April 6, 2014 – Fifth Sunday in Lent

Lent 5   April 6, 2014   John 11:1-46 (see below)    Take away the stone

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Jesus receives a message from beloved friends, Mary and Martha, saying their brother Lazarus is seriously ill.

But Jesus tarries…We’re told Jesus loves Martha, Mary and Lazarus – love is not the issue – but still Jesus takes his time, waiting another two days before starting on his journey.  Not exactly what I’d hope for, if I were Mary or Martha. But Jesus isn’t asking me. And Jesus surely seems to see life from a rather different perspective…

Notice, for example, how Mary is introduced – as “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” – even though that hasn’t happened yet, and won’t til the next chapter. (Reminding us we’re still on Jesus Standard Time.)

It’s maybe a little strange also that Lazarus, the one dying, is introduced merely as brother of Mary and Martha. His character’s never developed, not even a little in the telling of the story. Probably to let us know the story isn’t about Lazarus, whose name means ‘God helps.’

By the time Jesus shows up, brother Lazarus has been dead four days –  and it’s looking kind of late even for God to help. But again, we’re in Jesus Standard Time…

And Jesus isn’t even asking about the brother’s faith. He does ask Martha if she believes. Martha has perhaps been letting her disappointment with Jesus show, as she says, “Lord if you’d been here my brother wouldn’t have died.” On the other hand, she also says, “even now I know God will give you whatever you ask.” And Jesus affirms her faith as he tells her, “your brother will rise again.”

“I know he’ll rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” Martha says. Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life – and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God,” Martha says. She indeed has strong faith. Yet still not the fullness of faith Jesus is looking for.

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Jesus does a series of seven signs in John’s gospel. He heals a crippled man in chapter 5, multiplies loaves and fishes in chapter 6, gives sight to a man born blind (chapter 9). Each sign is called a sign (rather than a miracle) because with each sign Jesus also gives some theology afterwards, to help us unpack what he’s done. This time, though, it’s not show and tell but – tell and show. This time Jesus gives theology first, then the sign to illustrate.

Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life.” Martha already believes the resurrection part – believes her brother will rise again on the last day. But Jesus wants us to know – yes, he’s the resurrection – and – also the life. The abundant life – life eternal – Jesus gives begins the moment we believe. Jesus wants us to know this – now.

We’ve entered life eternal as soon as we’ve first believed. Which changes our present lives dramatically. Like Mary, who is introduced with a reference to what she will do later on, in the future – we too should be known already by our future. Our present faith and love should already be making our future believable.

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Our future life of grace and peace without end is already breaking into the present if we’re walking and talking with Jesus…

Yet the ugly past is also still trying to pull us back into the realm of death…

Jesus of course never says the way will be easy. Even Mary and Martha, whom Jesus loves immensely, still have to wait much longer than they’d ever wish, for what they’re asking… (Some scholars think Jesus was so far from Bethany when he got word of Lazarus dying that there was no point in hurry – no way he could get there before Lazarus died. We can’t be sure. But Jesus’ delay in getting to Bethany is clearly designed to draw attention to the resurrection of Lazarus. The soul was believed to remain near the body for three days after death. After that, death was considered final.) Mary and Martha probably couldn’t appreciate Jesus taking his time…  (That’s probably still hard for us also. ) But we can understand… the way of life with Jesus isn’t easy… But it is good.

Jesus contends with opposition all through his life on earth. In chapter 8 of John’s gospel he’s nearly stoned to death for saying he was with God before Abraham was alive. In chapter 9 he’s nearly stoned again for claiming he and the Father are one. So when he says to disciples, “let’s go back to Judea” (where he was almost killed recently) the guy known as ‘Doubting Thomas’ says, “let’s go with him so we can die with him.” (Thomas might be a doubter but –  he’s not a coward.)

So back we go with Jesus, to the village of Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem… where just a little more than a week from now Jesus himself will soon be laid in a tomb.

Friends and neighbors are weeping and grieving with the sisters of Lazarus. (Probably they were a well-known family, since we’re told many came to the funeral from Jerusalem.)

And if we’re thinking now, haven’t we met these sisters somewhere before? Probably yes. There’s a Mary and Martha we’ve met in Luke chapter 10, remember, where Martha’s busy in the kitchen, complaining about Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening. We can’t be absolutely sure they’re the same sisters, but – now here again, Martha’s taking the more active role, going to meet Jesus, while Mary stays home. Till Martha says Jesus is calling her. Then Mary sits, again, at the feet of Jesus. And when we see these sisters again in John 12, Mary will  again be at the feet of Jesus, while Martha serves yet again at table, at a festive banquet celebrating Lazarus back from the dead. We know these sisters. In some ways they represent all the faithful women of faith, through the ages…

Martha goes to Jesus first, and has one of the deepest conversations with Jesus recorded anywhere in the bible. Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life – those who believe in me will never die.” And Martha believes.

Mary arrives, kneeling at the feet of Jesus, weeping. Those with her are weeping too. Soon Jesus himself is weeping also. The Lord of the Universe weeps with us. Revealing the heart of God for us…

And some say “see how much he loved him” – but others say, “couldn’t the man who opened a blind man’s eyes keep this man from dying?”

But Jesus has more to say…

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“Take away the stone.”

“Father, thank you for having heard me… “

“Lazarus, come out!”

Like God speaking forth creation in the beginning, Jesus now makes new creation – calling forth life from death.

And yet like humankind in the beginning, falling from garden grace – so quickly now also – some who’ve seen the dead raised to new life, instead of rejoicing, report Jesus to authorities – who prefer the death they know… to new life they don’t understand.

Even friends of Jesus often don’t understand what Jesus is doing – even when Jesus himself first rises from the dead. Quite a bit more unwrapping of the mystery of new life is still required.

New life in Jesus always seems to take us by surprise. New life in Jesus always takes time to unwrap. We have to weep with Jesus, rejoice with Jesus, listen to Jesus, talk with Jesus, live with Jesus, let Jesus live with us to really get to know Jesus.

We need to take away every stone that blocks us from new life… We – or friends or family – may perhaps be sealed in a tomb of deadly addiction… Or a tomb of obvious sin… Or harder to diagnose, but just as deadly – we may be enslaved to mere faithless mediocrity…

Whatever keeps us from abundant life in Jesus is a tomb… This sign’s not about coming back to life just physically –  any more than sight for the man born blind last week was about just physical eyesight. Lazarus – and all of us – will die bodily eventually. The sign Jesus works today is about life in Christ in a new kind of body – life that has already begun – life that will never end…

And even when life has seemed to be dead and buried in the tomb a long time… Even when we fear to risk bitter disappointment… still Jesus says… take away the stone…. any stone that seals us away from the life he calls us into…

When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, Jesus says,“Unbind him, let him go.”  The life Jesus calls us into also needs unwrapping – unbinding – releasing….

When I first became a Christian I had more misunderstandings about Jesus

than I can ever recount. Like Lazarus, my new life in Christ needed lots of unwrapping. (My life in Christ still needs plenty of unwrapping. Life in Christ always does.) The way of life Jesus calls us into is so very different from what we’re taught anywhere else. We need Jesus’ help and each other’s help always.

Even the church is often confused by Jesus. Too often we miss the point of what he’s saying and doing. Like Lazarus coming out from the tomb, wrapped in grave clothes, wondering what’s going on, we often need help un-packing our resurrection life.

Like Lazarus, all of us have been brought back from the dead by Jesus. (Whether or not we even knew we were in the tomb… As soon as we’ve begun to believe in Jesus…we share in his life…)

Jesus calls Lazarus out from the arms of death, into life eternal, life abundant. Jesus says “unbind him, let him go.”

Jesus calls us to do likewise. To take away every stone, unwrap every barrier that blocks or obscures new life. Our calling is to help Jesus bring new life to the dead…Help him interpret his new life for the living…

And if we’re willing to help – maybe we can take a deep breath – pray hard – and – say –

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

John 11:1-46

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. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.