Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lazarus, come out!

It's kind of frustrating, being given such a wonderful smorgasbord of readings all on one Sunday. I could feast for weeks on the Gospel reading alone.

Truth be told, my friend the Rev. Daniel Hayward, a minister in the United Church of Canada, let me read his sermon, and gifted me with the lynchpin for the sermon. Like Rev. Gene Anderson says, "Borrowing for a sermon is like playing the blues, it ain't stealing if can play the lick well." It also helps to have permission...

Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

Romans 8:6-11
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

John 11:1-45
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.
Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “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.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said 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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
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.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 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. 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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Misunderstanding. It was part of the conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus, who mistook being “born from above” with being “born again” from his mother’s womb. Misunderstanding was part of the conversation with the woman at the well, who mistook “living water” for naturally flowing water. And misunderstanding is a feature of today’s reading as well – not just that the disciples misunderstood Jesus when he spoke of Lazarus being asleep; not just that Martha misunderstood Jesus when he spoke of Lazarus rising again, but our own misunderstanding of what these verses really mean to Christians, and to the world in general, today. Because, make no mistake: what Jesus says here, and what Jesus does here, changes everything.

First, some background: in the verses preceding today’s reading, Jesus has been in Jerusalem during Hanukah, and the Jewish leaders who opposed him demanded that he tell them, once and for all, whether or not he was the Messiah.
When he said to them, “I and the Father are one,” they tried to stone him! Kill him! Right there in the Temple courts!

Jesus had been causing trouble, you see. Causing trouble simply by talking. Simply by healing. Simply by being alive. So he retreated, with his disciples, across the Jordan, out of sight and, hopefully, out of mind of those who would see him dead.

And now, with mortal danger like storm clouds hanging over Jerusalem, he went to Bethany, just two miles away. Why? Couldn’t Jesus have healed Lazarus days ago, from right where he was, with a word? He’d done it before! Why wait until he’s dead, and four days dead at that? Why put himself, and his disciples, in peril now, when Lazarus is in the tomb, when the mourners are gathered, when nothing more can be done?

I don’t presume to know all the answers about this passage. It is even more complex than the passage about the woman at the well, and I’ve already said that I could make a sermon series out of that one.

But I want to suggest that part of the answer, maybe a glimpse at the “why” of Jesus coming to such a dangerous place, at a time when it seemed like all hope was lost, is found in what he says to Martha when she misunderstands him.

The two of them are standing there, outside the village gates. The disciples are standing a respectful distance away, yet watchful - eyes darting nervously around, remembering the terror of the angry mob, stones in hand, struggling to lay their hands on Jesus in the temple.

Jesus says Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha, traditionally the more practical, rational of the two sisters, nods, raising her head, daring to look directly at Jesus through tearstained eyes. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

While that’s true, there’s something more Jesus wants her to understand. They lock eyes, and for a long moment the only sound is the blowing breeze. Then Jesus says, “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!”

Silence, again. The rustling breeze, the nervous shuffle of disciples' feet.

Martha absorbs these words, and Jesus begins to see the glimmer of comprehension in Martha’s eyes, the look of grief giving way to confusion, then wonder, then understanding… Finally, he asks: “Do you believe this?”

Notice how Martha responds. She doesn’t say “Yes, I believe you can raise my brother from the dead.” No, her response is more a statement of faith, an acknowledgement of a truth she can’t even begin to comprehend. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Jesus spoke, and Martha heard.

For time's sake this morning we must fast-forward, to that hillside cave, that tomb sealed with a boulder.

Martha had said, " are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

It’s not just some itinerant Rabbi who stands there in the graveyard, surrounded by perplexed mourners. It’s not some two-bit magician who calls for the stone to be rolled away. That’s no mere prophet who raises his voice in prayer as the crowd covers their noses and steps back in revulsion as the tomb is laid open.

It is the Christ, the Messiah of God, who calls out to Lazarus. God’s only Son speaks those words! God made flesh, God-With-Us, Jesus cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

Jesus spoke, and Lazarus heard!

From this point forward, there was no denying who Jesus really was. Healing the sick? Impressive, but prophets had done that kind of thing on occasion. Hadn’t Elijah raised a boy from the dead? But Elijah’s guy was pretty recently deceased, and everyone believed in those days that the soul stayed near the body for three days after dying, so maybe it wasn’t resurrection as much as resuscitation.

But this? These mourners had seen the cold, lifeless body of Lazarus, wrapped tightly in burial linens, placed in the tomb. They had seen the door sealed. They had sat with Mary and Martha, mourning in the proper way, and each and every one of them knew that this was no sleight-of-hand, no mistake, no embarrassing miscalculation on the part of some doctor.

Jesus spoke, and Lazarus heard. Lazarus, who was dead, was alive.

Some believed. Others ran the two miles to the Temple and reported what they’d seen, and the push to wipe Jesus off the face of the earth once and for all went in to high gear.

Because as much as Jesus had spoken to the Temple rulers and the Pharisees, as many proofs as he had offered… as many times as he had called them to come out of their tombs of privilege and power and wealth and fame, as often as he had implored them to be loosed from their graveclothes of religious superiority and doctrinal self-righteousness… they had not heard.

When I spoke at the outset about how we tend to misunderstand what Jesus is really saying in this passage, what I mean is that we tend to stop short of the whole message. This is a passage we hear a lot of times at funerals, for good reason. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Christ, though he died, arose triumphant from the grave and lives forevermore, and in the words of the Apostle Paul, “will come down from heaven, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise…”

This is true, make no mistake. But there’s so much more. You see, when Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he isn’t just talking about the Final Resurrection and eternal life, the glorious dawn that awaits us when this twilight ends, as wonderful as that is.

I submit to you that when Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he was, in effect, echoing God's words through the prophet Ezekiel: "I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people!"

Jesus meant resurrection and life in the here and now! Not just a glorious, assured resurrection from physical death, but a resurrection from living as if we are dead. Living in sin, lost to all that is worth calling “life.”

When we live selfishly, as if we are dead to the needs of others, Jesus calls to us, “come out.”

Will we hear?

When we live with insensitivity, as if we are dead to the feelings of others, Jesus calls to us, “come out.”

Will we hear?

When we live with hopelessness, spiritually dead, Jesus calls to us, “come out.”

Will we hear?

Jesus calls us to come out and be loosed from our own graveclothes of selfishness and insensitivity and greed and despair, to be set free to live true lives here and now.

Will we hear?

Jesus, who is the resurrection, and who is the life, calls on us today: “come out!”

Will we hear?

Will we live?


  1. John! Very nice. I like the way you have Jesus calling to each of us to "Come out!" We need to emerge from the darkness of our own life constructs and step into the light and life that Jesus provides. Believe! And be free!

  2. John,

    I said I would get back to this, and I have - just took me a little longer than I expected. Oh well what is it they say, life is what happens while making other plans...

    Like the insights and summation. Always glad to see the immediacy of Gods impact in our life discussed.

    This also reminded me I need to get back and finish the explanation of my page, "Ruined for Life". To me, in part that is what this passage in Romans leads to: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”, alternatively, “But if God Himself has taken up residency in your life, you can hardly be thinking of yourself more than Him.” God/Jesus calls us to a different life, not one based on the values we see all around us. I had never connected it to Lazarus however, but what a perfect case study of you will to think about in that regard.

    Do you think he was ever the same again? This life, this being “born from above”, this “living water”, is there anyway Lazarus could not have got it. Could there be anything in all his years to that point that would seem terribly significant in the light of this experience. What did Lazarus like to do, what was his life’s goal, assuming in those days it was much more than just surviving. Doesn’t matter what they were – they were gone – rubbish, paled into insignificance. He was absolutely ruined for life – at least his old one…