Lent 5, Year A, 2014
All Saints’ Church
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
Every time I hear somebody say that they find the Bible boring, I think to myself, “I wonder what Bible they’re reading?” Sure, there are some parts of the Bible that take some effort to wade through (like the lists of “so-and-so begat such-and-such” and the book of Leviticus, in particular), but the Bible is also full of stories of adventure, espionage, forbidden love, giants, miracles, and--depending on which translation you’re reading--even unicorns (also check out the book of Kings; it’s the biblical version of the Game of Thrones). Today’s readings are also exciting; Ezekiel tells the story of a valley of dry bones growing flesh and becoming human again, and John recounts the raising of Lazarus. For all you Walking Dead fans out there, yes, the Gospels include a real-life zombie.
Martha and Mary, sisters who are friends of Jesus, send word to Jesus that their brother, one of Jesus’ best friends, is really sick. They are at their wits’ end; nothing seems to work and Lazarus’ health is rapidly going downhill. In desperation, they call for their friend Jesus; he will know what to do, he will make sure that their beloved brother gets better.
The text tells us that “Jesus love[s] Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). But for some reason he waits around another two days before making his way to their house. Is he scared of the authorities? When Jesus tells the disciples that it’s time for them to go back to Judea, they protest, “Woah now, Jesus. We just got back from there. Remember what happened? Remember how they tried to stone you and then arrest you? You can’t go back there! Stay here; it’s safe here. You can do your ministry from right here, out of harm’s way. There’s no need to go back; wait until things cool down a little.” The disciples still have vivid memories of the angry crowds, arguing with and yelling at Jesus, snatching stones, hurling insults, grabbing at Jesus to arrest him, the mad dash to get away from the crazed mob (10:22-40). They are not ready to face death; they are not ready to lose their beloved teacher.
When Jesus tells them that Lazarus is dead and so he absolutely has to go back, it is Thomas--good ol’ doubting Thomas--who speaks up. Even though he doesn’t expect they’ll make it out alive, he dramatically calls on the other disciples to act in solidarity with Jesus, to follow him to the bitter end: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). The disciples have eaten with, slept next to, walked dusty roads beside, and learned from Jesus. They have given up normal lives in order to follow this man, and they are determined to follow him now, even if it means their death.
Martha meets Jesus when he arrives in town. She seems disappointed in him; she knows that her brother would still be with them if Jesus had come sooner. She doesn’t understand Jesus’ reasons for waiting, but she hasn’t lost her faith in him--she still calls Jesus “Lord,” still believes that he has a special relationship with God, and openly proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
There are many people gathered at Mary and Martha’s house to help them mourn; they don’t leave the sisters alone in their grief. Death is a communal event; we gather to show our love and support, to honor the life of the person who has died, to grieve the loss of a loved one. When Martha returns to the house and privately tells Mary that Jesus wants to see her, Mary immediately leaves to find him. Concerned, the people follow Mary to the tomb because they don’t want her to be alone.
Mary has the same thinly veiled accusation as her sister Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 32). But Mary openly shows her grief; she kneels crying at Jesus’ feet. The people who have followed her are crying, as well.
Up to this point in today’s reading, Jesus has seemed rather aloof. He takes his time getting back to Judea. He even awkwardly makes a joke about Lazarus being asleep, before matter-of-factly stating that he’s actually dead. But when he sees Mary crying at his feet and hears the weeping of the crowd, something changes. The text states that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (v. 33). The phrase “deeply moved” can also be translated as groaning or angrily snorting like a horse (v. 33). Whatever it is, he has a visceral reaction to their tears, and begins to weep himself. Lazarus’ death is real. His sisters, having lost their protector, must now fend for themselves in a world not kind to women. Jesus knows what is going to happen next, and yet he still is intensely affected by the sorrow of his friends. “See how he loved him!” (v. 36). The Son of God is not immune to suffering.
Jesus approaches the cave where the body is laid. He commands the people to remove the stone blocking the entrance. Martha protests; Lazarus has been dead for four days. In Jewish belief, the soul waits around for 3 days before finally leaving the body. Since four days have passed, Lazarus’ soul has already left; he is officially gone. Undaunted, Jesus calls out to the Father, showing the crowd that what is about to happen is not a magic trick but an act of God. Jesus calls his friend, and Lazarus comes out, still wrapped in the strips of cloth they buried him in. It turns out that death is not the victor, in this case. Jesus tells the people to release him from death’s captivity: to take off the cloths, leave that part of his story behind, and then begin again, restored to humanity and the life of the community.
In John’s Gospel this is Jesus’ final sign before his crucifixion. He is probably aware that his days are numbered, and he perhaps even knows that this act is a pivotal moment; after he raises Lazarus, people tell the Pharisees about what happened and they plot to end Jesus’ life. Perhaps this is why Jesus waits so long to go back to Judea; so that his disciples will finally understand that death is not the end of the story, that love ultimately wins.
Throughout this story wind examples of love: the sisters’ love for their brother. The disciples’ love for Jesus. The crowd’s love for the sisters. Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his sisters. Their love for him. Jesus’ love for his disciples. But all of these examples of love foreshadow an even greater love; that of God for God’s creation. In the Gospel, momentum is building up to the events of Holy Week. We’ll start with the high of Palm Sunday next week, celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem surrounded by excited crowds of supporters. But then everything will quickly come crashing down on the eve of Good Friday, when Jesus is handed over to the authorities, put on trial, and condemned to death by the same crowds who supported him a few days earlier. It will appear for a few days that death will have the upper hand, that darkness will rule the day as well as the night. But after three days a stone will once again be rolled away from a tomb entrance, and the only evidence of death will be the strips of cloth left behind.
The biggest sign of God’s love is that God became human, experienced life from our point of view, taught us how to love one another and to reconnect with God, and then gave up life so that we might have eternal life. In Christ, death is vanquished and love rises victorious from the grave. May we be so “deeply moved” by this love that we respond in faith with love.
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