'That they may have life'
Today is the fourth in a series of encounters with Jesus that we have been reading together during this season of Lent. First Nicodemus, then the Samaritan woman at the well, then the man who was born blind. Each time, you’ve heard me describe these encounters as life-giving. Today’s gospel text is no exception. Jesus’ encounter with Martha, Mary and Lazarus is once more, and this time in the most emphatic way, life-giving.
John, however, doesn’t refer to this story as an encounter. Neither does he call it a miracle when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, as we might. Instead, John calls this a sign. And I find that helpful. Because when I think of the raising of Lazarus as a miracle, I tend to want to ask questions like ‘what happened?’, ‘did this really happen?’, ‘how can this be?’ which I don’t find particularly helpful. But when I think of this as a sign, then the question becomes, to what is the sign pointing? What is the greater truth, the greater reality that Jesus, and John the gospel writer, want me to see?
That these four encounters that we have read these past weeks are life-giving is no accident. In fact, it is the whole point of the Gospel of John. With his final words, John sums up his gospel by saying:
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Those words were written for us. The reason that we read these texts today, the goal of this whole enterprise we call faith, is so that we may have life. Life in its fullest sense. Life that is more than survival. The life we were created to live. Life that is so full of love that it will burst the bonds of space and time as we know it. Eternal life, which is to know God, now and beyond our physical death.
That’s the reason I came, says Jesus. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
If the goal is life, then the enemy is death. All of the readings that we heard today begin with death. The vision of Ezekiel. The lament of the psalmist. The theological declaration of Paul. The raising of Lazarus. They begin with death, but they end with hope. Each one of them holds out a promise that allows us to stare death in the face, and to see beyond death to the new life that awaits.
That works on two levels. There is death as physical death, and there is also death as a metaphor for dislocation, for loss and despair. Ezekiel is writing to a people in exile, a people barely alive, people who have lost hope, who despair, whose bones are dry, who have had the life sucked right out of them. Ezekiel’s promise is that they will rise again. Jesus calls out to a man dead in the grave. Lazarus comes out. Whether we understand these references to death physically or metaphorically, always, we get a vision of new life that emerges. Our peculiar vocation as Christians is that we are called to be people who have hope, and who give hope, even in the face of death.
Our gospel reading begins with Jesus getting the message that Lazarus, his friend, the one he loves, is gravely ill. At some point or other, most of us will get a message like that. Chances are it will hit us hard. There’s a lot of grief in this story. And Jesus enters right into that grief. He doesn’t float above it. He had every reason not to go back to Bethany in Judea. The authorities there want to kill him, and he and his disciples know it. But he goes anyways. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus goes to Bethany to be with his friends Mary and Martha. And Lazarus.
When he arrives in Bethany, there’s a lot going on. People are running back and forth, questions are asked, answers are given. But I think what strikes me most about this narrative is the emotion. “If only you had been here.” “If only.” Sadness and regret. Maybe even reproach. The tears of Mary and those who seek to console her. But perhaps most dramatically, the deep emotion displayed by Jesus. The narrator tells us three times that Jesus is deeply moved, disturbed in spirit. This is a side of Jesus that we are seeing for the first time in this gospel. We hear one of the shortest, yet most powerful verses in all of scripture:
On one level it’s not surprising. Jesus loves these people. He shares their grief. He is deeply moved. He weeps.
But at another level, it never ceases to amaze me that the one who knows that Lazarus will live, the one who has the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, still weeps in solidarity with those who mourn. And if, as Martha confesses, Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world, then in Jesus’ tears we get to see the God who weeps with us. We never have to suffer alone, because God is with us. God experienced our humanity in the person of Jesus, God gets our pain, and God suffers with us. Jesus’ tears show us that more than words can ever express.
Death has a way of releasing deep emotions in us, and deep emotions have a way of revealing the truth.
The truth made visible in Jesus’ tears is that he loves Martha and Mary and Lazarus. That’s the first truth revealed in today’s gospel. But it’s not the last.
Jesus weeps. Then he goes to the tomb and calls Lazarus back to life. Here a second truth is revealed. Not only does Jesus love us, but his love has the power to change our lives. This an active love, a life-changing love with the power to enter our lives and transform sorrow into joy, despair into hope, fear into faith and yes even death into life.
Who is this man?
Our scriptures today answer that question in three different ways: in the prophecy of Ezekiel, in Martha’s confession, and in Jesus’ prayer.
Ezekiel, writing long before the time of Jesus, prophesies with these words: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.”
Jesus says to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this? And Martha confesses, “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
And Jesus, just before he calls Lazarus out of the tomb, prays out loud, “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.”
What are we being asked to believe? That Jesus is indeed the one Ezekiel prophesied, that Martha confessed, that John proclaims in his gospel, the one that God has sent. The Messiah, the Son of God, the Word who is God and became flesh and lived among us, the one in whom the fullness of God dwells, the one who makes God known.
And when we come to believe this, we can trust that the love that Jesus has for Martha, Mary and Lazarus is the same love that God has for us, and that the life-giving power that raises Lazarus from the dead is the same life-giving power that can enter our lives and make us new.
Jesus is the one who makes God known to us. And to know God is to enter into a life that is more than just survival, more than just physical. It is to live in a way that embodies what God is like, a life of love and grace and truth, all the things that Jesus has made known.
This is what the sign points us to. This is the core of our faith. We proclaim a God who loves us, who came to us and who made that life-changing, powerful, love known to us in the person of Jesus. Why? So that we might receive that love and come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through believing we may have life in all its fullness, in his name, now and always.
Homily Yr A Lent 5, March 26 2023, Trinity
Readings: Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45