March 29, 2020, Buds and Sprouts and Abundant Life, John 11:1-44
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The Lord be with you.
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to John. Glory to you, Lord Christ.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
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.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 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. 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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
The gospel of our Lord. Praise to you, Lord Christ.
As we read this familiar story about the raising of Lazarus, the first thing we might notice is that Jesus’s behavior is not what we’d expect. Jesus gets the urgent message from Mary and Martha that his good friend is critically ill. And instead of setting off at once, Jesus hangs out for a couple of days before he begins the journey to Bethany. He waits, in fact, until he knows that Lazarus has already died. And the delay is all about Jesus taking this moment, this life-changing event in the lives of his close friends, as an opportunity to reveal something important about God – because remember, it is only in Jesus that we can see who the Father is.
This is one of the passages that is commonly read at funerals; it is one of four gospel passages (all from the gospel of John) that is recommended for the gospel reading in the Burial Service. So I have read this story at a lot of funeral services. And the message we draw from this passage generally points toward our hope in the Resurrection at the end of time, when Jesus returns, and we are re-united with the people we’ve lost, and we begin life in God’s newly restored and perfected Kingdom. That is a huge comfort, something we hold onto, especially when we have lost someone we love – as Mary and Martha have here in this passage.
But we don’t often point out that Jesus has more to reveal here than our future hope. Notice that the whole idea of the Resurrection in the last days isn’t anything new to Martha. “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus tells her. And Martha doesn’t react in joyful surprise, “Are you kidding me? I always thought that death was the end of the line for us. What a relief!” No, Martha – as well as Mary, and the disciples, and pretty much every Jew that was there to mourn with Lazarus’s sisters, believed that at the end of time God would raise up every human being who had died. The Jews, except for the Sadduccees who didn’t believe in the Resurrection, looked forward to the Day of Judgment as a day of vindication for God’s people. But Jesus had something more to reveal, something new.
Martha, as a faithful and knowledgable Jew, already believed in the Resurrection at the end of time. And that was a comfort to her, as it is a comfort to us. But it wasn’t enough to satisfy the deepest longing of her heart. She believed that she would see her brother again. But the deepest longing of her heart was that she wanted her brother back – now. This passage always reminds me of good friends of ours, a young married couple, who were talking to a life insurance salesman. The salesman was telling Linda, the wife, all about the benefits she would receive if her husband Peter passed away, and Linda stopped him and said, “If Peter dies, I don’t want money. I just want Peter!” I get the feeling Martha was thinking the same thing. She truly believed in her future hope, but just then what she really wanted wasn’t only a future hope. She wanted her brother, alive and well.
And what Jesus had come to reveal is that he had come to bring life to everyone who put their faith in him. He had come to bring hope, not for the future, but now. Possibly the best-known verse in the whole Bible tells us this, that God loved the world so much that he sent his Son into the world, bringing an abundance of life for anyone who would receive it. Martha said Jesus, “I know that my brother will rise again at the Resurrection on the last day.” But Jesus answered her, “I am the Resurrection. I am the Life.” And he said the words we proclaim at every funeral. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus looked at Martha and asked her, “Do you believe this?” and she answered him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, who has come into the world.”
What Jesus had to reveal that day was not a future promise, but a reality that was breaking into the present, a reality that was for today, a reality for all todays. The raising of Lazarus on that day was the powerful sign that a new kind of life had begun to take root in this creation. We know that when Lazarus came forth from the tomb he returned to a normal human existence, to a living body that would some day grow old and get sick and die all over again. The power of the sign was not in Lazarus; it was in Jesus himself, who embodied in himself a new kind of life, and who had come to share it with us – to infect us in a glorious and healthful way, much like the Coronavirus infects us in a destructive and deadly way. And faith is the mode of transmission.
So here we are today, the Church in quarantine, in the midst of a pandemic, watching the numbers rise on our TV and computer screens like an unstoppable tide day after day after day. As I write this, the number of sick worldwide has risen to over 700.000. More than 33,000 people have died. In our own country the cases are 133,000 and climbing daily. Over 2,000 people have died. Never has there been a more urgent need for abundant life in our world. We read the story today of the raising of Lazarus, of the man who had been dead and buried four days, laid out still and cold in the darkness of a tomb. We read that the voice of Jesus called Lazarus and he came stumbling forth, his hands and feet still bound with the linen strips of his embalming, his face wound around with a cloth. People were so astonished that Jesus had to tell them, “Somebody, go help set Lazarus free so he can see and move around!” And we are reminded that the same powerful Spirit of Christ is alive in each one of us today.
Today is the day for the people of Christ to remember that our God is the Resurrection and the Life, the God who became part of our history so he could be eternally present with us. Today is the day for his people to seek out ways to infect this world with abundant life. And we already see God’s grace sprouting up all over the place, wherever people are looking out for one another, wherever people are putting the safety and welfare of their neighbor above their own safety and welfare. We see nurses and doctors and mental health specialists volunteering by the tens of thousands to serve when the hospital staff becomes overwhelmed. We see teachers exercising vast amounts of time and energy and creativity keeping in touch with their students online. We see people redoubling their efforts to stock food pantries and prepare lunches for schoolchildren. That’s the big stuff. But we see wonderful little sprouts of life as well: things like the people who are putting teddy bears or rainbows in their windows so children can go by and watch for them, or just people giving the daily gift of checking in on people who live alone. As the spring of this troubled year comes on with swelling buds on the bare branches and green shoots from the cold dark earth, the abundant life of God is budding and sprouting right in the midst of fear and sickness and political wrangling – and even death.
Near the end of his gospel, John writes this: “In his disciples’ presence Jesus performed many other miracles which are not written down in this book. But these have been written in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through your faith in him you may have life.” John tells us that he chose the stories we read in his gospel from a multitude of stories that he might have told. In fact, he says if people tried to write down everything Jesus did there wouldn’t be enough room in the whole world for the books that would be written. But the stories he did write, John tells us, like the story of the raising of Lazarus, were chosen for a purpose, and the purpose was this: to present a strong case for believing that Jesus is everything he says he is: that he is the Messiah sent from God, and the only-begotten Son of the Father. But John meant more by that than just convincing us all of the facts. John wrote down his testimony for us so that we might believe in Jesus and, in believing we might receive the abundant life he offers to all of us. And even more than that, he gave his testimony so that, as we receive that abundant life we might share it with the world around us.