Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Death makes us all us a bit uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t stop us from laughing. A zealous man once telephoned Woodrow Wilson when he was then governor of New Jersey in the wee hours waking him from his sleep. “Governor Wilson,” the man announced, “your commissioner of highways has just died, and I would like to take his place.” Wilson replied sleepily but slyly, “Well, if it’s all right with the undertaker, it’s all right with me.” Yes, you should smile. Death is an enemy to be sure, but it doesn’t proclaim the final word on life.
Today’s lesson from St. John’s Gospel is commonly referred to as the raising of Lazarus, but if the evangelist had intended merely to portray the dramatic raising of Lazarus from the dead, he could have edited the passage down to a few verses. He certainly doesn’t want Jesus or his readers to arrive at the tomb too early. Instead, St. John has left us with a poignant and engaging portrait of how even Jesus’ friends face the tragedy of sickness, loss and death. The wonderful surprise at the close of the story, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, is the good news that we needn’t fear death. It is the assurance of the resurrection from the dead- and our hope for eternal life.
But there’s another truth as well. Jesus’ disciples needn’t fear the disappointment and tragedies of life. Even though your dreams and hopes have been shattered, Jesus will enter your life bringing you new hope and meaning. It is good news for our troubled spirits.
Let us now meditate on the story of Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. No doubt there were skeptics who chided Jesus for not arriving in Bethany earlier. As he wept beside the tomb of his friend Lazarus, they whispered curiously, “See how much he loved him!” While others responded, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” After all, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, were not mere acquaintances. Granted, they were not counted in the inner-circle of twelve disciples, but neither were they complete strangers. They were scripture’s “unknown” friends of Jesus. They were loyal followers with but a little place in scripture, a brief mention here or there, and yet with such a large and secure place in Jesus’ heart.
In St. John’s gospel, we read that, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary and Lazarus.” But why did he love them? I rather suspect that he loved them because they were his unassuming friends. While all of Judea lifted its eyes unto the spectacle of Jerusalem, Jesus knew that he could always find a quiet and inviting place in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. While the nation gathered at the royal court of Herod to devour the eloquent words of political and religious pundits, Jesus trusted that in Bethany, Mary would always listen contently at his feet to his gentle teaching. While Pharisees and scribes feasted in the Jerusalem’s banqueting halls surrounded by servants, Jesus knew that in the village of Bethany, he would welcomed by the anxious but effective Martha who would prepare meals for her honored guest. In Bethany Jesus counted on the companionship of his unassuming friend Lazarus. Yes, they were Jesus’ unknown but steadfast friends. He could count on them for loyalty, support and gracious love.
Perhaps, that’s how you would describe yourself and your Christian faith. You are not overly demonstrative of your convictions. You are an unassuming, unknown friend of Jesus. Loyal, trusting and faithful. Unfortunately, even Jesus’ most loyal friends are shaken at their spiritual core when their loyalty to him is challenged. And that happens when sickness, tragedy and loss destroy our perception of God’s loyalty towards us. Your son has been diagnosed with leukemia, a child has been born with a deformed heart, a good marriage has been marred by alcohol abuse, a mother dies of an undetected brain aneurysm. We are haunted by the thoughts, “Jesus, you said that you loved me.” That’s what Lazarus’ two sisters felt at the death of their brother.
As Martha greeted Jesus on the road to Bethany, she must have been filled with these thoughts. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Yes, if.. Jesus’ timing didn’t fit her need. That’s how you feel about God’s timing and your hour of need. But then Martha trustingly and strangely added, “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give to you.” What did she mean by that? She probably hardly knew herself. The unknown friends of Jesus often give to him a blind trust. They do not presume to know what is the will of God, nor do they even know what they themselves ought to ask for. But Jesus’ unknown friends are entirely sure of God’s love for them, and his compassion toward them, and his power to carry through what no one else could do for them. And they leave it at that with quiet, contented and sometimes frustrated minds.
And Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” To which Martha responded, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me, though they die, will live.”
This is our Lord’s promise, to you and me as well. Even when all the world seems to be crashing down around you, God will give you new life again. Even when sin and evil have overtaken you, God will breathe a new spirit into your life again. Even though your dreams and hopes have been shattered, Jesus will enter your life bringing you new dreams and hopes again. But my friends, this promise isn’t simply about heaven and a world to come, as glorious as that may be. No, I believe that the Jesus’ promise of the resurrection and life is also about a new life that begins here and now.
Now you may be wondering, so how do I experience this new life in Jesus Christ? The closing verses of the story of the raising of Lazarus suggests three ways in which I believe you may glimpse the beginning of resurrection and life Jesus promises.
First of all, the story begins with Jesus’ simple command, “Take away the stone.” It’s an odd command, for certainly Jesus who was about to raise the dead to life, could have moved the stone by his own power. But the command implies a divine truth for your life as well as mine. Jesus will not and does not do for you what you can and should do for yourself. God’s infinite grace, free though it may be, will not coddle and spoil you, nor will it allow you to lazily sit back, expecting Jesus to manage everything for you. If there is to be a miracle of resurrection in your life, my friends, you must bend your back and strain your muscles and heave, playing your little part, seek counseling, kick the habit, change your outlook, what ever it may be, to experience a new resurrected life. You need to take away the stone in your life.
Secondly, there will always be an awkwardness that occurs when you truly place all of your trust God’s mercy and grace. Why, you may ask? I think it’s because we believe that God will mess it up. We sit up late in the night in our beds fretting about the details that God has overlooked. We offer God counsel, instead of listening to him. For poor Martha, it was a quick involuntary protest. She was fearful that something dreadful would happen. Her brother Lazarus had been buried four days. In the heat of the Middle East, she was certain that the body had already begun to decompose. Surely Jesus was forgetting this. Surely he was not about to bring upon about this crowning, unendurable horror. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” To which Jesus answered, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”
We should remember that at times Jesus may appear to act very strangely, indifferently and cruelly towards us. You may wonder how much more you can take from his hand. But my friends, it is only afterwards, when looking back, that you will see for yourself and confess your own folly in having doubted. In the meantime you must hold fast to your belief in him, or he will not be able to work out all that he has in his heart to do for his unknown friends. They took the stone away, and Martha made no further protest, but watched silently, trusting in him and in his steadfast love.
And finally, you must always keep your eyes on Jesus, and Jesus only. Do not be obsessed with other ways or answers. Jesus was surrounded by watchful eyes. Some of them were doubtful, and others quite hostile. Others hoped to see a complete failure and a ridiculous collapse. Jesus lifted his eyes and heart to heaven in thanksgiving for what he knew that the Father would give him. “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” And then Jesus said, “Come out.” And Lazarus came forth alive. The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him and let him go.”
But my friends, the promise of the resurrection and life, doesn’t end there. It is for your and your life as well. Even now the voice of Jesus is calling you as well, saying, “Come out.” Have you started up to a newness of life and being? Or having heard the call have you stirred only a little, and dropped off into the sleep of doubt, despair and death again. Have you chosen the cramped darkness of the tomb or the beautiful color and fullness of the life Christ is offering you his unassuming friends? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.