Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent
RCL, Year A: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Today’s gospel reading has it all: love, family, and friendship; tragedy and grief; fear and suspense; and an ending that no one could anticipate or imagine. At the heart of the story is a scene that happens over and over again in human life. Every time it unfolds, it cuts to the heart of our faith in all that is good, beautiful and true. I’m talking about the anguish caused by suffering and death.
Here’s how it plays out in today’s gospel. Martha and Mary live with their brother Lazarus, who has taken ill. John doesn’t give us any of the details, but we can imagine these two sisters at the bedside of their brother, lovingly attending to him, and growing more worried as he gets sicker. They do what any of us would do – they call for help. They send a message to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (Jn. 11:3). Succinct, direct, and crystal clear, this message is like a prayer that says, “Lord, please help us.” “Jesus, come quickly.”
But Jesus doesn’t show up right away. And meanwhile, Lazarus takes a turn for the worse. Helpless, Martha and Mary watch as Lazarus suffers and dies. I can imagine that this is one of those deaths we never really get over, the kind that forces us to ask, “Why?” and to say, “This just isn’t fair!” Lazarus’ death is a tragedy at so many levels, because not only have Martha and Mary lost a beloved brother, but now that they are unattached to a man in a patriarchal culture, they’ve also lost economic security. The future is up in the air. Death appears triumphant. So when Jesus finally arrives, both Martha and Mary fall at his feet, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Surely we can relate to how the sisters must have felt. Think of seeing pictures of death and destruction on television, when the lives of innocent men, women, and children are taken by natural disaster or by human violence. Or what about scenes that unfold in hospital emergency and waiting rooms across the country and the world? What about the injustice and indignity unleashed on the bodies and spirits of loved ones by progressive illness? The list could go on and on. And if we let the full weight of these things sink in, we, too, may find ourselves falling to our knees and saying in anguish or even anger, “Lord, if you had been here, this would not be happening. These people would not have suffered. They would not have died.”
So how does Jesus respond to all of this? Does he offer the sisters the false comfort of saying, “Don’t worry, be happy because you’re brother is now in a better place?”
No. The first thing Jesus does is to make a startling claim. In response to Martha’s affirmation of the Jewish belief that her brother will be raised in the resurrection on the last day, Jesus boldly says, “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” (Jn. 11:25-26). God is doing something new and unexpected. In Jesus Christ, the future has come into the present. The promise of resurrection life, while consummated for us in the future, is among us in the here and now in Jesus.
But the in-breaking of the future resurrection into the present doesn’t initially offer much comfort to Mary, who kneels at Jesus’ feet weeping.
And then it hits him. John puts it this way: “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, [Jesus] was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (Jn. 11:33). One translation renders this verse to say: “He gave way to such distress of spirit as made his body tremble.” Jesus is shaken to the very core of his being. He’s moved with compassion and pity. He’s flooded with sadness and grief. And the effects of this tragic death on the people Jesus loves, as well as their giving in to despair even in the presence of God’s resurrection life, also kindles the fires of his anger. This is not the way things are supposed to be! And so it’s out of that mix of compassion, grief, and anger that “Jesus began to weep” (Jn. 11:35).
I think we need to pause over the humanity of all of this before we jump to the surprising conclusion of this story. Unless we do that, Jesus’ promise that those who believe in him will never die may ring hollow. For unlike Martha and Mary, we don’t get our Lazarus’ back in this lifetime.
There are no easy, pat answers to the issues raised by today’s gospel reading, as most all of us know only too well from our own experiences of suffering and death. Even so, we’re not left out in the cold. While the Christian faith is not a magic wand we can wave to make everything alright, it does give us grounds for hope. For this Jesus who claims to be the resurrection and the life is trustworthy. And Jesus proves that he is trustworthy by his willingness to share with us in everything we go through, including suffering and death.
Jesus Christ reveals a God who is shaken to the core by what’s wrong with our world. This is a God who shares the agony and anguish and outrage over this world’s bondage to evil, death and decay. And so, as one Anglican bishop puts it: “God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end.” This is why God doesn’t stand aloof or safe on the sidelines. On the contrary, in Jesus, God comes among us. In Jesus, God subjects Himself to everything we mortals face: to all of the joys, temptations, pain and suffering this world can dish out, including the pain of seeing others suffer. And in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection from the dead, God’s determination to do something decisive about it has already borne its first fruits. For in Jesus we see the inauguration of a new creation in which our salvation – the healing of all that we are as persons made in God’s image – includes the redemption of everything we have experienced as embodied beings in this good but fallen creation.
If it’s true that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and if it’s true that we can trust Jesus, then our sufferings are not in vain. The deaths of our loved ones – and our own deaths – are not the end of the story. For God intends to do for us not merely what Jesus did for Lazarus. Remember – Lazarus is raised by Jesus only to die a second time later on. No, the raising of Lazarus is a mere foretaste of what God ultimately intends. For in the end, God intends to raise us up from our graves as whole persons – souls and bodies – that we may share resurrection life in the kingdom of heaven come on earth. God intends to heal and transform all of creation. God intends to set things right. Nothing gets "left behind."
This is the hope for which we live. This is the vision that guides our work for justice and peace. And this is the basis for our assurance that nothing in all of creation – including suffering and death – can even begin to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
 Cf. William Barclay, The Gospel of John Volume 2, Revised Edition (Westminster Press, 1975), p. 97.
 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), p. 179.