Lessons: Ezekiel 37:4-14, Psalm 130, Romans 6:16-23, John 11:1-44
I think that one of the mistakes that we make as the Church is to assume everyone gets the full picture and is on the same page. But when we remember that faith is a journey, and that we didn’t all begin that journey at the same time, nor at the same place, we see how foolish it is to have that assumption. Nevertheless I know I am guilty of this and so to correct that error let me offer a key to understanding that Scriptures for those who may be new to this journey.
After His resurrection Jesus was walking with two of his disciples who for whatever reason did not realize it was the Lord. So to help the disciples understand what had transpired over the last few days the text says, “And beginning with Moses and all of the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Lk 24:27).
Those of us who are reading the One Year Bible are in the 5th Book of Moses, Deuteronomy, and while Jesus is never mentioned directly, according to what we just read, He is there. And so He is. Deuteronomy 21 says cursed is every man who hangs on a tree and Peter picks up that theme in his letter saying that Jesus took the curse intended for us. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Further Deuteronomy says that the man hung on the tree is not to be left over night but it to be buried the same day, which of course is what happened to Jesus.
A priest was giving a children’s sermon and to make an illustration he asked, “What is brown and has a furry tail and buries nuts for the winter?” A little girl raised her hand and said, “I know the answer must be Jesus but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.” I am not suggesting as with the little girl that every point of the Old Testament is about Jesus. Nevertheless He is all through it and is the key for understanding it.
Therefore if He is the key to understanding the Old Testament, then how much more is He the key to understanding the New Testament? That is so obvious it should not need to be said but I say it nonetheless because too often we miss this obvious and important point. I have heard many sermons and been in many Bible studies over the years that approach the text from the point of view of “what does this mean to me” or worse yet “what’s in it for me?” before first asking, “what does this say about Him?”
“What does it say about Him?” is the approach I want to take with our Gospel lesson today and I want to do it by asking three questions. 1. What does this familiar story teach us about the nature and character of Jesus? 2. What does this story teach us about our relationship with Jesus? 3. What does this story tell us that Jesus expects of us?
First, what does this story teach us about the nature and character of Jesus? It is a beautiful story. There is pathos and great highs and lows in it but most of all we see some important things about Jesus. We see His unwavering determination to glorify His Father. Jesus, Lazarus, Martha and Mary were friends. He loved them. It is also clear from the text that Jesus knew that Lazarus was going to die. Just last week we read of Jesus healing a man, who had been blind since birth, so no one could doubt that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death. The sisters certainly believed that because they both said, “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
If Jesus loved these folks and had the power to prevent Lazarus’ death, then why did He delay? Why allow His friends to experience so much pain? Jesus tells us when He said to Martha, as He was about to raise Lazarus, “Did I not tell you that if you believed that you would see the glory of God?”
Jesus lived to glorify His Father and so He was not controlled by other people’s emergencies or agendas. He told His disciples, earlier in John’s Gospel, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me.” He said an unspoken “no” to going early and intervening, and even saving His friends some heartache, because the raising of Lazarus is what brought most glory to His Father. Jesus didn’t ask. “What will people think of me?” He asked, “What is my Father’s will?” In doing the Father’s will Jesus glorifies Him.
Another aspect of Jesus’ character we see in this story is His compassion. This story contains the shortest verse of the Bible, but it is an important one. “Jesus wept.” In fact He did more than that. The text says that when He sees Mary and the others weeping, “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Then as He came to the tomb it says that He was “again greatly disturbed.” In the Greek these words for being “greatly disturbed” and “deeply moved” have to do not with sympathy but with anger and fury.
Some commentators suggest that He was angry because of the amount of unbelief that He encountered. I don’t accept that interpretation because there is no anger at Martha or with Mary when they confront Him. Instead He uses their lack of understanding as an opportunity to declare Himself as “the resurrection and the life.” No, His anger was not about unbelief but about our enemy, which is death and the futility of it. His anger was at the ravage that death causes to the world that He so dearly loves, a world that He loves enough to taste of death before conquering it.
Thus we see Jesus weeping with those who weep and we see Jesus furious at our enemy. And what is amazing is that He has these powerful emotions all knowing full well that He will raise Lazarus from the dead. What we see here is that Jesus is neither Mr. Spock, emotionless and full of logic, nor is the Great and Powerful Oz, barking orders and putting fear into the hearts of men. He is the Sovereign Lord of the Universe who comes along side to weep with us in our sufferings and to be furious at death and anything that would try to separate us from His love.
Please note t is that same Jesus who now sits at the right hand of God and makes intercession for us. He ascended fully God AND fully man. Did His ascension now make Him loose all of His emotions and become a stoic. Hardly! That would be a diminution of His human nature, which is unthinkable. He is our compassionate High Priest. Just as in this case with Lazarus and the sisters, He does not always stop us from having pain, but He always comes along side of us when we are in it. He shares in our sufferings. Jesus wept.
And His fury at death must also remain a constant. Our enemies are His enemies. Above all He knows that the pain we suffer ultimately will be for the glory of God so we trust Him and await the final outcome. We look to a day when death will be cast into the lake of fire and there will be weeping no more.
Second, what does this story say about our relationship with Jesus? To coin a modern phrase, we need to keep it real. Martha and Mary were both more than a little put out that Jesus did not come early to heal Lazarus and they let Him know it. They had even sent for him with a message that Lazarus was sick and from their point of view Jesus ignored the email.
Martha, true to her character, did not even wait for Jesus to arrive at Bethany to fuss at Him. Just like she did when Mary was not helping her in the kitchen, she went out to meet Jesus and complained. Mary, also true to her character, remained home but she also let Jesus have it when He arrived.
Note that in neither case did Jesus respond by saying, “Who in the world do you think that you are talking to?” Nor did He have James and John call down fire from heaven to consume them. He responded to both of them with compassion. He used it as an opportunity to reveal more of Himself, to lead them into the truth.
Please understand, I am not advocating that we make it a habit of fussing at the Lord. We are commanded to give thanks not to moan and complain. We need to remember who He is and who we are. But in remembering who we are we need to remember that we are human, we are “but dust.” These ladies were in tremendous pain and needed to express it. Jesus knew what was in their hearts and so a phony “Praise the Lord anyway” would have been a lie. Read the Psalms and you will see a man pouring his heart out to God. Sometimes it is the highest form of praise and sometimes he is asking God what in the wide world of sports is going on down here.
The parish my mother and sister attend just called a new young priest. They are very happy with him. He posted the week before last that he just did his first large funeral and he said his voice cracked like a teenage boy and he made some other mistakes. I think that he was embarrassed. I appreciated his honesty and his humility and I encouraged him that people connect much more to a real person rather than with “Father Perfect” and his stained glass voice.
Just as this young priest does not need to try to be whom he is not to connect with his flock, so we do not need to try to be whom we are not in order to connect with Jesus. Jesus was infamous for hanging out with broken people; it was the religious hypocrites with whom He crossed swords. Thus Martha and Mary are great examples to us of keeping it real.
Third, what does Jesus expect from us? Two things. First, He is looking for us to place our faith in Him. Martha and Mary certainly had a measure of faith. As mentioned before they both believed that Jesus was capable of healing Lazarus. Martha even expressed belief in the resurrection on the last day. That was significant because many Jews, like the Sadducees, did not believe in the resurrection.
But Jesus wanted her to go deeper. He wanted her to go from believing in A resurrection to believing the HE is the resurrection. There is a difference. The former is belief in a doctrine while the latter is placing trust in a Person. To put it in our context, there is a difference between believing the truths of the Nicene Creed and being in a relationship with the God that we confess in the Nicene Creed. We don’t place our faith in our faith. We place our faith in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.
To make my second point about what Jesus expects of us I will offer an allegorical interpretation like some of the Church Fathers. If you don’t accept allegorical interpretations hang in there with me to see if the overall point is not valid.
It jumped out to me in this story that Jesus had to order that Lazarus’ grave clothes to be removed. I have in my mind’s eye Boris Karloff walking stiff legged out of the grave bound as a mummy with his arms out in front of him. Every one is so frozen with shock and amazement that no one takes a step to do anything for him. Jesus gives an order to unbind him.
I take from this that once we meet Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life that He wants us to take our grave clothes off as well. That is what Fr. Chris preached about last week and it is what our reading in Romans is about today. I wish however that the lectionary had backed up a couple of verses. Listen to this from verses 12 and 13. “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” Genuine belief in Christ brings with it a change from the grave clothes of impurity to the white robes of sanctification and eternal life.
During the Mass all of it is important but some parts of it are of special importance. For example the sanctus bell is rung to highlight the importance of the words of institution that begin, “For in the night in which He was betrayed…” The actual prayer of consecration when we invoke the Holy Spirit is another very important time in the Mass. But for me it is always moving to say, “And here we present unto Thee O Lord ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice.” That is an altar call. That is a prayer of self-consecration. It is a time to take off our grave clothes and cloth ourselves in Christ and that I would argue is our high calling.
As wonderful as this event of Lazarus being raised from the dead truly is, it is only a foreshadow of better things to come. It points to the ultimate defeat of death at the resurrection of Jesus and it also points to our own resurrection when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead.
It is important to recognize that our resurrection far surpasses the raising of Lazarus because when we are raised we will be given new and incorruptible bodies and we will witness a new heaven and a new earth as all things are brought in subjection to Christ Jesus. It is that day that we prepare ourselves for during this holy Lent and in the next couple of weeks as we walk with Him through His passion.
The Resurrection is not a doctrine it is a Person. To Him we give honor and glory. Amen.