Back from the Dead – March 29, 2020, the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 46, John 11:1-4, 17-27, 38-44
March 29, 2020
As I said back at the beginning of Lent, back before the coronavirus crisis – which seems ages ago – we are looking at some stories from John’s Gospel. And, as I said then, some of these are stories which are found only in John’s Gospel. Which is a bit of a Biblical mystery. Why does John’s Gospel look so different from the others, and why are there stories in his Gospel that only he tells?
Those are hard questions to answer, except to say that John’s Gospel was probably written much later than the others, after some more stories of Jesus had been remembered and shared in the early days of the church. That’s hard to imagine living in our age – an age of the instant sharing of information. But it was a different world then. We also might remember the words of John himself, who wrote at the end of his Gospel that “if all the things Jesus did and said were to be written down, the world could not contain the books that would be written.”
So, for whatever reason, John gives us stories that the others don’t. And, as I also said, these stories would get more and more dramatic and intense, until they lead us to this story for today, where Jesus brings a man “back from the dead!” And frankly, this story not being told by the other Gospel writers is a mystery for which I’ve never really heard a good explanation! This is a huge event in John’s Gospel!
But let’s set that aside for now, and let’s look at this story. And let me remind you of another thing I said, when we were looking at John Chapter 6 last week. The closer we get to Holy Week, the more Jesus was doing and saying things that pointed to the fact that he was God incarnate. Last week he told the people, “I am the Bread of Life.” If you remember, he had just fed the 5,000, and he was comparing that with their story, the story of the Exodus and the miracle of God feeding his people with the Manna in the wilderness. That was a huge story for them!
Now this week, he performs his greatest miracle, a miracle second only to his own resurrection! And bringing this man “back from the dead” pointed so much to his claim to be God, that it was the last straw for those who opposed him. In John’s Gospel, this became the breaking point, the final event that led Jesus to the cross.
Now, much has been said about this passage, and particularly much has been said about the passion Jesus showed in this story. And I love that about John’s Gospel.
As I’ve said before, John always gives us more of the dialogue, and more of the emotion in these stories. And that’s what he does here. This wasn’t a “matter-of-fact” sounding Jesus, saying, “Don’t worry, people!” “I know Lazarus is dead, but I’ve got this!” “I can fix this situation.”
You might be new to our church today. If you are, welcome! I’m glad you’re with us! But if you’ve heard me speak before, you’ll remember that I often talk about reading the scripture in our “Bible voice.” Do you know what I mean? We read these stories with that respectful, dignified voice, as though this were “holy writ.” And that’s good! Because the Bible does deserve our utmost respect. But, sometimes in reading it that way, we miss the emotions that are going on in these stories. And in this story, Jesus is showing a lot of his emotions – his feeling – his heart!
One of the most memorable verses in this passage is also the shortest verse in the Bible. Do you remember it? The shortest verse in the Bible is verse 35. “Jesus Wept.” Whole sermons have been written on just those two words! Jesus loved this man, Lazarus, and he wept openly at his death. And the people saw that! They saw his outward show of emotion. Some even said, “Look! See how he loved him!” But others said, “Couldn’t he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” What emotions do you think were behind that statement? Anger, frustration, maybe a little sarcasm?
As we think about what was happening here, I ask you, again as I often do, to try to be “in the moment” with these people. Try to imagine the grief they were experiencing! Let that be the background for this story – like it was the “musical soundtrack!” And that’s hard. Because we the readers always have the best perspective. We know what was happening here. We know that Jesus could have kept Lazarus from dying! And we know what was about to happen. And let me say this. So did Jesus! He also knew he could have kept Lazarus from dying. He also knew what he was about to do. And yet still he grieved the loss of his dear friend! He showed us his heart! And then, in the next verse, it says this. “Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb…”
We sometimes talk about “the heart of God.” And I think that’s an important thing to think about. Because sometimes I think we forget. We forget that God has a heart. We forget that God has emotions, too. We used to sing a song years ago that had, in its refrain, the words “I don’t want to grieve my Lord no more.” Do we ever think about that? Do we realize that God grieves over us? Maybe he grieves our bad decisions. Maybe he grieves with us in our suffering and pain?
I believe that about God. I believe his is with us when we are grieving. He does feel our pain. He does feel our hurt. He has experienced our hurt. That’s part of why the passion and death of Jesus is such a powerful story! In Jesus, God suffered to show that he feels our suffering. We could stop right there and that would be enough! Part of the reason Jesus suffered was so that he could experience – so he could know our suffering! That’s so important!
Think about what that’s like for us parents. As parents, we hurt when our children are hurting! Isn’t that true? And it’s not necessarily because of what they are hurting about, but simply because they’re hurting. Am I right? We see their heartache and our heart aches! I believe the same thing about God. When we hurt, God feels our hurt. He might not be happy with us about our choices. But at the same time, he still feels our hurt! When he sees our heartaches, God’s heart aches, too! That’s our God! That’s the Jesus of this story! “Jesus wept!” There’s so much said in those two words!
I am grieved when bad things happen, and people – sometimes Christian leaders – go too quickly to the thought of “God is doing this to teach us something.” I am so saddened by that kind of image of God! Not that God can’t do some things sometimes to show us things. But it bothers me when we make blanket statements about it – when we say that’s always how God works.
I prefer the image of God we find in the Psalms. In Psalm 46 we read, “God is my refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” Psalm 91 says, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” Then a few verses further, “For he will deliver us from the snare of the enemy, and from the deadly pestilence.” What does that sound like? “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will feel no evil, for thou art with me…” (Psalm 23)
God is with us in the struggles of this life! He is “our refuge and our strength!” And yes, like a parent, God is not always happy with our choices. He might even be grieved by them. But! His love is steadfast, and that means steadfast – always! His love is steadfast – anyway! He feels our pain, he hurts when we hurt. He is our refuge and our strength.
Friends, in all of our lives, but especially at times like we’re going through right now, we need God to be our refuge! We need God to be our strength! We need to know God is with us – even in the valley of the shadow! We need to have his peace in this time of turmoil! We need to know the Jesus who is God incarnate! We need to know the Jesus who grieved for his friend, and who has the power to raise the dead! And not so that we can avoid death, but so that we can live life knowing we are in his hands!
We can trust God in these times. We can trust him always! He knows what we are going through. He is with us. He loves us. He gives us his peace!
Eternal God, you are our refuge and our strength. Help us to know, beyond any doubt, that you are with us, even in these times of trial. Help us to trust, to rest in you. And as we deal with the world around us, help us to be your hands and feet and voice. Help us to share your heart to the world you “so loved.” For we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen.