Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 11:1-45 (46-53)
So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
Someone has joked that the Gospel lessons during Lent get progressively longer to train the readers for the crucial but very long readings during Holy Week. The Palm Sunday reading is nearly two chapters of Matthew. On Good Friday we hear two chapters of John. Unfortunately, these texts are so long, and so familiar, that we tend to get lost in our thoughts rather than hearing the lessons. We have heard the stories time and time again. We believe we know every word, so we stop listening. Have you read the texts for today? Did you read all the verses from John, or did you think, “I know what this passage says,” then focus on my words?
The problem for a writer like me and all the pastors prayerfully planning their sermons for this week is that this text is filled with so many important lessons. This is a crucial moment for Jesus. It is a catalyst for what is to come. For the teaching pastor, there are a dozen details that could be expounded upon to help us better understand the time during which this happened and the people to whom it was happening. John writes well beyond the physical particulars of the story, so we could spend pages or hours discussing the spiritual dimensions of this story. We could look at the people and the relationships in this story, try to identify with their experiences, and see God in our own pain and suffering. How do you take fifty-three verses of text and write a few hundred words or speak for a few minutes?
Though we take them for granted, these texts have incredible depth and are still invaluable to our Christian growth and maturity. They also have something new and unique to tell us today. We hear and respond to the texts according to our current circumstances, but if we do not listen we may not hear what God has to say. The story of Lazarus talks about death. Who of us is not dealing with death from one point of view or another most of our lives? This is particularly true now as we deal with the pandemic that is taking lives all over the world.
As we hear this story, we might identify with any of the characters. Has someone you love recently died? Perhaps you can hear some words of comfort in the response of his sisters. Do you have a friend who lost someone recently? We can learn from the mourners how to help our friend, and how not to help. In the disciples we see fear about facing the circumstances. In Jesus we see strength in sorrow and concern for others. We can even identify with Lazarus. There are times in our lives when we are as good as dead, wrapped up in those grave clothes and buried in a tomb. It might be loneliness or depression. The burden might be an addiction or obsession. Whatever it is, this text may help us to hear Jesus calling out to us by name, commanding us to come out of the tomb. Through this text, we might even see that Jesus is calling us to be like Him, calling people out of their tombs to a new life of faith.
Whatever it is we face today, we can find some comfort or strength through the words of our scriptures lessons. Yet, we too often take these beloved and well-known stories for granted. We stop listening because we think we’ve heard it all before. Today I highly encourage you to spend time reading these stories. Try using a different version than your usual. Listen carefully for sometime new. Meditate on the words. Hear God’s voice, the voice that is speaking directly to you. This time it might not be just a story, it might hold for you the answer to your prayers.
Lazarus, Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. I imagine they spent many hours hosting Jesus in between His journeys. They offered a place to rest and recuperate, and the comforts of family and friendships. Jesus was away from these friends at the beginning of this story, traveling near where John had baptized in the Jordan. Lazarus became sick; the sisters sent a messenger to give Jesus the news. I’m sure they hoped He would quickly return to heal their brother, but Jesus did not go back immediately. He told the messenger that the illness would not end in death.
A few days later, Jesus told the disciples that they must go to Lazarus’ house. They didn’t get it when He said, “Lazarus has fallen asleep.” After all, He’d said just a few days before that Lazarus would not die and they were concerned for His safety. Those in Jerusalem were already plotting His death. He told them, “Lazarus is dead.” For their sake, He was glad that they did not go to Lazarus immediately.
This is the part of the story that does not make sense to us. Why would Jesus want Lazarus to die? Why would He allow His good friends to suffer the pain of grief for even a few days? By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, well beyond the possibility of physical resurrection. The Jews believed that the soul departed the body on the third day. There was no Lazarus left to resurrect. The sisters said to Jesus, “If only you had been here!” They still had hope in the spiritual, but they wanted their brother in flesh and blood.
In this story we see two sides of Jesus. We see the caring friend who comes to mourn with those who have lost a loved one. We wonder why Jesus might have waited. Wouldn’t He have at least wanted to be with His friend during the illness? Most of us have had to rush off to the hospital to be with someone we love who is suffering. It is hard for us to understand why Jesus would wait. Yet, in this story we also see the Divine. Jesus knew there was more to the illness. He knew the illness would not END in death. Lazarus did indeed die, but so that they - and we - might believe, it ended in resurrection, not just spiritual, but physical.
We are reminded that Jesus is indeed our friend, there for us in our times of need. However, He is also the Divine, the Son of God, and He knows the end of the story. We might think we need Him to be here at this moment, to heal at this time, to finish His work right now, but He sees beyond our immediacy. He knows the right time to come and He will be there. We will probably react like the sisters, complaining that if only He were there when we thought we needed Him, things would be different. We learn in this story, however, that God might have something even greater planned for us on the other side of our suffering. Trust Him. He is faithful.
There is a movie starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore called “50 First Dates.” Adam Sandler plays Henry who is a jerk. He can’t make a commitment to any one woman, so he takes advantage of every pretty one he meets. He lives on one of the Hawaiian Islands, so it is easy for him to meet tourist babes and have as many one night stands as he pleases. The women are often looking for a wild time without commitment anyway, so it was a win-win situation for both parties. One day, however, he met Lucy, played by Drew Barrymore. She is a beautiful local girl. There is no chance for her to fly off into the sunset in a day or so. It was love at first sight and Henry went back to get to know her better.
Unfortunately, Lucy suffered from a rare brain problem. After a tragic accident, the part of her brain that controls her short term memory was damaged. She forgets everything she experiences every night in her sleep. Every morning she wakes up as if it were October 13, the day she had the accident. Her family felt it was best to let her live in that day, and so they created a world in which she just kept living the same day over and over again. Henry likes Lucy so much that he encourages her family to tell her the truth so that she will be willing to spend time with him. Each day he convinces her to fall in love with him.
At first, Lucy’s family and friends thought Henry was just out for a repeating easy one night stand, after all, if Lucy couldn’t remember the next day, she’d never get attached. But Henry was willing to do whatever was necessary to make her remember, giving himself fully to the relationship even though he knew that she would never remember.
It made me think about how we treat God sometimes. He is willing to do whatever it takes to make us love Him, but we easily forget all that He has done. There are many reasons why this might happen. We get caught up in the cares of this world and forget that God will give us rest. When we are comfortable, we think we do not need God, so we forget that our success and prosperity comes from Him. We are easily distracted by the schemes of the devil or just with our daily living that we do not realize how near He is and how much He truly loves us. Once in awhile we wake up to the love and it is on those days we find ourselves truly rejoicing.
In the movie, Lucy’s family realized that Henry was good for her when they discovered that she sang every afternoon on the days she met him. Later she broke off the relationship, not wanting to hold Henry back from a normal life. Why should he give up his career and his goals for the sake of someone who would never remember him the next day? Henry did not want to go, but he did for her sake. In the end they could not live without one another. Though she forgot him every day, he lived in her dreams and in her heart and so they managed to have a joy filled life together.
Lucy survived the accident and was alive, but she had no life. She was reliving the same things over and over and over again. Her father and brother went to a great deal of trouble to restore the world to what she knew every morning so that she would not be shocked and upset by her brain damage. Henry was alive, but he no life either. He was doing the same thing time after time, one night stands with women whom he would never remember a week or even a day after they were gone from his life.
For both Lucy and Henry, life began when they met because they dwelled in each other’s hearts. That’s what happens to us when we have a relationship with God. He lives in us and we live in Him. His kingdom flows out through our lives by His Spirit. Sometimes we are like Lucy and we forget our God. We forget what He has done and how much He loves us. Yet, God never forgets and He will continue to come to us in mercy and grace to make us fall in love with Him again. He dwells in our hearts and we can rest in the promise that we will be with Him for eternity because of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is bluebonnet season in Texas. Well, it is wildflower season, but the favorite for most wildflower hunters is the bluebonnet. It is the official Texas State flower, and it is delightful to see. The bluebonnet is a lupine in a stunning shade of blue, which is amazingly rare in flowers. Most flowers are red, pink, yellow, white or purple. Every year there are families who search to find the perfect field of bluebonnets to take pictures of their kids; it is a delightful tradition that makes wonderful memories.
Bluebonnets are rather fickle. The conditions must be perfect for there to be large numbers of the flowers. Interestingly, the best seasons occur after particularly cold and wet winters; as someone wrote, “The more miserable the winter, the more beautiful the spring.” The wildflowers are annuals, which mean they go from seed to flower to seed in a year. It is vital that the plants we see in those beautiful blue fields are allowed to mature until the pods have opened and dropped the seed for future growth. Unfortunately, many people get impatient with the fields once the beautiful blue of the flower has disappeared. They mow the dying wildflowers too early, destroying the chance for future flowers.
Bluebonnet seeds can go dormant for a number of years and spring to life much later. The seeds dropped this year may not become bluebonnets until the next miserable winter prepares the seeds for a most beautiful spring. Isn’t it amazing how such beautiful life can come out of death? After all, that’s what happens, isn’t it? The plant dies, drops the seeds which lie lifeless in the ground until they crack open and then the new growth sprouts out of the ground. Death leads to new life.
You can’t get any more dead than those old dry bones that Ezekiel saw in that valley. They were old and dry. The story of Ezekiel’s vision is odd, but amazing at the same time. The imagery is something out of a horror film, and yet miraculous in the way God can take something that is so far beyond restoration and give it life. Those bones were dry; they were probably lying in the wilderness for a very long time. There was no hope for life. God asked, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answered, “Lord Yahweh, you know.” Then God told Ezekiel to speak to the bones, to tell them, “You dry bones, hear Yahweh’s word.” As Ezekiel spoke, the bones came to life. The bones were covered with sinews and skin, and then God breathed life into them. God did the work, but Ezekiel became part of the process by speaking God’s word to the dead bones.
You couldn’t get any more dead than Lazarus. Once the soul was gone, the person was dead forever. The Gospel story is a little different from the story from Ezekiel. Instead of a valley full of bones, the dead body was one man. Instead of being dried bones, Lazarus was rotting in a tomb. Instead of being a vision, it was an historical event. Jesus was there. He spoke the words. Lazarus was raised.
Both stories speak about hope and trust. In Ezekiel, the valley of dry bones represented the people of Israel who no longer had hope because they no longer trusted in God. In the story of Lazarus, we see that Mary and Martha had lost hope. They trusted that Jesus would rush to the bedside of their brother. They probably even hoped that after Lazarus died, Jesus would be able to raise him until that third day. When Jesus delayed in coming, they lost hope. How could He wait so long when his beloved friend needed Him?
Have you ever felt like you are in a hopeless situation? Perhaps you feel that way every day right now. You know there is something you should do, but you also know that it won’t do any good. For instance, parents know that it is impossible to reason with a toddler who is having a tantrum or a teenager who has decided to rebel. I’m still trying to figure out how we managed to survive those years! It must be especially difficult for those parents who are trying to keep their families safe and healthy during this crisis. I have heard some children complain that they are having difficulty with their elderly parents. Some people just don’t want to follow the recommendations.
Unfortunately, many people have decided that it is hopeless these days to have discussions with people on the opposite side of an issue. We know that we aren’t going to convince anyone and that we aren’t going to be convinced, especially since those discussions inevitably end up becoming personal with judgment and name calling the result. Many friendships have been broken over the past few years because they can’t find a way to even talk about anything other than whatever issue is between them. It has not only become pointless to have the discussion, but also to speak to one another at all.
Sadly, many Christians think that it is pointless to share the Gospel. I suppose some of it is the fear of being rejected, but also the worry of what others will think of them. We are expected to accept others just as they are; if we share the Gospel then we are deemed judgmental and intolerant. We’d rather just live our faith quietly; after all we have been repeatedly told that faith is a private matter anyway. There are those who do not even think it is their place to raise their children as Christians. “They can decide when they are grown.”
How will they know if we don’t tell them?
God commanded Ezekiel to do something absolutely pointless. What good would it do to prophesy over a field full of dried bones? The people that were once those bones had been long dead. There was no chance that they would ever come back to life. There was no skin, muscle or organs. Some of the bones were probably carried off by wild animals. How could one man’s word change anything about that field?
Ezekiel knew that only God had the answer, so when He commanded Ezekiel to speak to the bones, Ezekiel did so. Immediately the bones were brought back to life, with skin, muscle and organs. When the flesh was restored, God commanded Ezekiel to speak again and to command the wind to breathe upon those He had resurrected. Ezekiel spoke and they were filled with life. God was able to restore flesh and soul into dry bones.
This story is a miraculous witness to the work God can do in this world. He gave the prophet Ezekiel the words to speak so that the dead were raised to new life. This is what God does every day with His Word. Those who do not look to God or to Jesus as Savior are walking like dead men in this world; they are dead in their sin because they have not heard the saving words of forgiveness that comes from the blood of Christ. God’s Word will bring them to life again. By His Word, God puts His Spirit into their hearts so that they will have faith and hope in His promises.
Has there ever been a time when it was more important than today to share the Gospel?
Our Gospel lesson for today was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the final sign of Jesus that caused the leaders to decide that it was necessary for Jesus to die. Ironic that life for one man meant death for another. However, the Jews were concerned that Jesus was going to incite riots and upset the Romans. Though they were watching and waiting for the promised Messiah, the power Jesus demonstrated was beyond their control. They expected the Messiah to be one of them, but Jesus upset the status quo. Though the raising of Lazarus should have convinced them that He was the one for whom they were waiting, they knew that Jesus would not do their bidding. They were willing to ignore and reject Jesus for the sake of their future. They were comfortable in their positions and they would not accept a Messiah unless they could be assured of their own status in his kingdom. Jesus would not convince them otherwise; His actions from now on may have seemed pointless to those watching.
Thankfully, Jesus didn’t think it was pointless.
Our hope is found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Without Him we are nothing more than dead bones in a valley or dead men in the tomb. Without Him we have no hope. All too often, however, we don’t recognize our own death. We don’t see how we are being like the Pharisees by our attitudes toward others. We do not see that we are relying on our own righteousness. We don’t live as God has called us to live, full of mercy and compassion for those who are suffering, boldly speaking the Gospel message to those He will raise to new life.
Paul reminds us that when we live in this attitude we are dead, but when we live in the Spirit we will know real life and peace. In Christ we are no longer dead. “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if it is so that the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any man doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his. If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is alive because of righteousness.”
We are going to mess up. Even after Martha confessed her faith in Jesus, she still doubted. It is that way with us every day. We second guess God’s work. We question His mercy, we doubt His promises. As Martin Luther put it, we are “simul justus et peccator” which means that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. However, in Christ we have been given the gift of His Spirit, which dwells in our hearts. As we are sanctified, daily growing in faith and in knowledge of the work God is doing in our lives as well as in the lives of others. While we may think someone is beyond hope today, we might see the amazing gift of life from God tomorrow.
And because we have this hope, there is hope for others. It isn’t pointless to speak God’s Word to the world because God can, and does, bring life out of death. Looking to Jesus means looking at hope, trusting in God’s promises to bring us through. He will bring life out of death according to His good and perfect Word. And though our bodies are riddled with sin and death, Christ gives us life to live for His glory by taking His mercy and grace to the entire world.
They may not listen when we proclaim God’s Word, but they can’t hear if we don’t even try. We speak, not expecting our words will bring life, but knowing that God’s Word can raise the dead. We don’t always know exactly what will happen, but God knows. He can restore the flesh on dry bones and raise the dead out of their tombs. So, when it seems hopeless, we are called to trust in God. God can do the impossible and He will be glorified by our obedience. Are we willing to shine hope in a world that seems hopeless? Are we willing to share the Gospel even when it seems pointless?
A WORD FOR TODAY
Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page