John Ch. 11 – Lazarus rising.

(this is meant for two voices – one reading the Gospel [in italics], the other voice for the plain text.)

A reading from the gospel according to John, chapter 11, beginning at the first verse.
11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

 
Death is a major player, not just in the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel, but in the constant narrative of our existence. That which is born will die – each in our own time, we say – and in our gospel lesson for today we are told that one “whom Jesus loves” is ill . Illness is no stranger to us, and not every illness leads to death, so why does Jesus introduce the specter of death? Well, we are in John’s gospel, and that means we will be offered a lesson in the difference between darkness and light – between life and death – between the righteous work of God and every other tiny task.
Once again Jesus suggests that this single moment of suffering is “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” So what is it about suffering – indeed, about the death of this beloved friend of Jesus – that might possibly point to God’s glory…we have heard this song before, when a man born blind receives sight – how can the loss of someone we love lead to glory? It’s almost enough to cause us to turn the page; but this is Jesus, and we are more than curious. We are caught in the cycle of life and death, and that means we demand an alternative. We need the cycle changed, or broken; we have seen and known enough suffering, and having come this far, we are more than ready to challenge God to show us a better ending, so we read on.

 
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away,19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

 
No glory here – not yet. No joy in believing, only the question that has haunted humanity from the beginning of time – theology’s oldest puzzle: “could God, so capable in everything else, not have kept THIS one from dying?”
Who among us has not asked that question? When has anyone not felt cheated by death, and in turning to faith, felt robbed of a real answer? Jesus tears are real tears – signs of his grief for a friend -but it takes more than tears to raise the dead; it takes a miracle, a true act of God.
There is faith in the midst of grief – faith without form; faith that rests in Martha’s confidence in Jesus connection to God: “Lord, if you had been here, he would not have died (a sentiment shared by sister Mary)…I know God will give you whatever you ask…” She has seen enough and heard enough to completely trust God revealed in (and by) Jesus. She has seen mercy and learned of love and been granted justice – all miracles in her book – for her, with Jesus, anything is possible; with Jesus present, nothing more is necessary. Martha just may be on to something – and her sister is not far behind.

The Christian attitude towards death (and life, for that matter) are entirely dependent on the reality of God, revealed in (and by) the presence of Jesus. Every page of gospel narrative asks us to deal with the simple matter of Jesus; here, changing water into wine; there, clearing the temple of those who view religion as the path to profit. John’s elegant prologue asks us to accept Jesus presence as something more than merely physical – but whether spiritual truth, or stark reality, our understanding is incomplete if we reckon without Jesus. The lesson of John’s gospel – steeped in mystery even when it deals with raw grief and real pain – is not that these are required for God to act, but that the extremes of human experience are not extreme enough to exclude this glorious, gracious God we serve.

 
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Consistent with his life of service, Jesus approaches a forbidding place. The tomb is sealed – Lazarus’ body has been at rest for four days. Surely no amount of faith can help us here…not even Jesus is strong enough, or faithful enough, or Godly enough to test these limits…”Take away the stone.”, he says; “thank you for hearing me”, he says; and then – “Lazarus, come out!”

 
For the sake of the mourners, for the sake of those lost in their bereavement – for our sakes -Jesus prays and demands that glory be revealed; not in himself, but in death! This is no shining moment on a mountain-top, this is God at work in the trenches, untroubled by the smell, and untouched by the social stigma of the absence of life. This is God at the heart of our most primal fear; taking fear away and replacing it with hope! Lazarus is summoned from darkness to light; he is freed from his bindings, and we are freed with him, for in this moment we believe with those stunned witnesses that with Jesus, anything is possible; with Jesus present, nothing more is necessary. And of course, this is just the beginning.
Another tomb, another stone, another time of grief await us, and not for the last time, we will see the impossible bathed in glorious light. This Jesus, whose presence is so important to our story, will appear to have been taken from us, once and for all. But no amount of suffering; no chasm of grief; no immovable stone no tomb of rock can keep the glory of God hidden. In Scripture as in our own time, the promise of God is present with Jesus – pointing back into the rich traditions of faith, and leading us forward through our present, harsh reality.

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Amen – The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

 

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