Sunday, April 2nd, 2017 – Sermon on Jesus and the Dead Man in John 11:1-45

Audio will be posted shortly.

John 11:1-45
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 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.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 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. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28 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.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 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. 32 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.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 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.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 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.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 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.” 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Friends, grace, peace and mercy are yours from the one who lived for us, who died for us, and who now claims victory over every grave, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior

A couple of years ago, there was a Christian radio talk show host who was taking calls from the listeners. A woman named Barbara called in. Barbara shared that she had problems. A lot of problems.

She had problems with her boss at work, she had stress in her marriage. She was in conflict with her teenage children. She had bouts of depression. As she continued on, the talk show host interrupted her and said, “Barbara, let me ask you something. Are you a believer? If you are not a believer, you’ll never solve any of these problems. Now, Barbara, are you a believer?”

Barbara hesitated a moment, “I…I don’t know” she said.

“Now, Barbara, if you are a believer, you would know it. Either you are a believer or you are not. Now, Barbara, are you a believer?”

“I’d like to be, I think. I guess I’m more of an agnostic at this point in my life.”

The radio show host rose to that bait, “Now, Barbara, there is a book I’ve written that I’d like to send you….And in this book I have indisputable, irrefutable proof that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and he is who he says he is. If I send you this book, will you become a believer?”

I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of problems with preachers.”

 “I’m not talking about preachers, I’m talk about proof. I’ve got irrefutable proof. Now, if I send you this book, will you become a believer?

“I don’t think you are listening to me. I am having trouble at this point in my life just basically trusting.”

 “Barbara, we’re not talking about trust. We’re talking about truth. Now, if I send you this book with proof will you become a believer?”

“Yeah, I guess so. If you send it to me, I’ll become a believer.”[1]

I don’t know about you, but I resonate more with Barbara than with the Christian radio host. Believe. It’s a hard and complicated word in Christianity these days. For the host, to believe is to have irrefutable proof. But for Barbara, just trusting was hard enough.

Believe – it is a word that that too often seems synonymous with data and proof. And too often, it can make us stumble and fall, believing that we are not believers and that perhaps we don’t belong here. Just this week, I heard three people say, “That word believe. That’s where I struggle.”

Believe – it is used 7 times in all of Matthew. 15 times in Mark. 9 times in Luke. And in the gospel of John…84 times. And it is a word used 8 times in our gospel reading today. Interestingly enough in one of the most difficult stories of John to believe – the raising of Lazarus.

If you ask me if I believe the story we just heard, my head starts to spin. If I do believe it, if I do take it literally, all sorts of questions start to creep up. Does Jesus really wait until his friend is dead so that he can prove a point to everyone else? Did anyone ask Lazarus what he wanted from all of this – what if death was a welcomed gift to him and now to rip him back from the beyond? What is Jesus going to do when Lazarus dies a second time? And why did Jesus pick Lazarus to raise again –was it because Jesus loved him? Why not Nicole, or Jenny, or Chuck, or Paul, or Andy, or Simon, or any of our loved ones?

But I think our English language fails us here. You see, the word in Greek for believe – pisteuo – is not meant to be a brainy, cognitive word with facts in mind. But rather is to convey something of the heart. Something of relationship. In fact, a better translation, scholars say, is…trust. If I ask, “Do you believe me?” – you are going to think about what I’ve said. If I ask “Do you trust me?” – you are going to think about our relationship.

If you ask me if I trust this story, suddenly something new opens up in me and I’m invited into a deeper wonder about what this story is inviting me to trust about God.

So, if to believe it isn’t to think correctly, but rather to trust, to give your heart to, I want us to spend time at those places in this story where Jesus invites others to trust in him. Because when he does and when they do, something happens there.

Jesus is with his disciples and he’s just heard that his beloved friend, Lazarus is ill. And in what seems to be an unusually compassionless moment, Jesus doesn’t go right away. He hangs around for two days. And then once Jesus is seemingly aware that Lazarus has now died, then Jesus says, “Let us go to Judea again.”

But the disciples don’t want him to go – Judea is where the danger is. That’s where they tried to stone Jesus. Judea is where Jesus (and presumably the disciple’s) life are under threat.  It is where death is. Not only Lazarus’, but Jesus and perhaps the disciples’ too. Jesus says, “We’re going there because Lazarus is asleep and we are going to wake him.” Terrified and self-protective and misunderstanding him, the disciples say, “If he’s asleep, he’ll….he’ll be alright.”

They don’t want to go. So, Jesus has to be clearer: “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may trust.” They don’t want to go, but they have to go, because there is something about Lazarus’ death that is for the sake of their trust in Jesus. Please notice that Jesus invites them to trust while they are already his disciples. Which says you can still be a disciple of Jesus and still be a bit shaky on the trust thing. Now, having told them that this is for the sake of their trust in him, then Jesus says again, “C’mon. Let us go to him.”

And surprisingly, Thomas says “Okay, let us go. Let us go and die with him.” I think that line is profoundly beautiful. Thomas, the one we so often call doubting, is the one who is brave.  You see, when we start to trust Jesus, we can do brave things. We can go to Judea. The place where death and danger are. We can face death together. Let us go and die with him, Thomas says.

They arrive at Bethany. Martha hears that Jesus has arrived and she goes to confront him.

Lord, if you have been here…my brother would not have died. Are there anymore hauntingly truthful words to the human experience than that? This is the question we all ask. And it brings comfort to hear someone so close to Jesus, whom Jesus loves, like Mary, to ask the same question.

So, what does Jesus do. Standing at the tomb of Martha’s grief, Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again. She hears this as a pretty thin statement of comfort. Yes, I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. But Jesus jumps in and says, “Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. Martha, those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die.”

Which is to say that Jesus isn’t just Lord of the world beyond, he is Lord of this world. It is to say that Jesus didn’t just come to give us life after death, he came to give us life before death.

And then Jesus asks her a question: “Do you trust this?” Just like the disciples, he invites her to trust him. And please note that Jesus loved Martha before she confesses her trust in him.

But Martha does confess, “Lord, I trust that you are the Messiah.” And notice what Martha does now that she trusts him, she goes. The disciples trust him and they go to Judea the place of death. Marth trusts him, and she goes. She goes back to her house, the place of death. When we start to trust Jesus, we can face death again, in a new way. Without all the avoidance and the fear. But with new hope.

Pretty soon, Jesus asks to be taken to the tomb of his friend. And the first thing Jesus does is he cries. He weeps. And it is the shortest verse in the Bible, because nothing can describe pain this deep. Only tears will do. We try and we try to use words but they fail us. No words can match what we feel inside. The first thing Jesus does when we show him the dead places in our life is he weeps. Can you trust that?

Jesus tells them to roll away the stone. But they don’t want to. It stinks in there. Which is so honestly human. The last thing we want to do is actually look at and smell the dead parts of our life, let alone invite God in there.

But he reminded them that they can trust him.

And so they do it anyways. And then Jesus prays a prayer that everyone seems to be eaves dropping on. “Lord, I have done this so that they might trust in me.” He’s invited the crowd to trust in him. And then out of his depths Jesus roars, “Lazarus, come out.”

And he does. And listen to what Jesus says next. Jesus says to the crowd, “Unbind him. And let him go.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Unbind him and welcome him home.” Or “Unbind him and give the man some water!” He says, “Unbind him and let him go.”

Jesus says to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea. Again, I say, Let us go.” Thomas say, “Yes, let us go and die with him.” And now Jesus says to the crowd, “Let him go!”

What could that all mean? I can’t be sure, but I’m drawn to the fact that every time Jesus invites someone to trust in him and they do, he sends them out to go somewhere. Every invitation to trust in Jesus seems to lead to movement. And what’s the movement? To face the scariest thing in the world – death, or the parts of our life that are dead. To face death in good hope. Trusting that death isn’t outside the realm of God’s presence and love and life can be found there.

Faith, belief, trust in God revealed in Jesus – it doesn’t protect us from the scariest parts of life, but rather helps us to face them. Together.

Where do you see people trusting in God and then stepping out into places of death in order to fine life there? I see it in the White Helmets – the Syrian Volunteers who wait each day for the sound of bombs dropping. And when the bombs drop, they rush in. To search and rescue survivors. They know there is death there – 166 of them have died in their work. But they go anyways. To find the life.

I see it in Canada, as they cross the one-year mark of, unlike many other countries, opening their homes to Syrian refugee families.  Of risking life in the midst of death.

I see it in the people brave enough to go to their first AA meeting. I see it in the AA sponsors, brave enough to answer the phone when a stranger maybe desperate and hurting.

I see it in the gay, lesbian, and transgender people of the last century who were willing to hear God call them by name and to come out of the tomb of isolation and prejudice that society put them in, and then literally risking their life in order to pave a path for those today to be welcomed and included in communities and churches like this one.

Where do you see people trusting in God and then going out into places of death, in order to find life?

Friends, God is standing outside our tombs of fear and brokenness and hesitation, calling us by name. Inviting us to come out of our tombs and to trust that nothing – nothing – can separate us from the love and presence of God.

So, let us go and die with him. Risking life for the sake of life, for the sake of each other. For while in the midst of life there is death, in the midst of death there is life. And Jesus is the resurrection and the life. And we can trust him. Amen

[1] As told by Tom Long, in a sermon at Duke Chapel on May 1st, 2011.

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