March 29, 2020
Our scripture this morning comes again from the gospel of John. Now I need you to understand this upfront… I had chosen to preach on this passage months ago before any of this coronavirus weirdness began. The story of John 11… the raising of Lazarus from the dead… is today’s normal gospel lectionary passage. And to be honest… this week I’ve struggled whether or not I needed to change the passage and go with something different since this pandemic is killing so many around the globe and here at home. This isn’t just some story… it’s a story that’s happening here and now… and just hearing this story stirs all manner of emotions. It’s tough. But I don’t think because it’s emotionally tough is enough of a reason to skip it. What I want to do today is try to focus more on what this story teaches us about the hope that is resurrection rather than the emotional longing we have for being able to bring the dead back to life.
So… like last week… this is a long reading and you may want to have your Bible in hand as we open our ears to the hearing of God’s Word speaking to us through John 11 verses 1 through 45.
READ John 11: 1-45
The resuscitation of the dead is not a unique story in scripture. There are stories of others who have been resuscitated from the dead in both the Old and the New Testament… meaning there are others who have died and have been brought back to life by people other than Jesus. He’s not the only one who has worked this miracle. There is a story in the book of Acts, for example, of Peter bringing the disciple Lydia back to life after she had died. The difference with Lazarus compared to the other stories… is time. Lazarus has been dead longer than the others. When Jesus arrives at the tomb and they are worried about the smell when they tell him to roll back the stone… they are worried about the amount of natural and normal decomposition that had already taken place. But it’s more than that. According to the footnotes in my Harpers Collins Bible… “Jewish belief held that the soul lingered near the body for three days, so that death was truly final on the fourth day.” Jesus performs this miraculous resuscitation on the fourth day when death for Lazarus is final. That’s the reason he delays. That’s the point of the miracle that is supposed to grab people’s attention. It’s a callous aspect in the story… the waiting… what I would call the taking advantage of the situation. That’s part of why I’m more interested in hearing what this story has to say about the nature of resurrection rather than the miraculous resuscitation of Lazarus. That brings more to mind these charlatan preachers who are out there selling some manner of snake oil for the cure of the Coronavirus. Jim Bakker got in trouble for trying to take advantage of the situation. I’m sure there are many others offering to protect people right now from illness and death if you send the right amount of money to come under their prayer protection… or who are trying to sell people magical totems. Lazarus coming out of that tomb is miraculous… but ultimately it is only the resuscitation of a dead body. We need to be clear. Lazarus in this story is not resurrected. There is only one in scripture who has been resurrected. And there is a difference between Jesus’ resurrection and what happens to those who have been resuscitated. There is a different meaning Resurrection… in a theological sense… is so much more.
So let’s look at the part of the story again where Jesus meets Martha on the way to the tomb… because the two have a very theological conversation. And this time, I’m going to read from Eugene Peterson’s the Message.
Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.”
When Martha encounters Jesus, her mind is on the resuscitation of her brother. She knows Jesus is able to heal… and would have done so if he had been there with her brother during his illness. Martha still believes… she still believes that even after four days there is something that can be done. With God, nothing is impossible. But we need to be clear… her underlying hope… what she wants most from Jesus at this moment is for her brother to be resuscitated… to be brought back to biological life. It’s only normal. And something I’m sure many of us can relate to.
Jesus tells her, “Your brother will be raised up.” What we see with Martha’s response to his words is a person who… while still hoping for the miracle of resuscitation… is also dealing with her grief through her faith, which seems clear as she responds, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.” The resurrection at the end of time… the time when God’s justice and mercy and peace are realities throughout all of creation… the time when the home of God is among mortals… when God will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away… to borrow the words from Revelation. Resurrection… on the last day… when soul and new body… new body so different from the one that died… when soul and new body are united… when death is no more… it’s a promise from God believed by Martha in her faith. God will not forget nor will God stop until the redemption of all creation is completed. Hers is a faith that echoes with the words of Psalm 139… which if you don’t know the psalm by heart is God pretty much saying…
At this point... a video snippet was dropped into the sermon of Andre Peele singing the chorus to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough". You've just got to watch the video to understand.
But I don’t want you to get distracted… I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time. It’s a faith statement declaring trust in God… trust that goes further than what we can see in the moment. It’s a trust that in the end… in the end… God’s will will be done. It’s a trust that in the end… the redemption of all creation will be accomplished. And it’s a trust that… that as all things are made new… God will not forget us… and we too will be made new… body and soul. A new earth without sin separating us from God or from one another. All those ideas are wrapped in resurrection. Resuscitation is a dead body coming back to life. It’s not the same.
Like Martha… we know this faith talk well. We may even believe this faith talk. But like Martha does, it’s also faith talk that we project out into the future… into the someday to come. It’s faith that too often… in the here and now… feels like an empty belief that at times does mean much beyond knowing the right words we’re supposed to say… especially in the moment when grief has taken up residence in our hearts like it has with Martha who wants nothing more than to have her brother back with her… here and now. Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.
Again… from Peterson’s translation… Jesus responds… “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?” Now again, like Martha… when we hear these words that we’ve heard so many times before… what do we do with them but throw them into the future. These are the words we say over the dead… these are the words we use to express our hope in the resurrection at the end of time. But what Jesus is saying is… you don’t have to wait for the End. We lose the immediacy in what Jesus is saying. Now is the time of resurrection… even while you still live… it’s not just that thing for the dead, it’s meant to start now with the living… now is the time God dwells among the peoples. I am the dwelling place. That’s what Jesus is saying about himself. God is at work here and now. Abide with us. Come live with us. Even in the midst of this grief. Even now a new heaven and a new earth are taking shape around you. I know it can be hard to see… and that it does take eyes of faith that may still only glimpse it dimly. It’s not just going to happen at one time on that one day way way off in the future. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life.
Resurrection is more than a dead body coming back to life.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans… “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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.” Lazarus coming out of that tomb… it’s an amazing miracle… it’s a miracle I’ve prayed and hoped would happen many many times myself when in the presence of illness and death. But it is only resuscitation. The life that comes with resurrection is a life that reflects the Spirit of the one who brings life. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. That is reason we can still sing allelulia even at the tomb.
The Old Testament lectionary passage today is Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones. Look it up… Ezekiel 37. The Lord tells Ezekiel to “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. And the bones rattle about and sinews and flesh come back upon them… but there is no breath in them… so Ezekiel prophesies more and breath from the four winds come into these bodies… and they are made alive… but they do not yet live… “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…” Resuscitation brings life to the dead… but it doesn’t make the dead alive.
Not until the spirit of God dwells within do we really live. Though we come back to life even after four days in the tomb… not until the spirit of God dwells within do we really live. Even we who are still living the life into which we were born… not until the spirit of God dwells within do we really live. This is a time of illness and death… but it need not be a time without the spirit of God living through us. That’s resurrection. That’s the difference.
I am, right now, Resurrection and life. Do you believe this? Amen.