By Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
This weekend has been one in which DEATH has been a major theme: On Friday, many of us gathered overlooking the valley at Forest Lawn as we honored the life of Bill Bassett. His daughter Peggy gave an overview of his life and his four grandchildren spoke about the man they called Papa – about his unconditional love and his vigorous support. As they spoke so lovingly about Bill I thought this: It is so important for each of us to have someone in our corner, someone cheering at the finish line, someone who we know will be there for us – win or lose, as Bill was for his grandkids.
On Saturday, I officiated at the memorial of my uncle – my mom’s younger brother who passed from Parkinson’s disease at age 67. The Memorial was a luncheon held at the San Juan Hills Golf Club, where Chuck loved to play with his son and son-in-law. The room was filled with old friends and family and it was a big reunion!
Each ceremony marked the character of the man remembered and both gatherings were filled with love and good memories, old friends and stories. And even as DEATH was the reason for the gatherings, there was joy and laughter and LIFE to be witnessed. At my Uncles service, his grand babies were being passed around and kissed by each auntie and uncle. New generations take the mantle of the family legacy. Life continues, not in the same way, but it continues.
In our scripture lesson today, we find life in an unexcited place: in the tomb of Jesus’ friend and brother, Lazarus. To set the stage: Jesus and his disciples had been traveling throughout Judea, performing – as John calls them – SIGNS. Healing the blind, curing the sick, all to the chagrin of the Pharisees, who challenge him as to his authority, his defiance of Torah law (especially regarding healing on the Sabbath) and the source of his power. John begins chapter 11:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘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.’
In verse 4, we encounter the irony of this event: “This illness does not lead to death” says Jesus, but this event will lead to a death: not the death of Lazarus, but the death of Jesus.
Author Brian Stoffregen explains, “It is a resurrection that leads to death. Jesus, by returning to Judea to give life to another, will give up his own life as the chief priests and the Pharisees decide to put him to death… Jesus’ great power for giving life only raises the anger and power of those who want to take life.” (3) His life.
So, after hearing about Lazarus, we would expect Jesus to rush to his side, in order to heal his friend. But John explains, in verse 5:
5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 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.’
SO, Jesus stalled and Mary and Martha were mad! “How could you stay away??? You were our only hope! And you, the one who saves strangers, could not be bothered to come in time to save your friend!” Jesus spent four days away from Bethany: one day for the messenger to travel and tell Jesus’ about Lazarus’ illness; two days of waiting; one day for Jesus and the disciples to travel to Lazarus. There was a Jewish tradition that one’s soul hovered near the deceased’s body for three days and after that time, there was no hope of resurrection. (4) So by staying away for 4 days, Jesus not only ensured the DEATH of his friend, but extinguished all hope for resurrection.
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
The Greek word that is translated here as “greatly disturbed” (also used in verse 38) – is the word em-bri-ma-omai, which means ANGER. And not just mild anger, but it was used to describe the sound a horse makes when angry… So when Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews weeping, he was filled with horse-snorting anger!
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.
And so Lazarus returns to life: to live out his earthly time in this world and to die later… Jesus gives him a gift of more time – of greater quantity of Life.
But do you think Lazarus returned to the life he had before his death? Certainly once you’ve died and been revived, your life would probably be different. “Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus commands. What was binding Lazarus in his life? What is binding us in ours? Once freed from the tomb, Lazarus was free to live – truly live, in a way that honored the one who gave him Life.
How do we offer life to others? How do we remind others that the power of LIFE is just as great as the power of DEATH… if not stronger?
We can appreciate each day, each experience of living, even through the difficult times.
Pope Paul the sixth suggested, “Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”
The raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus himself reminds us that we are not alone, that we have persevered, that we are loved and forgiven by God. As I read at each memorial, we remember in the words of Paul:
“Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 38-39)
May we live our lives, may we live each day fully, giving glory to God who creates us, sustains us and gives us the resources to preserve. May we live lives that honor those who’ve come before us. May we be the people who offer unconditional love and support, laughter and joy. May we offer life to all we meet along this earthly journey. Amen.
3. Brian P. Stoffregen, John 11.1-45, Fifth Sunday of Lent – Year A, found on http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john11x1.htm