Today’s scripture reading: John 11:1-45 // This year’s readings for Lent have given us an opportunity to spend time with some unforgettable characters and events in the New Testament, and this week is no exception. Today we see Jesus raising one of his best buddies, Lazarus, from the dead.
Last week we met a man born blind who Jesus healed, who afterwards was dragged in front of the Pharisees to explain what happened. And at one point in the court proceedings, the Pharisees said to the man who had been healed “Give glory to God!” – which was an old-fashioned way of saying “put your hand on this stack of Bibles and speak the truth.”
So in his honor today I’m going to make that phrase the title for our sermon: “Give Glory to God” – because today’s reading from John brings us into full view of God’s glory, and also challenges us to put our hands on the Bible and share the Gospel truth.
As I was reading the apostle John’s words in chapter 11 this week, in my mind I could almost see what was happening, like a play onstage. So I’ve divided this sermon up into two Acts of two Scenes each, with an Epilogue at the end, to help us keep track of everything that’s going on.
So Act 1, Scene 1. The place is Bethany, a small neighborhood just outside Jerusalem. It’s early spring, and we’re looking in on the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, who are good friends of Jesus.
Mary and Martha are worried, because their brother Lazarus is very sick. He has gone downhill rapidly, and the doctors have no idea what’s wrong or what to do. Things don’t look good.
Martha and Mary each know what the other is thinking: we need Jesus, and we need him now. But neither one wants to leave Lazarus’ side. So they find a friend to go and find Jesus and give him an urgent message to come quickly.
A few hours after the messenger leaves to find Jesus, Lazarus passes. The sisters and everyone in the neighborhood are thrown into mourning. Family and friends wash Lazarus’ body and anoint it with perfume. They wrap him in grave-cloths and place him in a tomb that same night.
And then the sisters begin the Jewish rite of mourning, called shiva, which means seven… seven days in which Martha and Mary will stay in their home, and friends and neighbors will come and bring food and sit with them in their grief. Jewish tradition says that visitors do not initiate conversation during this time; they allow the family to speak first – or not, as they choose. When there is conversation, they talk about Lazarus, and their memories of him, and the things they loved about him, and the funny things he would say sometimes.
And as evening falls, the curtain falls.
Act 1 Scene 2. The next day. The place is somewhere on the east side of the Jordan River, about a day’s walk from Jerusalem, not far from where John the Baptist used to baptize. Jesus and the disciples have come here because the religious authorities in Jerusalem are trying to arrest Jesus. They know the people who live in this part of the country believe in Jesus and support him, and won’t give him up. The messenger sent by Martha and Mary arrives, breathless, looking for Jesus. He asks around and learns where Jesus and the disciples are staying.
Going and finding Jesus, he says, “I’ve just come from Bethany. Your friends Martha and Mary have sent me to say to you, ‘Lord, the one you love is ill.’”
Jesus answers, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” This is very similar to what Jesus said last week about the man born blind: he wasn’t blind because anybody sinned, but so that God’s work could be seen in his life. The end result is glory to God.
So having gotten this news, Jesus stays where he is for two more days and then decides to leave for Bethany.
Some people said if Jesus had only left right away Lazarus wouldn’t have died, but that’s not true. First off, Jesus didn’t need to be physically present to heal someone – remember the centurion’s servant? But stepping out of the play for a moment, and looking at scripture, we can count the days: One day for the messenger to get to Jesus from Bethany; two days Jesus waited; one day for Jesus to walk back to Bethany: four days. And when Jesus gets to Bethany, he is told Lazarus has been dead for four days. So Lazarus had to have died the day the messenger left.
So why did Jesus wait? Nobody knows for sure. My guess is he was waiting for all the family and friends of Lazarus to gather in Bethany. But I think probably the simplest answer is the best: Jesus was waiting until God the Father said “go”. Which is always a wise move.
Jesus then says to the disciples, “Let’s go to Judea” and the disciples look at him like he’s gone nuts. They say, “Lord! We just escaped from there. They want to stone you. And you want to go back again?”
And then Jesus says something mysterious about there being twelve hours in a day… which is basically a way of reminding the disciples that God is in control. If God gives us 12 hours we have 12 hours, and no human power can change that. Things will happen as God intends, when God intends. There’s no need to hurry, and there’s no need to drag feet. The important thing is to walk while there is light, because when the darkness comes it will be too late. And these words are being spoken by the Light of the World… so everything is going to be OK.
Jesus then says to them, “Lazarus has fallen asleep” – meaning Lazarus has died. And he says to the disciples, “I’m glad for your sakes I wasn’t there, so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
And disciple Thomas adds, with a heart full of bravery and loyalty, “Yes, let’s go so we can die with him.”
And the curtain falls.
Act 2, Scene 1. It’s the next day, just outside of Bethany. Martha has been told Jesus is coming, and rushes out to meet him, while Mary stays at home sitting shiva.
Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died.” This is not an accusation; it’s a statement of faith, because she says, “even now I know whatever you ask, God will give you.” (Notice Jesus is observing shiva and allowing Martha to speak first.)
Jesus answers her, “your brother will rise.” In English translations, the words are “Your brother will rise again” but in the original Greek, the word “again” is not there. Jesus is not talking about the end times, or the coming of God’s kingdom.
But somehow that’s the way Martha hears it – as we tend to also. And she says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus answers, “I AM the resurrection (and the life). The one who believes in me, though he die, will live; and all who live and believe in me will not die.” This time Jesus is talking about eternity. But notice Jesus does not say “I give resurrection” or “I bring resurrection” or “I lead you to resurrection.” Jesus says “I AM the resurrection.” Knowing Jesus IS eternal life.
And he says to Martha, “Do you believe this?”
And Martha goes beyond ‘yes’. She says, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
And like Martha, we who believe anticipate the glory of God.
Act 2 Scene 2. There are two locations in this scene: one is the road to the tomb where Lazarus is buried, and the second is the tomb itself.
Martha has run home and pulled Mary aside quietly and told her “the teacher is here and calling for you”. She does this quietly because Jesus is a public figure, and – then as now – one of the hardest things about being a friend to a person in the public eye is finding privacy… especially during times of grief.
So Mary slips out, and the other mourners see her go, and they assume she’s going to the tomb to grieve, so they follow her.
But Mary finds Jesus, and when she sees him, she falls at his feet weeping, and echoing Martha’s words she says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
Same words, but they require a different response. Martha approached Jesus in faith, needing assurance; Mary needs someone to enter with her into her sorrow.
So Jesus answers, “Where have you laid him?” And Mary says, “Come see.”
The apostle John tells us at this point, “when Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up inside him, and he was deeply troubled.”
Most of our English translations don’t have the word ‘anger’ in this verse – most say ‘deeply moved’ or ‘greatly troubled’ – but the word ‘anger’ is clearly there in the Greek. When Jesus weeps – and he does weep – he is not grieving the passing of Lazarus. He already knows Lazarus is coming back to life.
Jesus is empathizing with Mary’s pain, and with the pain of all who grieve. But what makes him angry is all these people around him grieving like people who have no hope. The man who is the Resurrection is standing right next to them and they don’t even know him. Jesus must have felt almost invisible!
On top of that, Jesus is deeply, deeply angry at the human condition that keeps people in the dark, bound to death – the human condition that keeps people from knowing the Truth. This anger is a reflection of God’s anger, not at us but at what sin does to us.
The best way I can think of to explain this is, if you’ve ever been close to a person who is trapped in addiction. You have such love that person, and at the same time you have intense anger at the drug or the drink that’s destroying them. That’s something like what Jesus is feeling here.
Jesus is feeling to the very core of his being why his sacrifice on the cross is so necessary.
Meanwhile, some of the people in the crowd comment “look how much he loved him” – which is true – and a few in the crowd start carping, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man also kept this man from dying?”
Sometimes I think some people are too busy complaining to ever stop and think about salvation… but that’s another sermon for another day.
As everyone arrives at the grave, Jesus says, “take away the stone.” Martha objects on a very practical level… “Lord… ummm… he’s been dead four days, he’s going to smell.” (or as it says in the King James Version, “Lord, he stinketh.”)
And Jesus says, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” And as Jesus prays, we listen in on a part of Jesus’ eternal and ongoing conversation with the Father. Jesus prays, “Thank you that you have heard me. I know you always hear me, but I say this on account of those standing around, that they may believe you sent me.”
And then he cries out with a loud voice: not loud and spooky like in an echo chamber, but loud and loving and joyful and full of life, like a friend greeting a long-lost friend. And Jesus shouts two words in Greek. The second word is “out”. The first word is “Come here!” (“Out” is just the direction in which to travel.)
Come here, out of darkness and death and into life. Come here to the One who loves you and calls you. Come here.
Even today Jesus calls us with these words.
This is the glory of God. This is the beginning of THE turning point in all of human history: because in this moment the reality of resurrection breaks into a world doomed to die.
Lazarus’ resurrection is also a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection, given to the disciples so they’ll understand what’s about to happen when it happens.
As Jesus’ words echo into the tomb, Lazarus comes out, still wrapped in grave-clothes, and Jesus tells them “unwrap him”. The people witnessing this are astonished and give glory to God, as a dead man walks out of the grave alive.
As the curtain falls, many of the mourners become believers in Jesus and rejoice in the glory of God. But a whisper comes from the wings: “though many believed… some didn’t.”
And the curtain falls.
That’s where our reading for today ends. But there is an epilogue a few verses later, and I think our play should include it.
Epilogue: a few days later. In Jerusalem.
Word of Lazarus’ resurrection has spread like wildfire through the city and all the surrounding area. The religious authorities – the Sanhedrin – have called an emergency meeting. As the curtain comes up, the chief priests and scribes and a few Pharisees are debating loudly and getting nowhere.
The question on their minds is what to do. Not a hand-wringing “what are we going to do?” but rather “What are we doing? We must act…” “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our place and our nation.”
Mind you, the Romans don’t really care what God the Jews believe in so long as they keep the peace. The question betrays their real motives: they’re afraid they’re going to lose their positions, and they’re afraid they’re going to lose control of the people.
Then Caiaphas, the high priest, says, “You know nothing! It is necessary that one man die for the people so the whole nation will not perish.”
John comments, “He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” (John 11:51-52)
A few days later, in John chapter 12, a large crowd gathers at Lazarus’ house in Bethany, both to see Jesus and to witness Lazarus alive! And when this happens the Sanhedrin decides to kill Lazarus as well.
It makes a person wonder how many times this poor man is going to have to die and be resurrected before they catch on? But for now… the curtain falls…
End of epilogue.
For those of us observing the drama today, the bottom line is this: Jesus says “I AM the resurrection” and then shows us the glory of God.
When Jesus says “I AM the resurrection” his words imply four things: (1) that death exists; (2) that Jesus exists; (3) that life after death exists, and (4) Jesus is that life.
The first implication, that death exists, sadly goes without saying.
The second implication, that Jesus exists, pretty much also goes without saying, unless you doubt the writings of most of humanity’s greatest historians.
The third implication, that life after death exists, has been debated for as long as people on our planet have known how to debate. But God has consistently said and demonstrated that resurrection does exist. There are examples in both the Old and New Testaments of people returning to life. And even nature shows us resurrection with the return of spring every year. Belief in an eternal future is far more than mere blind faith.
The fourth implication, that Jesus IS The Resurrection and The Life, is exactly what Jesus said he was, and then proved it through Lazarus. The One who is life calls us also to life – not in some abstract way, but calling each of us by name, as he called Lazarus, and saying in a voice of love, “come here”. When we hear that voice, will we stay in the grave? Or will we go with the one who loves us? Let us join with Lazarus and let our lives illustrate the glory of God. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), 4/2/17