Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 29th, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Ezekiel 37:1-14+Psalm 130+Romans 8:6-11+John 11:1-45

We are in the midst of some rather lengthy stories from the fourth gospel, and this one has its particularly difficult moments as well as breathtakingly astonishing ones. While we can take this story of the raising of Lazarus all in one piece, I find it helpful to consider it as a play in three acts.

Act 1: Setting: somewhere on the east side of the Jordan River

Characters: Jesus and his disciples

Jesus gets a message from his friends, Mary and Martha, that their brother Lazarus – “he whom you love” (11:3) – is sick. Jesus seems awfully nonchalant about this since this family of three were probably the closest friends he had. Yes, he traveled around with the disciples and was close with three of them, but it’s a different kind of friendship when you can escape from your colleagues and partners in ministry and just be yourself among trusted friends. That’s how I imagine Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were for Jesus. And it would have to be serious for the women to contact Jesus in this way.

Jesus and the disciples were on the east side of the Jordan River. In the last chapter, they were in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Dedication, what we know as Hanukkah, and Jesus claimed that he and the Father – God – are one. That did not go over very well with the religious authorities who wanted to stone him and/or arrest him. So he left Jerusalem and went to the other side of the Jordan near where John had been baptizing, and people came out to see him there.

It is in this context that he receives this appeal from Mary and Martha. In a sense they are asking him to risk his life to come, because Bethany is only a little over a mile outside Jerusalem, and you know that the temple authorities are on the lookout for him. But that’s not why he doesn’t go right away. No, he says that God will be glorified in what is about to happen. Yes, Jesus seems to know that his friend is going to die, and yet he does not leave and go to him. He waits for two more days.

End of Act 1.

Act II:          Setting: Bethany

Characters: Jesus, his disciples, Mary, Martha, and mourners

By the time Jesus finally gets to Bethany, Lazarus is four days in the tomb. People have come from all over to bring casseroles and sit in mourning and wailing for the loss of this beloved man. As soon as Martha hears that he has come, she runs out to him. The way the text reads is as if Martha is just making a statement, “If you have been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21) But if we are imagining we are in a play, Martha is screaming at Jesus. Pounding her fists on his chest. Ugly crying. IF YOU HAD BEEN HERE, IF YOU HAD COME WHEN WE SENT FOR YOU, OUR BROTHER WOULD NOT BE DEAD!

Even as Martha makes her confession that she believes Jesus is the Messiah and that all will be raised in the resurrection, if I were playing her, I’d still be spitting words at Jesus, weeping, knowing that what he says is true but not being able to part with my anger and grief at what seems such a senseless death.

And then it was Mary’s turn. Based on what we know of her from Luke, she was the one who sat at Jesus’s feet. In the next chapter of John, she is the one who anoints Jesus with oil and washes his feet with her tears. I imagine her greeting of Jesus more as one of immeasurable sorrow rather than anger, that she literally falls at his feet, broken with grief. And it is in response to her and those weeping mourners surrounding her that even Jesus cries. And the grumblers amongst the mourners scoff, wondering why he didn’t come sooner if he really cared so much.

End of Act II.

Act III:         Setting: Bethany, near a cave covered with a stone

Characters: Jesus, his disciples, Mary, Martha, mourners, and a dead man

Even though Jesus had told his disciples that God would be glorified in Lazarus’s illness and death, I don’t think any of them imagined what was going to happen next. They could  have, since Jesus had been working miracles since amongst them since the wedding at Cana. But raising someone from the dead was more of an imaginative stretch for them than changing water into wine.

So when he tells them to move the stone, Martha tells him, in the words of the King James Version, that “by this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days” (11:39). You don’t get that kind of realism in the more modern translations. Jesus then has a little sidebar conversation with God, like a stage whisper just loud enough for those around him to hear.

“I know I don’t really have to say any of this, God, but these people around me need to hear this so that they will know you and I are in this together.”

And the dramatic highlight of the story comes next. “Lazarus, come out!” (11:44). And out he came, wrapped in strips of burial cloth. I suppose that if Jesus can raise a man from the dead, he could also have unwrapped him, too, but he asks for help from the onlookers. “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:44). And many believed.

End of Act III.

Epilogue:      Setting: Hoboken, New Jersey

Characters: a priest, a couple of onlookers, a virtual crowd of watchers and listeners.

The next thing that happens in our story is that the religious authorities have seen enough. They are now out to get not only Jesus but Lazarus as well. He’s a star witness for Jesus’s defense, and he can’t be allowed to live.

You know, Lazarus never asked for this. No one asked him if he wanted to be brought back to life. Maybe his illness had taken so much out of him that death came as a relief. Maybe he saw that bright light calling him from beyond before Jesus snatched him out of the grasp of death.

It’s a good lesson for us. To be friends with Jesus, to follow Jesus, is to risk resurrection, whether we asked for it or not. Dying to who we are is painful. It can be painful to those around us, those who want us to continue to be who they’ve grown used to us being. But Jesus calls us to new life, and then our life is no longer our own. We’ll be called to do things we never imagined for no reward other than knowing that we are doing what God would have us do.

In a time of fear and anxiety, this era of pandemic, just like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, we can have new life breathed into us by God’s spirit, and, as Paul wrote to the Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).

Be ready to be called to new life in him who came as one of us, who lived and died as one of us, and who rose from the dead, calling us to live resurrection lives. This world needs people who are fully alive, who have been brought out of the depths into new life. Be unbound and set free!

Final curtain.

ASEPSermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 29th, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas