Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017
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, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Lazarus was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. This is the reason Jesus delayed the two days: so that everyone would know that Lazarus was dead. Remember, he arrived four days late. Even if he had come immediately when he got word, Lazarus would have been in the grave for at least two days by the time Jesus arrived. But at two days’ dead, one could have argued that perhaps he was merely in a coma, or in that state between life and death where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. But no, when Jesus arrived Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. No food, no water, no air. There was no possibility of his still being alive under any circumstances. Lazarus was dead, and everybody knew it with a bone-deep certainty. He was not mostly dead, he was all dead. He was not merely dead, he was really most sincerely dead. He was not just dead, he was dead and rotting.
It is said that there are two certainties in life: death, and taxes. I suppose if you are too poor or manage to live completely off the grid, you might get out of taxes; but nobody gets out of death. Not since Adam and Eve first decided that that apple looked mighty good, and surely God wasn’t serious when he said they’d die if they ate it. The world is broken by sin and death, and in this life we can’t avoid either. In life, nobody gets out alive. Things wear out. People die. Communities die. Nations die. Cultures die. Nothing lasts forever.
But we worship a God of Life. We worship a God who created the universe and all that is in it. We worship a God who created the earth to be a paradise, and saw that it was good. We worship a God who wants us to not only have life, but to have it abundantly. Overflowing with good things: peace and joy and love and hope and so much more.
If you have ever been angry at death, if you have ever been frustrated at the pain and sorrow and suffering in the world, you are not alone. If you have ever wanted to punch death in the face, you are not alone. God, too, gets angry at death; God, too, gets frustrated at the way we hurt one another; God, too, gets upset at how we take the abundance he gives and waste it so that some have too much while others are desperately in need. God, too, wants to punch death in the face—and sin and suffering, while he’s at it.
I know that, because in our Gospel reading Jesus was upset and angry. Where it says he was “greatly disturbed and moved” that’s actually not a very good translation. There isn’t a translation that really gets the feel of the Greek. We keep trying to sentimentalize Jesus, here. We keep trying to make grief his primary emotion for his friend. And it is true that Jesus loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha, and Jesus grieved deeply at Lazarus’ death. But he was also frustrated. Angry. A better translation than “deeply moved” would be “deeply indignant.” The Greeks, who read the New Testament in the Greek it was originally written in, have spent a lot of time over the last two thousand years pondering why Jesus is so angry, here. There are a lot of possible answers. But I think Jesus is angry at death. Jesus was angry that Lazarus had died, but Jesus was also angry that anyone dies. Jesus was angry at the way God’s beautiful creation is broken.
I think Jesus was also angry at how we take death for granted. We take illness and brokenness for granted. We think about the planes that crash, not the ones that land safely. Whenever someone protests at the cruelty and unfairness in the world, someone else will shrug and say “life’s not fair, deal with it.” Or maybe “but if you protect people from that, they won’t toughen up!” As if cruelty and unfairness were supposed to be normal, or perhaps even good. Death may be inevitable, death may be part of the way the world works, but it is not supposed to be. That’s why Jesus came to earth; that’s why Jesus became human. To break the power of sin and evil. To smash it. To destroy death, to swallow it up forever. This is why Jesus came to earth; this is why, just a few weeks later, Jesus was going to die.
But notice when, specifically, Jesus gets upset, what moves him to the point of tears. Jesus asks where they have laid the body, and the community tells him to come and see. And then he starts crying. The thing is, we’ve heard those words before. They’re a common theme in John. When Jesus first started inviting the disciples, that’s what he told them: “Come and see.” Come and see the Lord of Life. Come and see the one who is the Resurrection and the Life. Come and see the Son of God. He didn’t tell them all that, he invited them to follow, to see. And when one disciple invites another to follow, that’s what he says, too: come and see. Come, see and experience for yourself the lifegiving Lamb of God. Come, see the abundant life God brings. Come and see! And when the woman at the well goes to her community, that’s what she says, too. “Come and see!” Come and see this man who might just be the Messiah, the holy Annointed One of God. Come and see this man who knows me, who knew me before he saw me. Come and see this one who promises living water so that we will never thirst again.
This is the invitation to life. This is the invitation to participate, to become part of God’s kingdom. It doesn’t start with explaining all the details, it starts with an invitation. Come, and see for yourself what God has in store for you. Come, and see the life God has for you and for all of us. Come and see the love of God made flesh and bone. Come and taste the bread of life and wine of salvation poured out for all people. Come and touch the one who loves you and knows you more deeply than anyone else ever could. Come and hear the word of life. Come and see.
Jesus has been inviting people to come and see for three years, at this point. He’s been teaching and living his message, for three years, and putting it into practice with miracles that bring abundant life for all. Jesus has healed the sick, forgiven the sinner, fed the hungry, and done wonders beyond measure so that people can see and experience God’s abundant life. Not just for some, but for all. Everyone there knows who Jesus is and what he has done. Some of them have been there to see it; some of them have heard him speak; some of them have heard the witness of others. He has asked them all, in word and deed, to come and see what new thing God is doing.
And now, here, when they ask Jesus to come and see, they mean a tomb. They mean death. They mean the very opposite of what Jesus has come to do. They have seen, but not understood. They think he could have kept Lazarus from dying … for now, at least. Their comment isn’t about healing, or about resurrection, although many of them believed that one day all the dead would be raised. The highest their expectations go is the prevention of death for a little while. Death, in their minds, still gets the final say. Death to them is the end which we can sometimes put off but never prevent, which can never be beaten. And so Jesus is so frustrated and upset he begins to cry.
The Gospel of John is structured around seven signs, seven miracles, that Jesus showed the people around him, signs of God’s abundant life. The first was the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine. The raising of Lazarus is the last and the greatest. All right, Jesus says through his tears. You’ve seen, but you haven’t understood. My job is to destroy death; my job is to bring life. So here it is, a foretaste of the feast to come. And so Jesus, in anguish and frustration, prays loudly to God so that they might hear and orders them to roll away the tomb. And he commands the dead man to come out … and Lazarus does. Not as a zombie, not still sick, but alive and well enough to sit down to dinner with them all in the next chapter.
Death has one more shot. Two weeks after raising Lazarus, Jesus will be crucified by the authorities, and he will die, and he, too, will be placed in a tomb. And after that, he will rise, and the power of death will be destroyed forever. The general resurrection, when all graves everywhere will be opened and all who have died will live again, whole and healed and restored, will not happen until Christ comes again. But we know it’s coming. We have seen our God, who brings life. We have seen our God, who destroys death itself, who opens graves, who brings life in the most impossible places. Life is here. Come and see.