I Am the Resurrection – April 7, 2019, the Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 11:1-4, 17-27, 38-44
April 7, 2019
This story is about one of the most powerful miracles Jesus performed here on earth. It’s perhaps second only to his own resurrection. But it’s strange, because this story is only told in John’s Gospel. According to John, it is the greatest of Jesus’ miracles! And according to John, it’s the reason many of the people were there at the Palm Sunday event, which we’ll look at next week, of course. They came to see Jesus. But they also came to see this man he raised from the dead!
Now, I don’t have a good answer as to why the other Gospel writers are silent on this story. Any serious study of the Gospel writings shows that Matthew, Mark, and Luke shared stories, or read each others stories, or at least were aware of the same stories. Or perhaps they were there when they happened. John has a lot of those stories, but he has things the others didn’t. And this is one of them. So is the story of the Woman at the Well. So is the Wedding at Cana. So is the doubting of Thomas. And there are others.
The best explanation I’ve heard is that, according to tradition, John was the only Apostle to die of old age. All the rest were martyred for their faith. And as John grew old, there developed around him a community of people, much like the community of the Essenes, who were the ones who preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. And over those years, John shared stories with that community, stories that were not in the other Gospels. And his Gospel is a collection of the stories he told about Jesus.
It’s also helpful to remember one of the things John said at the end of his Gospel. “Jesus did many other things that are not written in this book,” he said. “If all the things Jesus said and did were to be written down, the world could not contain the books that would be written.” That’s some consolation for this mystery. There are so many things Jesus did, the writers had to pick and choose what they would include. For John’s part, he goes on to say, “But these things are written that you may believe, and in believing have life in Jesus.” That is a huge theme in this Gospel. It is John’s reason for writing it! It’s the reason for including the stories he did. He wrote his Gospel in such a way, that we may believe in Jesus, and have life in him.
So here we have the raising of Lazarus. And one of the things we see plainly in this story is that it is a big setup! Jesus knew that Lazarus was sick, and he knew that he died, and he told his disciples he was going to him. And in this conversation, they appear to be clueless. Jesus tells them, “Lazarus has ‘fallen asleep.’” And we know what he means by that, because we know the story. But they say, “If he’s sleeping, he’ll wake up.” “You don’t need to go!” And they say it that way because they were focused in on what? It was dangerous for Jesus to go anywhere near Jerusalem! They did know that part that we know. Jerusalem was a dangerous place for Jesus! Bad things would happen if he went there! If only they knew how bad!
So after trying to dissuade him from going, Thomas makes this statement, “Let us also go, that we may die with him!” Now, that could be taken two ways. It could be noble and brave. “We’re with you Jesus, no matter what happens!” “We’ll even give our lives for you!” Or, it could be sarcastic, a kind of pretentious statement, intended to show Jesus how frivolous he was being with his own safety! “Sure Jesus, if you’re gonna throw your life away, we’re in!” But I really wonder how much they really believed what he kept saying about himself.
So they go. And when they arrive, the mourning is still going on. And from what I understand about mourning in the middle east, it involves a lot of crying and wailing! (I understand they even had “professional mourners,” people who would do that wailing for you, if you didn’t have enough people of your own!) So that’s part of this picture. John tells us that many people had come to “console” Mary and Martha. So there was a crowd.
But Martha hears that Jesus is coming and she goes out to meet him. And there we have this conversation. John always gives us more of the dialogue in these stories! In this one, Martha starts out, “O Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!” She knew Jesus had the power to heal. And she knew he certainly would have healed this man, who was his friend! In fact, I suspect there might even have been a little anger in this statement! Martha doesn’t understand why Jesus wouldn’t come and help! She didn’t know his purpose in doing things this way. We do, because he said so! This was set up so that people would believe! But none of that mattered to Martha. All she knew was her grief!
We know what that’s like, don’t we? When we’re hurting that much, there’s often nothing anyone can say that will take away the hurt. That’s just the way it works. When someone is hurting like that, just being with them is often the best we can do!
Jesus tries to tell her what’s about to happen. “If you really believe,” he said, “your brother will rise again!” And Martha goes right to her understanding of the resurrection. “Sure Jesus, he will rise on the last day!” But of course, that’s not what Jesus meant! Again, Martha believed Jesus could heal people, and that Lazarus wouldn’t have died if Jesus had been there. But it didn’t cross her mind that Jesus could do anything about it now! And again I ask you, how many of us would, either?
So they go to the tomb, and that’s when Mary hears that Jesus has come. So she goes out, too. And when she sees him, she says the exact same thing, “Lord, if you had been here…” And Jesus sees her weeping, and in the shortest verse in the entire Bible, it says, “Jesus wept.” And I believe that verse is there so that we can see that everyone there had the same feeling! Because they all said, “See how he loved him!” “Couldn’t he, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man from dying?”
Again, try to imagine yourself seeing all this happening, without the perspective you have now, without knowing this story. Because the reality hits in this next moment. Jesus says this prayer aloud, in which he states again the reason for what’s about to happen – that they may believe. And then he commands them, “Open the tomb.” And Martha speaks for all of them, saying, “But Jesus, it’s been four days! There’s going to be an odor!”
Then, in a scene that no artist has ever been able to capture fully, Lazarus comes out! I always picture this somewhat like a mummy in a scary movie. A slowly moving person comes out, with grave clothes wrapping him and hanging off of him. It may even have been frightening to those people. But then John actually ends the story very quickly, and simply, with Jesus saying, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
An old pastor of mine suggested years ago that those words remind us of our need to be “unbound” from the things that are related to death, from the earthly things that “wrap us up,” from the “sins that cling so closely, as Paul told the Hebrews. He even suggested that we unbind each other in that way. And he suggested that there are those who would instead bind us and re-wrap us with those things.
So, as we think of this story, we might ask ourselves, are we still bound to the things that have to do with death – like the grave cloths of Lazarus? Or are we free from those things? And by our words and actions do we “unbind” others? Or do we wrap them even tighter, when we are unkind or critical or selfish.
Lent is a time when we see, not just where we stand in our faith and what our status is with God, but also how we share this life of faith with each other. We follow a Savior who asks “How can you love a God who you can’t see, when you don’t love your brother who you can see?” He also said, “If you’re giving your gift at the altar, if you’re doing your religious duty, and right at that moment remember that you have a problem with your brother or sister, leave it. Go and make things right with them first.”
Your faith in God is directly tied to your love for each other! Remember last week – the greatest commandment! Jesus said it was, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength – and your neighbor as yourself!” Jesus didn’t just “throw that in” for good measure. Those things are intimately and strongly tied together!
So, Jesus told Martha, “I am the Resurrection.” That’s what we celebrate. We celebrate it specifically, in a couple of weeks, but generally all the time. And as Paul also said, we share in his resurrection. That’s the good news! Jesus calls us from the tomb, he bids us rise. He calls us to be unbound from the things of this earth. Not that we shouldn’t have them, but that we shouldn’t let them “bind us.” And he calls us to unbind each other. To set each other free. Jesus has so freed us, and so let us not re-bind anyone. Let us live together in his freedom, and in his resurrection!
Eternal God, we thank you for the resurrection of Jesus, our Savior. Help us to know the love he showed in what he did for us, and help us to show our love by what we do for others. Help us to remember the joy of our salvation. For we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.