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Sunday March 21,
[Or selected verses as in BCP and RC readings in notes below]
Focus Text: "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? [John 11:25-26]
Paradise Lost and Found
What would it be like to be really close to God? To have a sense that no matter what happened, you knew for sure God would be with you? There would never be a time or an experience when God was not with you -- to care for you -- to give you the answers your heart sometimes cries out for -- to comfort a broken heart when grief comes.
What would that be like?
Personally... for me, it would be like having my dad with me when I was a little boy. You see, my dad was kind of like God to me. When he was around, nothing made me afraid -- even bad things. When he said, "Everything's going to be okay," you could take that to the bank. It was going to be okay. And you know what? When dad was away of one of his frequent trips for work, I didn't feel quite so safe and secure. And you know what else? Dad's been gone now for fourteen years and I really miss him when things are tough. Other times, I miss him just because I wish I could climb up into his lap and (as the kids say) "chill" for a while.
Having a constant sense of closeness with God would be heaven -- right? It would be the kind of closeness and harmony with God they had in the Paradise we talked about four weeks ago. The paradise which was lost when the man and woman made a decision to go against what God knew to be best for them and they said in effect, "Thanks a lot God, we'll take it from here!" Ever since there has been this sense of homesickness for God in the human spirit. This spiritual homesickness feels a bit like missing dad.
An Absolutely Amazing Story
The Gospel reading from John today is an absolutely amazing story about someone who has power to overcome death and the ability to help us live life more fully in the present!
Remember the "thirsty woman" who discovered "living water" -- namely, meaning for our lives? And then last week we looked at the blind man who found -- not only physical sight, but spiritual insight too -- "the light of life"? Now, today's reading from the Gospel of John takes us to the threshold of the homeward journey -- that is our journey home to God. Here is a man who got his life back after he died.
A thirsty woman who gets water is interesting. A congenitally blind man who gets his sight back is remarkable. But a dead man who gets his life back is astonishing. In fact -- incredulous! The story of Lazarus begs the question. Can something like this possibly have taken place?¹
If Jesus had the power to bring someone back to life after they had died and been in a grave for four days, then this is a story that makes a very powerful claim on my life. And your life! This isn't one of those "near death experiences", or even a "resuscitation story" where someone is brought back from a cardiac arrest. This isn't a news report of a compelling story "out there" somewhere. This is a claim that someone had the power to bring to life someone who had been in the grave for four days and had begun to decompose! ²
If this is a true story, then it has profound implications for our lives.
An Absolutely Amazing Statement
The raising of Lazarus from the dead is an amazing story -- wouldn't you say? Yet, there's something equally important to understand. Jesus did not only do something amazing -- he said something amazing. And what he said was just as amazing as what he did. As a matter of fact what he said and what he did are so tied together that they represent the heart of the "Good News" of the Christian faith.
Here's what he said,
"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."
Seven times in the Gospel of John, Jesus gives an image of who he is by using the words, "I am..." I am, "The bread of life...[6:35] I am the light of the world...[8:12] I am the door...[10:9] I am the good shepherd...[10:11] I am the way, the truth and the life...[14:6] I am the vine...[15:5]" It is as though all of these "I am" statements come together in this one episode. Jesus says "I am the resurrection and the life and then brings the statement to life in the raising of Lazarus.
What Jesus says comes alive in what Jesus does. Amazing!
Do you by any chance remember the Geraldo Rivera special on television where a hidden cellar of the famous Chicago gangster Al Capone was going to be opened? It was all going to happen on live television. There was great hype and speculation about what might be discovered. Perhaps the remains of Capone's "hit" victims. Or a huge cache of money or even gold reserves.
Finally the moment arrived. Rivera was there with his microphone and the cameras rolled as the heavy equipment began to smash through one wall of this sealed up, secret cellar. Then it happened! Anticipation was high as the camera was able to zoom in -- on an empty room! This prime time live special was a class A, number one, champion dud!
Jesus says to Martha in front of her disciples, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me -- even though they die -- will live..." Now imagine the scene at Lazarus' tomb and Jesus shouts with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" Supposing all the people stand there and there is dead silence for a couple of moments. And nothing happens! The tomb remains dark and silent and Lazarus remains bound up on a cold slab of rock.
That would likely qualify as at least a nomination for the champion spiritual dud of the age. The power and authority people saw in the life and ministry of Jesus was not simply what he did and it was not simply what he said. It was the lining up of his words and his actions that brought this reaction from the crowds, "They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." [Mk.1:27] The word for authority is also translated power or strength. A good way to express what Mark is saying is, "Amazing! He isn't just talk like so many others. His talk has power to bring about what he says. Even evil spirits listen to him!"
An Absolutely Amazing Life
Our Lenten journey has been all about getting home to God and regaining the closeness and intimacy with God we can only imagine the man and woman of the Garden had. There is an interesting and wonderful kind of progression that has come through the scripture lessons of these Sundays in Lent.
On the first Sunday of Lent there was that wonderful "glimpse" of what it is like to live in the presence of God in the transfiguration experience. In the following two weeks, we saw Jesus touching the life of people in their life's struggles, bringing hope and meaning to a hopeless woman and physical sight along with spiritual hope to a blind man.
Today there is the most powerful "glimpse" of the life God wants us to have as Jesus calls Lazarus from death to life.
But -- stick with me here and focus in on this thought. There is much more to this story than Jesus bringing a corpse back to life!"
A young man in a high school Sunday School class put his finger on this issue some years ago when he asked, " So... did Lazarus get his old life back -- or was it like he went to heaven only stayed here?" He didn't stop there.
(We were studying the Gospel of John and this lad had an observation from John 12:10. Where the chief priests decided that Lazarus had to be killed as well as Jesus -- obviously because he represented "evidence" of Jesus' power.)
"If he gets his old life back," the lad continues, "Bummer -- the priests put out a contract on him! And if they don't kill him, he's got to die a second time. If he went to heaven when he died the first time, then you think he'd be mad to have to come back and go through it all again. I think I'd be saying, 'don't do me any favors Lord!."
At the time I'm thinking, "Where did they get this kid?" In fact, he gave us several weeks of material to talk about. The main point of our discussion was that the story of Lazarus was about much more than corpses coming to life. It was about more than "pie in the sky by and by." Lazarus' story does speak to us about life after death and resurrection, but it points to much more than that. Pie is good. And "pie by and by is good!" But, Jesus is talking about "pie now!"
In other words, the story of Lazarus points us to that "more abundant life" -- that absolutely amazing life God can give to us now. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life." He didn't say, "Believe in me and when you die you will go to heaven." The focus of the passage is intended to be about the life of closeness to and intimacy with God that is the gift of Christ to those who follow him -- beginning now! It isn't as though belief in Christ gives us this "ticket to heaven" and all we do now is act as though life is a waiting room where we listen for the final "boarding call."
It is significant that John does not take the focus of the gospel from Jesus to Lazarus. There isn't a chapter where they all sit around and discuss Lazarus' "life after death" experience. Lazarus isn't the point of the story. Jesus' ability to transform the meaning of life and death for those who choose him and trust in him is the point.
The Shaping of this Absolutely Amazing Life
Our lives are shaped and formed and filled with meaning as we allow the life of Christ to transform our lives here and now -- each moment of our life. As the transfiguration of Jesus was a "glimpse" of life in the presence of God, so also the story of Lazarus is a "glimpse" of the transformation of life's meaning. It is a preview, if you will, of Easter's meaning.
Look once again at our focus text, "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?' "
Do you see the incredible truth here? Death is defeated -- not when we die -- but while we yet live! Jesus says those who believe (trust in, have faith in, follow...) him will live in spite of death and indeed will never die. For sure, we will all endure physical death. What medicine calls our "vital signs" will cease to exist in the physical world -- but there will never be a cessation of the life that Christ gives.
We are to nourish, share and flourish in the "abundant" life that is ours in Christ. Here and now. While we live in this world. All the days of our physical life. And for all that is "the life everlasting!"
Notes On The Text
This reading brings us to the longest reading in the three Sundays where we've been looking at "The Way Back". The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) uses John 11:(1-16 optional), 17-44. The Roman Catholic (RC) uses John 11:1-45 or 11:3-7 with 17:20-27 & 33-45) For this sermon, we will use the RCL 11:1-45 with a concentration on 11:25-26.
However, there is some wisdom in the suggestion that the entire lection be read. Our plan is to use three readers with one doing the narrative portions, one doing the part of Jesus and one doing the other quoted portions.
¹ This question is also asked in the NIB (New Interpreter's Bible) Commentary on John by Gail R O'Day, Assoc. Professor of Homiletics at Candler School of Theology / Emory University. [NIB: Vol. IX, Luke and John, p.692]
In answer to the question. C.K. Barrett in his commentary on John suggests that this story is simply a historcising of the parable about Lazarus in Luke 16:27ff and thus not an actual event in Jesus' ministry. The painstaking detail in the account however, makes it clear that for the gospel writer, this is presented as an event in Jesus' ministry. [Also quoted by O'Day]
William Barclay in his DSB discusses the pros and cons of the "historicity" of the raising of Lazarus and then concludes, "It does not really matter whether or not Jesus literally raised a corpse to life in A.D. 30, but it matters intensely that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life for every man who is dead in sin and dead to God in 1955." [DSB, John, Vol 2, Philadelphia,Westminster p.119]
There seem to be three basic presuppositions which emerge in discussion of this story:
* If it is supernatural, it probably didn't happen - miracle stories are best seen as parable or analogy for a deeper spiritual truth. (The: "It can't be" position.)
* If it is supernatural, I am uncomfortable with it and "whatever happened" points to a deeper spiritual truth. (the: "It might be -- and again it might not be" agnostic position)
* If it is supernatural, it's no problem and the deeper spiritual truths are interwoven with the stories.
It is interesting that Jesus' healing ministry became more credible with some commentators (of the "It might be..." group) when psychosomatic medicine and the mind-body connection became more mainstream in medicine.
Our position is that unless there is a compelling textual or historical reason to examine or question the story (other than an anti-supernatural bias) -- we allow the text to speak for itself. In any case, the gospel writer in the case of the raising of Lazarus takes great pains to orient the story in time, place and circumstance. ("He smells" -- "He's been in the grave four days." "He came out bound in graveclothes..." The Jews want to kill him because he is a witness to the power of Christ.)
² "Popular Jewish belief at the time of Jesus held that the soul hovered around the body for three days after death, hoping to re-enter the body. But after the third day, when the soul 'sees that the color of its face has changed,' -- the soul leaves the body for good." [O'Day, p.687]
v. 1 Though the raising of Lazarus does not occur in the synoptic gospels, the account of the raising of Jarius' daughter is in all three. (Mt. 9:18-26, Mk. 5:21-43, and Lk. 8:40-56)
v. 4 The illness of Lazarus becomes an occasion for revelation. So also the blindness of the man last week in John 9.
v. 8 The disciples are afraid of what will happen, but there is a profound truth here. Jesus goes to give life to another while surrendering his own life for others.
v. 24 Pharisaic Judaism held to a belief in resurrection from the dead - see Daniel 12:2. The Sadducees denied the resurrection. (Acts 23:6-8)
v. 27 "I believe you are ..... the one coming into the world. On "the one coming" see, 1:9-11, 3:31, 6:51, 7:29, 8:23.
vv. 33-35 The NRSV (and NIV) give a more emotional meaning to the words translated "greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved." [From O'Day: NIB] "The NIV translates the verb enebrimesato as 'deeply moved' and the NSRV as 'greatly disturbed." The the NIV translates the verb "etaraxen" as "troubled and the NRSV as "deeply moved." The notion is that the words are essentially interchangeable and slant toward a more sentimental meaning. Luther and early German translations tend more toward the translation of enebrimesato in a sense of sternness or anger. (This form of the word used only here and in v. 38 then with the meaning of stern or scolding in Matthew 9:30, Mark 1:43 and 14:5). The verb "etaraxen" ("troubled" in most translations though, "deeply moved" in the NRSV) -- is used here and in verse 38 in connection with Lazarus -- then in John 12:27, 13:21, (Jesus troubled in spirit at the impending crucifixion, and the betrayal of one of his disciples); 14:1 ("let not your hearts be troubled"); Acts 17:8 ("they stirred up the crowd). The key idea is "agitation" or "disturbance". Jesus is upset and troubled -- not sad and weepy. His weeping is at something broader than the death of a friend. It is more an anger and disturbed sadness at what death and empty living has done to God's children. See below: "Why Does Jesus Weep" - Alternate sermon idea.
v. 39 Drives home the writer's intent -- this man is dead.
v. 40 Belief enabled vision of "the glory of God" -- the point of this miracle -- all miracles is that God be glorified. Indeed this is the point of life -- to see the glory of God. Jesus will pray in John 17 that his followers see the glory he had been given by God "before the creation of the world." [John 17:25] Again, see below: "What's the Point?"
Alternate Sermon Ideas
Why Does Jesus Weep ~ John 11: 28-37
One homiletical possibility for this very long text from John is to focus on the issue of Jesus' emotions in this shorter selection. The question is "Why does Jesus Weep?" Explore this in terms of:
Is He Sad?
Perhaps the bystanders have it right. "See how he loved him?" they say. (v.36) Those standing by (including the mourners who were at the home of Lazarus) are going about the customary weeping and wailing that mourning entailed. They assume that Jesus, a friend of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, is overcome with emotion at Lazarus' graveside and weeps along with the rest of his family and friends.
Certainly it would be a wonderful thing to have the Lord Jesus with us in times like this -- mourning and weeping along with us. Paul in Romans 12:15 enjoins us to "rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn."
Jesus is certainly sad for his friends, but there is more to the feeling Jesus has in this passage.
Jesus is angry, agitated and sad!
If we could hear the writer speaking the words in verse 33, they would come out something like this in today's English, "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was angry and quite agitated." He was not angry at Martha or her friends, but at the pain and anguish that had become the lot of human life. St. Paul calls death an enemy -- in fact it is "the last enemy" In I Cor. 15:26, he writes, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." And it is more than the fact of death, it is the way that death has clouded the fullness and meaning of life. (See note above on verses 33-35)
Jesus' whole focus in this passage has to do with the fact that in the spiritual world, life and not death is the controlling reality.
"What's the Point?" ~ John 11:25-26
This could be combined with the above as a continuation along the line of God's intent for the meaning of our lives.
Begin with a close look at verses 25 and 26. It comes down to:
If we die ... we will live.
If we live ... we will not die.
This is quite extraordinary. The one concept that makes both statements true is "believe(s) in me. Quite literally this would be, "The one who places their trust, and keeps on placing their trust in me..." The idea is that when we center our lives in the faith that binds us to Christ, we begin to live life in a spiritual plane over which death has no power. The promise of Revelation, "There shall be no more death... etc." (Rev. 21:4) quite literally becomes a part of our spirituality now. This is why Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life." Rather than, "Don't worry you will go to heaven when you die."
I would conclude this message with a brief exploration of John 17:24, "Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world."
The point of authentic spiritual life -- the life and "abundant" life Christ gives is twofold:
1. To be with Christ -- that is to be in the presence of the Lord.
2. To behold the glory of Christ -- that is pure, unadulterated life as God intended it to be!
This is the aim of our Lenten journey. It is the "glimpse" of the transfiguration and the death defeating raising of Lazarus!
Other Homiletical Directions
The O.T. text from Ezekiel presents the possibility of exploring the above themes in terms of what it takes to make real life. What do vital signs tell us? One could be quite dead in the sense of Ezekiel's words and still qualify with modern medicine as a "living person?"
Death means to be "cut off" from God. (Ez.37:11); without hope, (37:11) and to be without the "Spirit" of God within us.
In Romans 8:9-11 reinforces the idea that there is no authentic life without the Spirit of God within.
There is a bit of an illustration of these principles and the life Jesus speaks of in the Johanine text. There is a sense in which we are alive without God (medically speaking) -- however that course of life runs out or expires. (In fact the hospital chart of a person who has died will have a "time of expiration". The life that does not "run out" or "expire" -- is the life Christ gives -- spirit life. It is rather like a radio that will run on a couple of "D Cells" or on an AC cord. While playing on either -- the look and sound is the same. When the D Cells run out, however, the music stops. There is a monumental difference between running on batteries or being "plugged in."
Ezekiel says that to be "cut off" from God is to be "unplugged."
A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 130)
L: O Lord God, hear the voice of your
P: Listen to our words and our hearts as we pray.
L: O Lord, if you held our sins against us, who could stand?
P: O we thank you that you are a forgiving God!
L: We place our hope and trust in you alone,
P: Our spirits wait for the outpouring of your love.
A Prayer of Dedication
O Lord of love, the gift of life and new
life in Christ
is so far beyond anything we could ever imagine! The
gifts we bring today seem so small and so insignificant.
And yet, by the power of your Holy Spirit, you turn our
gifts into life-giving ministry. We give thanks! Amen.