A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
The story of Jesus raising Lazarus, as we heard in our Gospel lesson today, is rich, long and complex. But it also contains the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Or as our translation struggles to render the Greek verb tense more accurately into English: “Jesus began to weep.” This story is filled with grief, and Jesus himself grieves. In all the other healings in the New Testament, we see Jesus encouraging faith and hope; we don’t see him being affected by doubt or fear or loss.
The previous paragraph in this story tells how Martha responds to Jesus. He 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. Do you believe this?” And she responds: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” So we have the Son of God, coming into the world and participating in Martha’s and Mary’s grief: Jesus wept. Jesus experienced his own human pain, in Jesus, God honors our own pain, our own loss, our own grief.
Like so many who grieve, Mary looked back at the event, and said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Is that true? It certainly expresses the intensity of Mary’s loss. And especially at intense times, people like to out-theologize God, to change the outcomes of creation and time for what they believe will be to their own benefit. Jesus had not been there and Lazarus had died. He felt the intensity of Mary’s loss, and, in his compassion, Jesus wept.
It is easy for us to presume what God or Jesus—or our own mother or father—would have, could have, or should have done—and then things would have been easier, the world would have been different, Lazarus would have died at a different time, and Mary and Martha would have grieved without Jesus. But Jesus did not explain anything to Mary. He asked, “Where have you laid him?” He loved Mary. He loved Lazarus. And he wept. And he called Lazarus out of the grave: “Unbind him, let him go.” And the Gospel says, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”
And what did they believe? I remind you again that this story contains the confession of Martha: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Or, as Jesus said it, “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” He is the one coming into the world to give life—in him, God feels every pain, every desire and every loss. There is nothing insignificant or trivial in any loss that is grieved.
This story of Martha and Mary and Lazarus is framed in the Gospel of John by a significant and related story. Jesus went away from Jerusalem to the northeast, to the area where John had previously been baptizing. But he also left Jerusalem because there was danger—Jesus had nearly been stoned or arrested on a number of occasions. And the disciples were well aware that Jesus could be in mortal danger if he returned , as the first part of our story shows.
Lazarus lived in Bethany, a town on the very edge of Jerusalem, in the midst of this danger. Jesus decided to go and his disciples followed him. Immediately after the raising of Lazarus, some of those who witnessed it went and informed some of Jesus’ opponents who arranged for a meeting of the Sanhedrin. In their fear of the Romans and of the people, the high priests decided that Jesus should die. Thus, Jesus’ return to bring to bring Lazarus to life was pretty much the direct cause of his own death. He came into the world, and into Bethany to face death for the sake of compassion for his sisters and brothers. Jesus courage is the embodiment of God’s generosity and compassion.
This Lent we have been walking the path of the Catechumens in their preparation for baptism. We have heard the traditional lessons for this preparation on these five Sundays. In the first, with the temptations of Jesus, we learn to focus on God alone, on Scripture and God’s love, not on our own comfort, popularity, possessions or power. In the second, we learn with Nicodemus that we must be born from above, abandoning our preconceptions and embarking on the long trek of transformation. With the Samaritan woman at the well, we receive Living Water and learn that we are known by God. On the fourth Sunday, the blind receive their sight and a beggar speaks the truth that he sees. We learn to see the transforming light of God in the works of Jesus, and in belief to give up our own blindness. And finally today, we see Jesus restoring the dead to life, and we learn with Martha and Mary to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the one coming into this world as the Resurrection and the Life. In absorbing these things, and taking them into their hearts the catechumens are prepared for baptism. In our baptism, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. Next week, we begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday. It is that painful and glorious journey with Jesus through the last week of his life, through his death on the cross and into the joy of his Resurrection on Easter.
I invite all of you to join us in our Holy Week services which culminate in the reaffirmation of our baptismal vows and the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday morning.
This prayer is the Collect for that Monday in Holy Week. Let us pray:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.