On Promised Life
March 26, 2023
John 11 selected verses
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But 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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Martha said to Jesus, “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 of him.” 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.” When 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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the ones who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the onlookers said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus 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 four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The 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.” Many who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Today’s sermon is titled On Promised Life. Some say that to more fully understand the significance of Easter, we must go all the way back to the birth of the Christ child at Christmas. Some say we have to go back even further, a thousand years before, to the Jewish prophets. To more fully understand the significance of Easter, I say we must at least consider this story, the raising of Lazarus, as told in the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John was written around the seven signs that reveal Jesus’s connection with the Source we call God. Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast, healed a sick child, restored the legs of a lame man, fed 5000 with twelve loaves and fishes, restored sight to a man born blind, and called his dear Friend from the tomb where he had been lying for four days. These stories were chosen by the author of the book of John almost 100 years after the events described, in a time when there was still deep questioning and harsh divisions. Scholars agree that this book was written for a broad audience, Jews and Gentiles alike all across the vast Roman Empire. The author of this Gospel is clear in their intentions, writing in Chapter 20, verse 30, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Could there be anything more convincing than the story we are offered today? I would go as far as to propose that this event, this raising of Lazarus after four days, speaks more to the divinity of Jesus than even his own resurrection. There are two reasons. First, true to form, and what we have come to expect from Jesus, it is an act of love and compassion that brings Lazarus back to the land of the living; secondly, it is in doing so that Jesus shows the political and religious authorities that whatever power and influence they possess is nothing in comparison to power of love, sourced in God. Not even death can overcome the power of love that is God.
Think about this from the viewpoint of the leaders, both in temple and in government, that already saw the workings of this man as a threat, and now, in the presence of many witnesses, he goes and defies the power of death to bring a man back to life. There is no doubt that many are remembering the words of the prophet Eziekiel (37:13) “You shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves.” If the masses hear of this and if they are convinced that death is nothing to fear, then they will stop at nothing in demanding their freedom.
This is flashing point, Friends. This is the tinderbox that Jesus was living in, teaching in, healing in. This is part of the confluence of events that lead up to the tragic, excruciating death of our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. And this is also why justice is so intricately entwined in our religious tradition in the United Church of Christ. It is imperative that we understand this as we revisit, in the coming weeks, the events that led to Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion.
Jesus’s community was severely oppressed by the occupying Imperial Roman Army. Roman law did not protect them. They were unfairly taxed and misrepresented by their religious leaders who were mostly concerned with their own standing in the Roman hierarchy and could not risk their current standing in advocating for the fair treatment of their community. As a result, the Jewish people are frustrated and looking for liberation.
Jesus appears on the scene, teaching, preaching and healing, bringing hope that liberation is finally at hand. He says,“I am the resurrection and the life.” There is nothing to fear, even death itself. This is the Gospel, Friends. This is the good news condensed into 17 words. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. What can that mean, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The latin root of resurrection is surgere, meaning “to rise.” The dictionary defines resurrect as “to restore to life; to bring to view again that which was forgotten or lost.” In my opinion, Jesus is saying: I am restoring, I am bringing that which was forgotten and lost, I am bringing life without fear of death.” Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Perhaps there really is nothing to fear, not even death itself.
How would we live if we were not afraid of dying? How would we share if we were not afraid of not having enough? How would we love if we were not afraid of heartbreak and disappointment? How would we speak if we were not afraid of being criticized or silenced? Who would we speak up for? What would we be bold enough to demand?
This is the life Jesus is offering. This is it! And we are claiming it, more and more, with every generation. We continue to press for change, for equality, for living wages, for health care. Most of the time the progress we have made is obscured by the enormity of the social and economic injustice that still threatens to pull us asunder. There is progress and we must not lose sight of it. It was not that many hundreds of years ago that there were no agreed upon laws, no judicial system other than it was always the stronger, bigger, and faster that prevailed. We have made much progress in establishing laws and, in this country, an inspired form of government based on checks and balances and the premise that all are created equal.
We are making progress even in how we look back at our difficult past. Just this past week we marked the 20 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and even after 20 years we are still grappling with the injustice of that decision. For 20 years the collective grief in our society over the effects of the violence of 9/11 has settled into the very fabric of our culture and we can see with clearer vision that our invasion of Iraq, based on incomplete and (now we know) erroneous information, was not unlike Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
In 2002, a year before the US invasion of Iraq, the International Criminal Court was established and this past week the court issued a warrant for the arrest of Vladamir Putin based on evidence that he authorized the forced deportation of Ukranian children. Chief prosecutor Karim Khan said the message from the warrant “must be that basic principles of humanity bind everyone.
No one should feel they have a free pass. No one should feel they can enact with abandon. And definitely no one should feel they can commit genocide or crimes against humanity or war crimes with impunity.”*
We are making progress, to be sure. We are moving closer to the life that Jesus promised, a life where justice is firmly established, a life where we need not fear death because death is not the end we have been led to believe it is, a life where the importance of one is not held above the importance of all. This is the life Jesus offers, based on what he said were the greatest laws. He said all other laws and all the teachings of the prophets hang on these: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18).
Sir Issac Newton’s Third Law of Motion states “for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.”** As sure as I am living and breathing in this moment, I am sure that Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion were the equal and opposite reaction of his raising Lazarus from the dead. Those in power simply could not run the risk of Jesus filling the hearts and minds of his people with hopes and dreams for justice and freedom. He must be silenced. In the verses directly following our story for today, the leaders plot to kill him (John 11:55) and to kill Lazarus, too (John 12: 10-11).
Before we judge them too harshly, let us remember that Jesus was seen as a threat to the status quo. Jesus was seen as a threat to the established hierarchy of power both in government and in the temple. Would he come back today, I am not sure he would receive a warmer welcome.
In closing, I hope we will carry this story with us as we approach Eastertide. Especially important is Jesus’s promise, “I am the resurrection and the life.” I am bringing again that which was forgotten or lost and in that knowledge you will find life. Do not fear death. Death is not everlasting. Love is everlasting. So be it. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer: God who is Father, Mother, All, I pray your blessings of peace upon us all this morning. This worldly life is fraught with hardship and disappointment and it can eclipse the light of Your presence among us. Help us, Lord, to attune our awareness of the divine that is intermingled with the ordinary, the blessings that come along with the tragedies, the beams of holy light that shine into the heart of darkness. For the parts of us that are fearful, grant us assurance; for the parts of us that feel unworthy, flood them with forgiveness. Strengthen us, we pray, when faced with difficulties within ourselves and within our culture, strengthen us with a love so tender that we become boundless and effectual, on every level of our beings. For the healing that is happening, we thank you; for the awareness that is deepening, we thank you; and for the guidance that is only a prayer away, we thank you. Amen.
Benediction: I leave with you these words from an early Quaker by the name of George Fox: “Keep close to that which is pure within you, that which leads you up to God.”