Along the Way: A Sermon on John 11:1-45

The sermon from Sunday, March 26, 2017 on John 11: 1-45

Someone I was talking to a few days ago mentioned the parallels between this story and the Easter story.

Indeed this is an interesting foreshadowing of death and resurrection to come. My interest here this week however, is not in the parallels between this story and the Easter story as in the conversations Jesus has along the way.

We don’t know why Lazarus falls ill and ultimately dies. There were limited measures in that era for treating acute calamity or chronic condition. We don’t know what sickness befell him. We just know that when this news comes to Jesus, that we really get a sense in this story of Jesus in deep relationship with those around him. His friends, Martha and Mary, send for him, in hopes that they will save their brother, whom Jesus loves. There is deep friendship and care in this story.

But first we start with the disciples. They don’t seem to question it when Jesus doesn’t initially turn back. Their questions come up when begins to do so.

They’re like “You really don’t want to do this, Jesus. Those people in Judea want to kill you!”

They don’t fully understand the picture and to the extent that they do, they’re not happy about the plan.  But for Jesus, they’re a key audience – and that’s especially true from here on out in John’s Gospel. He’s really trying to get them ready for what lies ahead – his trial, death, and resurrection – and for the work they are to do after all that is done.

For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.

After all, this is the crew that will be tasked with spreading the Good News in the years to come. The fate of the message of Jesus lies with them. He’s preparing them for the work that lies ahead, leading them to an understanding of the magnitude of the task, the stakes involved. They are just beginning to grasp the scope of the work, the dangers it brings, its compelling necessity.  This episode clarifies all of this for them.

Let us note that they are human beings with fears and with doubts. And Jesus calls them anyway. He calls upon them to follow yet again. They are to continue on with him on this path not because they are fearless – because they ain’t that – but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s where they are called.

These are matters of life and death for those who want to follow Jesus – and for those listening out for the message. It’s serious work. So be afraid, but don’t let that stop you. Let’s give some props to Thomas – he’s like ‘alright, let’s get on with things.”

And as we head out Jesus encounters Martha and then Mary. They have faith. They believe that things might have been different if Jesus had been on the scene. But they only have so much faith. They believe things are done. That to me is one of the most powerful aspects of this story.

With both the followers who were traveling with Jesus and with Martha and Mary, Jesus acknowledges their faith but also takes note of its limitations. They have faith, but it only goes so far. They believe in miracles, but only in small ones.  

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

If you want new life, you need bold faith.

What does Jesus come to show them – to show us – here?  That the path of faith transcends our logic and even our imagination. We are called to believe in big things – to affirm that there is hope even in a seemingly hopeless world, that there can be joy even in the midst of suffering, that our relationships really do matter, that there is the possibility of life-giving love even in the face of certain death.

We’re given to take that as literal in the Lazarus story. It may not always be so literal today, but the call of faith to act ways that give life rather than deal death is the affirmation of miraculous possibility.

The witness of Jesus – the Good News of the Gospel – is life-giving. In our death-dealing culture that treats so many many as disposable, the teachings of Jesus affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all, especially the marginalized.

It’s a miracle today that we can see beyond the limitations of our current culture to live out a life of love and meaning, that we can come together in community to reach for something greater than ourselves.

And look at who we hear proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah – it’s Martha. If we look at the personal and prophetic Jesus’ encounters in the Gospel of John, it is clear that unmarried women – who have no real status in that society – are called to proclaim Jesus’ mission. It’s not military heralds or rich men.

It’s the unnamed Samaritan woman he meets at the well that we talked about her just a couple of weeks ago. It’s Martha, who lives in this odd household with her sister and her brother. This is who recognizes Jesus. Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.

Something else really intense happens next. Jesus sees Mary crying and he begins to cry himself. Talk about taking apart of toxic hypermasculinity. Jesus cries with Mary. What a powerful example of the Jesus’ compassion and what a testament to his full embodiment in human life.

The image we often carry of Jesus as divine, as spiritual being, is a denial of the power of the incarnation. The power of Jesus is in his humanity as well as in his divinity. He carries it in his body.  We are supposed to learn from that. Jesus teaches us fully embodied life – and it makes our disregard for the well-being of bodies of others all the more a sin. He sees the sorrow of Mary and he cries with her and the others who are grieving.

Think about this – he already knows what he’s there to do – he’s not crying for Lazarus. He sees the great sorrow of Mary and it causes him too to weep. This is truly a sign of the God who loves us, who suffers with us in our suffering, who is present and deeply connected to our hearts.

That’s who Jesus is. Jesus is not distant, aloof, remote. Jesus is right here, holding us in relationship and acknowledging our pain.

And after these two extended engagements – right here in the middle of John’s Gospel – we have the event itself. The encounters with the disciples and the sisters earn more ink in this story than the raising of Lazarus himself. These human connections are key, but let us not miss what Jesus wants all of those involved – and us – to understand.

The raising of Lazarus gives life to the message of Jesus. The really powerful parallels here are with the Nicodemus story that we discussed recently too, a journey not of physical death but of death to the old self and rebirth into a different sort of life.

The death and resurrection of Lazarus demonstrates the call to new life through Jesus.

For us, I suggest to you that translates like this – in committing to a life following Jesus, we are called to a death of the ego, the perishing of the selfish self, to the end of our embrace of the death-dealing of culture, to be replaced by a faith of justice and mercy and faith and compassion and joy and community.

We are called from the tomb, the place of death, and into abundant life. Our world today is full of places of death, of tombs where hopes and spirits and bodies go to die.

I’m not just talking about Mosul or Mogadishu. We are surrounded by a culture of death, on whose terms it’s acceptable for people to go unfed or unhoused uneducated and unloved. We incarcerate, we denigrate, we dehumanize, we exploit. We promote violence, glorify violence, and then punish it with yet more violence.

A commitment to the path of Jesus is a call to new life. We daily leave behind death and follow a different path. This is made possible through relationship with God and with one another. Jesus shows us how here.

Step out of the tomb. When you find yourself in one – look for Jesus – look TO Jesus – and step out into the light and life of a new day. No matter what’s going on around you.



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