Our Gospel message comes to us today from the 11th chapter of John, beginning with the 1st verse, The raising of Lazarus.
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. (John 11:1-45)
In the midst of a valley filled with bones, amidst the stench of a tomb’s death and decay, a voice cries out in the name of life. And in holy mystery, life comes forth. These are the stories we are told. But are these the stories we will trust? Are these the stories we will live by?
Lord, we have come a long way on this journey. For so many of us, we know where the scriptural road will take us; and we will walk triumphantly into Jerusalem, eat a supper meal with Jesus, and watch as he is taken from the garden and brought before the authorities. We will weep at the foot of the cross as he speaks words of love and forgiveness, and we will wail at the tomb. We do not like this part of the journey and would just as soon skip it. But here we have the story of his friend, Lazarus, who has died. His sisters, Mary and Martha, have confidence that he could have been healed, but they do not think that he can be raised from the dead. That is part of our problem. We want to have confidence in the restorative healing power of Jesus. Still, we cannot escape our fear of the arch-enemy, death. Jesus’ proclamation of eternal life is real. We need to let go of our fear, for life in eternity is also God’s promise—a home with God. Can we come out of our darkness? Can we risk believing in Jesus? Those are hard questions and cannot be answered without the trip to Jerusalem, to the cross, and to the tomb. God, please be with us on this journey. Amen.
“The raising of Lazarus”
On this 5th Sunday in Lent, our lessons force us to struggle with our finite nature of life here on earth. The subject of death is present in all three readings, a topic that many of us still find difficult to embrace.
In our first reading, Ezekiel is given a very disturbing vision of a valley that is covered with dismembered bones, perhaps the bones of soldiers who had died in battle. This vision would have been upsetting enough, had the valley been strewn with dead bodies, for in that part of the world, according to one of the commentaries that I read, “the bodies of the deceased were thought to be cursed if they did not receive a proper burial. Their dead bodies would otherwise become prey to scavenging beasts.”
But the dead in Ezekiel’s vision is described as a mass of dry bones, parched bones, whose flesh and muscle had already disappeared. Then God asks Ezekiel a question that most of us mortal beings, would have laughed at. “Son of man, can these bones live?” God asks. But Ezekiel doesn’t laugh. Realizing that it is God, the Creator of the universe who has asked the question, he acknowledges his omnipotence by timidly saying, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
So God instructs Ezekiel to speak to the dry bones, telling them that God would cause their bones to come together, rejoined by tendons and that new muscle would grow upon them, that they would be covered in new skin, and that God would cause the breath of life to enter them. And so Ezekiel did as he was told, and the valley filled with the noise of rattling bones, as God acted to bring these persons back to life.
Now I don’t know about you, but if I were in Ezekiel’s place, I would have more than stood in awe of that scene. I would have been shaking in my shoes and covered in goosebumps. And even if Ezekiel’s vision was a dream, I think I would have wakened in a cold sweat. Dead, dry bones don’t jump up and come back to life. Nevertheless, there are two points to be drawn from this story.
The first is explicitly stated in the closing verses of our text, where Ezekiel is told that the bones were symbolic of the whole house of Israel. At the time that this text was written, Israel was dispersed because of the Babylonian exile, and that Ezekiel was to proclaim that God was about to restore Israel to the Promised Land. God was about to restore the dead and broken faith of Israel to new life and hope.
But implicit in this text is that God is the author of life, who alone has the power, even to take dry bones and restore them to life. In his reply to God’s question, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know,” and the vision of seeing the dry bones come to life indicates God’s ability to restore life to the dust of dead bones, just as God first created life from the dust of the ground. This story in Ezekiel is one of the earliest visions giving rise to the hope of resurrection.
Now, let’s turn to our text from John’s Gospel, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. We know the story well, and because of its length, I’m not going to comment on all of the details, which could inspire many sermons. But there are some similarities to our lesson from Ezekiel that we can emphasize, as we head into Holy Week.
As I have pointed out before, the miracles that Jesus performed in John’s Gospel were considered by the author to be signs that pointed to the identity of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. And so, right from the beginning of this chapter, John records Jesus as saying, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”
Then, after Jesus had received the news of his friend’s illness, he decided to remain a couple of days before leaving to go to him. It is almost as if Jesus deliberately delayed his voyage, to enable Lazarus to succumb to his illness and die. And when Jesus finally decides to go to Bethany, his disciples object to Jesus’ return to Judea because of the danger. This fear on behalf of the disciples was not eased by the fact that Jesus finally told them bluntly that Lazarus had already died, and that it was for their sake that he waited so that they might believe.
When Jesus arrived, he discovered that Lazarus had already been buried for four days. And after consoling Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, Jesus goes to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he asks that the stone that sealed it be removed. Then Martha, practical Martha who was concerned with the details of earthly life, said to Jesus, “But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Well, Lazarus’ corpse may not have been “dry bones,” but the implication is that his body was long past sustaining life. His body was in the process of decay, and returning to the dust of the earth from which God had first created life. But Jesus insisted, telling Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone that sealed his tomb, and Jesus uttered the call for Lazarus to come forth. And when he did, Lazarus came walking out of the tomb, wrapped in his burial cloths, to the astonishment of all.
Think of the implication of this lesson from John, as we are about to enter Holy Week, the most sacred season of our church year, in which we focus on our Lord’s death and resurrection for our redemption. Jesus restored life to a person who was obviously dead, whose body emitted the odor of a decaying corpse. Only God could do that! And John, who throughout his Gospel seems to be critical of the Jews, tells us that many of the people who saw Jesus raise Lazarus that day came to believe in him.
And so, I have to admit that this story in John’s Gospel is not really about Lazarus being given a few more years of human, finite life. It is not about his sisters having their prayers answered, that if Jesus had arrived earlier, he could have saved the life of their brother. This story points to the fact that, as Jesus enters Jerusalem to give his life for our redemption, he is truly God’s Son, who has the power to restore life, even to the dead.
Clearly, the restoration of life to Lazarus was more than a vision, such as Ezekiel received. According to John’s Gospel, it was actually witnessed by many people. It is a story that tells us that Jesus, who triumphantly rides into Jerusalem in the days that follow, has, within his power, control over sin and death. It tells us that Jesus does so willingly, in order to enter death, to conquer death once and for all so that we might know the power of his resurrection to bring us to new life.
And that is where we encounter Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here, Paul tells us that as baptized people into Christ’s death and resurrection, we have be granted new life, not just in the hope of being reunited with our Lord following our death, but through the power of God’s Spirit that lives in us, to live our present life, as people who know the power of God to restore us to life, even after our death.
It is a call to live our lives in the present, as we still live and breathe, to acknowledge God as the source of all life, to give thanks and praise to Jesus as the source of God’s life-giving grace that has entered into death that we might have new life, but also that we acknowledge the power of God’s Spirit to lead us into a life of faith, in which we proclaim the grace of God to those around us, not only with our words but with our actions.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, during this season of Lent, as we follow Jesus, your Son, toward the cross and his death, deepen our appreciation for his sacrifice so that we might be freed from death’s grasp on our lives. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, give us confidence in your power to bring life out of death. Help us to recognize our failure to live as your redeemed people, empower us to embrace the new life you give us. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
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Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Sermon contributed by Rev. Ronald Harbaugh.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. We see this in his raising of Lazarus, in our everyday lives, and at the time when we face death.