Updated: Apr 18
“IT'S LIFE AND DEATH”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
March 26, 2023
John 11: 1-19 NRSV
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Is there any other more famous astronaut than Captain Kirk, aka William Shatner? After all he has explored space both in fantasy and reality. As Captain Kirk he went places where no man had gone before, right? As Bill Shatner, he rode Jeff Bezos vanity rocket into the real outer space. Recently he commented that it caused him to contemplate his mortality. He said that up there in space, he looked back at the beautiful blue marble we call earth and out into the black infinite darkness of space and wondered – is this what death is, just an infinite blackness and emptiness? Is that all there is? These are questions of life and death, that at moments, perhaps we all ask even if we haven’t ridden a rocket where no man has gone before.
As we get ready to celebrate Easter yet again, we look to the claim of Jesus’ resurrection as the answer to an infinity of darkness and nothingness. But hold on. We’ll get there. We are not yet to Easter, to the story of Jesus’ resurrection. But today we are at the story that foreshadows that one. The story of Lazarus and his death and return to life is our text this morning. And like last week, it is too long a story to read out loud so I urge you to read all 40-something verses as soon as possible. Let me give a brief summary of what we left out and then get to these questions of life and death.
Jesus heads to Lazarus’ home town. When he arrives, he gets an earful first from Martha and then from Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. They make it plain they didn’t appreciate Jesus waiting 4 days before he came to help. In the dialogue with Martha, she and Jesus debate the resurrection. Martha assumes it will come, later, in “the end times.” Jesus tells her it is right there wherever he is. Then he asks to be shown where Lazarus has been laid. Then we have every Sunday School child’s favorite memory verse: Jesus wept. Everyone is awed at his love and compassion. Well, most everyone. As on social media today there are those – what are they called? “Gnomes?” “Elves?” Oh, “trolls!” Who say, “well, if he loved him so much couldn’t he have prevented this? After all he changed water into wine and fed all those lazy welfare queens bread and fish.” Yeah, even the Bible knows there have always been critics, and probably always will be.
So Jesus calls for Lazarus’s tomb to be opened and then comes MY favorite verse: “But Lord he stinketh!” They open the tomb in spite of this and Jesus shouts, “Lazarus come out!” Laz comes out, Jesus says, “unbind him,” and everyone goes off to kill the fatted calf, oh, wait that’s a different parable, isn’t it? The next part we almost never read in church. That’s when those trolls, go running back to tattle on Jesus. They wail and gnash their teeth! “If Caesar find out about this they will come and destroy us!” The High Priest Poobah, Caiaphas, then chillingly says, “You fools! It is better for one man to die than the whole nation to be destroyed!” And so the plot to have Jesus executed by the political powers of Caesar are set into motion.
So, all that said, what’s the point, you ask? As I keep complaining, there is too much to do in one sermon. The best place to start I think is to ask, “What is it that John is trying to tell his original readers and hearers? What questions was he trying to answer?” The purpose of a “Gospel” was to answer questions of faith for the faith communities each of these writers led. They were in a sense their “sermons,” answering questions their followers had.
The biggest question for the early believers and their skeptics was how they could worship and proclaim a man who was executed as a threat to the government, and a blasphemer and sinner in the eyes of the religious leaders. John answers by giving example after example of Jesus actions and words that proved he was not an enemy of God. John, like the other Gospel writers portrayed Jesus performing miracles. John calls them “signs” - changing water into wine, healing a blind man - we talked about that last week - and of course this, the ultimate sign – the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Each time Jesus talked about how his relationship with God was the source for these signs and the proof that he was who he said he was. John signals this is in his own way. He quotes Jesus saying he “I am,” which is the translation of the Hebrew word for God: YHWH. Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life, … I am the resurrection and the life,” as he tells Martha in our story today. It is a signal that God and Jesus were not separated by sin or blasphemy. They were one in spirit. Jesus’ power came from God, and it was the power of life and death.
In keeping with that, perhaps the hardest question this passage addresses is why we have to die, and why doesn’t God just intervene and keep us alive? The lesson that underlies this passage is that “this death,” and really any illness or death is not the end. John repeatedly reports that Jesus referred to these kinds of suffering as being a way to glorify God, to bring glory to God. His reasoning lies just beyond logic and simple argument for most of us. It seems to rest on a spiritual plain of higher truth. It is, in a sense, a matter of faith, of trusting God intends to use every situation – even terrible ones of suffering and death to reveal God’s glory. The parable John tells of the raising of Lazarus is, once again, the ultimate proof that even death cannot defeat God’s glory, God’s power, God’s love for us. And the conversation Jesus has with his disciples about waiting is also a subtle way to teach that even when God doesn’t seem to intervene “in time,” yet it will somehow lead to greater glory. All of this revolves around that word “redemption.” Redemption is the power to take what is bad, what is evil, what is death and transform it into something good, something just, something life-giving. Jesus is the sign of God’s redeeming power.
There are probably at least five or more other questions we could tease out of this text, but the most interesting and perhaps most important is the hardest question. It comes from the reaction to raising Lazarus from death. The religious leaders decision that Jesus must be handed over for death is shocking at one level. Most of us, even if we weren’t believers in Jesus as the Christ, or the Son of God, or the Savior, or any other high title of glory, would be shocked that anyone would be killed for doing something as wonderful as giving someone back their life. Why, we all love those stories of heroes who rescue the child from the fire, the little old lady from the mugger on the street, heck, even the horse rescued from an icy pond we read in the news. Why would anyone plot to kill Jesus for giving a man back his life?
One writer puts it like this: “Jesus is dangerous. Jesus has the power to turn your life upside down. Jesus offers life, but he also offers a cross. He offers life, but only to those that would turn their life away. He offers comfort, but only to those that mourn. Jesus came to afflict the comfortable. He [said he] came to turn sons against fathers and daughters against mothers. If we don’t have at least a little bit of fear about what discipleship really means, than I’m not sure we really get it. Following Jesus can lead [us] into dark places – uncomfortable, dirty, smelly places. It can lead us into danger, and bring us into contact with dangerous people. Following Jesus calls us to our pews and our hymns and our rituals, but it also demands that we go out into the world. Jesus calls us to love. And love can be difficult sometimes.
“Following Jesus means that we have to love, and its okay if that scares you a little. It should. It means that you’re paying attention. It means that you have your eyes wide open to the cost of discipleship.”
“The Church, by and large, on Sunday will end the story of Lazarus with a happy ending, but they will forget to see the danger of what Jesus did. Jesus revealed that his power was of God, and those that held onto Earthly power reacted in the only way they knew how.1
Wow! Did I say I liked that quote? I don’t think I liked it, but it made me think. It made me pay attention. We don’t think of Jesus as dangerous. We like “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” We like miracle – worker Jesus, except when he doesn’t do our miracles, the ones we want, you know, like a trained monkey. But here’s what this parable shows us. What Martha and Mary regarded as a great thing – the resurrection of their brother – others saw as dangerous. So maybe it is easier to believe that Jesus doesn’t have this “wonder-working” power. Maybe it is safer to think, ah, those are just stories.
We don’t like to think of our faith as a matter of life and death. We like to think of it as a comfort. We like to think of a place to go and feel good. I’d rather preach pop psychology sermons on positive thinking. But I can’t. Because I keep reading the Bible and not just making stuff up. I keep hearing these stories and thinking about it. So, don’t let me cause you too much angst with my own issues. But redemption is a matter of life and death. Or maybe I should say, death and life.
After all, you know as well as I do that life is a “life and death business.” We may fish and swim and hang out and have a cold beverage down here in paradise. We may like to pretend there’s no trouble in paradise. But here in paradise people suffer abuse at the hands of spouses. People experience health issues that are deadly. Some have disabilities or mental health issues or addictions and a whole lot of other situations that can be life or death.
Even if you aren’t Captain Kirk, but you are staring into the darkness wondering, is that all there is, you might want a real Captain of your Fate to say, “trust me.” That’s when you better have a Jesus who knows about life and death. That’s when you need a Jesus who is dangerous to death. See that’s what I think the story of Lazarus tells me. Jesus IS dangerous. He’s dangerous to death. He’s dangerous to injustice and evil. His way, his life, his love, his light, his power are all dangerous to the powers that want to steal our lives. You can call it what you want, a miracle, a coincidence, a surprise but the story of Lazarus tells me all those other powers are scared. They know that there is something more powerful than them and his name is Jesus.
He’s the one brave enough to say “I AM” when we ask who can save us. He is the one with the courage to risk the cross to save a friend who died. He is the master of life and death. His way is the way that has power to transform death to life. The only question is whose power do we want to trust? The ones who claim to have the power of life and death or the One who gave his own life by saying, “I AM.” AMEN.