Sermon preached by Sarita Brown Smedley
on Sunday 29th March 2020 (Fifth Sunday of Lent)
Ezekiel 37.1–14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6–11; John 11.1–45
Todays gospel is a dangerous and exciting story from the Gospel of John.
It is exciting because we see Jesus assert his divine power over the most fearful aspect of human life for most people, death.
It is dangerous, for Jesus especially, because this is the moment where there is no going back for him in his Easter journey, a journey that will first plunge him into the bowels of death itself, on a dark day fast approaching.
Jesus’ disciples think he’s nuts, of course. They can feel, and the word is out, that the Pharisees are looking for any excuse at all to throw Jesus in prison, and everyone knows that threat is a serious one.
We all are feeling this kind of threat now. A cough, a headache, a fever, which used to just signal the beginning of spring flu season, now can have more sinister connotations. Some of us have friends who are stricken, some of us have friends who have lost someone.
The usual cadence of our lives, our normal ebb and flow has been seriously interrupted, and we find ourselves trying to remain calm while still taking this situation seriously.
This is what Mary and Martha are feeling when they send someone to tell Jesus that Lazarus is sick.
They are concerned, but they know that have just sent word to the one person who can fix it.
Jesus and Lazarus, Mary and Martha, have a close and bonded friendship. When he is in Bethany their home is his, he teaches in their living room, he talks with them long into the night. He trusts them and they trust him. Mary refers to Lazarus as the one that you love. She is confident.
I hope we all have friendships like this one. Those one or two people who, when you call them for help, you have no doubt that they will respond. I’m new around here but I have seen this kind of love and response in this community of believers and it’s so heartwarming. It’s why I chose to make this my spiritual home.
So imagine the disciples’ surprise when Jesus does not immediately jump up and go quickly to his home away from home to treat his friend, but remains where he is two more days!
Of course, we know if we do the math that probably not long after Mary sent the messenger to Jesus, Lazarus had already died.
It’s a two-day journey there and a two-day journey back.
Finally, Jesus says, ‘OK, let’s go.’ And he tells the disciples that Lazarus is sleeping. You know the disciples, they are not always the sharpest tools in the shed, and they think that Jesus means that Lazarus is literally sleeping.
Jesus has to spell it out to them and tell them that, no, Lazarus is truly dead.
Two months ago my daughter called me to tell me that her father died suddenly if not unexpectedly. The waves of shock and grief have not yet subsided for either one of us, but the one thing you always think is, ‘Why didn’t someone do something earlier?’
It’s a normal human reaction to death. This must be a mistake, there was surely some more time or a solution or something, and no matter what we believe about life after death, the absence of a loved one’s physicality is overwhelming in its brutal reality.
So when Jesus got to Bethany, Martha goes to him and says, ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ That is actually a statement of faith on her part – she is all too aware of the power of Jesus and she is perplexed that he waited.
He says something wonderful then, he says: ‘Did I not tell you that if you would believe, you would see the power of God and the resurrection?’ And she says, ‘Yep, I know that on the last day you are going to raise all the dead people.’
He says, ‘I AM THE RESURRECTION.’
Me. It’s not out there somewhere in the future, I myself standing in front of you am the resurrection.
The text is very curious here. Because twice in the next several verses, the text tells us that Jesus had a great anger welling up within him.
The Sadducees have confronted him about his belief in the resurrection once before. They make up a ‘what if’ story about a man who dies and leaves his widow childless, according to Jewish law his brother has to marry her and give her a child… In their version the man has seven brothers and so the Sadducees make up some incredible situation where they all die and they all leave her childless and in the end whose wife will she be in eternity?
This is an important story because it shows the lack of faith in eternal life that the Sadducees have and their contempt for Jesus who answers and says, ‘Don’t you know that there will be no marriage or giving in marriage in heaven?’ And he is angry.
He says, ‘You’re off base on two counts; you don’t know the scriptures and you don’t know how God works.
As with the angels, all our ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God, and regarding your speculation on whether the dead are raised or not, don’t you read your Bibles? The grammar is clear: God says, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the living God defines himself not as the god of dead men, but of the living.’ And on hearing this exchange, the passage says, the crowd was much impressed.
Which brings us back to Lazarus. Before Jesus came along, Mary and Martha and Lazarus led simple lives, growing older, having no children or marriages, their life was predictable and safe.
But Jesus’ arrival into it changed all that, and with that change, the friendship that would for ever transform their lives.
Because of Jesus, they had a fresh outlook on what was important; it wasn’t productivity, expensive things. It wasn’t marriage; remember Mary sacrificed her dowry to anoint Jesus for his burial. They found out that something was greater than their safe life, something was more compelling than the ordinary everyday of every day. The inner life that Jesus brought to this family, an inner life so totally transforming that it even raised Lazarus from the dead, transcended anything they ever loved or expected. And when his own tomb was opened it was to Mary that Jesus first spoke, his best friend, his dear sister, his beloved disciple.
Jesus conquers two deaths in their lives and in ours, he conquers the death of meaninglessness, day in day out drudgery, he gives us a new community and family to love and care for as if we were him, and he finally and most poignantly overcomes death itself.
There’s one additional thought about the text: Jesus asked people around Lazarus to unwrap him and free him. I mean he could have just popped him out of the cocoon of burial clothes, I suppose, but he asks us, each one of us, to assist each other in unwrapping the bonds of death and fear that contain us. We all have them. You can’t unwrap yourself when your hands are tied and your eyes are covered.
We all, every one of us, need to assist through prayer, through conversations, through teaching, through worship. We need to help each other see the truth: that Death is nothing. It’s over. It’s no longer our enemy.
We know that we are close to losing a beloved sister here, a parent there, we cannot dance around that issue. And today we continue to pray for the situation we find ourselves in and for all of our loved ones, and the world as a whole; but we have confidence because Jesus showed us that death is not the end of life. Death is the beginning of a life transcendent. Living here is beautiful and sacred and God wants us to enjoy it and treasure both it and our loved ones, but he also wants us to remember that there is another life ahead, one where seeds we planted here take root, grow trees that bear fruit and we see the fulfilment of our souls and are loved. We are blessed because of this. We are thankful.
Jesus was angry because people were trapped into believing that this was it, this was the end, this is all they had.
And so he showed them.
It’s just not.