Sermon preached for the Fifth Sunday of Lent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”
Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”
He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”
The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.
Throughout Lent, we’ve been looking at stories from John’s gospel, where an encounter with Jesus turns somebody’s life upside down. Nicodemus had his idea of faith upended. The outcast Samaritan woman learned to be an evangelist. The blind man received his sight. Meeting Jesus not only turns these people’s lives upside down—it changes them forever for the better.
Today ought to be the biggest triumph of them all. Lazarus raised from his grave. The dead brother returning home. What more could you ask for from Jesus, but a miracle on this scale?
Like the others, this is a story with a happy ending. I wonder if, when John first read his gospel out to the crowd, if there was cheering and high-fives. Here at last is a messiah to solve all your problems.
That’s where this whole story is headed, actually. This whole story of Jesus that we’ve been following. Right to a happy ending, a resurrection, to cheering and high fives and victory. That’s the last page. For all of us.
But we’re not at the last page yet. As much as I might want to skip ahead to the empty tomb and the happy family reunion, there’s so much more to this story. And to ours.
Because this isn’t just a story about meeting Jesus. It’s also a story about Jesus missing in action.
John never says how Jesus met Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. None of our gospels tell us much about this family, although clearly the early church knew stories. Jesus was close to them. Jesus loved them. Jesus was one of the family.
And so, when brother Lazarus is sick, and sick is turning to sicker, Mary and Martha send for Jesus. Partly, I imagine, because family does gather at the bedside. But partly because they do believe. They believe if he can only get there in time, then the worst can’t possibly happen. Jesus has been healing strangers left and right. Why not somebody he loves?
And so Mary and Martha sit vigil by Lazarus’ bedside, waiting for a knock on the door that never comes.
And Lazarus dies.
This is the part of the story we know best. It’s the part most of us have lived through, one way or another. The part where the miracle never comes.
Each week, our prayer list fills with folks who could use a miracle. So do our newspapers and facebook feeds and family trees. Some of them get the kind of miracles we can understand, miracles born of long years of scientific research and compassionate care. A few get the miracles we can’t understand; they’re just restored to us. But some don’t get the miracles we’re hoping for.
A few weeks ago an alum from my college, a healthy mother of two, passed away suddenly. She was sick for about a day; that was all the time her family got to say good-bye.
Her family is loved and cared for; gifts and prayers have poured in. There are ancillary miracles of a loving community I could lift up. But I feel certain its not the miracle her husband would have wanted.
Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.
It’s a cry that cuts across the ages. Mary and Martha both say it, and they’re joined by everyone who was ever denied the miracle they were hoping for. Lord, if you had been here, my mother wouldn’t have died. Lord, if you had been here, the car wouldn’t have turned over. Lord, if you had been here, the operation would have worked.
We know the end of the story: “I am the resurrection and the life.” We know the end of the story: “roll the stone away.” We know it in our heads, and if we are blessed, we know it in our hearts. But knowing the way the story ends does not make the middle hurt any less. Martha believed. She believed in Christ, in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. But it did not make her heart any less broken, as she looked at her brother’s empty chair. Mary too believed. She loved and trusted Jesus. But still she wept.
And Jesus wept with her.
Which, I think, is a miracle all its own.
The ancient world was full of gods who could do miracles, full of gods who could pull of extraordinary healings, even a few who could pull people out of the underworld. But there were none who would sit and weep with you when your heart was broken.
I will tell you plainly that I do not know why heartbreak is part of life with God, but it is. Not one of us gets through this life without loss. But what I do know is that our God is not just an Easter God, not just a victory and high-fives God. We have a God who will sit with us when we cry and hold us tight when we rage. We have a God who knows the middle of the story as intimately as the ending, a God who has lived what it means to be frightened and lost and alone, a God who knows what it means to lose a friend, a God who knows what it means to die. We have a God who knows how to mourn. And we have a God who will not walk away until the tomb is empty and our bindings are unwrapped at last, until we come blinking into the sunlight of our own final miracle.
Mary and Martha met Jesus, and it wasn’t just their idea of death that got turned upside down. It was their idea of God.
There is one more story about Mary and Martha and Lazarus in John’s gospel, just a few chapters after this one. Mary and Martha throw a dinner party, and Jesus is there, and Lazarus is too. John makes a point of that—Lazarus is there, in his usual seat, at the family dinner table. Mary and Martha and Lazarus and Jesus, together again, together one more time, sharing the joy of each other’s company.
This is the glory of Jesus Christ: not that he comes to be over us, but that he comes to be with us, now and through eternity. No wonder he turned the world upside down.