a sermon on John 11:1-45 for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on April 10, 2011
The mood was dark and uncertain even though the day may have been beautiful. Jesus’ friend Lazarus had died, and after four days he had finally joined his friends and family to visit the tomb together. They had hoped that Jesus would come and visit Lazarus before he had died, maybe even bringing a miraculous healing to his unnamed illness, but this was seemingly too much to ask of a busy itinerant preacher and teacher in Galilee in those days, though Jesus’ plans were certainly complicated by the bounty that was out on his head in that time.
Even though he didn’t make it to visit before Lazarus died, Jesus was not unaffected by the death of his friend. Yes, he often stood aloof and seemingly disconnected from the humanity of his disciples and friends, but in this moment he fit right into the crowd, weeping and mourning with them as they walked to the tomb where Lazarus had been buried. He seems to have known all the things that awaited him there – the large stone at the entrance to the tomb, the uncertain women who were afraid of the smell that they would find if they rolled away the stone, and the grief and hurt and pain that grew only deeper as he neared the place where Lazarus had been laid to rest. Still, Jesus’ prayer in this time was filled with hope – hope that his words and presence would not be in vain, hope that his friend’s life would not come to such a strange and uncertain end, hope that God was not done working in and through Lazarus and Jesus, for there was more going on here than either of them could ever imagine.
So at the tomb, with the large stone rolled away, the smell of death at hand, and God’s presence invoked through prayer, Jesus cried, “Lazarus, come out!” Suddenly Lazarus emerged from the tomb, still wrapped in the linen cloths of a dead body, and yet he was very much alive. Jesus’ simple words from earlier echoed loud and clear in that moment: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Even standing at the tomb, there was something more in store.
Just three weeks ago, I like Jesus joined the throng of mourners who had made their way to the graveside of my grandmother who had died a few days before. I too hadn’t made it to see her before she died, but I knew there was nothing I could do if I had – while it would have been good to see her one last time, she was so sick that it would have been all the more difficult to have my last memory of her be so different from what I had known my whole life.
But also like Jesus, I was overcome with grief and love standing at the tomb. I remembered so much about my grandmother there at her grave – her simple way of approaching life that made things easier for everyone, her incredible love for me and so many others that she showed so often in her words and actions, her deep faith that sustained her and so many of us all along the way. As I stood there remembering her incredible life, I remembered the others who were buried there alongside her – my great-grandparents who I did not know well but who had journeyed from North Dakota to the Mississippi Delta late in life, and my beloved grandfather who also showed me such love and care as I grew up from the spoiled only grandchild into the still-loved young man whom he always imagined I would become.
There at those graves, I felt waves of emotion rush over me much as they had for Jesus, but my memories came alive then even though the ones at the center of them would not. I knew that there was no chance in that moment that my grandmother would rise from the dead, and if someone had called out to her as Jesus did for Lazarus at any point in our mourning for her, we certainly would have had that person taken away! Nonetheless, it was a comfort to know that even though she would not rise up again then and there, Jesus’ words would be true for her just as much as they were for Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Even at that grave, even if it weren’t immediately obvious and evident and real, there was something more in store.
As we look around here amidst the beauty of these days, amidst the hope that we sometimes see in our midst, we too see signs that we stand at the entrance to a tomb sometimes – faithful friends leaving our midst for one reason or another, increasing struggles and financial challenges for our life together, shifting commitments that make it harder to do what we’ve done before, uncertainty of countless kinds over so many things turning into anxiety and paralyzing fear. We look around and see that there are plenty of others here with us – seemingly countless churches struggling to find their way in a changing world, so many faithful people confused by different approaches to the life of faith and the path of following Jesus in the midst of a world that is very different from what we knew even a few years ago, even some people who would seem to have it all sorted out and yet are willing to stay in the trenches with those who struggle to figure out something new. If we look closely, we may even see the other tombs around us where the church as it was once known now again lies dead – but so often Jesus seems nowhere to be found, if we even look for him. We expect that he’ll be off someplace else where things are more alive, not out here in the tombs with the dead folks, not in this place where people are struggling to figure out what is next, not in this dark and uncertain place where all of us are wondering what lies around the next corner for us.
But even before we hear any words that might revive us, we see Jesus standing in our midst, offering his simple reminder to us as he did to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus weeps and mourns the pain of the struggles that we face and joins us on the journey to the tomb as he too is overcome by grief and uncertainty. And just when we think that we have died – and perhaps only when we have given up everything that makes us think we are alive! – we find Jesus, praying for us, demanding that the tomb of the world as we thought we knew it be unsealed, and calling out to us to rise up anew, not just to be resuscitated into the life we once knew but to rise into something new that embodies the new creation for us, here and now, together.
Amidst all of our struggles and uncertainties, Jesus promises that we are not done yet, that new life can and will take hold in our midst if we are willing to let the old die and to trust the call of the Spirit into something new, that there is something more in store for us and for our world.
So as we stand before the tombs of our lives, wherever and whatever they may be, may we see Jesus standing beside us, weeping along with us, mourning the things that are past, rolling away the stones that seal things up, and calling us to rise up to new life not just so that we can live as we lived before but so that we can better embody the fullness of life we see becoming real in him as he too walks the path through the valley to the cross and conquers death once and for all to make all things new.
May these final days of our Lenten road show us this way as we walk with Jesus – and Jesus walks with us – now and always, trusting that there is something more in store.