For the last four weeks, we’ve been looking at the Gospel of John and listening to Jesus say, “I am.” Two words, three letters, the simplest sentence that anyone can say, and we remember that when God spoke to Moses on the mountaintop, God told Moses to let the people know that this is his name. “I AM.” When Jesus uses those two words, he’s not exactly being subtle. Only God can use that name.
We’ve heard Jesus say I am the Bread of Life; I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Light of the World. I am the Vine.
Sometimes, along the way, he does things to show who he is. When he says he is the Bread of Life, he feeds 5,000 people. When he says he is the Light of the World, he opens the eyes of a blind man. But there is always a deeper meaning. He could give someone bread, but he knows we have a deeper hunger, an emptiness inside that he would like to fill. He could heal someone’s eyes, but they don’t “see” until they believe in him.
Most of us know the story about Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem just before Passover. People treated him like a king and threw palm branches on the road in front of him. He was a hero, but as we start gathering to watch the parade, I’m not really sure that we can feel the tension in the air. It’s been building for several weeks. Jesus has done a lot of good and made a lot of enemies. Everyone knows this. His disciples have been trying to talk him out of making this trip. They are afraid. But not only does Jesus head for Jerusalem, he tells his people exactly what’s about to happen.
Mark 10:32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
When he talks about that “rise again” part, they have no idea what he’s saying. So, the way John tells the story, Jesus showed them what was about to happen.
As they get closer to the suburbs of Jerusalem, Jesus gets word that a close friend named Lazarus had become sick and died before he arrived. In fact, as un-Jesus-like as it sounds, Jesus stayed away and let him die. He had a bigger plan. His people are about to get a clear picture of what Jesus means when he says, “the Son of Man will rise from the dead.” He says I AM the resurrection and the life, he’s about to show them what resurrection means. We walk with Jesus into Bethany…
John 11:17-27. 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.’
Maybe you’ve been part of a small group of people getting to know each other and been asked this question: “If you had one wish, what would it be?” Everybody answers and someone has to say, “I’d wish for more wishes!” More wishes would take care of all those things we don’t know to wish for yet.
We want more future. We want more life. For most of us, as rough as life gets sometimes, we really don’t want life to end. So we keep wondering, “Is there another life or not? Is there more after death?”
God says, “You bet! In fact, there’s more to the life you’re living now!” And God really hopes we watch carefully what happens with Lazarus, and especially what happens with Jesus in the next couple of weeks. God’s telling us, “If you believe in Jesus, you’re not far behind.” We’re talking about resurrection, which is the point. It’s why we are here. Jesus wasn’t just a great teacher and healer; he’s alive. Faith in the living Jesus gives us life right now and makes death irrelevant. It’s why we are here. He is why we are here. The living Jesus is why we are here. He moves into the core of us when we believe. The Apostle Paul said to his friends in Corinth…
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:13)
This story about Lazarus happens on what you could call “Palm Sunday Eve.” Jesus spends a few days in Bethany, then heads for Jerusalem. The situation was full of tension from before the moment he walked into town. Knowing more about that will help you understand that the crucifixion of Jesus was not a random act of violence. The enemies of Jesus know what they will do and Jesus knows what they will do. Not only does Jesus have enemies, even many of his friends are unhappy. At the beginning of this story, they are really upset, and that’s worse.
You see, it’s the relationship Jesus has with the family of Lazarus that gives the story its raw emotion. The main difference between Lazarus and the other people Jesus heals is that Lazarus was one of Jesus’ best friends, not an anonymous person. So when he gets sick, why does Jesus wait? At this point in the gospel, it’s obvious that Jesus can heal him instantly, but Jesus waits two days in a place that’s less than an hour’s walk away. And he stays away.
When Jesus finally gets to Bethany, he’s got three problems. First, Lazarus has been dead four days. The Jews thought the spirit stayed with the body for three days, but then as the body began to decay, the spirit left and life was gone. Lazarus had been buried for four days – he was truly dead. You can tell just by standing close enough to the opening of the tomb.
Secondly, now there were many Jerusalem Jews in this place mourning with the family – these were the enemies of Jesus. It was dangerous for Jesus to be this close to Jerusalem and word was sure to get out to the authorities that Jesus was here.
And, third, the sisters of Lazarus are confused and even angry with Jesus. They’ve had four days to think about it. Jesus, Son of God, where are you? At least he had the decency to show up, so they’re getting over it, but the emotion is getting to Jesus too. When he saw where his friend was buried (maybe you know the shortest verse in the Bible – John 11:35): Jesus wept.
You can go there too, you know. The town of Bethany is a real place and on one of the side-streets is a cave entrance with a sign over the doorway that reads, “The Tomb of Lazarus” in several languages. It’s a small place and there’s apparently no other ancient cave-tomb nearby, so this may actually be what the sign says it is.
It seems to be a natural cave, and the tomb itself is actually 30 or 40 feet below the doorway, way down below street level. When Jesus yells, it’s probably because Lazarus is way down in this tomb. Way down in the darkness.
LAZARUS! COME OUT! But he is so far down there…
LAZARUS! COME OUT! Jesus’ friends, and everybody else are thinking he’s lost his mind because it probably took some time, at least a few minutes, for him to get to the opening. Jesus is waiting, everyone is waiting, looking at Jesus, and then, Lazarus crawls out of the tomb. There he is. What can you say? Either Jesus is “I AM” or, if you are a religious leader, you just lost control of the crowd and he has to go.
If you have your NRSV Bible open, you can see what leads up to Palm Sunday just by the section titles:
The Death of Lazarus
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
The Plot to Kill Jesus
You could say that Jesus died because he brought life. As Jesus gets on the donkey to ride into town, you can sense that the situation is a powder-keg. And you can see that this was a little preview of the life that God gives us.
Death and tombs make no difference to God. Death is a just a point in the road on the way to being with God for those who believe. You can have resurrection before your body dies. If you believe, God can give you life. And you can be dead without dying. I think you know what I mean. Things can happen in your life that make your soul die. You know you need a resurrection and only God can do it.
That voice you hear off in the distance is Jesus calling your name. And you believe. You start to feel life come into your soul, and God makes you alive. And without faith, without the kind of hope God gives, people are dead. People in AA know all about this, all about having a soul that needs resurrection, but they aren’t the only ones.
Maybe you’ve been hearing the news about the German airline pilot who apparently crashed the airliner he was flying with 149 other people onboard. I only mention this because I know it’s possible to be in such a dark hole, you can come to a point where you think there is no hope and no possibility of hope. Life can be so overwhelming. If you are in that place, I can only encourage you to talk it through with someone you trust and know that God is able to make new possibilities.
True story: Some years ago I went to a funeral service for a person who had committed suicide. This was the pastor of a United Church of Christ church from another town, and I had only met him a few times. I’d like to think that most of the time, there is a way to turn a funeral service into a celebration of life. But not this time.
Family and church members were really struggling. Pastors and members of other churches came to sit with them. It was Good Friday for everybody in the spiritual sense. Do you know what I mean?
One of the people who spoke was a deacon of the church, and he had one of the shortest and best sermons I think I have ever heard. This deacon was the person who was called to the police station to pick up this man’s personal effects. Among the things the police had collected at the scene was a bible. The reason they had taken it was that it had been left open and it had fresh pen marks in it. A verse had been underlined and the verse that had been marked was Romans 7:15, which says this:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15)
This underlining was the only hand-written mark in the whole book, and the police sergeant said to this deacon, “We (police) have been reading this and re-reading it. I want you to see what happens when you turn the page. We thought you should see this.”
It had been marked with the kind of pen that bleeds through thin paper, and when he turned the page, there was a verse underlined on the other side. And it said this:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)
The sergeant said, “Whoever reads that first verse needs to turn the page.”
This week, can you do that? Can you turn the page? Have the faith to turn the page; let God show you what’s on the other side. Good Friday is around us all the time. But that’s not where we live when we trust in Christ. Jesus did not stay in the tomb. He’s alive and Easter’s coming. Believe it. Let God give you life. The world needs us.
There are so many ways to be in a tomb. The hope and the power and the healing of Christ isn’t held hostage to any of these things.
That voice we hear comes from somebody who has seen the worst the human race has to offer and overcome it. He’s been in a tomb himself.
LAZARUS, COME OUT! We can have the life we need so much right now. We can say “yes” to God now. We can believe now. The love and power of God is not somehow reserved for people when they die, you can believe now, and it’s today that counts.
God, we confess that we have sometimes thought that the road we’re on is a dead end. But we hear the voice of Jesus calling to us and we know there is more. We know that there is hope, we know that there is something more to life than what we see, and we know that it’s because of you. Teach us to live each day as a special gift so that we see the beauty of small things, feel the love of family, and hear the songs in the trees. Open our hearts and minds to the possibility of new life. Help us understand our need for you and the power of your resurrection. Bring us out of our tombs, out of our wilderness, each of us, and live through us. We give ourselves to you. Amen.