Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2002
The Gospel: John 11:[1-16] 17-44
Sermon: "Lazarus, Come Out"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
[Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." But 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." Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again." The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?" Jesus 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them." After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."] When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, 'Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." 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." And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The 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. When 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." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So 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?" Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus 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 four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I 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." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The 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."
John 11:[1-16] 17-44
"Lazarus, Come Out"
Fifth Sunday in Lent - March 17, 2002
"'Lord, he whom you love is ill'. But when Jesus hears 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." These words echo in our minds from this reading. As the Gospel continues we see Martha and Mary basically ask the question why. They both say to Jesus, If you had been here, Lazarus would not have died. They believed. They had faith that Jesus had the ability to heal their brother's illness. If we look closely at the Gospel, Jesus had time to get there. After he first hears the news of Lazarus' illness he waits for two more days before he begins the journey. Why? The question stands out like a neon sign. Why did Jesus wait? Why didn't Jesus go when he first heard the news that Lazarus was ill?
All through the Fourth Gospel we have read of the miracles of Jesus. He has helped a woman at a well find acceptance with God and her community. He has healed a blind man. The man sees the physical world around him for the first time. The man also sees the identity of the risen Lord before him. He recognizes Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus has the power and authority to heal the physical and the spiritual. So, why does Jesus not go to heal Lazarus of his illness? He has healed many other people. After all, Lazarus is dying. Healing Lazarus, so close to death, would be his greatest miracle of the Fourth Gospel. His fame as a healer would be incredible. His name would go out far and wide and those who witness the miracle would have their faith increased. Why not go and heal Lazarus, the one whom he loved, and save him from the pain and suffering of death?
The question of why is not unfamiliar territory for us, is it? Often times we ask the same question. We ask this question when we see somebody suffering from long illnesses. We ask this question when bad things happen to good people. We ask this question when we see people die unexpectedly. Two weeks ago two teenage boys died in a car crash from this community. Immediately, I heard the question of why being asked. The two boys were passengers. No matter how the accident happened these two boys were passengers. The question is asked why? Why didn't God protect them? I have to admit I often ask the question myself.
My next statement may sound a bit harsh, but sometimes, not always, I think we want easy answers. Please give me a moment to explain and I believe the Gospel supports this thought. Sometimes, not always, we would like God to answer our prayers immediately and in just the way we ask. When we see something bad happen, we see somebody suffering, we pray for God to heal them and then we want the healing immediately. We want the outcome reversed right then. After all life would be so much easier if God would just prevent all the bad things from happening. Life would be so much better, if God would respond immediately to what we ask.
We see this attitude in the Gospel. Word is sent to Jesus that Lazarus is ill. Martha and Mary want Jesus to come immediately. Look at how the word is sent. Lord, he whom you love is ill. In other words, drop whatever you are doing Jesus, Lazarus is ill. We know you will come because you really love him. Just think a minute about how we would interpret this incident if Jesus had gone immediately upon Martha and Mary's request. Anytime someone got well, then we would say God really loved them. Anytime someone remained ill, we would say God did not love them. And yet, we know God loves everybody. So, the easy answer concept does not work. Yet, we still want it. Look at the way Martha and Mary greet Jesus. Both women lay a guilt trip on Jesus. Listen to the words. "Lord, if you had been here " In other words, you didn't come when we needed you. Don't we feel the same way at times? Lord, if you had been here this accident would not have happened. Lord, if you had only answered my prayer then my friend would not suffer. Sometimes we want easy answers. Sometimes we want the immediate answer to our prayer.
Yet, this Gospel does not support the easy answer theory. This reading does give another answer. This Gospel tells us there is more to life than this existence. Life does not end here, with death. Life goes on. God is the one who offers us eternal life. After receiving the news that Lazarus is ill, Jesus waits. When Jesus does go to the town of Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. In Hebrew theology the fourth day of death was important. According to Hebrew beliefs of death, the spirit hovered near the body after someone died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit saw the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit would leave never to return. At that point this existence ended and life was no more. In fact, the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Sadduccees, believed death on this world was the end. They did not believe in after life at all.
Jesus is about to prove these beliefs wrong. Jesus is going to show the people life does not end here. Jesus is about to show everyone the glory of God. Jesus comes to Bethany. He meets Martha and Mary. He has important talks with them about faith and belief. We might interpret these talks as meaning if you have faith, God will answer your prayer. However, that interpretation leads us down a real slippery slope. These discussions with Martha and Mary are to insure that Martha and Mary know the identity of Jesus. Jesus identifies himself as the resurrection and the life. All who believe in God live. Please notice, this belief does not mean that we will not die. This belief in God does not mean that we will not have hardship or suffering. This belief in Jesus Christ holds more promise for us than this life on this world. Jesus is talking about eternal life.
Then Jesus goes to the tomb. He commands that the stone be rolled away. Even though Martha knows who Jesus is, even though she believes in resurrection at the end of time, she does not believe Jesus is the author of all life. She does not recognize Jesus' full identity as the Son of God.
Jesus turns to her and says, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" And then he turns to the cave, he takes time to pray, and then he calls out with a loud voice, "Lazarus come out."
Then Lazarus, the man who had been dead for four days comes out. He hears the voice of God, life is restored and Lazarus comes out. Jesus calls to Lazarus and he lives. Like God calling out in the darkness, "Let there be light" and there was light. Like God speaking the words of creation, Jesus speaks the words of life to Lazarus. Lazarus leaves the dark tomb and moves out into the light. The people see the risen Lazarus and believe they have seen God in the miracle. They have actually seen God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was summoned. Jesus did not come immediately. Martha and Mary wanted an answer to why he didn't come. Jesus did not respond to their comments. Instead, Jesus responded in ways beyond their expectations. They believed their brother was gone. They believed they would never see him again. Yet, Jesus showed them the power and glory of God. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the power and the glory of God. He is resurrection and he is life.
Martha and Mary wanted Jesus to respond to their request in their way. Martha and Mary did not want their brother to suffer death. Martha, Mary, and the disciples too, all asked the question why. Why didn't Jesus drop everything and come when he was called? Why didn't Jesus prevent Lazarus' death? The answer is not easy. The answer is not simple. God works beyond illness and death and God works in ways that we cannot imagine. However, through the resurrection of Lazarus from the grave we see the glory of God in Christ. We also see a glimpse of the plan God has for us. Like Lazarus, we too, will rise again to be with God. Death can not hold us and no matter what this world throws our way, God is with us. God knows our troubles. God knows our concerns. God knows our joys and sorrows, because before everything there is God.
Like Martha and Mary we ask the question why? We wonder about the events and the pain and the sorrow of our lives. Sometimes I know we don't understand. I know Martha and Mary did not understand either. This story of Lazarus, Martha and Mary offers us hope and comfort when we ask the question why. Hope because we know God will come to us. Jesus did come. We know God hears our prayer. Martha's and Mary's prayer was heard. However, it was not answered the way they wanted it. In fact, it was answered in a manner way beyond their imaginations. Comfort because before we even ask our requests there is God, We can take comfort in knowing that God is already working for us, even in adversity, even in our illnesses, and even in death. The glory of God works beyond the grave. The light of Christ shines through all the darkness, even the light of the tomb.