A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
April 6, 2014
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-10; John 11:1-45
Our story begins in a hospital sick-room. There are IV’s everywhere, nurses hovering, concerned voices speaking earnestly. “If we don’t get to the bottom of this soon, he’s not going to make it.” Doctors, with their charts in hand, consult with one another as to what the next step ought to be. But truth be told, they’re perplexed and uncertain about what should be done, what medications should be administered. Anything they attempt is going to be nothing better than a shot in the dark.
The patient’s sisters are out in the waiting room just down the hall… praying, holding hands, occasionally looking at one another without having to say anything, without wanting to say anything. Words are inadequate to express how they’re feeling right now, and the one thing they can’t let go of is their feelings. They know how critical the circumstances are, and their nerves are sitting right on top of every molecule in their bodies. They cringe every time someone comes into the room, even if it’s just to get something out of one of the vending machines. They’re afraid that every human movement is going to be a harbinger of bad news.
They’re a close-knit family, the three of them. Oh, they have their squabbles. Every family does. But if you cut one, they all bleed. That’s just how it is in the family of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha.
The one person who doesn’t seem to be that concerned about Lazarus’ illness is their good friend Jesus. Speaking of Jesus… where is he? They had sent word for him to come. They have faith in the doctors and the medical staff – they really do – but they have this gut feeling that their only hope is in the hands of their friend from Galilee. He’s always been there for them just when they needed him, and now that they really and truly need him – more than ever before – he is nowhere to be found.
Jesus’ disciples are concerned as well. They have seen the obvious affection between Jesus and his friends, have visited in their home in Bethany, and have themselves come to feel a certain kinship with the family of Lazarus. Why Jesus hung around for a couple of days without responding to their urgent message is beyond them.
It is true that they don’t understand everything Jesus says. Who could? He speaks of things beyond this world, and they’re all a bunch of guys who think quite literally. They’ve lived and traveled with him for quite some time now, and none of them can say he’s got Jesus figured out. A thousand lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to do that. But you’d think he would want to rush to Lazarus’ side, push all the medical personnel away, and then heal him with his redemptive touch. That’s what his disciples are thinking.
But no. Instead, he says to his disciples while he bides his time, “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.”
Evidently, Jesus sees something they don’t see, that they can’t see. Evidently, he has this amazing ability to view the whole picture, even before the picture is fully developed. Evidently, Jesus not only has healing ability, but he can see the future as well. We have to believe that because the only other option is that John, the writer of the fourth gospel, is using his own hindsight to put words in Jesus’ mouth.
When Jesus does finally decide to start out for Bethany, the disciples don’t want him to go… Lazarus or no Lazarus. They’ve been talking amongst themselves, and the one thing they do realize is the political situation. Bethany is only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, and that’s the center of all the political activity focused on Jesus. They are aware that the religious authorities have been hot on Jesus’ trail. That’s why they have come to the edge of the Galilean wilderness, the area where Jesus had been baptized by John. This is their home country, and they figure they’re safe here. Now, Jesus wants to head back into the fray, and his disciples caution him not to do it. Sure, Lazarus is his friend. He’s their friend too, but the risk just isn’t worth it.
Again, Jesus sees what they cannot see, and he insists on going to his friend. But he knows it will not be without consequences, the first of which has to do with the disappointment and anger of Martha and Mary, his close friends. You see, while Jesus has been waiting around in Galilee, Lazarus has died.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Come on, Martha, Jesus can’t be everywhere! Your expectations of him are a bit much, don’t you think? He can’t just be at your beck-and-call. He’s got other things to do, and by sending for him don’t you know that you’re asking him to come back where wanted posters, with his picture, are posted everywhere? Don’t you know the authorities are waiting for him just so they can arrest him? Don’t you care, Martha, about Jesus… or are you so concerned about your brother that nothing else matters?
Well, you know what they say about blood being thicker than water. Maybe Martha figures that if Jesus can heal the sick he can confront the violent forces of those who hate him. Who’s to say that Jesus couldn’t muster up an army, just like that? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
“If you had been here.”
She’s right, you know. He could have prevented such an awful thing from happening. But one of the lessons to be learned from all this, as painful as it can be sometimes, is that God is less in the field of prevention than in redeeming our hearts, even in the midst of the bad things that can happen to us.
Stephanie Jaeger tells about a friend who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of incurable cancer. As her friend Ellen came to terms with her dying, she decided to write down the lessons she was learning. In the early stages of her illness, she had focused on praying for a cure. In the end, she expressed her daily gratitude for God’s ongoing presence as the cancer took over her body. She offered advice for those who try to control God’s saving action through expectations: develop clear intentions of what you want out of life, but don’t be attached to the outcome.1
You can tell that Martha and Mary have said this to each other because their words are the same… “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”They have all their expectations tied up in the outcome, don’t they? And they presume that they know what the outcome ought to be. And for them, the outcome was that Lazarus would be healed. Now, now that he is dead – four days now – they are without expectations. The only thing they have is their grief.
“Your brother will rise again.”
Maybe I’m putting too much into it, but I think it’s interesting that Jesus does not refer to Lazarus by his name. He says, “Your brother.” Why do you think that is so? Perhaps he says it this way to emphasize the relationship between Martha and Lazarus. He’s affirming their kinship, their love for each. “Your brother will rise again.”
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
We have this idea, you and I, that belief in resurrection only began on that first Easter day. But Martha’s response reveals to us that it was a core belief of the Jews and was not the sole possession of those who followed Jesus. But Jesus puts a whole new perspective on it when he personalizes, when he embodies, this belief. No longer is it a concept, a theological construct. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says to her. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Those of you who have been present at one of the funeral services we’ve conducted around here – and many you have, if for no other reason than we’ve had our fair share of funerals around here – will recognize that I often use that statement of Jesus as the call to worship. “I am the resurrection and the life,” says the Lord. But just as the disciples of Jesus do not understand what he means, I’m not sure a thousand funerals would enable us to fully realize what Jesus says. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
We know that Jesus goes on to call Lazarus forth from the grave. It is Jesus’ final miracle recorded in John’s gospel. But remember that John does not call such a miracle. He prefers to call them signs. What do signs do? They point the way to something, somewhere, else. So what does this sign point to? As powerful, as emotional (obviously it is emotional, even for Jesus, because we are told that he wept), as wonderful as is the sign of Jesus’ raising his friend from the dead, it is still just that: a sign. It is not the end, it is the means. It points to something else, something greater, something more eternal. After all, even Lazarus died again. So what is it that this sign points to?
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says to Martha. Some of the ancient manuscripts of the fourth gospel omit the words “and the life.” Why? Because, in the wisdom of those who copied the gospel, they found it to be redundant. Aren’t resurrection and “the life” the same thing?
The answer is… no!
Martha thinks resurrection comes only “on the last day,” some time out in the future when God chooses to culminate life on this earth as we know it. But Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Resurrection begins now for those who believe… now! That is what this sign, the raising of Lazarus, points to. It points to Jesus… now! It points to life in Jesus… now!
Go back and read the first ten chapters of John’s gospel. Throughout those pages you will find story after story, sign after sign, all pointing to a new life that is found only in the One sent from God. Even something as mundane as changing water to wine reveals how things are – not just will be, but are – in the kingdom of heaven. That is what life – real life, life in Christ – looks like, feels like, tastes and smells like.
Remember that – will you? – come Easter Sunday, because when that dawns rolls around and you find the tomb empty, you will know it is the greatest sign of all. And it points not just to the future but to what is possible right now… if you will only believe. If you will only believe.
Lord, help us do more than affirm, or even try to understand, what it means that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Find us living like it, in everything we do, in every place we go, in every person we meet. In his eternal name we pray, Amen.
1“Living the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, April 2, 2014, p. 21.