This week, we move from the healing of the man born blind, to Jesus being the Good Shepherd that we heard on Ash Wednesday, and now to the raising of Lazarus from the dead. In the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals who he is, not only through the signs that he does, but through several statements where he starts the sentence with the words, “I AM”. Unfortunately, our readings on Sundays have not covered those statements until today, so I will give you a list of what Jesus has said up to this point. In chapter 6, he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In chapter 8, he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” In chapter 10 he says, “I am the gate for the sheep. . . . Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” And finally, also in chapter 10, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In these statements, we find that Jesus has come to bring us nourishment, light, and protection. And in today’s chapter, we hear what I think is the ultimate revelation of who Jesus is: “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.” Jesus has come to bring life, and when he brings life, he brings it so abundantly that life can spring forth even out of death.
So, let’s take a look at this story in some more detail. Last year, I went to see Disney’s live action version of Beauty and the Beast. Towards the end of the story, the last petal falls from the rose. The beast seems to die, and all of the talking furniture becomes real furniture, instead of turning back into the servants like they would have if the curse had been lifted. And as this moment of the curse becoming permanent seemed to go on for a few beats too many, I sat on the edge of my seat, saying to myself, “Come on, Disney, you’re all about happy endings. Let’s get on with it already.” And, in the end, the curse is lifted, as we expect it to be. But the reason I thought about that moment when all hope seemed to be lost as I was preparing for today’s sermon is this: I wonder if this is the kind of thing that Mary and Martha felt as they watched their brother Lazarus become ill. As his illness worsened and Lazarus grew closer to death, I can see them hopefully, then desperately, watching the door to their house, expecting Jesus to come in at any moment and heal Lazarus. After all, Jesus had healed a lot of other people whom he barely knew. Why shouldn’t he come and heal Lazarus, whom he knew and loved? And then, as the spirit of life slowly leaves Lazarus, and Jesus doesn’t come, the last spark of hope is extinguished. Lazarus is dead, and even though Jesus can do many extraordinary things, the sisters clearly are not expecting Jesus to be able to raise the dead.
I think that we have all experienced these emotions at one time or another. We have been there with Martha, who looks at Jesus and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We have been at funerals where we have heard the preacher say that our loved one will rise again on the last day, and we know, in our minds, that this is correct theology, and our minds trust that theology, but it doesn’t really help when we are in the midst of our grief and we are crying out from the raw pain of acknowledging that the one whom we loved is dead, and we will never see that person again in our life. And, like Mary, we have all been in a place where we throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet, say to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and then weep uncontrollably. This is the reason that today’s story still speaks to us: we look back at this 1st century family, a family who believed Jesus could heal their brother if he would just come, and we know that their emotions are still our emotions so many centuries later. For all of our modern technological advancements, we have still not been able to conquer death. And the feelings that surround the death of someone we love are still the same down through all the years and in different areas of the world.
But Jesus is, indeed, the resurrection and the life, and he proves it by raising Lazarus from the dead. Not long ago one of my pastor colleagues said this, “Lazarus didn’t come back to tell us heaven is for real. He was raised to show us Jesus was for real.” This story is not about someone coming back from the dead to tell us that there is a heaven and that it’s going to be glorious. No, this is a story to show us, once and for all, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name. Jesus is for real, and Jesus gives us hope for life, even in the midst of death.
The problem becomes this: we are all still going to die. We heard that on Ash Wednesday when I and Pastors Chuck and Victoria marked everyone with the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads: For dust you are, and to dust you will return. Even those who believe in Jesus will one day die; we know that eventually, Lazarus did die again, along with his sisters Martha and Mary. So what does Jesus mean when he says those who believe in him will never die? It means that he, and he alone, has the power to defeat death, and those who trust in him have that promise of eternal life, not just after we die, but starting right now.
So, for us Christians, this puts our grief in perspective. We are confident that Jesus knows our sorrows and understands, for this is the other big part of this story: When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and all of those around her weeping, he first of all becomes angry, and second of all, he begins to weep. When our translation says that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit, the Greek literally says that he snorted in anger, kind of like the snorting of a great warhorse. Perhaps Jesus was angry at death; after all, death was not the original plan for creation. Or perhaps he was angry at himself for having to delay coming to this family whom he loved. After all, it’s all well and good to know, in theory, that you’re going to raise Lazarus from the dead and that it’s all for God’s glory. But when Jesus is confronted by the real pain and suffering that Martha and Mary are experiencing, he becomes angry at himself. And then, finally, he is overcome by the crying around him, and Jesus begins to weep. In movies that have portrayed Jesus’ life, when it comes to this point of the story, they show Jesus shedding one or two elegant tears, as if even that’s too much emotion for the holy Son of God to show. But that’s not what the Greek says. The Greek word used here for weeping means that Jesus had a big, ugly cry, with red eyes and running nose. And that’s how I want us all to picture Jesus when we are mourning someone we love: if we’re having a big ugly cry, then you can bet that Jesus is, too.
This week, our nation mourned again as we witnessed another school shooting that resulted in 17 people being killed. And of course, now the political fallout begins. Is lack of mental health care to blame? Or is it because we need to tighten up gun restrictions? Well, my personal belief is that we need to both improve how we keep an eye on one another and improve access to mental health care, as well as tighten up gun laws. But I’m not going to go deeper into the debate than that right now. What I want to say is this: Jesus is snorting in anger when he sees that people are dying because of this situation. He is snorting in anger that so many people saw signs that this young man was disturbed but could not seem to do anything to get him the help he needed. He is snorting in anger because we seem to lack the willpower to do anything substantial to prevent this from happening again. It seems as though death is winning, even when those who believe in Jesus know that he came to bring us life.
But we also know this: Jesus is weeping with those who mourn. He is having a big ugly cry with all of those parents who have lost their children. He is with the family of Aaron Feis, the assistant football coach who was killed when he threw himself in front of students to protect them from the oncoming bullets. Whether he knew it or not, Coach Feis was imitating the Good Shepherd himself when he laid down his life for those children. Jesus is weeping with all of these people, and he is mourning with all of those across this country who mourn for the people in Parkland, Florida. And we can take comfort from that.
But you know what the even better news is? Jesus does not leave us in the grief and anger in which he finds us. He continues to give us hope: hope that in a culture of death, life will break through and death will one day be conquered. When we are focused on Jesus, we trust that yes, he does have the power to raise us from the dead, and yes, eternal life has already started for us. When we are focused on Jesus, we are focused on living that abundant life that he brings us here on earth, and thoughts of death and of heaven flee into the background. When we are freed from thoughts of death, we are freed to love and to serve one another, even to the point of giving up our life for one another, if it comes to that. And God will come to us in the best way possible to speak to us and to show us what God would have us do, unbinding us from our fears, and setting us free to live life abundantly in Jesus. The only question is, now that we are free from fear and from death, how is God loosing us to love and serve one another? The possibilities are endless. Amen.