Lent 5A, John 11 Pastor Charles Schulz
Listen here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/vmsur1b3mmp1bnq/sermon%20Resurrection%20and%20life.mp3
So, what’s your story? One group is trying to find out the answer to that question for anyone who is willing to share. Story Corps is a non-profit effort to record the experience of American life by inviting people to come in, two-by-two, and have them sit in front of a microphone to share something about their lives. The digitized stories are kept in the National Archive, some are put up on YouTube, some are even played over the radio. That’s where I hear them. One thing that I’ve noticed about them is that they are all love stories in some way or another. It might be the story a couple who have enjoyed 50 years of marriage or more. They share the hardships they’ve come through and the honest appreciation and joy they have in one other. The story might be about siblings remembering their departed mom or dad. One is about a black chef who loved his job so much that he rose to the top of his profession even in the face of prejudice and discrimination. The one I heard this week was about a couple whose seven year old son died last year of a rare genetic disease. In their voices, you could still hear how their broken hearts wept for the loss of him.
Every story I hear from the project makes me glad for that project and even makes me wonder if someday I’ll sit down with someone and share a story myself. You don’t want these lives to just pass, unspoken and unknown. These recollections– and now there are over 45,000 of them recorded – capture something of life; the project itself asserts that life is worth living. The stories say that it is important to care, to persevere, to find creative solutions to life’s problems; it’s important to laugh and it’s important to cry. Probably as many times as not, I’m crying at the end of hearing one these stories.
In the story of our Gospel lesson this morning, we have one about Jesus –another love story—but one which ends like no Story Corps story. It is a story about death and loss as well, but because Jesus arrives, it is also a story about life. And in the middle of this story, we encounter that famous, shortest verse of the Bible, the one all the elementary children at St. Paul Lutheran School know by heart: “Jesus wept.” Why does Jesus weep? His friend Lazarus has died and He sees the suffering of his sisters and Jesus is moved. It is only because of the reality love that death is so tragic; it is only because of love that grief exists at all. This recording of Jesus’ story archives how the Lord Himself is caught up in the story of His friends, in this case Mary and Martha and Lazarus – but it also shows us how the Lord is caught up in our stories, how He loves us and finally how His love overcomes our grief and how He gives us life with Him.
When Lazarus got sick, his sisters Mary and Martha were concerned. In the ancient world, before there were adequate diagnoses and antibiotics, sicknesses often came as death sentences. This one was obviously bad enough to call in for help and Mary and Martha called for Jesus, who was across the Jordan, a day’s journey away. We know they knew the Lord well because He would stay at their home when He was visiting Jerusalem. We know He knew them well because when they called for Him, they merely explained: “Lord, he whom You love is ill” (vs. 3). Indeed, by this time, Lazarus was at death’s door.
The sisters made no other claim on Jesus but the fact of His own love. They did not refer to him as Lazarus who has known you so many years or Lazarus who has believed in you or Lazarus who welcomed you into his home and provided you food and shelter. They did not mention their own service either – Martha didn’t remind the Lord of the busy service she would offer in providing warm hospitality; Mary didn’t remind the Lord of the attentive and eager ear she gave to all His teaching. It was only “He whom You love is ill.” This was enough. It is the Lord’s love toward us which moves Him to bring His blessed presence and His delivering power to our lives. It is His love for us – demonstrated so powerfully and so convincingly by His own death for us – which is our only claim on Him and on God. “Jesus loves me, this I know” is the simple refrain of our lives, but it is also the sure and certain refrain. It is the bedrock of our hope and the foundation of our confidence toward God.
And because of the Lord’s love, He does move, but He didn’t move quickly enough, at least that’s what Mary and Martha thought that day. He inexplicably delayed. Lazarus was dying. Jesus was a healer. They figured that if He got there in time everything would be alright. But the Lord waited until the third day after the news arrived and then He made His way back. By the time He arrived, the sisters came out to Him and, each in turn, declared: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It was a statement of faith – sort of. They believed that Jesus could have healed him. But it was also a complaint, wasn’t it? Jesus should have been more responsible with His power, they thought, for they had waited through the passing minutes of their brother’s advancing sickness, each one longer than the last, each moment wondering when the Lord would come. But Lazarus had died pretty quickly and in the time waiting for the Lord, they had performed the final rites. He was dead and washed and anointed and spiced and wrapped up and buried and the tomb was closed and the mourners had come by the time the Lord finally arrived. In the end, the sisters’ words even betray a kind of unbelief. They didn’t imagine that the Lord could do anything now. It was too late. The dead are dead and there was nothing more to do but grieve with their hearts breaking for the loss.
That is why the Lord said to His disciples, “I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” The Lord goes to Lazarus, too late from a human point of view, with these two goals in mind: that the Father might be glorified and that people may believe in the Son. Last week we read about the man who was born blind and we reflected on how our sufferings can serve the greater glory of God. Here we come to the next point: that even death becomes an occasion for God to be glorified. In the face of our greatest and final enemy, God shows who He is and what He can do – and He demonstrates that He does it for us, out of sheer love and mercy toward us.
The disciples didn’t understand why the Lord was going back there. They balk. It wasn’t safe. They remind Jesus that the Jewish leaders had threatened Him with stoning the last, recent time He had been in Judea. But the Lord says it is time to “go to Lazarus.” Well, Lazarus was dead, so our friend St. Thomas apparently presumed that Jesus was talking about going to His death too; Thomas joins in, “Let us also go and die with Him.”
But the Lord wasn’t going to die with Lazarus. Quite the opposite: He was coming to give him life. Jesus would face the danger and look death in the face and make him release His friend. But indeed, in the Gospel of John it is clear that this raising of Lazarus does help to move events along to bring about Jesus’ own death. Because of this most amazing miracle, more people come to believe in Jesus. Jesus becomes even more popular. The religious leaders in Jerusalem feel even more threatened. The tipping point is reached. They conspire to kill Jesus. So, for the Lord going to raise Lazarus is a kind of going to His own death. He knows this. If He is going to raise the dead, He will die as a consequence. The cross – His cross – and the empty tomb – all our empty tombs—are inextricably linked.
And this is His glory – to give His life for us and to conquer our death for us. And this is how He glorifies the Father. Jesus bears within Himself the life of the Father, life which He freely and fully receives from the Father and life which He freely and fully gives for the life of the world and for us to share. So when He talks with Martha, He reveals Himself to her with the words : “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is the life because, first, He is God the Son who has the divine life of the Father. He is resurrection and life because this is what He gives to those who believe in Him. He is resurrection because He goes to His cross, because He cancels the debt of our sin which would hold us down in the grave, because He enters death to break through its bonds to share with us life which never dies.
This is His glory. It comes with a cross for Him. And His greater purposes may mean that, for now, it looks like He delays, even as He calls us to greater faith and greater witness of His glory. Now in this world, our stories are laced with death and our love stories all end, one by one, in death of some sort or another. That’s so without Jesus. And so there is weeping. Even with the Lord, there is weeping, but weeping with hope, weeping with faith, weeping with understanding. We now lay down our Lazaruses – our grandparents, our parents, our friends, our brothers, our sisters and sometimes even our children. We lay them down one by one. But we lay them down knowing that the Lord, the one who is resurrection and life, is coming. Now we live in faith, trusting in Him. In the end we shall see His glory. We shall see how fully and freely He gives life to His people and we will rejoice in His victory forever.
Lent 5A, John 11 Pastor Charles Schulz