5th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 11:1-45;
Ez. 37:1-4; Rom 8:6-11
A LESSON IN FACING DEATH
Hello! My name is Jonah. I was a friend of Lazarus in Bethany. I thought it might be helpful if I came today to help tell the you story about Lazarus from St. John’s Gospel. It’s not that St. John is a bad story-teller, mind you. On the contrary, he’s a great story-teller. But he told his story to Christians 1900 years ago, so he assumed some things with them that he might not assume with you, if he was here to tell it again. I figure I can help fill in some of the details, since I was there and played a pretty big role.
As I said, I was a friend of Lazarus. But I am also a follower of Jesus Christ. So my side of the story begins with Jesus across the Jordan River from Lazarus’ hometown Bethany, near Jerusalem. I had met Jesus through Lazarus — something for which I will always be grateful to him. And I had just begun to take more of an interest in this unusual teacher and miracle worker and was following him around. That’s how it happened that I was in the crowd that day when word first came from Bethany that Lazarus was very sick. My immediate response was to be frightened for my friend’s life. But let me begin St. John’s telling of the story, the 11th chapter:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
I will never forget Jesus’ response, because it was so puzzling. He started talking about the glory of the Son of God as if it was more important than the fact that Lazarus might die. Our first reaction was to think, “Oh good, that means Jesus will go right away and miraculously heal Lazarus.” If that meant glory for himself, too, well that was O.K., I guess. But that’s not what Jesus meant! No, instead of rushing right over to Bethany, he hung around for a couple of days, and we couldn’t figure out why. Whoever translated John’s story for you didn’t even quite catch the gist of what John was saying. John didn’t say Jesus stayed two days “though he loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus,” as it says in your version. No, John said that Jesus hung around Jerusalem a couple days “because” he loved them. That’s why it struck us so oddly. Why would he have delayed on purpose, when he loved them so much? When you understand why he delayed, you really come to understand this story. I myself didn’t come to understand until later. Perhaps I can help you to understand.
But back to the story.
7Then after [staying two days Jesus] said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Judeans were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Judeans had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.
We thought we had a clue to understanding why Jesus delayed when he finally said it was time to head back to Judea, the region where both Jerusalem and Bethany are. One of Jesus’ disciples recalled that the last time Jesus was there, the people almost stoned him to death. ‘Aha! Could that be it? Jesus had delayed because he was afraid?’ That would have been understandable. No one wants to be stoned to death. Again, though, Jesus’ response was quite unexpected. He had decided to go, and he didn’t at all seem afraid. Rather, he seemed anxious to go now, so that we would see the light. Exactly what that meant we still couldn’t understand. As he put it, we were stumbling along at night, because the light that he shined wasn’t in us yet. In any case, we were finally off to Bethany.
Jesus still seemed to dally along the way, and this is where I parted company with him for a short time. Once we heard that Lazarus had in fact died, I hurried on ahead to get there as quickly as possible. For, you see, I wasn’t just a friend of Lazarus’, I’m also a professional mourner. That’s right, a professional mourner. It was my job to lead the crowds in mourning a dead person. I really have a gift to whip up the emotions of a crowd, to really get them wailing and moaning and crying out on behalf of the dead person. So when your version of John’s story says that the crowd was “weeping,” it was more than that, really. It was the ritual wailing that I had everyone whipped up to do.
I know this might seem strange to you, that I would get paid to lead a crowd through their mourning, but think of your own funeral directors. They get paid to help lead people through their mourning, except in your case it is probably more to the other extreme: instead of excessively showing emotion, the funeral directors tend to be a more stoic group of folks who lead everyone in containing their emotions. In our day, it was the opposite: we led everyone in purging all their emotions. This was especially important when it was a tragic death, like one of our Jewish people dying at the hands of a Roman soldier. We wanted to stir up all those feelings of revenge. This kind of ritual wailing was important to keep a community enraged at is enemies. It brought us all closer together in our hate of a common enemy.
It still works. I’ll give you a quick example. You’ve heard of Slobodan Milosovic, right? He’s currently on trial in Europe for “crimes against humanity,” for leading the Serbian people in “ethnic cleansing” against their former Yugoslavian neighbors. Do you know how Milosovic got his Serbian people all riled up? Fourteen he basically led a year-long funeral procession throughout Serbia with the dug-up casket of a 600 year old Serb commander who had been killed in battle by their ethnic neighbors. Those professional Serbian mourners that Milosovic hired did their job well. It got that country stirred up for revenge in a way that really does us our profession proud. How this example relates to what I was doing at Lazarus’ death will become more clear later, so back to my story.
When Jesus finally did arrive in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days already. There was nothing left for Jesus to do except join us mourners, right? Wrong. Right from the start Jesus was trying to coax us into something different. He began with Martha, and told it to her straight out. Once again, St. John’s telling of the story:
20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “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?” he asked Martha. Well, what could she say, really. She wanted to believe, and, in a way, she did. But she really couldn’t understand yet. She couldn’t, because she hadn’t yet seen how Jesus himself would face death in just a few days — and not just any old death, but an unjust, terrible death on the cross. He would face it without letting death get the best of him. That’s what he was trying to do, you know. He was trying to get Martha, to get all of us, to face death as he would face death.
How did Jesus face death? We would soon learn that he would face it as something to be conquered, as something that shouldn’t have any ultimate power over our lives. And certainly not as a justification to create more death by stirring up vengeance and violence in its wake. He came to teach us to live for life, not for death. He came to coax us into the light of the resurrection. That’s why Lazarus’ death wasn’t the most important thing. That’s why he could delay until Lazarus died. It was what the rest of us could learn from facing death that was important. This story isn’t so much about the raising of Lazarus, as it was about coaxing the rest of us to live in the light of the resurrection. As we came to understand later, that’s why there was all that business of delaying on purpose, delaying because he loved us.
But, alas, until Jesus himself arose from the dead, we were still stumbling in the dark. And this is probably the least understood part of John’s story for you. Let me continue:
28When Martha had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Judeans who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Judeans who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep.
Again, your translators don’t have it quite right. St. John used two different words for “weeping” here that your translation doesn’t show. As I already explained to you, what Mary and the rest of us were doing is what I was helping to lead them do: ritual wailing and mourning. What Jesus did, well, that was more simply crying. He was sad, and he cried. He expressed his honest emotion. It’s not that some of the others there weren’t also honestly sad. I’m sure that Mary and Martha were heartbroken. But our ritual wailing went beyond that sadness; it tried to manipulate and exploit it, really, to keep us bound up with that power of death in our world. Jesus was sad and cried, but refused to take part in the wailing because he was trying to get us to live for life, not death. Do you understand how that might be different?
And that explains Jesus’ strong reaction to what we were doing. Your text says that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Yes and no. That leaves it open for the interpretation that he was simply real sad, upset. But the word John used specifically means angry, real angry — snorting mad, in fact. Folks, let me put it to you this way: Jesus was really ticked at us! He was there to coax us into the light of the resurrection, and we were continuing to let death have this mesmerizing power over us. Let me finish the story:
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed [meaning, “real angry,” again], came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 45Many of the Judeans therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
I hope this is starting to make sense. Jesus was there not only to unbind Lazarus from death, but to also unbind all of us from death. Lazarus would die again some day. Jesus was himself about to die a horrible death. And the truth he was trying to get us to understand is that we don’t have to let death get the best of us. Sure, you and I are going to sad when the death of a loved intrudes on our lives. Jesus cried at losing his friend — perhaps, even, because he was looking ahead to the grief of his own death.
But it’s letting death become the lightning rod for all our emotions so that we can purge them in the most common way that we humans chooses — that’s what Jesus was angry about when he saw the ritual wailing. For you see, we generally end up purging all those strong emotions on a scapegoat, someone in our life who unwittingly gets the brunt of our feelings. Jesus would let himself become the scapegoat so that we could more clearly see this about ourselves, and begin to choose a different response to death, a different way for channeling all our negative emotions.
Look at what happened with Jesus’ death. In a couple weeks you will hear again that Easter proclamation, “The tomb is empty! Jesus is risen!” There will be hope and joy in the face of death. Jesus has shown us that death is something we don’t have to fear so much. Jesus has shown us that God’s power of life is stronger than death.
But there is something else very important that comes with the hope and joy of meeting our Risen Lord, as we you do once again this morning in the Holy Supper. There is forgiveness. Why forgiveness? Because Jesus died the death of a scapegoat to forgive us and to lead us into a different way of facing death. How strong is our appetite to make scapegoats? A thousand years after the empty tomb of Easter, what did Christians of Europe do? They went to fight crusades against the Muslims to free the Holy Sepulcher from them. Did you know that that was their rallying cry back then? To free Jesus’ tomb from enemies, even though the Easter proclamation is that the tomb is empty? Ridiculous, right? Or what about all those times Christians have made scapegoats out of Jews for killing Jesus?
Now, this is more difficult. Think about your own time and the reaction you’ve had to the terrible murders of last September 11. It is right to be sad. It is right to be compassionate to the families of the victims. But as you remember their murders and stand at their grave, at the memorials to the fallen towers of the World Trade Center, do you feel how strong the urge is to also marshal all those strong feelings against your enemies? To use them in acts of revenge? To feel good among yourselves by purging all your strong feelings at a scapegoat? Do you see how strong a temptation this presents? Do you see how Jesus came to unbind not only Lazarus from death, but he came to unbind us from the hold death has on all of us? So he comes to us again this morning as our Risen Lord, not only with the joy and hope of his victory over death, but also with his forgiveness for our habit of making more death out of death. He comes to show us into a new way of peace based on forgiveness. He comes to show us the way of living always for life, never for death.
Living in the light of the resurrection means changing the world. Jesus came to save the world. If we are spirited into another way of responding to death, it will truly begin to change the world. It would help us to avoid the kind of violence going on in Afghanistan right now, for example, the kind of violence that we are so easily caught up in. Jesus called you and me to be part of changing that. He called us to be peacemakers. He came to show us how to love our enemies, and to live for life, so that even if friends or loved ones are killed, our first reaction isn’t to continue the killing through revenge. It means truly living always for life, and not for death. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said to Martha, and to me, and to you. “Do you believe this?”
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, March 17, 2002