5 Lent 2017 – John 11:1-45

In Nomine Iesu

The raising of Lazarus from the dead is the seventh “sign” that Jesus does in the first half of John’s Gospel. After that, there are no more signs, save one. His own death and resurrection. It has been building up to this. Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. That was the first sign. He healed the official’s son at Capernaum with nothing but a word of promise. He healed a lame man at the Pool called Bethesda. He multiplied bread and fish for five thousand in the wilderness. He walked on the water at night to meet His disciples. He healed the eyes of the man born blind with spit, mud, and washing water.

And in today’s reading, He raises His good friend Lazarus from the dead. The seventh sign. After that, it’s on to Jerusalem and Holy Week for the rest of John’s Gospel. Jesus’ death and resurrection to which all the other signs were pointers.

It is also occasion for one of Jesus’ I AM sayings, little metaphors that reveal Him to be Yahweh in the Flesh. I AM the bread of life and living bread come down from heaven. I AM the good shepherd and the door of the sheep. I AM the light of the world. All of them revealing who Jesus is and what He is about as the Word made Flesh, I AM Incarnate. And appropriate for today’s sign: I AM the resurrection and the life. His coming as I AM in the flesh means resurrection from the dead and life in eternal abundance.

This seventh and last sign is different from the others in many ways. First of all, this involved Jesus’ best friends – Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus. They lived in Bethany outside of Jerusalem. Martha was the one who was busy cooking while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus listening. Lazarus became ill. Jesus was some distance away. They sent word. “Your friend, the one whom you love, is ill.”

You would think that Jesus was jump and rush to the aid of His friend, wouldn’t you? We’d expect that. He changed water to wine. He healed the blind, the lame, the sick. He fed 5000 strangers in the wilderness. You would think He would rush to Lazarus’ bedside, or maybe, like the official’s son, just heal him from a distance with a word. But Jesus did nothing. He waited two extra days. He let His best friend die. Like the man born blind, Lazarus became an object lesson, an example. “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Remember this when you feel that God is slow to respond, when your prayers seem to go unanswered, when He doesn’t seem to care about your sickness or your suffering. Remember Lazarus. He let His best friend die. He knew what He was going to do. He knew that this sickness would not lead to death. But He let Lazarus die anyway so He could go and “wake Him up.” Remember that. This is how Jesus treats His friends.

When Jesus and the disciple finally arrived on the scene in Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. He was, in the terms of his day, really dead. The Jews had a notion that the soul hung around the body for three days, but after that, you were as dead as dead could possibly be. In fact, there was concern when Jesus wanted the stone rolled away. Decay would have set in. “He stinketh,” Martha was quick to point out.

Mary and Martha are understandably upset with Jesus. You and I would have been too. He did all these favors for strangers and couldn’t make the time to come to help His friend. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s the age old question: Why does God allow suffering, evil, death? He as the power to do something about it. He’s merciful, gracious, forgiving, loving. Why does Lazarus die and a blind man sees? Why does Lazarus die while a wedding in Cana gets wine overflowing? No answer to that. Don’t try. It is so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. That’s all you get.

“Your brother will rise again,” says Jesus to the grief-stricken sister. Jesus meant today but Martha thought He was speaking about the last day. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha knows because Martha’s been paying attention. She’s learned her lessons well. But the question is not what she knows but what she believes. Jesus strums the faith chord. “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, lives even though he dies. (He lives in spite of his death.) And whoever lives and believes in me never dies forever (He may die for a while but not forever.)” Do you believe this, Jesus asks.

That’s the question. Do you believe this? Do you believe this in the face of your own, inevitable death? Do you believe this when the doctor says you have six months to live, when you see your contemporaries dying all around you, when the world seems to be filled with nothing but death and despair? Do you believe the Jesus is resurrection and Jesus is life and that to live and believe in Him is to have life now and forever? You can know a lot of things. You can even have your eschatology straight and know that the dead will rise on the last day. But that’s not the point. The question is not about the dead but about Jesus. He is the antidote to Death. He is the One who died and rose to conquer death. He is the resurrection and the life.

Martha believes. “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” That’s the great confession. The confession of Peter and the Samaritan woman and all who believe in Jesus as Lord and Christ.

Mary comes out and says the same. “Lord, if you’d have come sooner, if you would have been here….” She falls at His feet weeping. Their friends and neighbors and the mourners were weeping too. Jesus wept. It’s not clear whether He was weeping with them or weeping over them. Probably the latter. The unbelief of His dearest friends, the unbelief the Jews, troubled Him in spirit and drove Him to tears. Our unbelief drives Him to tears as well. Our incessant demand for miracle, our constant questioning of His goodness, His power, His mercy, it’s enough to drive even God to tears of frustration. I’m sure I’ve caused many a divine tear to fall with my own shallow, superficial faith.

He weeps over us, and He weeps with us. His tears are humanity’s tears, the collected grief of humanity held captive to Sin and Death. It strikes at the very heart of the Son of God. He is the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with our suffering and grief. His mourning turns our sorrow to gladness. He wipes away our tears by His weeping. He absorbs our grief into Himself and takes to all to the cross where all is answered in His “it is finished.”

Jesus goes to the tomb of His friend. He cannot stay away. He asks them to roll the stone away. Martha is afraid of the smell. “Remember what I said,” Jesus says to Martha. He fires off a rather terse prayer to His Father. “Father, thanks for listening. I know you always hear but I’m saying this for the benefit of all these unbelievers standing around.” He yells into the open tomb. “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man did. He came out, wrapped in burial cloths. He orders Lazarus unbound and to let him go. We never hear anything about Lazarus after that. I’d be kind of curious to know what he said. We do know that the religious officials plotted to kill Lazarus as well as Jesus because people were following Jesus after this sign. That’s what happens when Jesus raises you from the dead. The world wants to kill you. Remember that.

So where does this leave all of us here today? We’ve all been Mary and Martha and will be again. We’ve buried loved ones, some of whom became sick and, even after many prayers ascended before the throne, they still died. And we’re left wondering why. We’ve heard those words countless times, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and we believe in a Martha way. We know they’ll rise on the last day in the resurrection. And there is comfort in that. But if we just hear it in the future tense, we will miss the point of Jesus’ I AM. Jesus is the resurrection and the life not only in the future but in the present tense. He is resurrection and life now. To live in Him and believe in Him, to be baptized into His death and life, is to have resurrection and life now, so that you live in spite of your death, and living and believing in Jesus, you never die forever.

Resurrection and life are not some “pie in the sky by and by,” they are here and now, for you, delivered in water, word, bread and wine. Forgiveness, life, and salvation now.

We will all be Lazarus one day too. Some sickness, something is going to get us. And God won’t stop. He’ll just say, “Let him sleep. I’ll wake him up.” That’s how Jesus treats humanity’s greatest enemy, Death. It’s a sleep from which He will wake us up as surely as He is risen from the dead.

Here’s the bottom line. Even if Jesus had done nothing at all for Lazarus, even if He had stayed where He was and simply let Him die, Lazarus could not have been safer. Our descent to the dead is preceded by Jesus’ descent to the dead. He has conquered, and in Him we conquer too. And so there is nothing, in life or in death, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ. You don’t need a miracle. You don’t need a miraculous healing of whatever ails you. You already have healing, life, and salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and in Him, baptized and believing in Him, you like Lazarus, have Resurrection and Life, now and forever. Now you are ready for palms and passion and Holy Week. The time of signs is ended. The hour of dying and rising has come.

In the name of Jesus,