During the season of Lent we’ve been exploring together a series of metaphors in the gospel of John that Jesus uses to talk about who he is and what he’s doing. So far we’ve heard that he is the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the gate for the sheep, and the good shepherd. This morning we are going to explore another metaphor that feels especially meaningful today because Jesus reveals it in the midst of human grief.
As so often happens in the gospel of John, this is a long story, but it’s really good so we aren’t going to skimp on it. I might stop a few times along the way to point out something I don’t want you to miss, but for the most part, we’re going to read it straight through. This story is just a little after the one Julie shared with you last week. In between Jesus has had yet another run-in with some of the Jewish leaders and they are growing increasingly hostile to him because of the claims he makes about his connection to God as Father.
This story is most of chapter 11. Settle in and listen.
A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.” [First time we meat this family in this gospel. Jesus loved this family very much.]
When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, [see there it is again] but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed on where he was for two more days. After the two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.”
They said, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The Jewish leaders there are out to kill you, and you’re going back?” Jesus replied, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in daylight doesn’t stumble because there’s plenty of light from the sun. Walking at night, he might very well stumble because he can’t see where he’s going.”
He said these things, and then announced, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.” The disciples said, “Master, if he’s gone to sleep, he’ll get a good rest and wake up feeling fine.” Jesus was talking about death, while his disciples thought he was talking about taking a nap.
Then Jesus became explicit: “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.”That’s when Thomas, the one called the Twin, said to his companions, “Come along. We might as well die with Jesus.”
When Jesus finally got there, he found Lazarus already four days dead. Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of the Jews were visiting Martha and Mary, sympathizing with them over their brother. [John uses the phrase “the Jews” to refer to several different groups of Jewish people. You can see this time it’s very positive. This gospel has unfortunately been used as justification by Christians for some incredibly anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions. To equate all Jews everywhere for all time with any of the several Jewish groups in this gospel is a narrow-minded oversimplification.] Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him. Mary remained in the house.
Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.” Jesus said, “Your brother will be raised up.” Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.”
“You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Master. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.” [This is the clearest statement made about Jesus anywhere in the gospel.] After saying this, she went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.”
The moment she heard that, she jumped up and ran out to him. Jesus had not yet entered the town but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When her sympathizing Jewish friends saw Mary run off, they followed her, thinking she was on her way to the tomb to weep there.
Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?” “Master, come and see,” they said. Now Jesus wept. The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.” [Again the emphasis on how Jesus loved them. There’s no doubt.]
Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.” Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb. It was a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
The sister of the dead man, Martha, said, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days!” Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.”
They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken so that they might believe that you sent me.”
Then he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And he came out, a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.”
That was a turning point for many of the Jews who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him. But some went back to the Pharisees and told on Jesus. The high priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the Jewish ruling body. “What do we do now?” they asked. “This man keeps on doing things, creating God-signs. If we let him go on, pretty soon everyone will be believing in him and the Romans will come and remove what little power and privilege we still have.”
Then one of them—it was Caiaphas, the designated Chief Priest that year—spoke up, “Don’t you know anything? Can’t you see that it’s to our advantage that one man dies for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed?” He didn’t say this of his own accord, but as Chief Priest that year he unwittingly prophesied that Jesus was about to die sacrificially for the nation, and not only for the nation but so that all God’s exile-scattered children might be gathered together into one people. From that day on, they plotted to kill him.
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
This is a fantastic story. In it we have both of the elements we have been studying since the new year. There’s a sign, the raising of Lazarus, which is a miracle whose point is more than the miracle itself. And there’s an I am statement. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
I find the Bible to be an endlessly rich source of inspiration. The poetry, the theology, the stories, it’s like a kaleidoscope: you turn it a little and the pieces fall into different places and you see something new. So there is no way I could stand up here this morning and tell you “what this story means” because you’re going to notice something different next time you come to it. As you’re meant to. I can only tell you what keeps resonating for me as I’ve been pondering it for the past several weeks. So here it is.
These past two years have been hard. For me they have been both the best years of my life because of Sammy and the worst years of my life. And just when Covid seems to be easing up, maybe, other things start happening. Even though we personally have it pretty good, the internet makes it all too easy for us to very clearly see the deep suffering of other people.
And if we believe in a God who is all loving and all powerful, then what the what? Why doesn’t God stop Vladimir Putin? Why didn’t God heal my loved one? Why doesn’t God do the thing that seems good to me? This is so hard for us to get that we wind up walking away from God when something bad happens because we can’t handle it. Here’s where I think our problem is: it has to do with what we mean by “powerful.” The world’s idea of power is the ability to force your will into action. But that kind of power is actually the opposite of love.
God being all powerful cannot mean that God forces God’s will. If we can know anything for sure about love, it is that love does not force. If God is all loving, then we should not expect God to force. The power of love is not a power of force; it’s a power of persuasion and a power of presence. The power of love is that love will never stop trying to convince you, love will never stop trying to win you, love will never leave you or forsake you.
The power of love is not in its forcing power, but in its staying power. God with us. Love with us. The God who is love rescues us by accompanying us. This is the most radical and most powerful thing that love is actually able to do. Love cannot force; that’s outside its nature. But love can hang on. In the addiction, and the depression, and the cancer, love says, “I will not leave you. I will not say that your suffering doesn’t matter. I won’t abandon you so that I can spare myself the pain of watching you suffer.”
The most powerful thing that love can do is to take you by the hand and go straight into that hell with you, even though it doesn’t have to. The most powerful thing that love can do is to not save itself.
And we see here in this story that Jesus loved this family. What I can’t get away from in this story is that Jesus can love you and bad things can still happen to you. Because that’s how the world is. Everybody gets sick. Everybody dies. And it doesn’t mean God doesn’t love you.
Jesus raises Lazarus. Which is great. But he’s not going to live forever. He’s going to die again. The larger point is that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, the one who is closest to the Father and shows us exactly what God is like, Jesus makes the power of death irrelevant. Obviously we are still going to grieve, that’s natural. We should. But in this sign and in his very person Jesus demonstrates that he has come to conquer the power of death, that sense of hopelessness and defeat that pit of grief that threatens to swallow us not just when we lose someone we love but when we look at a world in chaos. That misery is the power of death and that is what Jesus has come to conquer.
The key is in what Jesus says right after he says that he is the resurrection and the life. He says, “Those who trust in me and die still live. And those who live and trust in me never die.” Although death comes for each one of us, the power of death in our lives is vanquished by our trust in Jesus. By trusting Jesus we have eternal life, transcendent life, real life, true life, life beyond life, life that transcends this daily grind, living now as we will live in God’s future when God restores all of creation and heals the world. Whoever trusts in Jesus now accesses that transcendent life now. Whoever trusts Jesus now finds lasting joy now and participates now in God’s plan to heal the world.
The point isn’t whether someone dies; the point is that life with Jesus is full life, regardless. The point isn’t to live forever in the world as it presently is, to go on with our patterns of suffering and joy. The point is to believe into Jesus in such a way that we have transcendent, full life both in this existence AND it whatever comes after it.
So, God can love us and bad things can still happen, because this world is what it is right now. Until God renews all of creation, suffering will continue and the most powerful thing God can do is not rearrage reality to keep us from suffering but instead stay with us in the suffering. When we trust that, when we trust that God is with us even if we don’t feel it, especially if we don’t feel it, the power of death can’t hold us. We begin to realize that something larger is at work and that we can be part of it, that we can transcend this suffering, and here’s the irony, not by ignoring it but by leaning into it. Jesus leaned in to the suffering of his friends. The Jews stayed with Mary. The more we try to avoid suffering, the harder it hits us. In this season of Lent, the tradition is to lean into the discomfort, not to punish ourselves but to find Christ in the midst of it and realize that trusting Jesus in our pain and with our pain opens the door to transcendent full eternal life. Jesus is the resurrection and the life and through him the power of death is neutralized. to trust him is is to fully live. Amen.