In the Gospel according to St. John, the first sign that Jesus does is at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the last sign is at a funeral in Bethany. At the wedding, Jesus changes water into wine and brings joy overflowing to a wedding feast gone dry. At the funeral, Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead to show that He is the Resurrection and the Life.
Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. It was Mary and Martha who had entertained Jesus in their home, when Martha was busy cooking and Mary was busy listening at the feet of Jesus. When Lazarus became ill, Mary and Martha sent an urgent message to Jesus. “Your friend is sick.” They hoped Jesus would come quickly. But there was no urgency on the part of Jesus. In fact, He seemed rather nonchalant about the whole thing and waited a couple of days before going to Bethany. He could have saved Lazarus’ life. He could have rushed over to the house that He knew so well, and healed Lazarus as easily as He healed the blind man’s eyes or changed water into wine. But He didn’t. He intentionally waited and did nothing, assuring the disciples that the illness was “not unto death.” Even when Jesus knew that Lazarus was dead, He seemed to downplay it saying, “He’s asleep, and I’m going to wake Him up.”
That’s how it is with Jesus. Death is merely a sleep from which He wakes us. To our eyes, to our reason and senses, to our “from below” view on things, death is the last word, the final exit, the grand finale. It’s over, curtains, you’re done for, pushing up daisies, dead and gone. Yet Jesus says, “Lazarus is asleep, and I’m going to wake him up.” Jesus lets His best friend die. He even says that He’s glad about it. “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I’m glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”
Mary and Martha were not glad that Jesus wasn’t there. In fact, they were angry. When Jesus finally arrives four days later, Lazarus is long buried and the sisters aren’t terribly happy with Jesus. Martha runs down the road to meet Him. “If you’d have come when we called you, our brother would not have died.” You can hear the anguish in that sentence. Martha is angry. Jesus healed so many of so many things. Strangers, foreigners, Samaritans. Why wouldn’t He take the time to heal his best friend? He could have just said the word as He did with the centurion’s servant. He didn’t even have to bother to come. Why didn’t He do anything? How could He let His best friend die?
We want that. We’re Martha. We want an activist, interventionist Jesus who drops everything He’s doing to run to our assistance. Jesus on demand. Jesus with a Mars lamp. Jesus the 24/7 fixit messiah. What we get instead is the Jesus who delays, who does nothing, who even makes light of our death as though it were merely an afternoon nap on a hot day. And it just galls us when Jesus doesn’t act on demand. We get upset enough when people don’t return our urgent phone calls or don’t come rushing to help us when we need them. Double that when it’s God in the flesh. Triple that when He’s supposed to be your friend.
Still, in spite of her anger and frustration and grief, there is a glimmer of hope. A faintly burning wick in this bruised reed. Martha says, “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” To Martha, Jesus is someone with a special in with God. That’s why she called Him. He’s got a special hotline to God. He channels god-powers.
Jesus wants to take her beyond her faith in a faith healer to faith in Him. “Your brother will rise again,” He says. “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day, “she says, reciting what she learned in Sabbath school. But Jesus goes beyond the hope one day to the hope here and now in Him. He does with her what He did with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He reveals Himself to be the object of her faith and hope. “You believe in the resurrection? I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me lives even though he dies. He will die but in his death he will live, believing in me. And whoever lives and believes in me never dies forever. For a while, yes, but not forever.”
“Do you believe this?”
That’s the crisis of faith for Martha. Does she believe not simply in the resurrection to come but in the Resurrection that is standing in front of her and talking to her? Does she believe that this Jesus, with whom she is angry to the point of tears, is the source of the resurrection and the life?” Martha believes something. “Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” But does she know what this means? Does she know what sort of Christ Jesus is? Does she know that for Jesus to be the Resurrection and the Life means that He must suffer, die, and be buried? Does she realize that to defeat death Jesus must die? And to bring resurrection and life He must go to the grave and rise?
Do you believe this? That question jumps straight out of the text into your ears this morning. It calls for faith. It’s one thing to trust that Jesus can heal your sickness or turn your water into wine. It’s quite another thing to trust Jesus with your death. It would have been great had Jesus rushed to Bethany when He was called. He would have spared Mary and Martha their grief and his friend Lazarus the agony of death. He could have saved the day and His friends would have been grateful to Jesus. But they would not have thought any more of Him than that He was someone who God listened to and would do whatever He asked of God.
The Samaritan woman, the man born blind, Mary and Martha, all believed that Jesus was a great prophet, a man of God who had God’s special favor. And Jesus pushed them all further and deeper into the truth of who He is. To do this, He makes a theologically confused Samaritan even more confused. He makes a blind man even blinder. He let His friend Lazarus die of His illness. He leaves things as they are in our lives, and then asks, “Do you trust me? Do you trust me when I hear your prayers and do nothing at all? Do you trust me when I put mud in your blind eyes and tell you to wash? Do you trust me when I let you die?”
He goes to the tomb. He commands the stone to be rolled away. Martha, always the practical one, is apprehensive. “There will be an odor. He’s been dead for four days.” Jesus is testy. “Didn’t I tell you to trust me and you would see the glory of God?” He prays to the Father. He shouts into the tomb, “Lazarus, come out.” And Lazarus does. He comes out of the tomb alive, unbound from the linen burial cloths and from the chains of Death. All it takes is a word, and even Death must obey its Master. Jesus is the Resurrection and He is the Life. Trust Him and you live in spite of your death. Trust Him and you never die forever.
Of course, the religious verdict is “This man has to die. He’s got to go. The whole world is going to follow him and we’re going to lose our place.” Or as Caiaphas, the appointed high priest put it, “It’s better that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to perish,” which was an understated prophetic truth. His notion of “the people” was the Jews. His notion of “the nation” was the land of Israel. His notion of “the Christ” was someone who would evict the Romans and restore the land to the Jews. God’s notion of the Christ was to suffer and die to evict Sin and Death and restore life to fallen humanity. That’s why Jesus came.
You and I are Lazarus, sick unto death with Sin. “The wages of Sin is Death.” The disease is fatal. We are born to die. We call on Jesus to save us. Free us from this sin-sickness of ours, this deep corruption of our humanity that fouls every thought, word, and deed. And it seems that Jesus does nothing. Yes, we’re baptized, but we’re no better. Our sins have been washed away by water and Word and yet we sin. We hear the Word, and most of the time it seems to go in one ear and out the other. We eat and drink the Sacrament of the Body and Blood that “strengthen and preserve us in body and soul,” and yet we seem to grow weaker in body and soul. And like Lazarus, we die.
We are dead, born dead in Sin. And the thing about being dead is that the dead can’t do anything. They can only be dead, just as a blind man can’t open his own eyes to see the light that is shining on him. Lazarus could do nothing but be stone cold dead. That’s our contribution to our resurrection and life – to be stone cold dead. And Jesus lets it happen to us and says, “Do you trust me?” “You trust me with your colds and flu, with your cancers and clogged arteries, with your endless problems and dilemmas. Do you trust me with your death? I am the Resurrection and the Life. Trust me and you will live in spite of your death. Live in me and trust me and you will never die forever.”
What’s the worst that can happen to you? That you die? Been there, done that. You’ve already been declared dead by God. The death certificate has already been filled out. You’ve died and your life is hidden in Christ. You’ve been buried by Baptism into Jesus’ death. The life you live now in the flesh, you live by faith in the Son of God who loves you and who gave His life for you. He is your Resurrection. He is your Life. Trust Him and you live even though you die. Trust Him and you live in and through your death. Trust Him and you never die forever.
And that is as sure as Jesus Himself is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. There can be no doubt about it. He is the Resurrection; He is the Life. Dying in Him you live.
In the Name of Jesus,