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April 5th, 2015

When you know Jesus intimately, you trust him instinctively.

John 11:17-27

April 5, 2015

Why Lazarus

You might find it a little strange to come to church on Easter Sunday and realize the sermon is about a man named Lazarus rising from the dead, not Jesus.

There are two reasons for this. First, for most of this calendar year we have been preaching on “the miracles of Jesus.” That sermon series will end next week, with Jesus’ third fishing miracle, the only miracle recorded after his resurrection. When I was outlining these sermons, I decided that Jesus’ resurrection technically did not fit the series. It’s not a miracle Jesus is responsible for. He was dead.

Second, the story of Lazarus rising from the dead is really about Jesus, not Lazarus. The Lazarus story occupies all of chapter 11 in John’s Gospel, plus 11 verses of chapter 12. Only three of those 68 verses are needed to tell the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. The other 65 are about Jesus. The pinnacle is John 11:25-26, when Jesus declares to Lazarus’ sister, “I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe this?”

I can tell you that on this particular Easter Sunday, this is personal for me.  You have already heard me mention earlier in this service the death of Ed Wiehrdt. Ed would have been 93 later this month, but he was a spry, active, and beloved. One of the ladies putting out the Easter lilies yesterday asked, “Now who are we going to flirt with?” He is one of several beloved members in their 70s, 80s, and 90s we have lost recently.

If you attend here regularly, you know that last Sunday we held a funeral for 5-year-old Sienna “CC” Houck, who passed away after a 3-year battle with leukemia. In life and in death she gave us so much reason to believe. I’m wearing yellow, CC’s favorite color. As her mother Michelle texted me yesterday, “Yellow is the new black.”

Even with its familiar customs, Easter feels different this year. I need to believe.

The resurrection of the dead

Let’s unpack what Jesus is asking Martha to believe.

First, Jesus is asking Martha to believe that there such a thing as resurrection. Don’t confuse this with mere life after death, or immortality of the soul. The Apostles’ Creed says we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” The more you understand about life, the more incredulous this sounds. Laypersons like me think of death as when the heart stops beating and the lungs stop breathing. There are approximately 37 trillion living cells in a human body, according to National Geographic. Every one of those cells is alive and in some way connected to and dependent on the others. It takes only minutes for the brain cells to die without oxygen, but it takes days before all the cells have individually died. As that happens, other life forms, from bacteria we all have inside us while we’re living to insects and other life forms, begin a very natural process of returning that living body to dust, a process we increasingly hasten in our day with cremation.

When we speak of resurrection, we mean that a body that no longer breathes air or circulates oxygen, a body where 37 trillion cells have either died or are in process, where the parts of that body that have been rendered completely unrecognizable through decomposition or cremation, can be reconstituted, revivified, and reoccupied with a living, eternal soul. Do you believe this?

Second, Jesus is asking Martha to believe that death as we know it is an illusion.   It’s not real. You see death. You feel death. But for the one who believes in Jesus, death as we experience it with our senses is only a transition from one form of life to another.

CC’s parents wanted her funeral to be kid-friendly. One of the ways we accomplished this was to have a children’s sermon. With the casket sitting in front of the pulpit I gathered 20 or so children on the chancel steps, and read to them a story titled “Water Bugs and Dragonflies.” It’s about a community of water bugs who live in the mud on the bottom of a pond. They don’t understand why one at a time their friends keep disappearing up the lily stem. They’re sad and confused by the loss every time.

The water bugs make a pact that the next one who crawls up the lily stem will return to tell the others what happened. The water bug who made that suggestion is the next one who finds himself crawling up the stem. Before long he has been transformed into a dragonfly. He remembers the deal and tries to dive down into the water to tell his friends how much better his life is. But as a dragonfly he is unable to get into the water. He realizes that his new life of flying through the air in the warmth of the sun is so much better than what they know, but they’ll just have to wait until they experience it.

Jesus is saying to Martha, “There’s life as you know it, and a better life after that. Give up the idea that death is the end. Even if you die, it’s not death.” The word “death” literally means “die off” or “pass away from.” It means the end. Jesus says the death you see is not that. It only seems like it. It’s a life-to-life transition. Do you believe this?

Third, Jesus is asking Martha to believe him when he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t say, “I provide the resurrection and the life” or “I teach about the resurrection and the life.” No, he says, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” That’s either arrogance or insanity, unless it’s true. If Jesus really said this, he’s either the most pompous, egotistical jerk who ever lived, the craziest lunatic who ever spoke, or he is who Martha said he is: “the Christ, the Son of God, who came into our world.” Do you believe this?

A town of misfits

Lazarus and his sisters lived in a town called Bethany. The temple mount in Jerusalem was about 2400’ in elevation, rising above the City of David. It was also the eastern edge of the city. From there to get to Bethany, you drop 200’ into the Kidron Valley, then walk up 400’ in elevation to the Mount of Olives. On the opposite slope, out of sight of the temple, is Bethany. As the crow flies, it’s less than two miles.

Although there’s some dispute about the name, the best guess is that Bethany means something like “House of Misery.” It wasn’t the place for the popular people. It seems to have been a place for the poor, for lepers, for Galilean pilgrims, all people who could live conveniently out of sight and out of mind as far as the temple leaders were concerned. Here they found community, they found acceptance, they found hope.

It shouldn’t surprise you that Jesus frequented Bethany. He was drawn to the outsiders. During the final week of his life, when he was in the temple courts every day, in the evening he walked down the southern stairs out of the temple, through the Kidron Valley, up the Mount of Olives, and over the crest to Bethany to eat and sleep. It was probably where he stayed every time he came to Jerusalem from boyhood through his ministry, right there in Palestine’s version of the Island of Misfit Toys.

Among those misfits lived three siblings Jesus dearly loved. We know of at least two dinner parties Jesus attended in their home. They seemed to be more prominent and wealthy than most other Bethanians. As far as we know all three were unmarried, who probably felt as singles often feel today – left out. Jesus was single too, and he seemed comfortable relaxing, eating, and sleeping in their home as a guest. The best guess of their birth order was Martha, the oldest and most responsible, then Mary, the middle child and most relational. In both dinner parties Jesus attended in their home, Martha is working in the kitchen and serving the food, while Mary is just hanging out with Jesus. Lazarus was apparently their younger brother. He gets little attention and we never hear of one thing he did or said. What matters is that Jesus loved him. He may have been about Jesus’ age – in his late 20s or early 30s. For Jesus, Lazarus’ death is personal.

We don’t know exactly where Jesus is when Martha and Mary send word their brother was sick, but he is apparently between two and four days’ walk away. There is no “Come quick!” demand from the sisters to their famous rabbi friend, but it still seems odd that Jesus delays two days. He seems rather callous, taking his time and making puzzling statements about “twelve hours of daylight” and how “Lazarus has fallen asleep” and how he was glad he wasn’t there when Lazarus died because it would help them believe. His disciples, meanwhile, recall that the last time they accompanied Jesus to Judea he almost got stoned for blasphemy. Thomas blurts out, “Whatever! Let’s go there and die with Lazarus.”

That apparent emotional detachment at a distance morphs into something quite different when Jesus arrives at Bethany. The family is in the fourth day of a seven-day period of intense mourning. Funeral traditions of the day are rather well known. The body was first kept in the home, but no one was to eat meat or drink wine or study Torah as long as the body was present. The body was wrapped in simple cloths, and burial followed as soon as it could be arranged. The focus was on people – everybody who knew the deceased had a social obligation to show up. Women led the procession to the tomb. People made impromptu speeches. Everyone said how sorry they were, and the guests formed two lines while the closest family walked between them. Then a meal was served consisting of bread, hard-boiled eggs, and lentils. The round shape of the eggs and lentils symbolized life rolling on.[1]

The next week was a time of intense mourning. Wailing and shrieking were not only permitted; they were encouraged. Some families hired professional mourners to raise the decibel level so that everyone would know how much this person had been loved. The tradition was not to allow close family members out of your sight. Don’t picture a scene with respectful, hushed tones as mourners thoughtfully shared their memories of good times with Lazarus. Picture a lot of noise, a frenzy of activity, residents and relatives and out-of-towners moving in and out of intense periods of sobbing.

In day four of this seven-day period, Jesus enters Bethany with his entourage of twelve anxious followers wondering if Jesus’ funeral – or theirs – might be next in Grief Town.

Three times Jesus hears someone say that he could have prevented this. First Martha and then Mary said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha seems to have said it face to face, in keeping with her reserved personality. Mary had first delayed but then ran to Jesus and threw herself at his feet when she said it. Later in the story the Jews (and John seems always to use this term of unbelieving, even cynical religious Jews) said, “If he loved Lazarus so much and opened the eyes of the blind, he could have stopped this if he wanted to.”

But again, my interest in this story – because I think it’s John’s interest – is in Jesus. When he enters this chaotic scene of misery, he himself becomes very emotionally expressive. It’s not that Jesus never cried or got mad, but we get the sense that there is as much emotional intensity with Jesus in this story as anywhere else in the gospels.

The times I recall the deepest emotion were deaths and funerals. I remember a man named Tom who had been physically and emotionally abused by his mother, and had in his adult life a failed marriage, a broken relationship with his only child, a life of promiscuity and a long term partnership with a man who then died. He had poured out his story to only a few people in life, and I was one of them. He once handed me a book that documented one of the worst cases of child abuse in California’s history. He told me, “That’s my story.” He said he felt loved by me and by our church staff and members. When I preached Tom’s funeral, I could not control my emotions.

The timing of my emotions occasionally surprises me. Two days before CC died, when her parents had been told she had 12-24 hours, I felt “deeply moved and agitated” (33), and said out loud, “God I do not want to do this!” Linda and I were with CC’s parents and family for five hours the night she died, but I didn’t seem to have tears. I went home and slept a couple hours, got up the next morning and wept as I read Facebook posts. I mostly made it through her funeral, but the next morning when I re-read my funeral message in private I cried all the way through it.

There’s something about experiencing death personally or vicariously that takes you to a different place emotionally, and it’s not always predictable. Watch how Jesus’ emotions emerge in the Lazarus story. When John says that “Jesus wept” in Bethany, he uses a word that suggests actual tears. I don’t picture him wailing, but I do picture his shoulders heaving and tears streaming down his face.

There’s another word in this passage, used twice, which taps even more into the emotional Jesus. Most scholars think it’s way understated in most English versions, including the New International Version. In verse 33, John says that Jesus was “deeply moved and troubled.” Verse 38 repeats the Greek word translated “deeply moved.” But that just sounds like another way of saying he was feeling emotional.

It’s much more. This word was used to describe a horse snorting. It’s a word that implies indignation and anger – but it doesn’t necessarily require words. You don’t have to say anything for people around you to know you are livid – it comes through in the clench of your face and the tension of your body and in a groan or grunt or snarl. That’s the way Jesus is pictured here.

But why? What made Jesus so angry and agitated and emotional? Some say he was just being human – the loss of his good friend and perhaps the awareness that his own death would soon follow. Some see him empathizing with the sisters, whom he also loved. Some say he was angry at death itself as a consequence of sin. Some insist he was angry at unbelief.

What I notice is that in both cases it’s a reaction to mourners. It’s not the genuine grief of Martha and Mary, nor their honest struggles with faith. He’s angry at the mourners who don’t get it. John calls them “Jews,” but it’s not about race or even religion. In verse 33 he’s indignant at those who trail Mary as she goes to Jesus. They’re weeping, but it seems like they’re insincere – just putting on a show. A funeral is no place to make an appearance and go through the ritual of showing you care. It ticks Jesus off.

The second time he gets mad it’s over the comment from the Jews that if he loved Lazarus so much he could have kept this from happening. Again, there is a wide gap between Martha and Mary who struggle honestly and those whose hearts are hardened my unbelief and simply voice their cynicism at a funeral. That’s not OK with Jesus. It prompts a deep groan of exasperation.

It’s personal

I began this sermon by saying that the resurrection of Lazarus is not about Lazarus. It’s about Jesus. Let me say something that might startle you a bit. The resurrection of Jesus is ultimately not about Jesus. It’s about you. It’s about CC. It’s about Ed. It’s about Nell and Evelyn and Bob and Kent and Mary and Sara and Tracy and Frances and Joe and Madge and Jake and Elinor and Cacky and Helen and Bill. It’s about whoever else you know who has died in Jesus. Do you believe this?

Did you notice how Martha answered when Jesus asked her, “Do you believe this?” She said plainly, “Yes, Lord,” and then added, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Martha has already said she believes in the idea of resurrection, but her words at this point are personal. She’s looking at a man she has known as a family friend, as a guest in her home. She’s baked bread for him and watched him enjoy it. She’s changed the sheets on his bed and washed the dishes he ate from. She’s laundered his clothes. She’s seen him love the poor, embrace the misfits, and teach the Word of God.

Now her baby brother lies in a tomb carved into rock in the side of a hill. Jesus, fully aware that his own limp body will soon be entombed in darkness and coldness as a stone is rolled over the entrance, says, “I am the resurrection and the life… do you believe this?” And she answers, “I believe you.”

She didn’t understand him at that moment. She didn’t understand his delay. She didn’t know what he was getting ready to do. She hadn’t seen him die and rise again. But she had enough experience with him to trust him. And so she made it personal: “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God.” All her previous experiences with him had led her to trust him in her greatest moment of confusion, grief, and weakness. He was enough.

When you know Jesus intimately, you trust him instinctively. When you spend time with him, when you invest in the life of a community of believers, when you open up to him and to them with your joys and struggles, he becomes more believable. That’s what I want for you. This Jesus, he’s just as alive today as he was when he stood talking to Martha. He knows your tears, your anger, your losses, your frustrations, your questions. He knows your sins, and he gave himself completely on the cross to forgive every one of them. He wants you to trust him in the middle of whatever you’re facing. He wants to be personal… with you. Today. Because He’s risen. He’s risen indeed. Amen.

[1] William Barclay provided most of this background in The Gospel of John, v. 2, 102-103.

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