Rev. Teri Peterson
9 March 2014, NL4-27 (At the Threshold 1)
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘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.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Here we are, at the beginning of Lent, and smack in the middle of John’s gospel. Lent is a sort of turning-point season: a time for repentance, which means turning around. It’s a time when we let go of things that keep us from fully following Jesus, and pick up the cross and walk toward Jerusalem. This story, in the center of John, is also a turning point. This is the moment when Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and the disciples know it is the beginning of the end: “come,” they say, “let us go that we may die with him.” This is the act that puts him on the radar of the empire, the act that most frightens the religious leaders, and that sets in motion a plan to, as one of the chief priests will put it, “let one person die for the people.”
There are a few things we need to know as we embark on this journey to Jerusalem through the lens of John’s gospel. Because we are reading in order, things will feel a bit odd this season—John spends half the book—the next 10 chapters—in Holy Week and Easter. So we are spreading out the stories of Holy Week over the whole course of Lent, rather than cramming half of the book of John into two days at the end.
Through these days of walking toward the cross, we’re going to hear a lot about “the Jews.” Remember that when John says “the Jews” he’s talking about the people in positions of power—the leadership of the Temple and political system. Nearly everyone in the story is a Jew in the way we use the word—Jesus was Jewish, the disciples were Jewish, the gospel writer and the community to whom he wrote were Jewish. There is a history of using John’s gospel to fuel anti-semitism, because we have so misunderstood the phrase “the Jews.” So whenever you hear it, think “the religious leaders” and you’ll have a better picture. Because those are the people that John describes as spying, manipulating, and constantly opposing Jesus and his message—not the entire Jewish people, but a few people with power in the system.
And there’s going to be a lot of coming and going. Those of you who were here Wednesday night may remember a key part of the reading was Jesus saying “I am the gate…you will come in and go out and find pasture.” Every story we will hear this season is a story of coming in and going out and finding pasture. Be on the lookout for who is entering and exiting, where and how and why.
Today we are faced with the most closed of all doors: death. Here at the beginning of Lent, in the very center of John’s gospel, a story of a tomb shut, locked, and sealed. In the tradition at that time, it was believed that the spirit of a person finally departed on the third day after death. So on the fourth day, when the funeral was over and the finality of death was starting to settle in for Mary and Martha, Jesus comes to visit.
The fourth day. The first day that it was really real—that there was no chance Lazarus was just sleeping, no chance this was all a bad dream. Both Martha and Mary meet Jesus with the same words: if you had been here…
How often have we used those words? Lord, if you had been here…Lord, if you had come when I asked…Lord, life hurts and I asked for help and I feel like you left me out here to suffer…Lord, it’s too late, the grief is here to stay now.
The door is shut. The tomb is sealed.
And right there, in the middle of the road, with the shadow of death blacking out the sun, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Remember that Lazarus was still very much dead at this point. No one, least of all Mary and Martha, have any idea what’s about to happen. And Jesus makes these two claims in the middle of that darkness. He promises resurrection, which makes sense, since this seems to be a story about death. But he also promises life, and the word here is not a future life, but a present life, full and abundant and eternal and connected to the holy, but now. So he talks about both the future and the present, to people who can barely see their way to lunch, let alone present or future life.
It’s clear that no one understands how he can be talking like this, because when he tells them to open the tomb, everyone is appalled. Surely he can’t be serious. The smell of rotting flesh will overpower them all, not to mention that it’ll be traumatic for Mary and Martha to have to go through this all yet again. And let’s not even get into the fact that the religious leaders are here questioning every move and taking notes for the Pharisees. The crowd stares at the closed door, words of life ringing in their ears, unable to imagine any possibility on the other side.
I wonder how often that’s exactly what we all do? Sometimes in the face of physical death, yes, and more often in the face of uncertainty or change or darkness in our lives. Everyone experiences those dark nights of the soul at some point, whether as an individual or as part of a community. We look at the door and cannot imagine what might be on the other side. We see that it is shut and locked, and we give up hope. Or we see that it’s open just a tad, but we’re too afraid to give it a push and check out what’s through there. We look, but we’re paralyzed by the choices, the possibility, the risk. It seems the only way forward is to do what we’ve always done—to shut the door against the unknown and grieve our losses, let Jesus’ words of grace hang in the air and get lodged in our brains but never quite make it to the heart of everyday stuff.
But Jesus stands there, at the locked door, and says “I am the resurrection and the life.” He stands there and says “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” He looks at the tomb and says “open it.”
Can we even imagine hearing those words?
As I was imagining what it would be like to hear Jesus say “open the door,” I realized that I usually imagine it from Mary and Martha’s perspective as those who wander in the fog of grief. I know that fog well, as I know many of you do. But what if we, the church, are actually hearing those words from the other side of the door? The sound is a bit muffled, and we’re having trouble seeing, and moving is a challenge, but something is going on…something we don’t understand. And then the door is opened and Jesus calls to us: Lazarus, come out! Presbyterians, come out! PCOP, come out! Christians, come out!
Imagine how scary it must have been for Lazarus, to wake up in the dark, the scent of death still hovering, the shroud covering his face and binding his hands and feet. He moved slowly and uncertainly, tripping over bandages and unable to see clearly. He moved toward the voice—the voice of the shepherd who calls his sheep by name—and found himself at the doorway into life, a doorway he could never have imagined, a doorway that led to inconceivable risk for both himself and his dear friend. A doorway into something that has never existed before, with no instruction manual for what to do next, only the presence of Christ standing in the middle of the road with promises and tears and hope. Lazarus stood at the threshold, still wrapped in bands of death, and had to make a choice to step through.
And Jesus said: “unbind him and let him go.”
May we, too be unbound.