Fifth Sunday in Lent

Historians have determined how far Christianity spread in the ancient world through inscriptions left on public monuments, especially on grave stones.


Many early Christian graves have small symbols like a fish for Christ, an anchor for hope, a palm for victory, etched in the stones.


Why was this? Because before the fourth century, the practice of the Christian faith was illegal in the Roman empire. Christians had to assemble for worship under the cover of night, before dawn. And when they buried their dead, they could not be open in their use of language. The messages had to be oblique, indirect.


For example, an inscription on the grave of a second century bishop in Asia Minor named Abercius speaks of him as a “disciple of a holy shepherd.”


There is another fragment of an ancient epitaph that reads: “he was forty-seven years old, but he really lived seven years.”


How many of us would understand the meaning of that phrase?


Someone is saying that he met Christ, and the resulting change in his life was so radical that it could only be compared with passing from death to life. Only after forty years did he really start living.


There was a new joy, a new peace in his life. He found meaning and direction. Or he was able to forgive himself. Or he learned to open himself to give and receive love. Or whatever it was, Christ brought him to life (Mark A. Villano).  


If we walked by this grave, noticed the epitaph, and paused long enough to read it, would we be able to relate to it? Would we nod thoughtfully, and say to ourselves: “Yes, we certainly know what the Lord can do in a person’s life.”


Author Mark A. Villano invites us to contemplate the distinction between mere “existing” and true “living.” We see people everywhere around us “existing.” They are eating and drinking, waking and sleeping, working and playing. But how many of them are truly living?  


During these past few Sundays in Lent, John has been teaching us about the power of Jesus to make alive. In his midnight dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus spoke about being born anew in the power of the Holy Spirit. To the incredulous Nicodemus, Jesus declared that the miracle can happen: to be receive oneself anew as a gift and to begin life over again, in spite of the fact that one is old.  


It is the same message to the Samaritan woman at the well, only using a different image. The woman thirsted for life that is truly life, but could not satisfy it in relationships with men, which ultimately only disappointed her. But in Jesus, who gives living water that wells up to eternal life, she found the satisfaction of her deepest desire.


It is the same message to the man born blind, using yet another image. The man groped through life in darkness and bore the crushing weight of shame. But then Jesus, the light of the world, met him. And when he applied mud on his eyes, and sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam, he came back seeing. And he received not only his sight, but also a new confidence, a new way of showing up in the world.


And today, in the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the climax of Jesus’ public ministry, the most dramatic of all his signs, all these images are summed up and clarified. If there was any doubt about the meaning of the signs that Jesus performed before, there cannot be now. Jesus speaks plainly: “Lazarus is dead. Therefore let us go to him, so that you may believe” (cf. John 11:14,15).


John is a master storyteller. Perhaps nowhere else is this more on display than here. There is dramatic tension. Jesus hears through Martha and Mary about the illness of their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus loves. But he does not go to him immediately, but rather stays two days longer in the place where he was.


But to go at all is to walk right into danger. The Jewish authorities already tried to stone him. Would they not be lying in wait to kill him, if he shows up in Bethany, two miles outside of Jerusalem?


And so we, the readers, fear not only for his friend Lazarus, for whom Jesus may not arrive in time, but also for Jesus and his disciples, among whom it is Thomas who calculates the cost of following Jesus. “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).


So we, the readers, at this point are asking ourselves: “How is this all going to come out?” How will the events to come bring resolution to this dramatic tension?”


Jesus does in fact go, thereby anticipating by his actions what he will later teach by his words in the upper room: “no greater love does a man have than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).


When he arrives, Jesus finds out that Lazarus has already been in the tomb four days. The detail included here may be missed by readers today. John adds it in recognition of the Jewish belief that a person is really dead only after three days. The third day is the decisive day. After three days, it is finally certain that all hope for the one in the grave is to be abandoned.


Martha comes out to meet Jesus. She confirms what the detail has already signaled. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died…” (John 11:21).


The appearance of Martha, and later Mary, her sister, add to the pathos of the scene. They are after all the sisters of Lazarus, whom death has overtaken. They are the ones left to grieve the loss of their loved one.


“Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died…” (John 11:32).


The first words the women speak to Jesus have a tone of accusation, do they not? They are upset with Jesus. What kind of friend, who holds the outcome in his hands, would fail to show up on time, and then later come sauntering down the road with his entourage, making his grand entrance? (Mark A. Villano). No wonder Mary decided at first to stay in the house.


We don’t understand why the Lord delays. We don’t understand why we don’t receive answers to our prayers for solutions to our problems when we really need them.


We feel let down, even abandoned sometimes, like lifeless, dry, abandoned bones scattered across the floor of a valley. We don’t understand why it seems to be God’s will that it should take so long for us to learn the spiritual lessons that God wants to teach us through our pain and distress.


But if we’re troubled because this has so often been our lot in life, we should find comfort in what John has been teaching us through his Gospel. Because even though the divine intent in our suffering, in our grief, is hidden from us, John teaches us to rest assured that God’s ultimate intent is to work through it in such a way that it brings him glory.


For this reason, we must not believe the lie that God is out to harm and destroy us, even though we can be very tempted to do so, especially when we are really hurting. It is not God, but lack of trust in God that harms and destroys us. That is evident throughout the pages of the Old Testament. And it is certainly evident in the lives of some of the people that we know or hear about.


But remember last time the response of Jesus to his disciples, when they asked about the man born blind? “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus said: “Neither, but this happened, that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2,3).


And compare this with the response of Jesus to the message of the sisters about their brother Lazarus today: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” And Jesus says: “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” (John 11:3,4).


We don’t see how the Son of God can be glorified in our pain, but if we belong to him through baptism and the Holy Spirit, we find there is still a spark of faith in us, a readiness to trust in the God, with whom nothing will be impossible.


This spark of faith is in Martha. Even though things look quite hopeless, she is able say: “Lord, I know that God will give you whatever you ask him” (John 11:22).


And this faith gives Jesus the occasion to reveal to her more of who he is.


This is important for us to note too. Responding to God in faith when he seems absent from us in our pain, honors him. And it opens us up to receive more of him into our lives.


“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?” (John 11:25-26).


That spark of faith in Martha is fanned into flame. Strengthened by her interaction with Jesus, she is able to confess her faith boldly: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27).  


Restored in her confidence in Jesus, she goes out to tell her sister that Jesus is here and calling for her. You see, pain constricts, while faith expands the heart. Pain turns us inward, isolating us, while faith propels us outward, so that we can be with others.


Faith is also contagious, which perhaps explains in part why Mary quickly gets up and goes with her sister to Jesus.


Now that Jesus has the two sisters with him, he can make his way to the tomb of Lazarus.


Note that Jesus does not walk to the grave without emotion. There is a verb here that indicates Jesus’ emotional state. It is one that John has already used in verse 33, where we read that Jesus is “deeply moved.” Noteworthy is that this verb is repeated. We read in verse 38 that Jesus was “once more deeply moved.”


Here the verb expresses an indignation in the face of what God finds most repugnant, most objectionable. We refer here to death. God finds death repugnant because it is God’s contrary, God’s opposite. “I am the resurrection and the life” Jesus has declared.  


That Jesus is deeply moved expresses his indignation. According to Karl Barth, this emotional state reveals God’s resolute “No!” to the reality of death. So Jesus is not only sorrowful and troubled; he is also indignant. He is indignant in the face of death.


But there is even more to be seen in this verb. Scholars tell us that in the original it means “to snort like a horse.” I don’t know what makes a horse snort. I have read, however, interpreters who suggest that the snort could be that of a war horse ready for battle.


And at this stage in the drama Jesus indeed prepares to wage war against death. He intrudes upon it and attacks it. Death is called a foe in the Bible. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death, according to the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15:26). And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire, according to the seer (Rev. 20:14). When Jesus came to the tomb and to the stone laying upon it, he came to do battle.


In his commentary on this text, John Calvin observes that “Christ does not approach the sepulcher as an idle spectator, but as a champion who prepares for a contest; and therefore, we need not wonder that he groans; for the violent tyranny of death, which he had to conquer, is right before his eyes.”


“Remove the stone.” The long build up to the climactic scene is extended when Martha lodges her objection: “There is a stench, because he has already been there for four days.” Does she not yet believe what Jesus is about to do?


Can we relate to Martha? Martha speaks a word here about people who are spiritually dead, who therefore fear letting Jesus into the tomb of their lives. Perhaps we are ashamed of what Jesus will discover when the stone is removed. Or perhaps because the darkness is familiar and predictable to us, we have grown comfortable in it. We are not ready for change.


Jesus gently chides Martha for her unbelief: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40).


After praying to his Father, Jesus calls in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” The shepherd whose voice is recognized by his sheep, who calls them by name, and who lays down his life for them, so that they may have life in abundance (John 10:3, 10, 15), now calls Lazarus by name, and the dead man heard his voice and came out (David F. Ford).


There follows a second command: “Unbind him and let him go.”


Hearing the voice of the shepherd calling us by name, we find that we still need to be liberated from faulty beliefs, bad attitudes, destructive habits, stubborn addictions, traumatic memories, negative self-images, or whatever else hinders us from living abundantly, keeping us bound by things that have the stench of death, things that deprive us of the freedom for which Christ set us free (cf. Gal. 5:1; David F. Ford).  


It is the Lord’s work in us, but the Lord often uses the attentive help of other people to unbind us and set us on the path to freedom. “Unbind him and let him go” expresses love in action (David F. Ford).


Jesus wants to meet us as he did Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the man born blind. He wants to meet us in our impossible situations, in our lives. He wants to meet us in the big things and the little things, the special times and the ordinary times (Mark A. Villano). Above all he wants to make us alive, to call us out of our graves, and to unbind us and set us free, as he did for Lazarus.


Then we’ll know what it means not just to exist. We’ll know the life that is truly life. Amen.


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