Where death ends and life begins

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Fifth Sunday in Lent; April 2, 2017, Year A

Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the One who raises the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Do you ever yearn for loved ones who have died to be alive again? Even just thinking about this question could have any of us in tears because we long for this so badly.

In this Gospel story we meet Mary and Martha who have a brother, Lazarus, who falls ill and dies. These three siblings are friends of Jesus. They send for him, and Lazarus still ends up in the tomb, dead four days before Jesus even arrives.

One would think that Jesus might have hurried it up a bit if he really loved Lazarus, but Jesus operates on his own time. He knows Lazarus is dead, and he also knows he can do something about it.

Jesus’ disciples don’t want him to go to Bethany at Martha and Mary’s request. It’s only 2 miles from Jerusalem, a city in which they just narrowly escape being stoned to death. They remind Jesus of this: “people were trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

Practicality and reverse psychology never seem work on Jesus. He says, “Let’s go.”

You have to hand it to Thomas here. Generally the disciples aren’t getting it or they bail, but here Thomas says to the rest of the disciples, “Alright then, if we are going to die, let’s do this thing.” And they go with Jesus to Bethany. When they arrive they enter into the sorrow of those who love Lazarus.

Sorrow and grief are palpable in this story.

When Mary and Martha see Jesus for the first time, they say the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They weep. Mary falls at his feet. They are grasping for consolation, hope, something to quell their agony over the death of their brother.

How often do we do this too? We wonder whether or not if we would have done something different, if only this or that, then maybe our loved one wouldn’t have died. This is the language of grief.

Mary and Martha pour out their grief and frustration on Jesus, their friend and their Lord. He listens to them, he weeps with them, and he gives them hope.

Martha, in her sorrow still has some kind of hope that Jesus can do something about the situation. “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him (vs. 22),” she says.

The conversation between Martha and Jesus that follows tells us that the last thing she expects is that Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead that day. She believes Lazarus will be raised, but sometime in the future, in the resurrection on the last day. Resurrection is not a present reality for her.

Jesus pushes her beyond the boundaries of what she currently believes possible. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says to her. “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?”

Martha responds by the first most profound confession in the Gospel of John: “Yes, Lord, I believe that are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

What does it mean that the Son of God has come into the world? What does it mean for Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus who lie dead in the tomb.

It means that because of Jesus, resurrection and life are possible here and now in this world. It is not some distant far off reality, where our only hope is that after we are dead there will be eternal life. In Jesus, eternal life starts now.

This is an incredible promise and can fill our lives with hope. It means, first of all, that we can know that our loved ones who have died are taken care of by God in and through death, and that we will be together with them again. This can help us to be able to grieve with hope. We can picture them alive, full of the breath of God, happy, restored, and well, even though we miss them like crazy and wish they were still with us.

Second of all, Jesus as the resurrection and the life, means that his presence, his healing, his love, gives life to us now. It means that no matter what happens in our life, whether that is the death of a loved one, or even feeling dead ourselves, beat down by life, Jesus is about the business of bringing new life.

He breathes forgiveness, hope, and life into our weary souls. When this happens, we experience “little” resurrections.

This is why we believe that in Jesus, people can turn their lives around. That there is the possibility of life anew, there is transformation, there is life to be lived even after the most horrible of circumstances. Resurrection is real and it’s for you as it was for Martha, Mary, and Lararus. Sometimes we don’t even know that resurrection has happened to us except that we can look back and know that one day we felt dead and now we feel alive.

Maybe we don’t even expect it. Mary and Martha didn’t except Jesus to go to the tomb and demand the stone be rolled away. They know that with Jesus all things are possible, but that realm of possibility doesn’t extend yet for them beyond the grave like it can for us because we know the story of Lazarus and the greater story of Jesus.

Lazarus first. He is dead four days. He has already had his body lovingly anointed with perfumes and spices and wrapped in grave clothes. He has been placed in a tomb and a heavy stone symbolizes the divide between life and death. Lazarus cannot raise himself. He is at the mercy of Jesus who is now standing on the other side of the stone.

“Take away the stone,” he tells the grieving community who still has tears in their eyes. No one moves. Martha protests, “It’s going to stink! He’ been dead four days.” Jesus reassures her that she will witness the power God has over death.

Friends and family of Lazarus remove the heavy stone. Jesus cries out with a loud voice, calling to a sheep of his own fold, “Lazarus, come out!”

The unexpected happens … the one who was once dead is given new life. Lazarus hears his name called and walks out in his grave clothes to stand face to face with Jesus, the one who loves him.

“Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus asks of the community. Those who love Lazarus, who could only imagine this moment at the end of all time on the last day, get to be the ones to release him of his grave clothes. They not only witness this resurrection, but they get to participate in it as well.

And what does a dead man come back to life do after being raised? In chapter 12 Jesus is at Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ house for dinner. Lazarus is so near to Jesus he is leaning on him. Resurrected life is leaning on Jesus. Then we get to hear that Lazarus and those who were witnesses of his new life continue to tell about what Jesus did for him around the region.

Resurrection is not just about the raising of someone who was once dead. It’s about God creating life where there doesn’t seem to be any. It’s about God taking the worst of situations and giving hope in the midst of devastation. Resurrection happens to people in this world all the time as we all await the final resurrection on the last day.

This story is so much bigger than the raising of Lazarus. In the end, it’s really about Jesus, and God’s love for you all sitting here today and the whole world. This story is leading up to and anticipating Jesus’ own death and resurrection.

We are one week away from Holy Week, in which we will hear the whole story of Jesus journey to the cross and through the empty tomb on Easter morning. Lazarus exits the tomb, and Jesus enters it. Jesus is “the point where death ends and life begins (Fred Craddock, John, p. 88).”

When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he means he is for Lazarus and for the entire cosmos.

I know how painful it can be to recall our loved ones who have died and to think about death itself. We know that death is an ending. It severs relationships, even the best of loves. Yet, this story and God’s story in Jesus communicate to us that death will never have the last word. God’s word is always life over death. That is what Easter and resurrection are about and it has everything to do with you.

We know we cannot raise ourselves from the dead! We are completely dependent on God for this. Let this story today be a story of promise and hope for all of us.