March 29, 2020 Lent 5

St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Canon Claude Schroeder (John 11. 1-45)

Today we have come to the Fifth and final Sunday in the season of Lent, and the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead. This is the fourth in a series of encounters from St. John’s Gospel this Lent, where Jesus has been demonstrating His power to heal, save, and deliver us from all the powers of evil which threaten and destroy human life and God’s good creation. 

In the service of Holy Baptism in The Book of Common Prayer these powers of evil are variously identified as “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” That which Jesus saves and delivers us from, is that which in Holy Baptism we are called to renounce: our enslavement to individual sin and failure, which is the power of “the flesh: ” our corporate blindness and the rule of fear which society exerts over it’s members, which is the power of “the world;” and finally, today,  the hopelessness and despair of those whom death has brought under it’s rule, that is the power of  “the devil.”

In the Letter to the Hebrews we read, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (Hebrews 2.14-15)

In recent weeks, the power of the devil, who through the fear of death, holds people in bondage is something that has been shown to us “in spades.”  But today, the power of Jesus Christ to set us free from our fear of death and our bondage to the devil, is also shown to us “in spades. ”  

Jesus loved Lazarus, and the little household which Lazarus formed with his two sisters, Martha and Mary. As such, Lazarus personifies for us the whole of humankind, and every household. You and I, and the people with whom we share our home and our lives, have been created for friendship with God, which is the knowledge of God and communion with Him. 

But Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, is sick. In fact, he is deathly ill, and Martha and Mary are in turmoil, and send out a distress signal.  They dial 9-1-1.  “Lord, he whom you love is ill,” (John 11.3) meaning: you need to come, and come now. Show your love for Lazarus and for us, by accomplishing your healing work that we have heard so much about, and save our brother from death.

But here comes the first twist in our story this morning: Jesus doesn’t come. “Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister Lazarus, having heard that Lazarus was ill, stayed two days in the place where he was…” ( John 11.5)

What is going on here? 

It’s a question that you and I will have more than one occasion to ask in the course of our lives. 

What is going on here? Where is God when we need Him most?

It is a question, when left unanswered, becomes for many the occasion for the loss of faith.

So why didn’t Jesus come when asked? 

We can discern a number of reasons.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Jesus to have come and heal Lazarus. A routine house visit. But rather than do the easy thing, Jesus comes to do the hard thing: raise Lazarus from the dead. And He does this, for the sake of our faith, that we believe that He is not merely a healer, a wonder-worker, a problem solver, but rather the He is  “The Resurrection and the Life.” ( John 11.25)

Although Jesus did not come when asked, He did come, always does always come in reply our cry,  just not according to our timetable. Here Jesus shows Himself to be the Sovereign Lord, who acts according to the time and place of His choosing, and for own His purposes. To accept this, is part of the meaning of faith. It is to pray, even in the case of deathly illness, “Not my will, but thine be done.” (Luke 22.42, c.f. BCP p. 579)

But as Jesus explains here to His disciples, He delays in order to show them that , “This illness, does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the son of man may be glorified through it.” ( John 11.4)

As glorious a sign the raising of Lazarus was of the life-giving power of Jesus Christ, that is not what Jesus is talking about here. For as John tells us,  ‘when the chief priests and the Pharisees were told what Jesus did, from that day on they potted to put him to death.” (John 11. 53). And in order to remove all the evidence, they also plotted how to put Lazarus’ to death. ( John 12. 10)

So in raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus in fact signs His own death warrant.   Jesus restores Lazarus to life, but He does so at the cost of His own life. This is the glory to which the illness of Lazarus points us. It is the glory of the Cross, which is the glory of the self- emptying love of Jesus Christ poured out for us, in loving obedience to the Father.

Well, it’s one thing not to come to the ICU in the time of crisis, and it’s quite another to show up to the funeral…late.

Who does this? 

“When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days,”  by which time the body was already decomposing and starting to stink. ( John 11.39). Mary, overwhelmed by grief, could not bring herself to come out of the house to welcome the Lord.  And Martha can barely conceal her hurt and disappointment when says, “ Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” ( John 11.21)

There is no sense here at Lazarus’ funeral, of what we today we like to call a “celebration of life.” If in the face of the death dealing virus that is currently afflicting us, hopefully we will come to recognize the truth and the full horror of death and what death represents: a falling back into “nothingness,” a destruction of God’s gift of life and an undoing of God’s good creation. As such, death is properly spoken of as “the enemy ” and the enemy that needs to be destroyed. (1 Corinthians 15. 26)

So the proper human response to death is not “a celebration of life” but rather one of grief. John tells us that when He drew to the grave of Lazarus, Jesus wept.( John 1.35). It’s the shortest sentence in the New Testament, that contains within itself the fullness of the Gospel, for the tears that flow down Jesus’ face, are not merely the tears a human being. They are the tears of the Incarnate Son of God. When God contemplates the stinking mess of our world, a world mired in sin and death, hatred and despair, He weeps. But the tears that God weeps at the grave of Lazarus, are not just tears of sorrow. They are the tears of love. And in these tears of love are found the power of life that redeems, re-creates, restores, and raises us from the dead. The raising of Lazarus from the dead is signal to us of the Cross, as the supreme sacrifice of love, and the resurrection as the supreme victory of love. ( Alexander Schmemann, The Christian Way, 1961)

Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”  Martha replied, “I know he will rise again, at the last day.”

But there is nothing remarkable, or even particularly comforting here about Martha’s belief in life after death. It is something that is almost universally believed among the world’s religions.  And it’s not what Jesus has come to demonstrate, and not what Christians have come to believe.

Jesus says to Mary, “I am the Resurrection and the Life!” This is the Christian confession of faith. That what we call “life after death” isn’t just some hoped for reality in the “sweet by and by.” What we call “life after death”, has drawn near to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Life after death is no longer just an idea. It has a living face, and a name. ( Leslie Newbiggin, The Light has Come, 1992)

Jesus said to Martha, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”( John 11.25). This is something altogether different than believing in “life after death.” Through faith we now share in the life that is to come. 

How is this life understood?

 In John’s Gospel, the life that never dies is visualized for us at the Last Supper where we see the disciple whom Jesus loved reclining at table with Jesus, leaning on his breast, sharing food and fellowship.  (John 13.28)  The life that death cannot destroy is closeness and intimacy with Jesus, and it’s what we have come to know for ourselves in the Holy Communion and in the sweetness of Christian fellowship.

In this moment where Jesus reveals to Martha who and what he is, Jesus creates and awakens within Martha, saving faith. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One coming into the world!”       (John 11. 27) 

But as Martha will discover there is more to Christian faith than believing certain things about Jesus, and holding fast to His teachings.

Jesus said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ (John 11.40)

What is the glory of God? 

The glory of God is the presence and power of God at work here on this earth, bringing life to the dead, and setting people free from their fear of death and the power of the devil.

And so Jesus prays, “Father,” I thank you for having heard me.  I 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.”  When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The 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.” (John 11.41-44)

Here today in this service, God invites us, in the midst of the “stinking mess” of this death bound world, to lift up our eyes and our hearts unto Him, and in union with our Risen Lord Jesus, to make our thankful and confident prayer unto Him, that His glory might be seen in our land, and that the world might be released from it’s bondage and come to know, believe and have life in his Name.