FPC Sermon April 2, 2017 John 11: 1-45
These past days have brought many tales of grief around our country and around the world.
Four people died in a fire at a run-down apartment building in Oakland, California on March 27. Others died in bus crashes.
Last Sunday, one person died and 15 others were injured in a shooting at a nightclub in Cincinnati, Ohio. That was just one of seven shootings around the U.S. in the past week that took the lives of 11 people, according to the gunviolencearchive.org.
James Harris Jackson, a 28-year-old white man from Maryland, is accused of plotting and carrying out a white supremacist terrorist attack last week in New York City. Fueled by his hatred for black men, he allegedly targeted and murdered 66-year-old Timothy Caughman in Midtown. He’d also intended to attack the middle of Times Square, but that didn’t happen.
The facts reported by the New York Daily News are that white domestic terrorists have killed more Americans than Muslim jihadists since September 11, 2001.
We in East Jordan experienced our own occasions for sadness. We mourned the deaths of Nancy Shipe and Brenda Malpass’ father this past week.
These are different kinds of tragedies that resulted in human suffering and death. They certainly caused a lot of tears.
In this season of preparation for Jesus’ resurrection, we read today the story of Lazarus of Bethany, a man whose resurrection sealed Jesus’ fate.
This story didn’t involve violence, but it did involve a lot of tears. And what happened there led Jesus one step closer to his crucifixion.
Lazarus, as portrayed by John, was the brother of Mary and Martha. Luke’s Gospel mentions Mary and Martha but not Lazarus. Many believe that Martha and Mary led one of the early house churches.
It is in today’s scripture that Martha made one of the most important proclamations of faith about Jesus: “Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
As with the scriptures we’ve been reading from John during Lent, this one has its twists and turns. We find ourselves in the company of real people facing a conundrum.
Jesus gets the news by messenger that his friend Lazarus is dying. Not internet messenger. Not by telephone. Rather, a real person who must go by foot to let him know what’s happening.
He replies that “the illness does not lead to death; rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Remember what we heard last week about the man born blind? It was that he was born blind so that God’s works could be revealed in him.
In John’s account, Jesus can be glorified only if Lazarus dies. Accordingly, Jesus doesn’t rush back to see or to heal Lazarus. Rather, he stays two more days in the place where he is.
This is very troubling to his Jesus’ disciples. But even more troubling is that he wants to return to Judea, to Bethany where Lazarus was living. His disciples remind him that the Jews there were just trying to stone him to death. It couldn’t possibly be safe for him to return there.
Jesus replies that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and he’s going back to awaken him. Even then, his disciples don’t get the message that Jesus wants to communicate: that Lazarus has died.
That’s true of you and me, too. Often, we’re trying to communicate with others or they with us, and none of us understands a thing.
In John’s account, Jesus has to tell them that Lazarus has actually died. He adds that it’s great that he wasn’t there so that his followers will believe, that is, believe in him. Thomas, that same doubting Thomas, says “let’s go and die with him.”
Apparently, it’s quite a journey to get to Bethany. Lazarus has been dead for four days.
Martha and Mary are receiving visitors, just as we do when our loved ones pass away.
Martha goes out to meet Jesus as he’s arriving. She doesn’t hesitate to tell him that if he’d been there, her brother would not have died. She also gives a testimony of faith: that God will grant whatever Jesus asks.
This provides the occasion of some of Jesus’ most profound words in the New Testament: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, though they die, will live.” He then asks Martha: “Do you believe this?” Martha’s testimony follows.
Jesus then seeks out Mary. She tells him the same thing. She is weeping.
Jesus asks where Lazarus has been laid. Then, he too begins to weep.
Death and tears most often go together. Whether it’s people dead in a fire or in a bombing or in a mass shooting or in an individual shooting, we grieve those losses.
It’s very important to our understanding of Jesus to know that he wept. It’s the emotional core of John’s account. He wants us to understand that our Lord Jesus was not some kind of phantom, as some early Christians believed. He was a flesh and blood human being who shed real, human tears at the death of his friend.
John uses a very interesting word in talking about Jesus’ love for Lazarus. It’s not “agape,” that Greek word for Christian love. Rather, it’s “philia,” the Greek everyday word for “friendship” or “have affection for.” John uses this word quite a bit in his gospel. Mark and Luke use it, too. It’s the word Jesus is going to use in John 15: 13-15, for his own disciples. No longer servants but friends.
Jesus’ weeping here replicates the weeping that’s going to occur when he dies.
This episode in the life of Jesus also becomes the last straw for the Pharisees who want Jesus dead and the sooner the better. It’s one thing to heal a man born blind and quite another to revivify a man who has been dead for four days. It’s the kind of thing that can scare religious leaders into very unreligious actions.
The scripture following today’s text describes what Caiaphas, the high priest that year, has to say about Jesus. “It’s better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
Actually, the word he uses doesn’t mean better. It means “expedient.”
You and I live in a world in which we seem to always be seeking to blame someone for our troubles. We often seek “expedient” solutions.
We don’t care if they’re compassionate solutions. We don’t care if they’re humane solutions. We don’t care if they’re fair solutions. It’s all about political expediency.
Yet, you and I are called by Jesus to action whenever the downtrodden are endangered. That’s what he tells us throughout the gospels.
Yes, my friends. The gospels are heavily engaged in politics, and it’s the politics of Jesus’ day that lead to the cross.
Did Caiaphas know he was helping to launch a revolution that would change history? Did he? I don’t think so.
A plot with a limited objective results in the broadest possible act of love for the whole world and in history’s most dramatic event: Jesus’ resurrection. This resurrection that we’re going to celebrate in two weeks.
You and I know that God has the power to create the most dramatic reversals. God can transform you, me, and the whole world.
Today, we mourn with all those who have lost loved ones recently.
Like Martha, though, we have hope in Jesus Christ. He’s the one crying out to us in these troubled times. He’s the one ready to comfort us in distress, and to lead us to everlasting life. Are we ready to answer the call? I certainly hope so. Amen.