John 11:1-6; 20-44

Thomas Hall

Today’s gospel lesson is found in John 11—the story about Lazarus, Mary, Martha—and eventually, Jesus. And since this is one of the most powerful stories in the New Testament, let’s walk through the story and see what insights we
might pick up.
John implies that three siblings—Mary, Martha, and Lazarus—are personal friends of Jesus and they share a history. He’s been to their house numerous times with his disciples; and over the years their friendship has grown. One day the brother, Lazarus, falls sick. We don’t know what happened or how it happened, but apparently Lazarus is so sick that this is an emergency. Now you’d think that Jesus, who was a day’s journey away, would pack things up and hightail it over to be with his friend. After all, that’s what friends are for. But the odd thing is, he lingers on. It’s almost as if Jesus deliberately drags his feet for several days. So, by the time Jesus finally does get around to visiting his three friends—well, there were two sisters and a funeral. In fact, when Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been deceased for over half a week.
Lord, Martha groans, barely hiding her anger and pain. Her grief is filled with blame, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Your brother will rise again, Jesus replies. Now watch what Martha does with these words. She slips into funeral hope. She knows the litany, knows the pie in the sky, religious jargon that people default to at funerals. So, she says,

Yes, yes, yes, Lord, I know. I know. In the sweet bye and bye we shall meet on that beautiful shore. Someday. Jesus stops Martha in her tracks with his next statement. I can imagine him placing his hands on her shoulders and giving her a little shake her to wake her up. Martha, Martha, I AM the Resurrection. You’re looking at Resurrection. For whoever believes in Me, even though they die, yet shall they live. He looks deep into her soul and says, whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Next comes sister Mary. She greets Jesus with, where have you been? If you’d been here, this would’ve never happened. You’re the only one in the world that could have kept my brother alive. And you weren’t here when we needed you. Poor Martha and Mary. They don’t like funerals. They don’t like death. As Jesus sees them both teary-eyed something moves him and he joins their tears. Jesus too, feels the pain of death. But the Greek text suggests that something else is churning around inside of him beyond sadness and grief. Anger. The Greek word used here is the same word with which he muzzles demons and rebukes evil. There is a deep anger in the presence of death. Jesus just hates death. He is angry that sin and death have brought so much suffering to his friends. He is angry that the power of sin and death has robbed us of faith and hope. Roll the stone aside, Jesus instructs the mourners. Immediately, Martha’s pragmatic side kicks in. You’ve got to be kidding! Take the stone away? He’s been dead for four days—he smells! Well, she got that right. On the farm in Minnesota where I grew up, you could tell where a dead sheep or calf was rotting. You could smell the stench and decay over three hundred yards away and it was so strong it could almost make you puke. Martha was right. After four days in a hot, arid climate, the dead would smell. But watch Jesus. He doesn’t even blink. Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see God’s glory today? Can you imagine the embarrassment as family members sheepishly remove the door from the tomb? In the presence of death and stench, Jesus calmly offers a prayer of thanksgiving and then gathers his breath and yells like an opera tenor: Lazarus, come forth! It was probably impossible to make out anything at first. Dark cave, bright sunlight. Martha and Mary squint, hands cupped to their eyes. Eventually their eyes pick out movement and the darkness takes on shape. Slowly a figure lumbers out of the tomb, half-dragging, half-walking. Lazarus returns to his sisters and to his friend. He is still bound, still in the grave clothes that he was buried in. So, Jesus orders those nearest him to unbind him and let him go. Well, that’s the tomb story that happens one week before Easter. Jesus untombs a dead guy. One week before the death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus humiliates Death in front of everybody. Death is stripped of its bony grip on life. In the Nicene Creed today, we’ll affirm that Jesus was “crucified, dead, and was buried.” Dead as a doornail. No pulse. No brainwaves. No breath. No heartbeat. No life. Like Lazarus, Jesus will be carried into the tomb. And like Lazarus, Jesus too will be wrapped in graveclothes. And then we say, “and on the third day He rose again and he ascended into heaven.” Epilogue. Lazarus will need to leave his graveclothes in his closet because he’ll need them again. We will too. But John tells us that Jesus cleaned out his closet. He carefully folded his graveclothes and left them for good in the tomb. But do you hear another tomb story? Do you hear your story? Jesus said, The time is coming when the dead will hear my voice and come out of their graves. Jesus is still raising the dead! Because we don’t have to be six feet under to be dead. In fact, we can be in our best form, coronavirus survivors, have a great family, and retirement, and yet. Yet maybe it’s possible to be dead.

Let me close with a guy I know who was alive, but really dead. His name is Kevin. Met him in Philadelphia some years back. He’d spent his childhood growing up in abandoned houses. Kevin can tell you a lot about tombs. If he were here today, he’d tell you about being passed around in crack houses to whomever wanted to abuse him; he’d tell you about being a heroin addict at fourteen, about street fights, and in and out of prison at sixteen. That’s Kevin. But my friend doesn’t live in a tomb today. He’s not in prison either. Call him “Lazarus”—for Jesus stood outside his tomb and yelled Kevin, come forth! Took a while to peel years of graveclothes off of his broken life. But Kevin came out of the tomb one day and right into my college classroom. He’s still a tough Philly guy, but he’s now a disciple of Jesus and serving as a missionary. Corrie ten Boom, a Christian who suffered in a concentration camp during World War II for hiding Jews, once said, there is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still. Today, listen for his voice calling to you—even if you are deep in a tomb that you think you can’t get out of. “Come forth, my brother. Come forth, my sister.” Lent is the season for the dead to hear the voice of the Son of God and to walk into newness of life! In the name of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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