Not for Lazarus Only

11 1-2 A man by the name of Lazarus was sick in the village of Bethany. He had two sisters, Mary and Martha. This was the same Mary who later poured perfume on the Lord’s head and wiped his feet with her hair. 3 The sisters sent a message to the Lord and told him that his good friend Lazarus was sick.

4 When Jesus heard this, he said, “His sickness won’t end in death. It will bring glory to God and his Son.”

5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and brother. 6 But he stayed where he was for two more days. 7 Then he said to his disciples, “Now we will go back to Judea.”

8 “Teacher,” they said, “the people there want to stone you to death! Why do you want to go back?”

9 Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in each day? If you walk during the day, you will have light from the sun, and you won’t stumble. 10 But if you walk during the night, you will stumble, because you don’t have any light.” 11 Then he told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, and I am going there to wake him up.”

12 They replied, “Lord, if he is asleep, he will get better.” 13 Jesus really meant that Lazarus was dead, but they thought he was talking only about sleep.

14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead! 15 I am glad that I wasn’t there, because now you will have a chance to put your faith in me. Let’s go to him.”

16 Thomas, whose nickname was “Twin,” said to the other disciples, “Come on. Let’s go, so we can die with him.”

17 When Jesus got to Bethany, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was only about two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many people had come from the city to comfort Martha and Mary because their brother had died.

20 When Martha heard that Jesus had arrived, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 Yet even now I know that God will do anything you ask.”

23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will live again!”

24 Martha answered, “I know that he will be raised to life on the last day, when all the dead are raised.”

25 Jesus then said, “I am the one who raises the dead to life! Everyone who has faith in me will live, even if they die. 26 And everyone who lives because of faith in me will never really die. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Lord!” she replied. “I believe that you are Christ, the Son of God. You are the one we hoped would come into the world.”

28 After Martha said this, she went and privately said to her sister Mary, “The Teacher is here, and he wants to see you.” 29 As soon as Mary heard this, she got up and went out to Jesus. 30 He was still outside the village where Martha had gone to meet him. 31 Many people had come to comfort Mary, and when they saw her quickly leave the house, they thought she was going out to the tomb to cry. So they followed her.

32 Mary went to where Jesus was. Then as soon as she saw him, she knelt at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw that Mary and the people with her were crying, he was terribly upset 34 and asked, “Where have you put his body?”

They replied, “Lord, come and you will see.”

35 Jesus started crying, 36 and the people said, “See how much he loved Lazarus.”

37 Some of them said, “He gives sight to the blind. Why couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

38 Jesus was still terribly upset. So he went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone rolled against the entrance. 39 Then he told the people to roll the stone away. But Martha said, “Lord, you know that Lazarus has been dead four days, and there will be a bad smell.”

40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you had faith, you would see the glory of God?”

41 After the stone had been rolled aside, Jesus looked up toward heaven and prayed, “Father, I thank you for answering my prayer. 42 I know that you always answer my prayers. But I said this, so that the people here would believe that you sent me.”

43 When Jesus had finished praying, he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The man who had been dead came out. His hands and feet were wrapped with strips of burial cloth, and a cloth covered his face.

Jesus then told the people, “Untie him and let him go.”

45 Many of the people who had come to visit Mary saw the things that Jesus did, and they put their faith in him.
Contemporary English Version (CEV)

Copyright © 1995 by American Bible Society
+++
Romans 8:1-11Contemporary English Version (CEV)

8 If you belong to Christ Jesus, you won’t be punished. 2 The Holy Spirit will give you life that comes from Christ Jesus and will set you free from sin and death. 3 The Law of Moses cannot do this, because our selfish desires make the Law weak. But God set you free when he sent his own Son to be like us sinners and to be a sacrifice for our sin. God used Christ’s body to condemn sin. 4 He did this, so that we would do what the Law commands by obeying the Spirit instead of our own desires.

5 People who are ruled by their desires think only of themselves. Everyone who is ruled by the Holy Spirit thinks about spiritual things. 6 If our minds are ruled by our desires, we will die. But if our minds are ruled by the Spirit, we will have life and peace. 7 Our desires fight against God, because they do not and cannot obey God’s laws. 8 If we follow our desires, we cannot please God.

9 You are no longer ruled by your desires, but by God’s Spirit, who lives in you. People who don’t have the Spirit of Christ in them don’t belong to him. 10 But Christ lives in you. So you are alive because God has accepted you, even though your bodies must die because of your sins. 11 Yet God raised Jesus to life! God’s Spirit now lives in you, and he will raise you to life by his Spirit.

+++

How fortuitous that this text is assigned for the Sunday after my father died.

Perhaps because there have been times in my life when death seemed like the best choice, I find death to be a friend. In my short stint as a hospital chaplain, I have been at a variety of death bed scenes.  The best are when the dying person is surrounded by family and friends who are prayerfully cheering the person on as she or he moves on to the next life.

However, death is more often frightening and the thought of death holds us in a fearful embrace that destroys peace and defies comfort.  When death comes early or suddenly, when death cuts short the life of a person whose responsibilities encompassed many persons and many roles, death is the enemy.

One of the more interesting novels I’ve read is Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago.  The setting is an unnamed Western European country.  In this one country, people stop dying. No dies.  People continue to be born.  People continue to age.  Soon the nursing homes are full.  People try sneaking their loved ones out of the country, hoping to bring them release from deteriorating life. Funeral directors are reduced to doing funerals for pets. The Church loses its relevance because eternal life is no longer a concern, if one cannot die.

We all know of times when death is the answer, when death is a blessing.

Still, death disrupts, robs, hurts, confuses. wounds.  We can speculate that Lazarus, as the only male in the household, was necessary for the lifestyle, perhaps the very house, in which Mary and Martha lived. To be able to have a life that included a home and food and status, a woman needed to be connected to a man.  That’s the way it was and that’s the way it still is for many people.  It’s not good or bad, unless it doesn’t work to everyone’s benefit.

The household of Mary and Martha and Lazarus was one of Jesus’ favorite hangouts.   It was about two miles from Jerusalem, which made it both a safe haven for Jesus and a convenient headquarters close to the action of the capital city of Jerusalem.  Because hospitality was an important characteristic of Jewish culture, the MML household was probably a popular gathering spot whenever Jesus was in town. “Everybody” knew that Jesus had special connections with the family.  A chance to hear Jesus in a home known for its hospitality was not to be missed.

By the time this event takes place, Jesus is wanted by both Jewish and Roman authorities.  They know he is dangerous, but they have a hard time pinning down both him and his crime.  Because of this, the disciples were not comfortable with Jesus going to Bethany, and they were especially fearful that his visiting Lazarus tomb would attract the wrong kind of attention.

Jesus is adamant: he loved the members of this special family and he wanted to be present to mourn with them.

I know what this is like; perhaps you do, to.  On Tuesday, people form Florida and Texas and North Dakota will be attending my father’s funeral. When we share in the death of a person, we  come not only to honor that person, but to mourn in the company of others, and to celebrate that life in the company of those who loved him. That companionship strengthens the healing process we need after a death.

I have experienced the death of people whose families respected their wishes for no funeral or gathering of any kind.  I always question the wisdom of those wishes.  I find that funerals are the time when we most need each other, when we are most open to expressing our love to each other.  In the last few days, I have seen the word “love” written and spoken by a number of people. We don’t use that word lightly when it comes to people.  It’s easy to say, “I love the Cubs,” or “I love pizza,” but to say that out loud about or to a person is the result of a deep relationship, a strong connection with the deceased and the friends and family.  A funeral gives us that opportunity.

Mary and Martha were upset with Jesus because he had missed that opportunity.  By the time Jesus got to Bethany, the body was buried and not appropriate for viewing.
But Jesus had a plan:

14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead! 15 I am glad that I wasn’t there, because now you will have a chance to put your faith in me. Let’s go to him.”

and I love Thomas’ reply: “Come on. Let’s go, so we can die with him.” Thomas is a realist.  Is he being sarcastic?  Resigned?  Is he trying to be funny?  Regardless, the whole group heads for Bethany, where Jesus  is both welcomed and scolded by the surviving sisters:

21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 Yet even now I know that God will do anything you ask.”
32 Mary went to where Jesus was. Then as soon as she saw him, she knelt at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And even the rest of the crowd is skeptical of Jesus’ motives:

37 Some of them said, “He gives sight to the blind. Why couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Good question: After all, Jesus loved Lazarus.  He wept when he heard that Lazarus had died.  Why hadn’t he kept Lazarus from dying?  Why the unnecessary grief?

Jesus is not fazed by the snarky comments.   He has a plan.

41 After the stone had been rolled aside, Jesus looked up toward heaven and prayed, “Father, I thank you for answering my prayer. 42 I know that you always answer my prayers. But I said this, so that the people here would believe that you sent me.”

43 When Jesus had finished praying, he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The man who had been dead came out. His hands and feet were wrapped with strips of burial cloth, and a cloth covered his face.

In education, we call this a “teachable moment.”  This is another chance for Jesus to teach his followers about His power and His purpose. The lesson: Jesus has power over life and death.

That lesson is great if Jesus is still walking in person in your neighborhood.  But we know that Jesus left town via crucifixion a little later in the story.

So what is our lesson?  Let’s read Paul’s explanation of it in  Romans:

10 But Christ lives in you. So you are alive because God has accepted you, even though your bodies must die because of your sins. 11 Yet God raised Jesus to life! God’s Spirit now lives in you, and he will raise you to life by his Spirit.

We will be raised from the dead.  That’s the truth that carries us Christians, that comforts us, that enables to embrace death, even when it is untimely.

I speak from my own experience now.  I have not been overcome by grief.  I am sad but I am happy, too, because all my life, I have known, as has my father, as has everyone in my family, that death is a process that is painful, but death also discovers that thin space where love takes over, where grace and mercy are no longer necessary, because the earthly body has been resurrected into the perfect body in a perfect heaven.

Lazarus took the trip twice. Most of us take it once. Because we are Christians, we can welcome those final steps that transport us from pain, from confusion, from despair, to everlasting joy, everlasting health, everlasting companionship with those who have gone before us.

Some of us have pictured my Dad being welcomed by frolicking baby lambs—he did enjoy them and raised lots of them. Some of us see him embraced by his own father, whom he admired immensely.  Some of us wonder if his goddaughter is waiting for him, or his cousin who, too, wanted to die on the farm. Neither one of them quite made it back to the farm, but they, and all the saints, have made it Home.

That is the beauty, the grace, the power of being Christians, of being followers of Jesus.
I thank God for the knowledge that this crazy, hugely successful idea of sending God’s Son to hang out with us, to discover what we needed, and to provide it.

Following Jesus is not just about getting into heaven. Following Jesus is about living a life that is meaningful, inspiring, and powerful from cradle to grave.  Amen.