I almost decided NOT to preach on this Scripture. This Scripture is the story of Lazarus. Lazarus is gravely ill, and his sisters Mary and Martha send for their friend Jesus, because they know that Jesus has healing power in his hands. But help doesn’t come in time. And their brother dies.
Sometimes Scripture can seem distant and far off. These stories come to us across a span of thousands of years, from a land far, far away. And sometimes,the preacher’s task is to bring these ancient stories close. But that’s not the case with this story. I almost decided NOT to preach on this Scripture because this story feels almost too close, with the air there and the air here full of apprehension, and illness, and even death.
So here’s why I AM preaching on this scripture, on this text:
I’m preaching on this text because this story of Lazarus gives us a glimpse of Resurrection before we head into Holy Week.
I’m preaching on this text because this story shows us life stronger even than death.
I’m preaching on this text because this story overflows with love more powerful than anything and everything that can do us harm.
I’m preaching on this Scripture because maybe these words of Resurrection and life and love, maybe they are the words that we need to hear most in these days.
Maybe all those things that Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus, and their community, and Jesus felt – maybe the things they felt are the things we are feeling right now.
And, this is a healing story. The Bible is full of healing stories. Not just the Gospels, but the rest of the New Testament, and the Hebrew Scriptures. The Bible is chock full of healing stories. Someone is suffering, they cry out, and they are healed, somehow, someway. These stories aren’t unique to Christian or Jewish traditions – they appear across cultures. They express a basic human need – the need for healing – the need to be made whole.
One of my Gospel teachers, Professor Ann Wire, says that all healing stories have the same basic structure:
1. There is a need.
2. The need is voiced.
3. The need is met.
That’s simple enough. She says healing stories all have this basic structure, but what’s interesting is howthey tell the story. What’s the specific need, or the range of needs? How is the need voiced – who voices it – what do they say? And how, then, is the need met – how does healing come about?
Let’s look for that here:
The first need that we see here is that Lazarus is sick, and he is in need of healing. And then he dies, and there is a need for life. And then we see his sisters and their community grieving – their hearts broken – or as Virginia Thibeaux has suggested in her Lenten art– they are all there with “broke-open hearts” – and they are in need of comfort. And there’s all the stuff that comes with deep grief like that – there’s a need for answers – for an explanation – “Why, God, Why.”
Deep need. Everywhere. And all around.
And see how that need is voiced. Mary and Martha send a messenger to Jesus – “Lazarus, whom you love, is sick. Please come and help.” And when Jesus finally comes, Martha, doesn’t wait at home – she walks down that road, and she meets Jesus head on, “Lord, friend, if you had been here, our brother wouldn’t have died.” She voices their deep pain, and she says some true things – some true things that demand an answer. And then Martha says, “I know that even now, even now. You have the power to do something here – I know that you have the power of life.” And then Mary comes, and falls at Jesus’ feet, weeping in grief. Voicing their need with her whole self.
And there’s this community all around. Mourning with them, weeping with them, surrounding them with love – voicing the wound of the whole community together.
And then there’s Jesus. Jesus comes upon this scene already in progress. He encounters Martha, and then Mary, and he sees the community following at Mary’s heels. And the Scripture says, in the translations we usually read, that Jesus is deeply disturbed. The Greek is actually closer to “anger” – it’s stronger than anger. Jesus is “moved with anger in his spirit and deeply troubled.” Deep in his gut he is all stirred up. And Jesus stands in the midst of all this woundedness, all this hurt, all this death, all this raw grieving, and it says that Jesus weeps. “Jesus wept.” This really isn’t a story about Jesus coming too late – it’s about Jesus showing up with everything he is – every bit of his humanity, every bit of his divinity. Jesus shows up and with everything he has, he stands against the power of death – and he weeps tears of compassion and love and rage.
The need here is voiced in Martha, and in Mary, and in their community, and in Jesus – in their bodies – in their flesh and their bones – all of them together – voicing the deep hurt of this family and this community – the deep hurt of the world – this deep need for healing.
And then, see how the need is met. Now we know that Jesus will call Lazarus from the tomb – but before that, before that, you have this community, gathering around Mary and Martha, responding to their loss. They bring comfort to those who mourn – they comfort each other. I think of communities I know. We bring casseroles. And we fill up the fridge. We sit there together. For as long as it takes.
And we have Martha and Mary in the midst of this, driving this story, doing everything they can to get their hands on healing. They call Jesus there; they confront Jesus; they remind Jesus what they know he can do.
And there’s Jesus. And we know that he calls Lazarus from the tomb. But remember, before he calls Lazarus from the tomb, Jesus weeps. And there is this strange prayer – did you notice that? Jesus stops everything and says, “Father, I thank you for hearing me.” For hearing me? What has Jesus said to God? I mean, he’s talked with Martha and with Mary – they’ve had this back and forth – but Jesus hasn’t really said anything to God. He’s just... wept. “Father, thank you for hearing me... weep.” I think that what God has heard is Jesus weeping – raging and weeping at death.
And Jesus tells them to roll away the stone. And they roll away the stone. And Jesus cries in a loud voice: “Lazarus! Come out!”
And the one who had been dead walks out of the tomb alive.
Then look what happens next. Jesus says, “Unbind him. Let him go. Set him free.” And I imagine that this community staggers toward Lazarus, Martha and Mary first, and they reach out – maybe pause in the power of the moment – and they begin to remove the strips of burial cloth – strip by strip – until they stand before each other – healed, alive, and free.
This is a healing story. It’s a story about the healing presence of Christ embodied in community. Theirs is a world – a moment – full of sorrow – and fear – and illness – and death – and they come together in the midst of all that – and Jesus stands in the midst of them – and they comfort each other. They tend the sick. They say true things. They weep, and they rage. They stand together against everything that would do them harm, even death – and they live – and they love – and they set each other free – Christ’s healing power in the midst of them – Christ’s healing touch in their hands.
I’m thinking of all the folks who, even now, are sitting at home sewing together protective masks for nurses and doctors – taking the bright patches of fabric they can find in their homes – any spare elastic – and doing something – stitch by stitch – to help the cause of healing.
I’m thinking of all those folks who are working in grocery store check- out lines, and restaurant takeout counters; those who are delivering groceries; those who are finding new ways to prepare and deliver meals to people living outside -- to make sure that we all – and particularly the most vulnerable – can eat.
I’m thinking of all the folks who are reaching out from our places of shelter to companion each other – to check in and see how folks are doing – to see what they need – to just say hi. I’m thinking of the new ways we are finding and building to stay in communication – like worshipping on Zoom and praying together on Zoom – who would have thought? Just one month ago – who would have thought.
I’m thinking of all those folks who are still working for justice, even from their place of shelter – making phone calls to Congress – writing letters to oppose voter suppression and to help get people re-registered to vote – adapting and persevering in the work of justice.
And of course, I’m thinking of nurses and doctors and hospital chaplains and everyone working in hospitals – grateful for their courage – and all the ways that they are working to exhaustion to help heal and care for the sick – and also to be present for them and with them in this strange world where families too often can’t be at the bedside.
And I’m thinking of this thing that we are doing here – all of us here – and throughout the Bay Area – and the nation – and the world – trying to this thing that will only work if we do it together – trying to flatten the curve by sheltering in place. We are sitting tight – giving up the freedom of movement we often take for granted – so that together we might slow the spread of this disease – as our local governments and the medical professions rush to build capacity.
This story is about so much more than Lazarus – it’s about Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary, and the community that gathers round them, and Jesus. It’s a healing story – a story about the healing power of community – the healing that we can only do together – healing embodied in us.
But even that’s not all. This is a story about the power of healing in community. AND, it is ultimately, a story about love and about life. That’s what we see here. I have another Gospel teacher – and he says, that in the Gospel of John – seeing is always for the purpose of believing – and believing is always about trusting into God. We see God’s love embodied here in the healing power of Jesus and this community, and we trust into what we see, and in trusting, we see even more. We trust into God’s love, and in trusting, we find our way into life – eternal life – the fullness of life – the abundance of life – right here, right now – and forever.
We’ve shared several stories from the Gospel of John this Lent. Think about what we have seen: For God so loved the world, that God came to us in Jesus Christ. The Word became flesh in the midst of us – the Word became flesh in us – full of grace and truth and love. Embodying that love, God empowers usto create with each other entirely new ways of living in relationship – what we’re doing right here. And then in this morning’s story, we see Jesus standing with us – in the midst of everything that does us harm – embodied with us in community – calling us into life.
Friends, this is why we come to church – this is why we gather together here. We come together so that we can see this good news, and hear this good news, and live this good news – so that this life-giving love becomes embodied in us – deep in our bones – so that it is there when we need it the most –
· so that when we need it most, we can trust into these truths – so that we can say: “For God so loves the world.”
· so that when we need it the most, we can say: “God is my shepherd, I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
· So that when we need it the most, we can say: “There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not life. Not death. Not things present, not things past, not things to come. Not height. Not depth. Not length. Nothing. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
These healing words of love and life are true right here, right now.
They are true on out into forever.
And they will be true on those days when we need them the most.
© 2020 Scott Clark
Antoinette Clark Wire, Holy Lives, Holy Deaths: A Close Hearing of Early Jewish Storytellers (Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA: 2002) See Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol.9 (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2001); Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple (T&T Clark International: New York, 2005). Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple (T&T Clark International: New York, 2005).