Lent 5, (Year A), April 6, 2014
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The scriptures appointed for each Sunday are supposed to be thematically appropriate for the day, but that doesn’t mean that they always come from the same event in the Bible that is being commemorated. If you pay attention, the texts we read each week often jump around. So, during Advent, when we’re preparing for Jesus’ birth, we’ll have Gospel readings from his adult ministry. In the Easter season we’ll have stories from before Jesus’ death. But today’s Gospel matches up. We are one week out from Holy Week, a week and a half before Jesus’ arrest and trial and execution, and two weeks out from Easter. And our Gospel lesson comes from that time. Today’s reading takes place less than a week before Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and in fact if you read the rest of John eleven you’ll find that this event was the last straw, the final thing the chief priests and the scribes needed to convince them that Jesus was dangerous and needed to be gotten rid of.
Two weeks before his own death, Jesus was called to the bedside of a dying friend. Now, remember that while Jesus knows what is to come, his friends and disciples have not been willing to listen. They don’t want to hear about suffering and death, and have in fact gone to great lengths to ignore or misinterpret everything Jesus has said predicting it. And we look back at them and shake our heads, but really, who can blame them? Who likes to think about death? Particularly the death of someone we love? I can’t tell you how many hospital and nursing home rooms I’ve been in when family members have refused to believe that their loved one will die. “He’ll pull through—he’s strong, and he’s made it this far.” “How can they know she won’t recover? Just yesterday, she was doing fine!” We don’t like to think about death.
Now, in those days they believed that the soul of the dead person stuck around for three days after the death. You will note that Jesus makes a point of not coming until the fourth day. This isn’t the case of someone in a coma. This isn’t the case of someone being only “mostly dead.” This corpse is dead and rotting. And I think Jesus does this to make a point for his disciples. They don’t want to face death, well, Jesus is going to force them to. This is reality, as stark and as bare as it gets: everyone dies. Good people, bad people, friends and enemies. Some die young, and some die old, but everyone dies. Ignoring it doesn’t change that basic fact. You can’t argue it away; you can’t misinterpret it; and you can stick your fingers in your ears and ignore it, but not forever. Death is going to come.
But please remember, this is the beginning of this story. We usually place death at the end of the story, but that’s not where God puts it. No. For God, death comes in the middle. So Jesus comes to Bethany, and Lazarus’ sister Martha comes out to confront him. The first thing she says is “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Where was God when her brother, his beloved friend, lay dying? Where was he throughout the first days of Mary and Martha’s grief? It’s a question I hear often. If God loves us, why does he allow this? Why doesn’t he just wave his hand and fix things?
Jesus and his disciples weren’t there, but I don’t think that means that God had abandoned Mary and Martha and Lazarus. I think the Spirit was with them even in their pain and grief, even as Lazarus died. As for why Jesus wasn’t physically present, well, remember that this is only a week and a half before Jesus’ own death. Two weeks from Easter. And for God, death is not the end of the story.
Jesus loves Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha, but he didn’t come to Earth only for them. God was not born in human flesh solely so that one man might be saved. If that was the case, Jesus would have been there when Lazarus caught that first sniffle, and fixed it. No, God was born in human flesh so that the entire cosmos might be saved. If Jesus had been there from the beginning and waved his hand and cured Lazarus when he first fell ill, it would not have solved the basic problem. Lazarus would still die someday, unless Jesus stuck around perpetually to take care of every ache and pain and injury and sniffle. The basic problem of existence is not that one person gets sick and dying. The basic problem of existence is that everything dies. The basic problem is that for all mortal beings, death is the end of the story. That’s the problem Jesus came to Earth to solve. Jesus came to save Lazarus, yes, but also Mary and Martha and the disciples and the thieves crucified with him and the Pharisees and the Romans and the whole entire world. And he’s going to do that by dying himself. His disciples have been trying to ignore that fact, but time is running out. They have to be prepared for what’s coming. They have to be able to look death in the eye.
Death is a consequence of the brokenness of the world. You can’t always tie it to specific sins, but the sinfulness of humanity results in the death of all created things. Sin and brokenness creep in everywhere, even where we least expect them. To overcome death, you have to heal the brokenness. You have to atone for the sins. You have to remake the world into the good creation God made it to be. And that doesn’t happen without sacrifice. It doesn’t happen without pain. Because the brokenness of this world is not just going to give up without a fight.
Jesus knew that was coming. Jesus knew that it was his own sacrifice, laying down his life for the whole world, that was going to save things. It was going to be God’s own pain and grief that saved creation. And that salvation was going to come in two phases. First, after Jesus death and resurrection, the followers that Jesus has taught and brought together are going to spread the stories of Jesus. They’re going to tell people what God is like, the God who loves us so much that he became human and died for our sake. They’re going to teach people how to live lives full of love and hope, and they’re going to teach people how to build right relationships with God and with one another. That’s phase one. Phase two is that Jesus is going to come back. God’s kingdom will be established, and all the living and the dead will be raised, sins forgiven and all brokenness will be healed. God’s good creation will be re-established.
That’s what’s coming, in the end. Resurrecton. Not just resurrection of one or two people, but all people. And not just so that they can go on living in the same broken, sinful world they’ve always been living in, but in a new and better world, where there is no pain, no grief, no loss, no fear, and no hate. A world where there is only goodness and kindness, love and hope.
But to get there, Jesus has to die. And the disciples have to be ready for it. They’re going to have to be able to stand at the cross, at the place where all their hopes and dreams are shattered by the cruelties of life, and watch their friend and teacher die. They’re going to have to be able to stand there and see it and not run away. They’re going to have to be willing to stay through the grief and pain of the crucifixion, so that they will also be there when Jesus rises. They’re going to have to be able to look at death and say, “This is not the end of the story. There is still hope. God is still working, even in the midst of death.”
Because isn’t that what the Christian life is all about? Let’s not forget that the symbol of our faith, the cross, is an instrument of torture and execution. When we wear a cross, that’s what we’re saying. Yes, the world is a broken, sinful place. Yes, there is death: horrifying, terrible, death, that leaves people torn by grief and fear. Yes, there are horrors in the world. But they do not get the final word. Death does not win. God is alive, God is present, God is with us even when we can’t see him. God is with us even when we think he is dead and gone. God is with us no matter what, and God is going to turn this world upside down. God’s plan for this world is life, abundant life, joyful life, where sin and brokenness can’t hurt us anymore. And God’s plan is fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who was, and who is, and who will come again.
And so, a week and a half before Jesus’ own death, two weeks before his resurrection, Jesus takes the disciples to the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He weeps with Mary and Martha. He tells them to have faith in the Resurrection—because he is the resurrection, and the life, even in death when it seems like all hope and life are lost. And Jesus commanded them to take away the stone from the tomb, even knowing that Lazarus had been dead long enough to rot. And he called Lazarus to come out, and Lazarus did. And everyone there could see that death was not the end. Lazarus could see it, and the disciples could see it, and Mary and Martha, and the people who were there. And we can see it, too, whenever we read this story: death does not get the final say. Death is not the end of the story. Because Jesus is the resurrection, and the life.
The story doesn’t end with death, not then and not for us here, and now. We won’t see the resurrection until Jesus comes again, but Jesus will come. Death is not the end of the story. Life is the end of the story. Thanks be to God.