Sermon: Encounter with Christ #5 – Martha, Mary, Lazarus
April 2nd, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passages: John 11:1-45
As we explore today’s encounter with Christ, we have to start with the heartache, with the way this story connects us to every tear we have ever shed, every loss, every disappointing delay, every night of God’s seeming absence. Most of us in this room have had significant experiences of loss, and for the others of you, it is simply that you have not had that experience YET – for it is coming. Our lives are containers created to hold the love of family, friends, community, which means our lives will inevitably contain loss as well. ‘The deeper the love, the deeper the loss’, I think the saying goes. This encounter with Christ is for everyone!
In my own life, I have lost 2 brothers. There were moments when Martha and Mary’s words could have been my own, “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died!”
My brother Paul died at the age of 33. One day he just seemed to disappear, and our family went through six desperate months of searching and agonizing before his body was discovered and we learned he had died of his depression and schizophrenia. My brother Jim died at the age of 53. He just did not wake up one morning, and though an autopsy was done by expert Univ. of MN medical examiners, no cause of death was found. It remains a complete mystery why a healthy, physically fit man in his early 50’s died suddenly, leaving behind a wife and 3 kids – in high school and college.
There have been other family losses that have had a different quality to their grief, such as the death of David’s father at the end of an exhausting and humbling journey with dementia. Sometimes a loss like that brings a sense of relief together with the grief, because a long struggle is over. But that does not seem to be the case for Lazarus. The story implies a sudden onset, a quick illness. Lazarus is gone in the few days it took to send a messenger and while Jesus lingered some distance north of Bethany.
Why did Jesus delay? We know that the tension and conflict between Jesus and the religious and political authorities had been building. In last week’s encounter with the man whose is given sight, the Pharisees felt deeply threatened by the miraculous signs of God’s power and presence in Jesus. The crowds following Jesus were large and getting larger. Death threats were being made against Jesus and it was no longer safe for him to be in or near Jerusalem. But it was not fear of those threats that kept him away. Jesus was busy with teaching and healing, but it was not the pressure of work that made him delay.
Jesus did not have the same sense of urgency for he had complete confidence in God’s goodness and full faith that this would become an occasion to show God’s glory and to further testify to God’s son. But that confidence and faith did not make him hard-hearted. Rather, we hear Jesus wept. Sometimes it is understood as sign of Jesus’ compassion, a feeling of empathy as he saw Martha and Mary’s grief. But I believe it was more than that. We have been told a couple times in this story that Jesus himself loved Lazarus dearly. And John describes the emotions that moved Jesus to tears. He writes that Jesus felt “disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”. The words used to describe these feelings are ones that indicate that the emotions came from the very core of his being – he was disturbed in spirit, in his soul. Jesus felt an emotion that is translated into English as ‘disturbed’ – in the original language this emotion includes a sense of anger, indignation, of distress and dread. The King James Version translates it as Jesus groaning in the spirit. The word translated as ‘deeply moved’ is the same word Jesus uses when he tells his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”(Jn.14:1,27) It is same feeling Jesus experiences when he is agonizing over his coming death. As Jesus stood with Martha and Mary he experienced a deep inner commotion. I find it striking that God in Jesus, is not just moved by compassion for the grieving of his children, his brothers and sisters. God in Jesus is moved within Godself by the brokenness of his good creation into which death has come; the toll of its damage effects God’s own heart deeply. Jesus didn’t just cry for them, he cried with them. And so in our moments of deepest grieve, we draw comfort from the knowledge that God grieves alongside us. Jesus assured his disciples, in John 14, “I will not leave you as orphans, alone; I will come to you. I will give you an advocate to help you and be with you forever.” (Jn.14:18,16)
What a great comfort that is! Yet this encounter with Christ is about so much more than just comfort in heartache. It is about promise and miracle. It is about more than reassurance of life later, it is about life now! So we who have known situations that are dire and urgent, situations that desperately need Christ’s presence and power, we strain to hear what Jesus has to say in this encounter.
In the encounters of the past few weeks, Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the man given his sight, they all seem to misunderstand Jesus at first. Martha is no different. She, too, misunderstands. Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again,” and she thinks he is talking about the by-and-by. Martha’s reply sounds like a line of a hymn or a catechism book, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha believes in life after death. But Jesus wasn’t referring to the next life, Jesus meant new life on that very day. So as in the other encounters, Jesus rewords it. He says, “I am…” I am, not I will be. I am, present tense, in that very moment. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
That verse, and Martha’s response are located at the center of this Lazarus story, and this story in chapter 11, is located at the center of John’s entire gospel account. This is the core of the gospel message. Jesus makes a promise, and that promise is not just something he is going to do, it is Who. He. Is. In a blog this week by seminary professor Karoline Lewis, she wrote, “This is the heart of the story of Lazarus. Resurrection is not a confession. Resurrection is not a theory. Resurrection is not some sort of ambiguous promise. No, resurrection is real. Resurrection is relationship with God. Resurrection is now.” (Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org)
There is a story of three friends who were discussing death and one of them asked: “What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?” The first friend replied, “I would like them to say, he was a great humanitarian, who cared about his community.” The second added, “I would like them to say, he was a great husband and father, who was an example for many to follow.” The third friend said, I would like them to say, “Look, he’s moving!!”
Jesus’ promise was not for tomorrow or the next day, it was for that very moment. Jesus’ promise was not just for Lazarus, it was for Martha and it was for Mary, and for the whole crowd that was gathered around them. Do you need that resurrection life today? Is there something inside you that is dead? Or dying? Or withering? This promise is for us as individuals. It is also for us as a community. Is our life together withering? Is our congregation in need of resurrection?
I’m not done preaching, but let us pause for a moment right now to pray: Jesus, we need You. We need Your resurrection life right now within us and among us. You know our hearts, you know our needs. Call us out of our tombs – our tombs of grief, our tombs of doubt, our tombs of impatience and anger and uncertainty, our tombs of destructive habits and empty ritual. Resurrect us today, Lord Jesus! Thank you for hearing our prayers; we know you always hear us. Amen.
Jesus said to Martha and Mary and the people gathered, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?”
But that is not the end of the story. As Lazarus’ life was restored and as he emerged from the tomb, Jesus said something more. He said to those gathered around, “Untie him, and let him go.” The decisive life-giving power comes from Jesus, but he then invites Martha and Mary and his disciples to participate in that life-giving act. Jesus could have easily stayed in the position of power, lingering in the limelight, making a show of removing the grave clothes from Lazarus. Instead, Jesus invites others to participate, to play a part in the restoration of life while he watches.
This invitation is true for us as disciples today. Jesus asks us to play a part in the restoration of others. So what does the unbinding, the unwrapping and releasing look like? It looks like work to untie the ropes of poverty or prejudice or injustice that keep someone trapped. It looks like praying with someone who needs the new life that Jesus offers. It looks like visiting or calling someone who is experiencing a tomb-time in their life and telling them about a Light that has come into the world, about what happened in an encounter between Lazarus and Jesus. It is welcoming them into the Family, into the circle of love and life that is found in the household of God.
In Bible study on Wednesday morning we were reading Psalm 84. It is a psalm written by someone who had been cut off from the presence of God in the Temple, cut off from the community of faith. But as he prays, he finds a renewed sense of life, of God’s presence with him right where he is, and he writes, “Blessed are those whose Life and strength comes from God, what joy for those who journey with God. As they walk through the Valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs; they bring refreshing rains, where pools of blessings collect.” That imagery, of the people of God moving into desert places and transforming them into oases of Life, has stayed with me over these last few days. In quiet moments that image has washed over me and inspired me. When we carry within us the One who says, I am the Resurrection and Life”, we have that Life within us. As he said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “the water I give will become in them a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.” We will have Light to shine and Love to share. Hallelujah!
This is Good News! And unlike the situation with the Blind Man last week, this miracle brings celebration. Our reading ends by noting that many of the people who were there at Lazarus’ tomb saw what Jesus did and believed in him. Reading on in gospel story, in chapter 12, Jesus is at a celebration meal in the home of Lazarus and Martha and Mary. As would be expected, Martha is serving. Mary is at Jesus’ feet, pouring out perfume. And Lazarus is at the table with Jesus, reclining with him, enjoying the meal and the presence and love of his Savior.
But let me remind you: we are in the season of Lent. We should not forget that we are moving ever closer to Jesus’ final suffering and death. Not everyone who witnessed the miracle of life saw it as good news. For some it was frightening and threatening. Those people go report to the Pharisees. The miracle of resurrection serves as the final spark that sets the bales ablaze. Not only did they make plans to kill Jesus, but they made plans to kill Lazarus as well. And perhaps that gives us insight into the resistance to God’s work that continues even today. God’s activity in our lives changes us; for some that change is welcome, it is celebrated and brings joy. But for others, who do not want to change, who find the prospect of transformation to be frightening or threatening, it is resisted.
Jesus, however, just keeps faithfully moving forward. He keeps teaching and praying and leading his disciples into the future. He keeps offering love and hope and Life! With the ultimate gift of Love and Life being seen as he went to the cross and later emerged from a tomb that could not impede the God of Resurrection and Life.
We move now to celebrating that gift of Life at the communion table. Resurrection life that is available to us right now. Resurrection life that we are called to participate in and to share with others. Resurrection life that we celebrate together. Let us sing together hymn #213. When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, … love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.