This is the sermon I preached this past Sunday at Bethel Lutheran Church, Portville, NY. It is based upon John 11:1-45.
“Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs...Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign” sang the Five Man Electrical Band. In John’s gospel, we don’t encounter parables, but there are plenty of signs. Jesus performed miracles, but they were not the big picture. They were signs, which do not point to themselves, but elsewhere, to Jesus. John’s gospel surprises us with frequent and personal expressions of Jesus’ self-disclosure.
This week’s reading too is fraught with double meanings and further revelation of who Jesus is. The raising of Lazarus signals the beginning of the end of Jesus’ teaching and signs. It was the tipping point of Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish authorities and the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, putting into motion the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ enemies shifted from generalized opposition to a formal decision to have him killed. The story of Lazarus anticipates the events of Holy Week.
As a sign story, the primary function of the event that takes place is to reveal God and to show God’s glory (v. 4). This is why Jesus is persistent in the face of those who did not understand.
We too, often have times in our lives when we wonder where God is in our situation--why God didn’t intervene to save the life of a loved one or why a friend was allowed to lose her job or why Jesus didn’t come early enough to prevent the breakup of my marriage? When we struggle as a church, we may think, “If Jesus had been with us...but he wasn’t.” Sometimes in hindsight, we’re allowed to see God’s plan while other times we will never understand while we are on this earth.
From the get go, we are told that the story is not so much about a family crisis in Bethany as about the crisis of a world caught in sin and death, not so much about the resuscitation of a corpse as it is about giving life to the world. This is really what the story of Lazarus is about. Although we think of this story being about the raising of Lazarus, that actual sign takes up only two of the forty-five verses in today’s gospel. The primary focus is Jesus’ interaction with the women—first with Martha and then with Mary.
When we get to Jesus’ arrival in Bethany, we are at this story’s theological heart. However, no one understands—certainly not Jesus’ hapless disciples who misunderstood Jesus’ metaphor of death or Martha who had trouble understanding Jesus’ delay. She had expected Jesus to do something, so she was complaining. Can you hear the accusation in her words to Jesus, “if you had been here!” (v. 21). It’s ok to complain to God. He’s big enough to take it. Martha’s remarks were so thoroughly Jewish and belonged to the language of faith that we find in the Psalms. In fact, the edge of complaint in Martha’s words gives greater impact to her statement of confidence in Jesus that follows. In the face of Lazarus death, Martha confesses that “even now” God would act in response to Jesus’ prayer (v. 22). She further declares her belief in the future resurrection, much as we confess our faith in the Apostles’ Creed.
Martha’s understanding of the resurrection was consonant with that of other Jewish people of the time. It was seen as strictly a future event that occurred on the last day. Jesus moves that future into Martha’s present reality when he declares, “I AM the resurrection and the life” (v 25). The promise of resurrection and life is not lodged in some distant event, but is available already in the person of Jesus. Jesus affirms his sovereignty over the present and the future lives of believers. Mary struggled as her sister did, with the belief that everything would have been different had Jesus arrived sooner.
Nonetheless, Jesus continues teaching that those who believe even though they die, will live and that those who live and believe in Jesus will never die (v. 25). The two statements sound like they mean the same thing, don’t they? The phrases spell out what it means for Jesus to be the resurrection and the life, but they are not the same thing. Jesus as the resurrection means physical death has no power over believers. Their future is determined by faith in Jesus, not by their death. Jesus’ declaration of himself as the life means the believer’s present is also determined by Jesus’ power for life experienced in the gift of eternal life.
Make no mistake; Lazarus was dead, not just in a coma. He had been dead for four days and was good and stinky when Jesus and his disciples arrived. Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb. This deed follows Jesus’ words. Jesus speaks and acts and there is life. Approaching the grave, Jesus is amid the symbols of death. He encounters the intense grief of the sisters and the other mourners, a skeptical and somewhat impatient audience, the odor of a decaying body and tightly wrapped grave clothes. After he’s raised, Lazarus is still bound by the grave clothes. Jesus doesn’t take them off. Lazarus can’t get out of them. Jesus issues a command to the waiting crowd to “Unbind him, and let him go” (v. 44). The community of faith gathered around Lazarus is invited to participate in God’s redemptive work. It was entirely Jesus’ work, yet the community had to do something that was essential and meaningful. What a wonderful example of what we Lutherans refer to as “God’s work. Our hands.”
What does this passage mean for us today? God’s promises are not solely about eternal life in the future with God or even about forgiveness at the last day. “...the Gospel should make a tangible difference now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now. The promises of God are present tense, not just future” [tense] (David Lose). That truth demands a response from us. God is inviting us to make a difference in this world right here and right now. We have the opportunity to act. What are we doing about these things and more? God is telling us “Find a need and embrace it.” God is calling us to claim Christ’s resurrection power now by participating and completing the work God is doing all over the place.
We have already begun cooperating with God’s work through the Baskets of Promise to help those in need. There are numerous ways and means for God to use us. Maybe there’s someone you have not seen at church for a while. Call them. Visit them. Send them a card. When is the last time you visited people at any of the senior housing or nursing homes or hospital? We’ve all heard stories about elderly residents who go for weeks or months with no visitors. Why? Why aren’t we there visiting?
There are plenty of organizations that need volunteers to fulfill their missions. Why aren’t we there? As the winter turns into spring and hopefully spring turns into summer, we will have many opportunities to make an impact in Portville and the surrounding communities. All we need to do is to come out of our cocoons, shake the dust off and look around us. The opportunities to participate in God’s work are endless. We just have to recognize them.
God invites us to claim our faith as a present tense invitation to live our promised salvation now. “Why? Because Jesus is the resurrection and the life and has promised to give us, not just more life, but life in all its abundance” (David Lose). Amen!
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A.
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A.
David Ewart, holytextures.com
Robert Hoch, workingpreacher.org
David Lose, workingpreacher.org.
Brian Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/