April 2, 2017 John 11: 1-46
Prayer: Dear Lord, We pray that you open our eyes to the miracles that occur even today. Help us to see the signs that point to you. In the name you wore while living among us, Amen.
My grandfather grew up on a farm in northeast Georgia. He started school around 1914.
And he told me that his elementary school teacher required the students to recite a Bible verse every day. He always responded, “Jesus wept.”
That was the shortest verse in the King James Bible. Granddaddy – and I -- thought he was very clever.
But in many ways, that verse – “Jesus wept” -- is also one of the most profound verses in the Bible. It comes in the middle of a long story that is unique to the gospel of John – the raising of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus.
In reading that Jesus wept over his friend, perhaps we get a glimpse into his humanity as he experienced grief. Or perhaps we get a glimpse into his fear over his own upcoming suffering. Or perhaps we get a picture of how much our Lord cares about us as individuals.
Whichever, or all three, we get a glimpse into the deep and murky waters that make up the gospel according to John.
Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent, which means we are a week away from Passion Sunday, and two weeks away from Easter. Jesus and his disciples are on their walk to the cross, though the disciples don’t realize it yet.
As Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of Jesus, he drove the moneychangers out of the temple in the last week of his life. That’s what got him executed.
John tells about those moneychangers, too. But he has the incident at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. In his opinion, it was this raising of Lazarus that got Jesus killed.
That’s what I love about the Bible. The gospel writers don’t always agree on what caused what, what led to what, any more than historians do, Anymore than we do.
John doesn’t use the word “miracle.” He uses the word “sign.”
His gospel is built around seven “signs” performed by Jesus. These signs are not celebrated as miracles so much as they are used to point to something else.
That’s what signs do: They point to something -- something we need to know.
Furman University, this exit.
Watch for falling rocks.
Charleston, 80 miles.
Here are the seven signs that Jesus performed in John’s gospel: Turning water into wine at Cana.
Healing the son of a royal official.
Healing an invalid by a pool in Jerusalem.
Feeding the 5,000.
Walking on water.
Healing a man blind since birth. We read that story last week.
And the seventh sign, the greatest sign, is the raising of his friend, Lazarus.
As we saw last week when we read chapter 9 about the blind man in its entirety, John doesn’t hit a story and run the way Matthew, Mark and Luke can sometimes do. He goes into a story and stays there awhile. He gives us detail and dialogue and ponderings. He gives us character development.
If Mark is the Cliff Notes gospel writer, John is the novelist.
We won’t read all of chapter 11 today, because like so many of John’s stories, it is very long. So I’ll just tell the first part.
As Jesus and the disciples traveled, they received word that their friend, Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, was sick in Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem. Upon hearing of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus immediately responded that his friend would not die; this would be an opportunity for the display of God’s glory. So he intentionally stayed two days longer before starting off for Bethany.
That was fine with the disciples. They didn’t want to go anyway. They remembered that the people had tried to stone them the last time they were there.
In fact, they tried to talk Jesus out of going at all. When they couldn’t, his disciple Thomas said, with what sounds like resignation, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”
So, finally, they all went to Bethany. They found that Lazarus had already died and had been in his tomb for four days. His sister Martha ran out to meet Jesus, crying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
That’s where we will pick up today’s reading, on the outskirts of the village with Martha. READ John 11: 23-44.
Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.
Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’
35Jesus began to weep. (Or “Jesus wept.”)
36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’
40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’
41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’
43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.
The big mystery that has haunted this story for 2,000 years is: Why did Jesus wait two days? Why did he wait?
I’m sure you’ve heard in Sunday school that instead of healing Lazarus, Jesus was able to up the ante on this last sign. He raised him from the dead.
After all, in verse 4 that we didn’t read, Jesus responded to the sisters’ plea to come help their sick brother with these words: “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.”
N.T. Wright is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars and the retired Bishop of Durham in England. You can’t get through seminary without reading N.T. Wright.
But what I find most fascinating about him is that he also writes very accessible Bible commentaries under the name Tom Wright.
And what Tom Wright says is that during those two days that Jesus didn’t rush to Bethany, he was … praying. He was praying.
When he watched Lazarus’s friends roll away the stone, he looked heavenward, and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.”
That’s why Tom Wright thinks Jesus was praying during those two days he was missing.
“I knew that you always hear me….”
Another important conversation in this story occurs as Jesus is speaking to Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he tells her.
Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. He was talking quite literally, while Martha, a Jewish believer in resurrection, said yes, she knew he would rise in the last days.
Back in the days before the printing press, scribes copied Scripture over and over. That’s how it was preserved for us.
In some of our ancient manuscripts of this passage, the scribes copied “I am the resurrection” and left out Jesus’ last three words -- “and the life.” They edited him to read simply, “I am the resurrection.”
Scholars surmise that the scribes thought Jesus was repeating himself, and so they “corrected” him.
But maybe he wasn’t repeating himself. Maybe “I am the resurrection” means one thing, and “I am the life” means something else.
I am the resurrection may have meaning for our future salvation, for what we refer to as the afterlife.
I am the life may have meaning right here and right now, as Martha’s brother lies dead in the tomb.
Right here and right now, as we go about our daily lives of eating and sleeping and working and loving and fighting and learning.
Jesus is trying to make Martha understand that he is also the life right here, right now. And he performs a sign to point her that way.
He calls her brother from the tomb. On his way to his own death, Jesus is showing us what new life can look like.
If you noticed, both Martha and Mary voiced identical statements in this story: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
They believed unequivocally that Jesus could have healed their brother. That kind of belief leads to life. Right here. Right now.
Some of you have watched this church come back to life. In 2003, the longtime Triune United Methodist Church dissolved. Many people jumped in to rescue the feeding operation, but few held out any hope that a church body would rebound.
But the people of God took ownership of this church and quite literally resurrected it.
Today my favorite thing is to walk through the church or education building and discover something that I had nothing whatsoever to do with. A repainted room. A new volunteer receptionist. A piece of art. The choir doing a song I didn’t know they were rehearsing. Greenery in the narthex. Visitors I didn’t know were coming. Freshly brewed coffee from the Monday morning breakfast, cooked and served and cleared away before I ever come in.
I’m always stumbling upon wonderful things or people because of the work of the Holy Spirit.
But the resurrection we celebrate at Triune was not cause for celebration in the case of Lazarus. “The rest of the story” was much like that of the blind man who got thrown out of the synagogue.
After the section we read, the chief priest and Pharisees were undone at this seventh sign by Jesus. They called a council meeting.
“If we let him go on like this,” they said, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11: 48)
And so they set out to murder both Jesus and his sign, Lazarus.
I think that is where we find the cause of Jesus’s tears. Not that he was grieving over his friend, for he was about to wake that friend up.
Not that he was fearful over his upcoming death, though that was certainly bad enough.
But that he could draw a friend out of the tomb, that he could offer exciting new life, and the response of those charged with religious leadership was … murder.
The response to new life was murder.
Jesus had spent 33 years among these feckless humans. I think he wept out of frustration and grief and anger and loneliness in the midst of crowds who simply didn’t understand. Who vowed to kill that which they didn’t understand.
Unfortunately, we can do the same thing today. We kill one another’s spirits with putdowns and discouragement and arrogance. With economic inequalities and unfair workplace practices and massive incarceration. With gossip and abuse and violence.
I think we still have the power to make Jesus weep.
Granddaddy, we still have the power to make Jesus weep.