Download or listen to The Fifth Sunday in Lent, “The One Whom the Lord Loves,” (John 11:1-45)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Lord, look: he whom you love is sick.” Lord, look: he whom you love is weak. Lord, look: he whom you love is dying. That’s the message of the sisters of Lazarus to Jesus, with the implication of a request: come quickly, Lazarus is sick. Though we don’t use the same words, isn’t that message similar to the prayers we pray? The prayers we pray for those on our prayer list? For our loved ones, family, friends, the other members of the congregation. I know this is a strong praying congregation. Lord, look: the one whom you love is sick. The one whom you love is suffering or grieving. The one whom you love is having surgery, or has cancer. The one whom you love is dying. Lord, look! That’s what prayer is: asking the Lord to look on this person with mercy, with healing, with love. But when the message of Mary and Martha gets to Jesus, He doesn’t rush to Lazarus, rush to be by his side. Instead, He waits two more days where He is. He tells His disciples that this sickness does not lead to death, but then Lazarus dies. It’s almost like John is reassuring us when he writes that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Even though it doesn’t seem like it, don’t worry, Jesus loved them.
When Jesus finally does go up to Bethany, it’s too late. Lazarus is dead. And Martha and Mary say the same thing to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And the Jews who have come to comfort the sisters say something similar, “Couldn’t He who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something to keep Lazarus from dying?” We know the Lord can heal; we know He can keep people alive. And sometimes the ones for whom we pray do recover; sometimes they are healed; sometimes they do live. But sometimes they die. Sometimes the Lord appears to be silent, or even distant. Sometimes it looks like He comes too late. Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha says, “Yes, I know that he will rise again on the last day.” She believes in the resurrection, and in that she’s far ahead of most American Christians who seem to talk only about dying and going to heaven. Martha knows that on the last day there will be a resurrection. But that’s in the future; it doesn’t seem to connect with her grief in this particular moment. But Jesus is not so much interested in some future point of time, disconnected from here and now. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. This is why Lazarus’ sickness is not unto death: because he trusted Jesus. Whoever believes in Me, even if he dies, he will live. Whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this, Martha?” Yes, she says, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world. Which sounds suspiciously like Peter’s confession. Who do you say that I am? You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, but within moments, Peter’s trying to keep Jesus from doing what He came to do. Martha confesses that Jesus is the Christ, but she hasn’t quite understood what that means. They go to the tomb after Jesus talks to Mary, and Jesus is grieved at the lack of belief, at the wreckage death has brought upon His creation and upon the life of His friend Lazarus. He weeps at the destruction. Then He tells them to move the stone from the mouth of the tomb. But Martha proves that she hasn’t understood when she says, “But the corpse of my brother has been in there four days; it will stink by now. It is rotten.” Jesus rebukes her as He rebuked Peter: “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” And he does. And Jesus tells them to remove the cloth that binds him, and let him go. This is the glory of God: to raise the dead.
It is precisely this miracle that causes the leaders of Israel to plot Jesus’ death in earnest. And not only His death but the death of Lazarus as well. Because if you have a guy walking around who was raised from the dead, people might believe that Jesus actually is who He says He is. So Jesus goes to His death. We are subject to death because of our sin. All die because all sin, says Paul. But Jesus has no sin. He doesn’t go to death because His sin drives Him to it, but because He willingly chooses it. No one takes My life from Me, He says (John 10:17-18). I lay it down of My own accord that I ma take it up again. When Jesus dies and is buried, He doesn’t need anyone to roll away the stone for Him. He doesn’t need anyone to call Him out of the grave. He has the authority of the Father over life and death, and it is impossible for the grave to hold on to the one who is the resurrection and the life. So He comes out after three days, and, unlike Lazarus, He never dies again.
This is Jesus’ final answer to all sickness, all suffering, all death. This is the final answer of Jesus to all prayer. And it is not an answer that He gives only on the last day. The resurrection life of Jesus is not confined to some future time. I am now, currently, presently the resurrection and the life. And so even in the midst of death, we have life. Your baptism was the beginning of His new life in you, when He unbound you from sin and death. Today He feeds you with His own resurrection life, actually and physically. If you eat this food in faith, you cannot die, because Jesus cannot die. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live. And the one who goes on living until Jesus returns will never die, but will be transformed, and his lowly body will be like Jesus’ glorious Body. So it is for the ones you love—the ones Jesus’ loves: they are not dead, they are not dying, not really. Their bodies may be separated from their souls for a time, but if they are in Christ, as Lazarus was, they are not dead but alive with Him. And even though you cannot see them, if you are in Christ, then you are all joined together into the one, living Body of Christ. Where are they? The same place Lazarus was for those four days, and where he has been ever since: in the hands of the living God, the Man who is the resurrection and the life. And that is where you are also, even in the midst of this world, even in the midst of death: you are held in the hands of Him who is the resurrection and the life. And that is the only place where death cannot touch you. Even if you die, your body cannot stay dead. He will come to your tomb and He will say, “Come out!” And you will.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/5/14