grave will be empty.
Believing into Christ
Many saw what happened in Lazarus and enter into the life of faith. They see and believe into Christ. They see that Christ is the resurrection and the life and they become partakers and participants in this life. But others stand against it. They council wants to shut Jesus in the grave, but they shall not triumph. In him is life and that life is the light of all humankind. As John says at the beginning of his Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness is not able to overcome it.”
We are Jesus’ friends, members of his household. But God’s purpose is greater than friendship. God’s purpose is our participation in his life. God’s purpose is the participation of all creation in his life. Now and forever.