The Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 29, 2020


1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53 So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

Grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus to us all. Reflecting on the Gospel today from John chapter 11, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, sanctify us in your Word, your Word is truth.  Amen.

Dear Christian Friends, the story of the raising of Lazarus brings a smile to our face but a wrinkle to our brow. We who hear John’s account know something is going to happen to Lazarus – the sleep and the waking up – and from the beginning we are told that the outcome is not death. But it is the supporting characters who don’t know what we know that we relate to. Yes, we read about the main character, Jesus, and get to know things about him but I’m not sure we ever get to know too much of what is on the inside of him. He is a mystery in many ways – not unknowable – but not our best buddy or someone whose actions and words we can predict because we know him so well. And for Lazarus, well we just imagine things about him – if we think about him at all.

No, it is the supporting characters that we can relate to. In fact we look at them and can go, ‘Uhuh, that’s me’.

We can understand Mary and Martha and the concern for their brother who is ill. You get the best you can – doctors, medicine, treatment, whatever because no one wants their loved ones to die and we rarely want to die. So they send the message – “Lord, he whom you love is ill” – and the implication is clear ‘Do something! Help us! Heal Lazarus!’. For a headache we take pain relief. But today if we have a temperature and a rough cough and something viral we want more.

And this Jesus who can cure long distance – he could just say the word – stays put. We’ve no idea whether the sisters ever know the reason but the disciples are confused and somewhat apprehensive because this request takes them all back to Jerusalem if they go – and the authorities have been trying to kill Jesus for a while now because he keeps hinting that he is God. Well, I AM, he says isn’t subtle. And it is Thomas who can see the writing on the wall – the realist of the group – often remembered for his doubts but on this occasion for his bravery for when Jesus finally says that he is going to Bethany to ‘wake Lazarus’ – what?! from the dead?! – Thomas says to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

This death business is the hard and harsh end of life. We don’t know what actually happened to Lazarus. We don’t know the sisters’ emotions at the moment of death but we can guess. What we can, I think, conclude with 100% certainty was that Lazarus was not sitting up in bed with a glass of red wine in his hand sipping it and saying to his sisters who are fairly stoic, I imagine, ‘Ok, see you in 4 days!’ and then closing his eyes.

We get a real sense of emotions from Martha and later from Mary but let’s stick with Martha who goes out to meet Jesus – I wonder how she walked towards him? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

Is it anger, frustration, hurt, and an unrealistic plea? What do you think?

Jesus engages in the discussion – it’s hopeful – but very future looking – rising again – and Martha acknowledges both reality and faith, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Hope exists and so does death. Her brother is dead. But she has hope. Sigh! That’s the way of this world.

Jesus declares himself to be the resurrection and the life and she replies, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” That’s a good thing to say. It can be true and her brother can still be dead.

Martha gets Mary and there is a similar sentiment from her towards Jesus – where were you?! The grief and pain is palpable. It is a wave crashing on everyone drenching everyone – you cannot not feel something at this time – and Jesus feels deeply. He weeps. The crowds interpret love there but question what is going on if he could reorder creation and a man born blind, why couldn’t Jesus have delayed death?

It is at the tomb that the world – Martha representing the world – speaks the truth they know when Jesus wants the stone taken away. “Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.” That’s the truth we all know. For all the words that are said beforehand – that’s the truth – after 4 days, you stink. It is the last words we hear from Martha, though I’m sure she said more. In fact we get a hint at what is being said by the crowds who see and tell others when Jesus processes in on a donkey.

Why? Because they didn’t see it coming! Lazarus comes out the tomb – not the walking dead – I think he was probably shuffling – but alive. Our words bounce off the dead. Jesus’ words punch through death and draw people to life. He did what he said he would do. We were told. But he also makes more questions for us, there is a mystery here. Who is this Jesus?! Why is he here?

The postscript in John 11 is fascinating. Another group, the religious leaders, see Jesus as the enemy and this the final straw. If Jesus is the God in the machine then what’s the point – or more accurately, what is the point of us? And that existential question – the search for meaning and identity before death gets us is not unimportant. Whether it is searched for all one’s life or dabbled at or simply ignored as one lives for the moment, ‘What is the point of us?’ will not go away. In fact I think we take it to our grave.

The world is full of answers. And today we have heard a story of Jesus who does his own thing in his own time and walked to a grave and punched a hole through death with his words and called a person back to life. Like those cardiac arrest paddles on the chest, his words resuscitated Lazarus. And at some point we stop looking at Lazarus saying, ‘What? What just happened?’ and we turn to the speaker, to Jesus, and we say, ‘Who are you?!’.

What does the resurrection and the life mean? Are you here to help me or are you a threat to me?

At this moment in the story, the jury is still out. The mystery Jesus helps but not on our terms or according to our time schedules. Jesus is mysterious. And it will get worse if Jesus is God and he dies. Again not sitting in bed with a glass of red and saying ‘See you in 3 days’ as he closes his eyes? What does his death mean?!

That is a story for 2 weeks time I know but you’re here because you already know the answer – and the world needs to hear this story and all the stories of Jesus – not as a fairy tale but as good news that takes hold of us and draws us to Jesus – who will never be our genie or magic totem – but who is who he inferred, hinted, implied, pointed to and said he is – God who has come to give us life where we don’t stink after we die! What is the point of us according to this Jesus? To live not in fear and rebellion but life to the full, because God has rescued us, unbound us and let us go – to follow him and return daily to his grace and mercy and to trust him.

Today, I tell you Jesus is true because there is an empty tomb that the world can never fill again. The world didn’t see that coming! Death didn’t see that coming! I suspect Lazarus, Mary and Martha didn’t see it coming. But coming he has – Jesus – and life is forever changed. Do you believe this?

And the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. [Amen]

Bible References

  • John 11:1 - 53