This morning’s sermon comes with a disclaimer. Two weeks ago, there were some complaints from my discernment committee about the length of my sermons. Namely, that they are too short. So, this morning, I’ve beefed it up a bit. Having said that, if you nod off in the middle of my sermon, no worries! I get it. And if you do manage to stay awake, and you start getting restless…well….blame Sherman!
Last week, we heard about Jesus healing a blind man. After healing this man, an act that upset the religious leaders because it was performed on the Sabbath, Jesus hangs around for a bit and chats up these same religious leaders. This is the part of the story the lectionary skips between last week and this.
This exchange is the whole of chapter 10 in John’s gospel, and I think it’s actually pretty important. Not just because giving you a recap is going to make the service run until noon. And not just because it was a paper I wrote in seminary on John 10 that led me to change my academic focus from one of pure intellectual pursuit to pursuing a career in pastoral ministry.
It’s actually important to us this morning because it gives us some important background information concerning our primary text.
In chapter 10 Jesus talks a lot about sheep, gates, and shepherds. Jesus refers to himself as the gate, claiming that all who enter through him (enter what?) shall be saved.
Conversely, Jesus says that all who came before him were thieves and robbers who came only to steal, kill and destroy. Those who came before Jesus are the Jewish religious leaders. You know, the people Jesus is currently talking to.
The text tells us that “they,” the highly educated, literate, religious elite did not understand what Jesus was saying. So, Jesus ups the ante. He says that he is the shepherd. It’s difficult to imagine that the religious missed the allusion this time—Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd…” and all that. Jesus is, in essence, claiming to be God.
Now, this gets a few people riled up, and they try to discredit Jesus: “He’s demon-possessed and a raving lunatic.” Other, though, remembering that Jesus just healed a man blind from birth, disagree. No demon-possessed man could heal the blind.
So, the Jewish religious authorities are split on whether or not Jesus is 8 kinds of crazy. So, he sticks around for the next holiday—the Feast of Dedication. This is what we know today as Hanukkah. It’s a celebration of the cleansing of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus in 165 BC after Antiochus Epiphanes defiled it by sacrificing a pig on the altar of burnt offerings.
If you were here two weeks ago for my last sermon, you might recall that I spent some time discussing ritual purity in Judaism. Pigs are unclean. Really unclean. So, sacrificing a pig on the altar, in the Jewish Temple is really, really bad.
Anyway, Jesus is hanging out, celebrating this festival. And he’s making some bold claims. The Jewish authorities can’t agree on whether he’s crazy or if he really is the Messiah. So, they do something really radical—they ask him! They say, “Hey, if you’re the Messiah, can you just say so? Using plain Hebrew? None of this light stuff. Enough with the sheep and the gate. That whole ‘Son of Man’ thing…. I mean, what? Bread of life? Cannibalism? Seriously!? Enough already! Okay!? Are you the Messiah? Yes or no?”
And how does Jesus answer this really simple question? “You are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice and follow me.” He goes back to the whole, “I am a shepherd” thing! People use this tactic today. You’ll see it on occasion when a news program has somebody really important as a guest on. The host will be asking questions, and the guest will say things like, “Now, that’s an interesting question, but going back for a minute to my previous point….” And they never actually answer another question. (Oh, Sarah Palin). This can run the gamut from ridiculous to infuriating.
But then, Jesus does the unthinkable. He actually claims to be God. So, the religious authorities decide to stone Jesus to death. He, however, escapes their clutches and makes his way over to the opposite side of the Jordan River, about 25 miles away. There, he chats up a whole new group of people, and this group believes in him!
So, this is where we find Jesus this morning. He’s hanging out with a group of people who actually like him! Can anyone really blame him for sticking around awhile?
While Jesus is across the Jordan, probably in an area called Perea, he gets a message from two sisters: Mary and Martha. If there had been telegrams back in the first century, I think it might have gone something like this:
Urgent message. STOP.
He whom you love is ill. STOP.
Please return immediately. STOP.
Miraculous healing needed. STOP.
Mary and Martha. END.
P.S. We’re talking about Lazarus. STOP.
We assume John is with you. END.
Regardless of how it happened, Jesus got the message. Jesus responds by saying the same thing we heard last week. “This is for God’s glory. This is so the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
And then, Jesus hangs out for another two days! Can you imagine what that must have been like for Mary and Martha? “Hey, Jesus! Guy who turns water into wine, who heals the paralyzed, who make blind men see…yeah, you! Our brother is dying, the one you know. The one you love. Please, come heal him!”
And Jesus is sitting there, “Sorry, ladies. My vacation isn’t over. But don’t worry. It will all work out to bring me glory in the end.”
Seriously!? Someone I love is on the brink of death, you’re the only hope for healing, and you decide to spend a bit more time working on your tan, enjoying the weather on the other side of the Jordan?
And then, when Jesus does decide to return to Bethany to assist Mary and Martha, he tells his disciples that Lazarus is sleeping! So, let’s go find him!
This is the point at which Jesus’s disciples are reminding him that just a few days ago the Jewish authorities were trying to stone him. So, recognizing the dangers inherent in going anywhere near Jerusalem, the disciples say, “Look, if Lazarus is just sleeping, he’ll be fine! You’re not really needed. Let’s stay here, where you’re safe. Where we’re safe. Because, you know, the religious leaders have seen us hanging out with you…so, maybe we shouldn’t be going back….”
So, Jesus comes clean and he gives them a frank answer (FINALLY!). He says, “Lazarus is dead.”
And then Jesus says, “I’m glad I wasn’t there.” He says some other stuff in there, too, about how it’s for the disciples’ sake, so that they’ll believe. But, I wonder if all of the disciples heard any of that. Or if they got to the part where Jesus said, “I’m glad I wasn’t there to heal this friend of mine, this man whom I love,” and maybe they missed everything else. I wonder this because I know if I had been a disciple of Jesus in the first century, that’s all I would have heard. And I would have been thinking to myself, “Who are you? And why did I give up everything to follow you?"
But Thomas, the twin, says, “Well, we’ve come this far with Jesus. We may as well return to Judea with him. I mean, what else can we do? We gave up everything to follow him. So, if he’s going to get himself killed, we may as well die with him.”
Of course, there are other ways to read this. When I read it, I have the closing scene from Braveheart running through my head. The one where, after Mel Gibson’s character, William, has been drawn and quartered, and Robert the Bruce has made a sweet deal with king of England, securing a nifty title and ensuring some semblance of peace for Scotland is riding before his troops. It’s down to the last minutes. He’s about to be crowned King of Scotland, under the head of Edward the Longshanks. Suddenly, he turns to them, and he says, “You’ve bled with Wallace! Now bleed with me.” And he leads them into an epic battle that wins Scotland her independence. Maybe that’s what Thomas is saying, “We made a commitment to this. Let’s see it through. Not out of resignation, but out of a love for this man we’ve devoted our lives to.”
So, Jesus arrives in Bethany, which is about 2 miles from Jerusalem, where an angry mob wants to kill Jesus because he told them that he’s God. And we learn that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. And Martha comes to see Jesus. The first thing she does is blame Jesus. “If you had been here, Lazarus would still be alive!” But she doesn’t stop there. She goes on to proclaim that anything Jesus asks, God will give him.
And Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again.
Now Martha, demonstrating a faith in the power of God and the surety of an afterlife says, “I know that he’ll be resurrected on the last day.” She hearkens back to the book of Daniel and says, “Yeah, when the whole thing is over, and the Son of Man descends on a cloud, opening graves and calling forth their inhabitants, I know that Lazarus will rise again.”
And Jesus tells her, “I’m already here. I know the cloud is missing, and I didn’t descend from the sky, but walked up that hill. But I’m telling you, I’m the guy! And if you believe in me, death will never mean death for you.”
So, Martha goes and gets Mary. And when Mary finds Jesus, a whole troupe of Jewish mourners in her wake, the first thing she says to him is, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died! It’s all your fault!”
And Jesus, rather than going through that whole explanation again about how he’s going to resurrect Lazarus, just goes ahead and decides to get the job done. He asks Mary where they buried Lazarus. And as they begin making their way to the tomb, Jesus begins to weep.
And that troupe of mourners who followed Mary says, “See how he loved him! Surely if he can give sight to the blind, he could have healed Lazarus. It’s all his fault the man died!”
But Jesus just continues one, and when they get to the tomb, Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled away. And Mary says, “He’s been dead for four days, Jesus. That’s going to be really, really smelly.”
This a point that actually really confuses me. Not the whole “He’s gonna stink” part, because dead bodies in hot climates rot fast. It’s the four days part. Because, you know, Jesus had been hanging out in a place that was 2 days journey away! Which means that unless the telegram delivery guy was feeding his camel jet fuel, Lazarus was likely dying as Jesus was getting the message! There’s no way Jesus could have gotten back to Bethany in time to save Lazarus!
So, then, we’re left the one alternative as to why all the blame falls squarely on Jesus’s shoulders. He never should have left Bethany in the first place! Except, you know, for the fact that people were trying to kill him….
But Jesus doesn’t point any of this out to them. He just reminds them that he’s made them a promise: if they believe, they will see the glory of God.
Then, Jesus says a short prayer out loud, acknowledging that God has heard and always hears him. Then, he shouts, “Hey, Lazarus! Come out and party with us!”
And Lazarus comes out, still wearing the burial shroud. And Jesus command the people, “Unbind him and let him go!”
Now, a lot of the images in this story parallel the images in another story. One found in the Gospel of Mark. I don’t have time to fill those out for you today. I’m sure you’d like to get home before supper. However, for those of you who are interested, I would suggest you take some time this week to compare and contrast this story with the two stories found in Mark 5: the Garasene Demoniac and Jairus’s Daughter/The Bleeding Woman.
In today’s story, Jesus does this amazing thing—he raises a man from the dead. Resurrection! Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen anybody raised from the dead. And certainly not after four days. This does not, however, mean that I don’t belive it’s true, or even possible today. I totally think God can do it! The last time someone I loved deeply died, I prayed and prayed for a bodily resurrection. I prayed up until the pastor, at the memorial service a week later, declared, “Into your hands, we commend his spirit.” It didn’t matter that my friend had been cremated. This commending of his spirit was truly the final nail in the coffin for me. “That’s it. It’s over,” I remember thinking.
And I wondered where Jesus was. What interrupted him? Why hadn’t he shown up?
But then, I began to think about my friend. I began to tell myself the stories had shared with me. In knowing his story, I was able to see the ways in which God had worked resurrection miracles in his life—a victim of childhood sexual abuse, he went on to become a world renowned Broadway actor. A man who wasn’t even sure he believed in the God he so fiercely hated became the most gifted minister I have ever had the privilege to know.
And I began to tell myself my own story; I began to acknowledge the parts of my life in which Jesus had worked resurrection miracles. Most of you have known me since I was a child. Surely you can see the change! This awareness of the resurrections in my own life brought about a new resurrection—a renewal of my faith. New life was breathed into me. My eyes were opened, and I began to see the resurrection miracles in the lives of those around me.
And so, this morning, I encourage you to look with new eyes; to see the resurrection miracles all around you. Even and most especially during those times when it seems Jesus is too late. See where the resurrection has already happened. Look anew for the resurrections happening now. And give glory to God.
This morning, I leave you with the final words from our first reading, from the prophet Ezekiel 37:9-14:
Then he said to me, “Prophesy, to the breath, prophesy, mortal and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”
I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to the, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act.”