Sevice & Sermon
Sunday, March 29, 2020 – John 11:1-45
Pastor Laurie Cline's message:
Our gospel for today is about the last of seven signs, or miracles, that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, where he knows there will be a final confrontation with the religious authorities. He knows he will die soon. John tells us that Jesus had a run-in with some of the religious authorities right before this story takes place. (Whenever the term “Jews” is used in the Gospel of John it usually refers to the religious authorities, not all the Jewish people.) There was even an attempt to stone him. This story, located right in the center of John’s gospel, is the pivotal point between Jesus’ public ministry and the private words he will share with his disciples before his death.
As Jesus travels towards Jerusalem, Mary and Martha send him a message informing him that their brother, his good friend Lazarus, is sick and near death. These three people are very close friends of Jesus; they are mentioned several times in the Gospel of John. Jesus used to visit their home in Bethany when he needed time away from the crowds and a chance to rest. They are the only people specifically named in this gospel that Jesus is said to love. So we might wonder, why does Jesus not go immediately to Lazarus when he learns that he is so critically ill? Unfortunately, we may find ourselves in that same situation. It is going to be extremely difficult for us if we learn that someone we love is critically ill or even near death from this virus that is devastating our communities.
Jesus gives a hint as to why he waits – but it sounds like a riddle. The illness “does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory.” Even though his disciples must have wondered why Jesus did not rush to Bethany to see Lazarus – they were not in quarantine due to a pandemic - they were also afraid when he announced that it was time to go there. There was danger being in Bethany, only two miles away from Jerusalem. We should note that Thomas is the one who bravely declares that they should all go, even if they end up dying with Jesus. That is a clue to the character and faithfulness of Thomas which is often overlooked.
Although this story will climax at the raising of Lazarus, he has a very passive role. The central characters are his sisters, Mary and Martha, and their experience of grief and loss. They have no doubt that if Jesus had come immediately their brother would still be alive. However, they have different personalities and so respond differently when Jesus arrives.
Martha is a perfect example of faith in this story. She knows scripture, she has learned from Jesus, she knows that God will answer Jesus’ prayers, and she believes in the resurrection of the dead. In spite of the fact that she is deep in mourning, Martha declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and the Son of God. No one could give a better confession of faith. We can look to Martha’s example as one who trusts God even in the face of frightening circumstances.
In contrast to Martha, whose faith is more intellectual, Mary is much more emotional. She throws herself at Jesus’ feet, a place where we often see her in this gospel. Before this, she was sitting at his feet listening to him teach. In the next chapter of John, when Jesus and his disciples are at a dinner given by the sisters to celebrate the resuscitation of Lazarus, Mary will anoint his feet in a foreshadowing of his death. Although she does not make the same verbal confession of faith that Martha does, she shows by her actions that she understands who Jesus really is. Some of us are more like Mary, and will follow her example of faith in action, even during adversity.
Throughout his encounter with Martha and Mary, as he prepares to raise Lazarus, Jesus is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved – “disturbed” is the same verb used when his soul is troubled when his own time of trial begins, when he announces that one of his own will betray him, and when he tells his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled at his departure. This is the deepest sort of human emotion – revealing that even the one who is the resurrection and the life is deeply upset by human grief and death. We can be assured by these words that Jesus is walking through this valley of darkness and fear with us. He understands how we feel.
Before raising Lazarus, Jesus prays – loudly - for the benefit both of his disciples, who remain somewhat clueless, and for the crowd that has gathered. The purpose of the miracle is so that people will believe that God has sent Jesus into the world as the Messiah. He makes it clear that he has the power to raise Lazarus but also that the power comes from God. It is Jesus’ words, literally, his “shout,” that raises Lazarus. Just as Jesus told his disciples to “come” and follow him, so Lazarus comes out of the tomb when called by him.
Lazarus is dead and can do nothing for himself. What he can do is receive the power of God that calls him to a new life. Yet sometimes when we are called to new life we tend to remain wrapped up in all that is familiar, the signs of our old life. Jesus orders them to unbind Lazarus, so that he is free from the temporary death he has experienced and is able to truly live again. Lazarus will eventually die, but he has been given the gift of an extended life.
The key to this story is in Jesus’ famous proclamation, “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.” We focus on the word “resurrection” because we want to have eternal life; we want desperately to believe that when we take our last breath on earth it isn’t the end, but rather the beginning of the rest of our life in eternity. It suddenly feels as though this proclamation is timelier than before this pandemic swept the world.
We often make our most powerful proclamation about death and resurrection at funerals, yet Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” His words are meant to remind us to continually reassess our lives in the light of the reality of the incarnation, which enables us to live. His proclamation suggests that we need to embrace Jesus as the resurrection and the life not just in times of fear and death, but in our everyday lives. The world is under God’s care and power, and because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we, too can live the resurrected life. Even though we are experiencing frightening times right now, we can still imagine what such new life would be like and apply it to our own lives. Just as Lazarus was unbound from the grave clothes of death, so we can discard all that binds us to the negative parts of our former lives and freely embrace the new life that God continually offers us through Jesus. Although we are experiencing unprecedented restrictions right now, there will be new life and new opportunities when this danger has passed.
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