This is the transcription of my sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent on March 29, 2020.
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
• Ezekiel 37:1-14
• Romans 8:6-11
• John 11:1-45
Our Gospel reading is a very well-known and much loved one that has given hope to many. It contains the famous verse used at funerals:
‘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?’ (John 11:25-26)
The reading does, however, raise a number of questions that we need to try to answer.
1. Why the delay?
In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has been in Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication and tensions have been rising. The authorities there are now trying to arrest Jesus, and so he leaves Jerusalem for the relative safety of a place some distance away beyond the River Jordan where John the Baptist had been baptizing and where his own ministry began.
It is here that a message reaches him that his friend Lazarus, who lived with two other friends, Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, is very ill. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary live just outside of Jerusalem in a village called Bethany. Going back there will mean, in all likelihood, that Jesus will be arrested and face death. A fact that does not escape the notice of one of his disciples, Thomas. (This is the Thomas who is often known as ‘Doubting Thomas’. We will come back to Thomas after Easter.)
Whatever doubts he may or may not have had after Easter, here Thomas seems to be quite certain of what going to Jerusalem means. When Jesus says they are going to Bethany to help their friend, Thomas says to his fellow disciples:
‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (John 11:16)
Quite what tone there was in his voice, whether one of bravery and determination or resignation and defeat, we are not told. Either way, this is a dangerous move on Jesus’ part and Thomas knows it.
This does not explain one strange feature of Jesus’ response, however. When Jesus hears of his friend’s illness, he quite deliberately delays going by two days. What is more the message has been sent by the sisters, who obviously are desperate for Jesus to come and help his friend, their brother. Even more strangely, the delay is not because Jesus is reluctant or afraid to go, but because he wants to make sure that Lazarus is well and truly dead when he gets there.
We often talk of the disciples as if they were both stupid and cowards. This is somewhat unfair. As Jesus himself acknowledges, they had left everything to follow him, and like Thomas seemed ready to die for him. It is certainly true that they don’t seem always to have understood what Jesus said to them, but then Jesus wasn’t always very easy to understand.
Here, for example, Jesus tells them that he is glad that he was not there when their friend became sick; he talks mysteriously about Lazarus ‘falling asleep’ and has to explain that he means Lazarus is dead; and then he delays doing anything about it, despite having told them:
‘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.’ (John 11:4)
And he says this when it is apparent that it already has lead to death as Jesus himself tells them.
So, what’s going on? Why does Jesus delay? Why doesn’t he respond to the sisters’ appeal to him and rush to help.
The problem is that we like the disciples judge everything by what seems good and right to us and we try to get God to do the same. Like the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry, we simply assume that if something is in our own best interest, then this must be what God wants too. If something causes us pain or problems and we want it to go away, then it is inconceivable to us that God wouldn’t want it to go away too. And if God doesn’t immediately respond by making it go away, we get confused and troubled.
We then start to question God.
As some of those who go to see the sisters after their brother’s death are to comment:
‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ (John 11:37)
So, before we try to remove the ‘speck’ out of Jesus’ disciples’ eyes, we need to address the ‘beam’ in our own.
As Jesus’ followers today we are called to a different world view and perspective from those around us. One in which we reorder our priorities and our way of looking both at events in the world around us and those in our own lives too. What we are called to look and work for is not what makes us happy and comfortable, but what brings glory to God, and that will always involve the ‘Son of God being glorified’.
What will glorify God here is not Lazarus being healed, but him dying.
And so, when he is sure that Lazarus is dead, Jesus sets out for Bethany taking his disciples with him. This is his final journey to Jerusalem. The events of Holy Week are now getting very close.
When they arrive, they find that Lazarus has been dead for four days. This is significant. Jews at the time believed that a person could only be said to be truly dead after they had been dead for four days. In other words, there is no doubt about it. Hearing Jesus is coming, one of the sisters, Martha, comes out to meet him.
I always feel sorry for Martha. We know of Martha and her sister, Mary, from Luke’s Gospel. St Luke tells us how on one occasion, when Jesus and his disciples were visiting them, Martha was busy getting a meal ready for everyone while Mary sat at Jesus feet listening to him. On this occasion, Martha complained to Jesus about her sister, earning a rebuke from Jesus for being too busy. Mary, Jesus told Martha, was doing the right thing.
What Martha says to Jesus when she comes out to meet him is interesting:
‘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.’’ (John 11:21-22)
Compare this with what Mary says when Martha tells her that Jesus is calling for her:
‘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.’ (John 11:32)
There can be no doubt of both of the women’s love for Jesus. Both also imply that Jesus is to blame for not having done more to help. If he had been there, Lazarus, their brother, would not have died. There is, however, a difference in their response. For Mary that’s the end of it. Jesus hadn’t been there for them and now their brother is dead. Perhaps that’s why Mary didn’t go out to meet him and why Jesus had to call for her. She’s upset and disappointed with him. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in his power and ability to heal. She does and that’s the problem, why hadn’t been there to heal her brother while there was still time?
‘If you had of been there for us, my brother would not have died. But you weren’t. Were you Jesus?’
Martha had already said that, but she had also said something else: ‘Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.’ The Martha who was too busy to listen to Jesus previously has taken his words to her then to heart, and she is ready to listen to him now. And so, it is thanks to Martha that Jesus says the words that have brought hope and comfort to millions.
Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again. Martha replies that she knows he will rise again as part of the resurrection on the Last Day. The trouble being, of course, that that is then, and this is now. Martha wants her brother with her now not on the Last Day.
But she is still listening to Jesus and he says those amazing words 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.’ (John 11:25-26)
Life is not about events either now or in the future. Life is Jesus. And for those who believe in Jesus, nothing, not even death, can take that life from them. However, when we quote these fantastic words of Jesus, we leave out a vital bit of what he says. Jesus immediately asks her:
Do you believe this? (John 11:26)
The words of Jesus about life and death are comforting, and they are words full of hope, but, Jesus asks Martha, ‘Do you believe this?’
Jesus doesn’t say, ‘I am the resurrection and the life and even though someone dies yet will they live,’ he says that whoever believes in him will never die.
So again, the question, ‘Do we believe this?’
The question is not one about life and death in the abstract. It is quite literally a question of life and death: our life and death. The life and death of each one of us. On the answer we give to this question depends our own life and death.
Martha answers as Jesus must have known and hoped she would answer:
‘She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 11:27)
Now all that’s left is for Jesus to show that he knew what he was doing all along and raise Lazarus from the dead. Then the sisters will be happy; Jesus will be forgiven; and, Lazarus will get to live to die another day; and in the meantime, they will all live happily ever after.
But that’s not quite how the story turns out. I am not talking now about what happens to Jesus in Jerusalem after Lazarus is raised from the dead, that’s another story entirely. No, I am referring to what happens here before Lazarus is raised from the dead.
After Mary has expressed her feelings and recriminations to Jesus and seeing how upset everyone is, what does Jesus do? Does he say, ‘Surprise! And raise Lazarus from the dead?’ Does he tell them just to have patience and to trust him?
No, he weeps.
So instead, it is us who are surprised. Why would Jesus weep? He knows what he is going to do, and do in just a few minutes. While Jesus might be sad to see them so upset, that will soon change when they see their brother alive again. But no, even though Jesus knows what is about to happen, Jesus weeps.
2. Why does Jesus weep?
This isn’t about ‘weeping with those who weep’, as St Paul puts it. Jesus isn’t simply weeping out of solidarity and sympathy, although he does do that too. He is weeping at the terrible awfulness of death and the enormity of what he himself is about to experience.
When it comes to death and what we believe as Christians, we have adopted an approach to death that, in theory at least, sees death as ‘nothing at all’. Surely Jesus has conquered death? Isn’t that the whole point of Easter? Yes, we tell ourselves, Jesus had to suffer and die and that must have been terrible for him at the time, but God raised him from the dead. He conquered it and now he lives and reigns forever. We might find death unpleasant, but now, thanks to Jesus, we have nothing to fear. Death is nothing at all.
But death is something at all. How quickly we forget that it is a something that the Son of God himself both feared and had to experience. Death is the something, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, that keeps us in slavery to fear. Something that is so powerful and deadly that it took a creative act of God to do something about. And even then, it was not destroyed just defeated. St Paul tells us that it is still an enemy waiting its final destruction. So powerful is death that it will be the last enemy to be destroyed.
Death laughs at our easy optimism and has no trouble in destroying it. All it takes is a death of someone we love or for us to be confronted with our own death for us to suddenly realize that death is something after all. And Jesus knows this. He knows that whatever he does Lazarus will die again. He will die. You and I will die. And we will all die until that time when God will finally destroy death once and for all.
And so, Jesus weeps, and so should we. St Augustine said:
‘Why did Jesus weep except to teach us to weep?’
Faced with the evil that is death, we should cry our hearts out. Cry out of compassion for those who have suffered loss and bereavement and cry out of guilt because it is our sin, our rejection of God, and our love of darkness rather than light, that has made death the power and enemy it is.
3. What sign then does Jesus give?
Many church-goers find this hard to understand. ‘After all, didn’t Jesus say he is the resurrection and the life and that whoever believes in him will never die? Indeed, he did, but we will only appreciate how mind-blowingly incredible this is when we realize how truly terrible death is. So terrible that it is only Jesus who can give us hope. And the hope he gives us is not simply his resurrection on Easter Day.
We also have hope because although we must experience the darkness and awful horror of death, he is indeed the resurrection and the life. Even though they die, says Jesus, and die we shall, yet shall they live. Live because he is the resurrection as well as the life. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead ‘will give life to our mortal bodies through the same Spirit that dwells in us’, as St Paul writes in our second reading.
But the Spirit must dwell in us, and he will only dwell in us if, as Jesus says to Martha, we believe in him.
So, we come back to the question Jesus asked Martha:
‘Do you believe this?’
For those who believe in Jesus, that is, for those who trust in Jesus and do whatever he tells them to do, there is the promise that Jesus is both the ‘resurrection and the life’.
The raising of Lazarus, temporary though it was, is a sign of the greater resurrection yet to come. A resurrection when God will wipe every tear from our eyes. When death will be no more; and when all mourning and crying and pain too will be no more (Revelation 21:4).
Until then, like Jesus this morning, we weep at the grave of our loved ones who die, but we weep as those who although they know the power of death, know that the power of our God is greater. And so, while we weep, we have hope and rejoice in him who was dead but is alive and who has the keys to both death and hell.
Do you believe this?
May we answer with St Martha:
‘Yes, Lord, I believe.’
And believing, may we make it our goal whether in our life or death that the ‘Son of God may be glorified through it.’