(Adapted from a sermon preached February 18, 2018, at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville. You can listen to a podcast of the sermon here. The sermon text is The Raising of Lazarus, John 11:1-44.)
When Jesus finally got to Bethany, where his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived, he found out Lazarus had been in the tomb four days.
Four days. The Jews at the time believed a person’s soul left their body after three days. Four days. There was no hope.
All Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, could do was grieve.
You’ve been there, right? At that place past hope. Walking away from the body of a loved one at the cemetery after a funeral. Walking out of your home after the eviction or foreclosure notice. Walking out of work for the last time after being laid off. Walking out of a medical building after a doctor has told you or a loved one “There’s nothing more we can do.” Walking away from a relationship after being told, “I just don’t love you any more.”
Or hearing on the news about another school shooting.
We’ve been in that place past hope.
And in that place, perhaps you’ve wondered. “Why didn’t God do something? Where was God, anyway?”
Because God is all-powerful, and God is all good. Why did God allow this?
Why did God allow ME to get to this place past hope?
Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary wondered the same thing. When Jesus was near, Martha went out to meet him. Mary stayed home – do you think maybe she didn’t want anything to do with Jesus just then?
That happens sometimes in that place past hope. We don’t want to hear, or can’t hear, the platitudes and the preaching. We need to be angry for a while – angry even at God.
That’s okay. God can take it.
Anger at God is even a sort of expression of faith – you can’t get angry at someone who you don’t believe exists. You don’t get angry at someone unless you believe they have power to change a situation – but didn’t.
Martha makes that kind of an angry statement of faith when she comes face to face with Jesus. “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. But I believe even now that God will give you whatever you ask.”
She believes Jesus could have saved her brother.
Jesus responds by assuring her that Lazarus will rise again.
Martha responds that of course he will, on the last day when everyone rises.
Then Jesus makes the statement that is at the heart of this story. It is at the heart of John’s Gospel. It is at the heart of OUR story:
Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives believing in me will never die.”
Wow! Being in relationship with Jesus means that death will never have the final word.
In that place past hope – Martha is there because her brother has died – Jesus IS our hope.
And then Jesus asks Martha, Martha who is grieving, Martha who doesn’t understand what Jesus is about to do, Martha who is ANGRY at Jesus . . . he asks her, “Do you believe this.”
Listen to Martha’s response: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Lazarus is still in the tomb! We know Jesus is about to raise him to life. But Martha doesn’t know that yet. Isn’t it extraordinary that Martha makes this confession about Jesus BEFORE the miracle, before the resurrection?
Even in that place past hope being with Jesus allows her to hope.
Jesus doesn’t explain why Lazarus has died. He doesn’t give Martha answers. He just gives Martha himself.
That’s what Jesus offers us. Jesus offers us himself – he offers himself on the cross, suffering and dying to show us love beyond imagining, he offers himself in the new life we have in him RIGHT NOW, the new life that began in our baptism.
Then Jesus asked to see the other sister, Mary, the one who didn’t come out to greet him. Presumably the one who is even angrier than Martha.
Mary went to Jesus and fell at his feet. Whether she fell there out of grief or exhaustion or just being overwhelmed, John doesn’t tell us. But we know in that place past hope our emotional and physical suffering becomes physical. It wears us out. There at Jesus’ feet, Mary says the same thing – the same confession of anger and of Jesus’ power – that her sister uttered at first. “If you had been there my brother would not have died.”
Jesus saw Mary weeping. He saw other mourners there weeping. He was, according to the NIV translation we use, ‘Deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”
That is a translation of a Greek word that means he felt strong emotion. He was worked up into an intense combination of sadness and anger. It is a word that specifically meant to snort with anger, like a horse.
What was Jesus angry about? He was angry at death. His friend was dead. Really dead. His other friends were grieving. Death is the enemy. Jesus hated death so much that he was willing to suffer and die to defeat it’s power. Jesus is on the way to the cross. Raising Lazarus will so anger the leaders that they will plot to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus will spend his last night before the Last Supper – the Wednesday of Holy Week – with Lazarus and his sisters. For Jesus, death is an ever-present reality. Jesus is horse-snorting angry-sad at death.
Jesus asks where Lazarus body has been laid.
“Come and see,” is the reply from those weeping near him.
And then, verse 35: “Jesus wept.”
Some have called this verse, the shortest in the Bible, a summary of the Gospel. Why?
This picture of Jesus weeping gives us the essence of his mission. He became one of us. So completely one of us that he wept – and he weeps – not just for us but with us. He does not feel sorry for us, he feels our sadness – and our anger – right along with us.
I have felt that snorting like a horse anger-sadness in the presence of death. To know Jesus is so close to me, loves me so much, the he feels it along with me is amazing – and comforting. We never suffer alone.
As Jesus wept, someone near him said, “See how he loved him.”
See how Jesus loved his friend, Lazarus. See how Jesus loved Mary and Martha. See how he loved the other mourners.
As they walk to the tomb, some of the others who are with him say, “He opened the eyes of a blind man. Could he not have kept this man from dying?”
In other words, why is Jesus upset. He could have stopped this from happening.
I wonder if Jesus thought, “Just wait.”
When they get to the tomb, John tells us Jesus again was deeply moved – horse snorting angry-sad. The tomb was a cave with a stone in front of the entrance.
Then Jesus said, “Roll away the stone.”
I think John leaves something out here. Do you think folks jumped up and ran to the stone to roll it away? Or do you think they might have laughed and wondered why they would risk hurting their backs or spraining their knees to roll that heavy stone away. After all, Lazarus had been dead 4 days. It’s hard to believe there’s something else – somewhere else – in that place past hope.
John does tell us Martha spoke up. She doesn’t want the stench of death to fill the air.
Jesus answered, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
Something about that, and something about Jesus, both quiets Martha and inspires enough people to roll away the stone.
Then Jesus prayed. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing there, that they may believe you sent me.”
Jesus wanted the people to know that this was God’s work, and that he was, well, God in the flesh. Jesus didn’t just do miracles, even for his friends, just for the sake of the miracles. They are signs so that those who witness them – and read about them – might believe and have life in his name. Might have hope.
After the prayer, Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
I wonder how long it took Lazarus to make his way out of the tomb. He would have been all wrapped up like a mummy and would probably have sort of waddled out like a penguin.
Imagine being in the crowd around the tomb, watching, waiting, wondering. Imagine being Mary or Martha. Allowing yourself just a bit of hope.
You see some movement there in the darkness of the cave. Is it just your eyes playing tricks on you? Do you hear a rustling, maybe someone dragging their feet on the stone floor? And then, there he is. Lazarus. Emerging from the darkness into the light. From the darkness of the tomb into the light of day. From the darkness of death to the light of Jesus.
Then Jesus told those who were there to take off Lazarus’ grave-clothes.
He was alive. Jesus brought him from death to life.
Jesus IS the resurrection and the life. Even in that place past hope.
Wednesday afternoon I felt great. It was Ash Wednesday. It was Valentine’s Day. For the Nationals, it was the first day of Spring Training. We had 10 people gather first thing in the morning for Morning Prayer. Karen had gotten the flowers I sent her at work for Valentine’s Day. The noon Ash Wednesday service had gone well. I was happy just to be in church on Ash Wednesday after spending it last year in the hospital. A great day!
But then . . . then I saw an alert on my computer. Another school shooting, this one in Florida. The news kept coming in. Seventeen dead. More than Columbine. (Remember Columbine? Seems like ancient history now.)
I was horse-snorting angry-sad. Still am. I don’t know if you caught me wiping away tears during the moment of silence we had at the Ash Wednesday service that evening. I know I wasn’t alone.
The next day I saw a photo online. You might have seen it. A mother embraces her daughter, a student at the school. They are both crying – wailing. I’m sure there were many, many scenes like this one.
What made this photo unique was that it clearly showed the ash cross on the mother’s forehead.
That cross is a symbol of our mortality. It is a reminder of death. The reality of death intruded into an unexpected place on Ash Wednesday. On Valentine’s Day.
That cross is also a symbol of God’s love. A reminder that even the reality of death is not beyond God’s redemption, that death’s power was defeated once and for all on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.
Resurrection will come.
But, as it was for Lazarus, first there is death. Death is real. Death is the enemy.
Jesus was there for that mother and daughter, wailing along with them, horse-snorting angry-sad. He is there with every family who lost a child, and every family traumatized by the unimaginable fear of that day.
And he will walk with those children and parents and families through these next days – through the rest of their now-scarred lives. He will not let go.
Jesus will walk with every parent for whom it’s a little harder to let go of their children and send them off to school each day. He will walk with every child for whom there is more fear at a place that should be safe.
Jesus will be there even with those who do not recognize him or his presence.
There are no limits to his love.
Jesus wept. Jesus weeps. But he does not only weep. Jesus did not stop with weeping. He brought – and he brings – life. And hope. Even in those places past hope.
But he does not do it alone. Not because he can’t, but Jesus invites his followers – us – into his life and hope-giving. In our story, he invited some to roll away the stone. He invited some to take off the grave-clothes.
Where is he inviting us – as individuals but especially as the people of God – to roll away stones and strip away the clothes of death?
What is he inviting us to do beyond weeping about what happened in Florida? What is he inviting us to do beyond weeping about the violence in our world? What is he inviting us to do bring life and hope to those who are bullied and lonely and those who experience pain because of their race or gender or ethnicity or religion or orientation? What is he inviting us to do about injustice and hunger and all the other things that make us – and Jesus – horse snorting angry-sad?
What stones are we being called to roll away? What grave-clothes are we being called to strip away?
Jesus weeps with us, yes. But Jesus also calls us, calls us into life-giving in a world that too often gives death.
Sisters and brothers, together we can roll stones away. Together we can strip off grave-clothes. But we can only give life and hope . . . and love, when we realize our life and hope and love are gifts from God through Christ. We can only love – really love without conditions or boundaries – when we realize how much we are loved.
And let me assure you – in the good places and in the places beyond hope, you are loved.