May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We don’t know why Lazarus falls ill and ultimately dies. Medical knowledge was limited and the drugs we rely on were simply not created yet. We simply know that when the news came to Jesus that his friend was very ill, it is then we really get an understanding of Jesus’ relationship with those around him. His friends, Martha and Mary, sent for him in the hope they would save their brother, whom Jesus loved. There is deep friendship and care contained in this story.
But first we begin with the disciples. They don’t seem to question it when Jesus doesn’t turn back immediately. Their questions surface as the scenario develops.
It is as though “You really don’t want to do this, Jesus. Those people in Judea want to kill you!”
They don’t fully understand the picture and to the extent that they do, they’re not happy about the plan. But for Jesus, they’re a key audience – and that’s especially true from here to the end of John’s Gospel. He’s really trying to get them ready for what lies ahead – his trial, his death and resurrection – and for the work they are to do after all that is done.
“For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
After all, this is the team that will be spreading the Good News in the years to come. The fate of the message of Jesus lies with them. He’s preparing them for the work that lies ahead, leading them to an understanding of the enormity of the task, of what is involved. They are just beginning to grasp the scope of the work, the dangers it brings, and its compelling necessity. This event clarifies all of this for them.
We should note that they are human beings with fears and with doubts. But Jesus calls them anyway to follow him yet again. They are to continue with him on this path not because they are fearless – because they’re certainly not that – but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s why they were called.
These are matters of life and death for those who want to follow Jesus – and for those listening out for the message. It’s serious work. So be afraid, but don’t let that stop you. Impetuous Thomas – he’s like ‘alright, let’s get on with things.’ As we head out to Bethany Jesus encounters Martha and then Mary. They have faith. They believe that things might have been different if Jesus had been on the scene. But they only have so much faith. They believe things are finished. That to me is one of the most powerful aspects of this story.
With both the followers who were travelling with Jesus and with Martha and Mary, Jesus acknowledges their faith but also takes note of its limitations. They have faith, but it only goes so far. They believe in miracles, but only in small ones.
Jesus said to them “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
If we want new life, we need bold faith.
What did Jesus come to show them – to show us – here? It’s that with the path of faith out goes our logic and even our imagination. We are called to believe in big things – to affirm that there is hope even in a seemingly hopeless world, that there can be joy even in the midst of suffering, that our relationships really do matter, that there is the possibility of life-giving love even in the face of certain death. We’re given to take that as literal in the Lazarus story. It may not always be so literal today, but the call of faith to act in ways that give life rather than deal death is the affirmation of miraculous possibility.
The witness of Jesus – the Good News of the Gospel – is life giving. In our death-dealing culture that treats so many people as disposable, the teachings of Jesus affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all, especially the marginalized. It’s a miracle today that that we can come together in community to reach for something greater than ourselves, that we can see beyond the limitations of our current culture to live out a life of love and meaning.
And look at who we hear proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah – it’s Martha. If we look at the personal and prophetic Jesus’ encounters in the Gospel of John, it is clear that unmarried women – who have no real status in that society – are called to proclaim Jesus’ mission. It’s not military heralds or rich men. It’s the unnamed Samaritan woman he met at the well; we talked about her just a couple of weeks ago. It’s Martha, who lives in this household with her sister and her brother. This is who recognizes Jesus.
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Something really intense happened next. Jesus saw Mary crying and he began to cry himself. Talk about taking apart the toxic patriarchal culture of the time. Jesus cried with Mary. What a powerful example of the Jesus’ compassion and what a testament to his full embodiment in human life!
The power of Jesus is in his humanity as well as in his divinity. He carries it in his body, and we learn from that. Jesus teaches us fully embodied life – and it makes our disregard for others well-being all the more sinful. He saw the Mary’s distress and he cried with her and all the others who were grieving. Think about it – he already knew what he was going to do – he was not crying for Lazarus. He saw Mary‘s great sorrow and it caused him to weep too. This is truly a sign of the God who loves us, who suffers with us in our suffering, who is present and deeply connected to our hearts. That’s who Jesus is.
Jesus is not distant, aloof or remote. Jesus is right here, holding us in relationship and acknowledging our pain.
Right here in the middle of John’s Gospel – we have the event itself. The encounters with the disciples and the sisters earn more attention in this story than the raising of Lazarus himself. These human connections are key, but let’s not miss what Jesus wants all of those involved – and us – to understand. The raising of Lazarus gives life to the message of Jesus. The really powerful parallels here are with the Nicodemus story that Gordon recently discussed too, a journey not of physical death but of death to the old self and rebirth into a different sort of life. The death and resurrection of Lazarus demonstrates the call to new life through Jesus.
For us, I suggest that it translates like this – in committing to a life following Jesus, we are called to a death of the ego, the perishing of the selfish self, to the end of our embrace of the death-dealing of our culture, to be replaced by a faith of justice, mercy, faith, compassion, and community.
We are called from the tomb, the place of death, and into abundant life. Our world today is full of places of death, of tombs where hopes and spirits and bodies go to die.
I’m not just talking about the Sudan or the Yemen. We are surrounded by a culture of death, on whose terms it’s acceptable for people to go unfed, homeless, uneducated and unloved. We imprison, we denigrate, we dehumanise, we exploit. We promote violence, glorify violence, and then punish it with yet more violence.
A commitment to the life of Jesus is a call to a new life. We daily leave behind death and follow a different path. This is made possible through a relationship with our God and with one another. Jesus shows us how, here in raising Lazarus. Step out of the tomb, and when you find yourself in one – look for Jesus – look TO Jesus – and step out into the light and life of a new day. No matter what’s going on around you. Amen.
The Rev'd Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 29/03/2020