April 2, 2017 – The 5th Sunday in Lent
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha and Mary both say those words to Jesus, and I hear them in my mind as the sorrowful cry of sisters whose beloved brother didn’t have to die. If only Jesus had just gotten there a little sooner. If only he hadn’t dawdled when he got word that his friend Lazarus was sick. If only he had reacted with a sense of urgency when the message from Lazarus’ sisters had reached him. It didn’t have to be this way. The sisters’ grief was that particularly sharp and agonizing combination of anger and frustration and powerlessness and loss, and I can’t help but hear the pain of that complex emotion in their words.
Grief like that makes us uncomfortable. That’s true of any situation over which we are powerless. We don’t like it when someone we love sobs uncontrollably. We become uneasy when there is nothing we can do to comfort someone close to us—when there are no words we can say that will make that person feel better. I think that’s why these words make me so uneasy. The middle of this lesson—the part where Martha tells Jesus that her brother would not have died if he had gotten there sooner—is one of the five gospel lessons appointed for funerals, and I always cringe a little bit when a family picks this one for their loved-one’s burial. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha says to Jesus, and it raises for me (and I worry for the grieving family) unanswerable questions like, “Why did my brother or my father or my wife or my daughter have to die?” and “If God has the power to heal people, why didn’t he heal the person who matters to me?” and “Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Why does God give miracles in some cases but not in others?” Martha and Mary’s question reminds us that it didn’t have to be this way, but it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
The sisters’ words are simultaneously a confession and a condemnation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They recognize in Jesus the power to save their sick brother. It’s a remarkable thing and, I suppose, quite a burden to have that kind of reputation, and Jesus has come by it honestly. Throughout John’s gospel account, he has cast out various demons and cured many diseases. He had even given mobility to a man who had been lame for thirty-eight years and, as we heard last Sunday, had granted sight to a man who had been born blind. “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind,” the man reminded us. Even the crowd wondered aloud why this opportunity for healing had been missed: “Couldn’t the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Everyone knew that Jesus had that kind of awesome power. There was no sickness, no condition, no circumstance so serious that Jesus could not reverse it. But not if he didn’t get there in time.
Dead is dead, or at least that’s what everyone thought. Although they didn’t have CPR back then, resuscitations weren’t unheard of, but four-days dead is another story. You might as well wheel a corpse into an oncologist’s office and ask whether the cancer that killed him can be cured. No one can heal a dead man. The only one who has the power to give life is the same one who has the power to take it—God himself. Jesus might be the most powerful healer on the planet, but he doesn’t have that kind of power, does he? He isn’t God, right?
Unlike her meditative sister, Martha follows up her words with an instinctive invitation to more: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask him.” It was truly unfathomable, so Martha didn’t even know how to ask Jesus to bring her brother back from the dead, but her faith in him left open the possibility that even death might not be the end of the story. When Jesus announced that Martha’s brother would rise again, Martha assumed that he meant on the last day, but Jesus had something else in mind. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said to her. “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?” he asked her. “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
But, other than a vague, non-specific hope, what did that mean for her? What good would that do in this particular moment? As John retells this story, he wants us to see that Jesus was in control from the very beginning. It was no accident that he was delayed. He waited long enough for his friend to die because he wanted Martha and Mary and his disciples and us to see what he could do even in the face of death. “Roll away the stone,” he told them. “But, Lord!” Martha said to him, “He has been dead for four days. Already there is a stench!” And Jesus replied, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” After the stone was removed, Jesus looked up into heaven, said a quiet prayer to his Father, and then cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And then it happened: the dead man walked right out of the tomb, his body and face still wrapped with the linen burial cloths.
And then what? Then what happened? Naturally, Lazarus and his sisters threw a party. God had turned their sorrow into joy. Their weeping had become dancing. So they called together their friends and extended family to celebrate this miracle. The festivities lasted for days, and the story was told with enthusiasm and conviction long after that. For years, people in the village would come up and slap Lazarus on the back, begging him to tell them his miraculous story once again. Sightseers travelled from all over to get a glimpse at the empty tomb and the family home, and, maybe if they were lucky, they would bump into one of the three siblings or another person who was there that day and saw firsthand the dead man come walking out of the tomb. For the three of them, each day felt like a gift. Lazarus had another chance at life. But eventually his age caught up with him. Like the rest of us, he, too, got old, and his sisters got old as well. And, then, one day, his tomb wasn’t empty any more. Four days went past and then four more. This time, the stone stayed right where it was supposed to stay, and over time Lazarus’ body decomposed—ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
You see, even if the miracle does happen, even if the prayers do work, even if the cure is found, eventually the result is exactly same. Death comes for us all. Even Jesus’ closest friend, the one at whose grave the Son of God wept, is not immune to death. And that is where the true miracle of this story is to be found. That is the point of this gospel lesson—not merely that Jesus has the power to bring someone back to life but that Lazarus’ revivification is a sign to us that Jesus has the power to defeat death itself. Lazarus is just a foretaste of the victory to come. He is merely a signpost on the road that leads to Jerusalem and the cross and tomb that wait for Jesus.
That is our true hope—not that our surgeon might get it all, not that the margins will be clean, not that the tumor will respond to radiation or chemo, not that we will beat the odds and live longer than the doctors predicted, but that even death itself is not the end of our story. In Jesus Christ, God has won for us the ultimate victory. Jesus and Lazarus and Martha and Mary show us what it means to believe in “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” We see that death no longer has power over those who believe in him. In Jesus, we believe not in the one who has the power to forestall death but in the one who has the power to defeat it once and for all. Don’t look to God for a way to cheat death. Instead, embrace it as one who believes in Jesus and believes that death is not the end.