A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
April 6, 2014.
This episode from the Gospel of John has often been called “The Raising of Lazarus.” And yet, it is interesting that in the forty-five verses it takes to tell this story, only two verses are devoted to the actual raising of Lazarus, and they take place almost at the very end. For forty-two verses, the Fourth Evangelist tells a story about loss, mourning, grief, questioning and yes, even anger in the face of the sickness and death of a loved one. And who among us has not experienced the fear and uncertainty over the sickness of a loved one? Who among us has not experienced the grief, mourning and even anger over the death of a loved one? Who among us has not questioned why a loved one had to die? Who among us has not second guessed all the things that we or others could have done in order to prevent the death? If you have experienced those feelings, then you are not alone, for Martha and Mary also experienced all those feelings when their brother Lazarus fell sick and then died.
When Martha and Mary first learned about their brother’s grave illness, they sent an urgent message to Jesus and his disciples, who were staying a day’s journey away from Bethany at the Jordan River in the wilderness near the Dead Sea. Martha and Mary sent Jesus a simple message: “Lord, the one you love is sick.” Now, Jesus loved Lazarus and Martha and Mary, and so it seemed unusual for Jesus to stay where he was for two more days before heading to Judea. We might think that Jesus put off returning to Bethany, so near Jerusalem, because to go back meant risking his own life. But Jesus makes clear that he has other reasons for staying away, and he was certainly not indifferent to Lazarus’ plight.
When Jesus finally reached Bethany, the funeral for Lazarus was well under way. He had already been in the tomb for four days. According to popular Jewish belief, the soul of the deceased hovered near the dead body for three days, only to depart for good on the fourth day. Practically speaking, it also ensured that the deceased was really dead. Jesus waited to return to Bethany on the fourth day, when he knew that Lazarus was good and dead. The whole town was out, mourning the loss and trying to comfort the grieving sisters.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, we see and hear the conflicting emotions of a person deep in grief. We hear the conflicting impulses of frustration followed by faith in Martha’s first words to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” We feel the tension between what her head knows and what her heart longs for. In response to Jesus’ statement, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha said: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Martha knows the right answer, but you can also sense the longing of her heart. We see the oscillating clash between belief and doubt. Martha tries to prevent Jesus from opening Lazarus’ tomb because of the stench, even though, just verses before, she professed that she believed that Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead. And then there’s Mary who is just resigned to weep at Jesus’ feet, because she was so consumed by her grief that she could barely talk. Frustration and faith, head knowledge and heart longing, belief and doubt, grief and resignation—those were the feelings that gripped the sisters in the wake of Lazarus’ death.
We learn from Martha and Mary that faithfulness to Jesus does not shield us from the pain, grief and loss of death. As I look out in the congregation gathered here this morning, I see that many, no, most of you have been stung by death. You have lost parents to death, and you think about them often. You have lost family members, siblings and spouses to death, and a significant part of you is buried with them. Some of you have even lost children to death, that most unnatural and heart-wrenching experience that no parent should face. In the midst of these deaths, we grieve in our own ways, some publicly but more often in private. The depth of our grief is often the manifestation of the depth of our love. We don’t know if we can ever “get over” the death of a loved one. More often than not, we just learn to carry that loss with us, as their absence slowly becomes a part of who we are. “It is time to move on,” we hear from well-meaning friends, and sometimes even from ourselves. But moving on seems like a betrayal, and yet, this dark valley of grief doesn’t seem to be the most hospitable dwelling place.
Yet, in this story, we also learn that, it is precisely in the midst of our pain, in the depths of our grief, in the emptiness of our loss that Jesus is there — with us, and for us. No, Jesus does not act exactly when, where, and how we think He should act. Jesus was late in arriving to Bethany, but when saw Mary weeping and was shown Lazarus’ tomb, the Bible says Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” What the Bible literally says was that Jesus “snorted with anger in the spirit and was agitated.” Jesus was angry that in this fallen world, the power of death still holds sway, wreaking havoc and devastation upon family and friends. Jesus did not minimize the power of death. Instead, Jesus honestly faced death with Lazarus’ sisters, and Jesus wept not only in sympathy with their grief, but also in agony because he knew that the hour is coming when he would have to confront the power of death.
Lazarus died because that’s the reality of our present world. Apart from trust in God, this world is a cemetery. The point was not the raising of Lazarus, for Lazarus was not resurrected, he was only resuscitated. Lazarus would die again. In fact, after Jesus called Lazarus’ name to come out of the tomb, the Fourth Evangelist wrote: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.” Lazarus was a dead man walking, still defined by death. His body was still wrapped by the markers of mortality. And so are we all. Some of us might escape death longer than others, but we all are going to die. The point was not the raising of Lazarus, but the resurrection of Jesus and the glory it will bring to God. Seen in this light, Lazarus’ resuscitation became a rising sign of hope, a sign that points to what will happen to all humanity who believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
As we draw toward the end of the season of Lent, once again we are invited to face death—ours and the ones we love. But we need not wallow in it, because when we look at the face of death, we find the grace of God. The Good News of Lent and Holy Week is that, like Lazarus, life steps out of an open tomb. And even if we are like Martha and Mary in the face of death, conflicted between frustration and faith, head knowledge and heart longing, belief and doubt, Jesus does not count that against us. He comes to offer us life anyway. Therefore, we have hope that even in the deep despair of our night, joy returns in the morning.
Dan Clendenin writes: “Winter will not last forever; spring will come. Lenten darkness, repentance and sorrow have their rightful place with us, but Easter resurrection is our destiny.”
Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. . . . Do you believe this?” Amen.
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.