Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 4/1/2017
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”
Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”
He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”
The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. (John 11:1-45, CEB)
I don’t know if I’ve ever told you all how I proposed to Lauren. Can I tell you that story to start this off? I think I pulled it off really well, if I do say so myself.
It was a Friday. Lauren was working full-time at a preschool in Lima, so she was at work all day, and we were planning on having dinner at my house that night. So I decided to send her on a scavenger hunt that day. She has an apartment over in Ada near ONU – where we both graduated from – and when I proposed she still had a couple friends who were students at ONU.
So I hand-wrote three notes. I even wrote slowly so my handwriting would be legible. I stuffed the first note in the mail slot in her front door. That note told her to put on a dress and go to a certain spot on ONU’s campus where her first friend was waiting with another note I’d written. That note led her to another spot on campus where her second friend was waiting with my last note. And that note led her to my house.
So she followed that trail to my house. She walked in and I had our song playing, this song that we both really like. And we danced to it. And when the song was over, I got down on one knee and proposed.
Makes a good story, right? So I had that whole plan laid out and it made me a nervous wreck all day. Those of you who are married might understand.
So this past week as I was working on this sermon, I’ve been thinking about why exactly I was so nervous that whole day. The most obvious might have been the simple possibility of her saying ‘no.’ Now, I was 99% sure that she would say ‘yes,’ but there was that 1% chance, and that was on her, it wasn’t on me, right?
But I think there was a deeper reason for those nerves. This action of proposing would close off all other alternative paths I might have taken and committed myself to this specific path. When I proposed, I completely entrusted myself to this specific course of action, this specific path to the exclusion of all other paths. Now, I’m not saying there’s any regret here, because there isn’t. Our wedding is in less than two months and I’m just ready for it to be here so we can be married. But I had this realization that this decision would affect the rest of my life. So there was a lot of weight riding on this, and that turned me into this nervous wreck.
Now, whether or not you’re married, we’ve all had decisions or moments like this. We’ve all had these experiences of making these huge decisions that affected the rest of your life, right? Choosing what college to go to, choosing your job or career, choosing where to live, choosing whether or not to have kids. There are so many decisions we’ve all made that commit us to one track and close the door an all other alternatives.
We can see that same tension, that same kind of decision that closes the door on all other alternatives, in the baptismal vow we’ll be focusing on this week. But I first want to make sure we’re all in the same place here. This is the fifth Sunday of Lent. And in case you don’t know or you forget, Lent is the 40-day season of preparation for Easter – 40 days not counting Sundays. And this year for Lent we’ve been working through a series called “Living Our Baptismal Calling.” The UMC has a series of vows or promises that candidates for baptism make at their baptism. And each week throughout this series, we’re looking closely at one or two of those vows or promises made at baptism and feeling out what kind of life these promises call us and our families to live.
So this week we’re focusing on the call to profess with the whole church our faith “into” our Triune God. In the official baptismal liturgy, there’s a part where the whole congregation and the candidates for baptism bringing their voices together in the Apostles’ Creed
So we’re focusing today on the call to profess with the whole church our faith or belief into our Triune God. And that word “into” is important here. We normally think of having faith in or believing in someone or something. But when we talk about believing in, we usually mean a mental agreement that something is true or right. But when we talk about believing into something or someone, that word “into” calls us to entrust ourselves entirely to whatever or whomever it is we’re believing into.
So when we believe into a person or group or organization or whatever, we’re shutting the door on all alternatives. We’re committing ourselves to one specific path to the exclusion of other possible paths. We’re entrusting our lives to this person or group or organization.
This dynamic of believing into or entrusting our life or closing the door on alternative paths – that’s exactly what was happening in the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead that we read together a few minutes ago. Throughout that story, we see all these people believing into Jesus. We also see Jesus entrusting his whole life to God his Father and closing the door on any alternative path for his life. Because this story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, this is totally a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
So I just want to go through the story with you and see if we can see together where that theme of “believing into” shows up. Ok?
So at the beginning of the story, Jesus and his disciples have left the region of Judea because his enemies – the Jerusalem leadership council – wanted to arrest him. So Jesus is hanging out across the Jordan River with his disciples. And these two women name Mary and Martha, who apparently good friends with Jesus, send word that their brother Lazarus is very ill.
Jesus is very close to these two sisters and their brother, so you’d think he’d come right away. But Jesus delays for two days. He says Lazarus’ illness isn’t fatal, but it’s for the glory of God, so that the Son of God can be glorified. Now that’s an important line here. Because that phrasing about the Son of God being glorified looks ahead to Jesus’ death on the cross when the Son of God will be truly glorified in the crucifixion.
Jesus says that this circumstance is meant to glorify the Son of God. So Jesus knows where this is headed, right? Jesus knows that this will foreshadow his own death when he’ll be glorified through crucifixion. So going forward into this ordeal requires him to believe into God and entrust his whole life – literally – into God’s resurrection power.
So after two days, Jesus announces that they’ll be going back to Judea because Lazarus has died.
At this point in the story, Jesus starts to officially shut the door on any alternative path. Jesus knows that by raising Lazarus from the dead, he’ll be predicting his own death. So this starts his last hurrah.
So Jesus and his disciples head out into danger toward the village of Bethany in Judea.
As Jesus comes close, Martha runs out to Jesus. Filled with pain and grief, she cries out “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!” And Jesus responds by saying in part “Everyone who believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Seems a strange thing to say to the sister of a dead man.
If any of you have ever lost someone in your life, remember how that felt. Put yourself back in that emotional state, if it’s not too painful. What would you think about Jesus’ words here if they were directed at you? “Whoever believes in me will never die.” It doesn’t really seem like they’re any hope at all because whoever you lost – a parent, grandparent, child, friend – they’re already dead. Lazarus is actually dead. But still, for whatever reason, Martha believes into Jesus enough to go tell her sister Mary to go see Jesus.
So Mary comes to Jesus. And she’s in pain, she’s filled with grief and mourning, and she throw herself at Jesus and sobs out “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Now at this point, Mary and Martha are both distraught and grieving and have thrown all of it at Jesus. So Jesus sees all of this overwhelming grief, and it shows him in a visceral, tangible way the grief that is brought on by death. And because this story foreshadows Jesus’ death, Jesus sees the grief that will follow his own death.
So Jesus believes into his Father in heaven, steps into the grief, and asks where they laid Lazarus’ body. Mary simply says “Come and see.” Now Mary believes into Jesus. Mary throws her whole trust on Jesus and entrusts her whole life and her brother’s life – literally – in Jesus.
Maybe this is where you are. You feel like you have no alternative path to choose for where your life is going, maybe you can hardly find any path at all. Maybe you feel like there’s nothing else you can do but throw yourself on Jesus and trust that his grace will catch you, and maybe that doesn’t sound like a great plan either.
This is what Mary does. She believes into Jesus. She shuts the door on every other alternative path and says “Come and see.”
And the story simply says that Jesus began to weep. Again, Jesus is foreshadowing his own death. Throughout this story, Jesus has been slowly closing the door on any other alternative path. At this point in the story, when Mary says “Come and see,” the door isn’t shut yet. Jesus could still escape this trajectory toward crucifixion, Jesus could still escape and live. Mary says “Come and see.” Jesus follows her. And the door on all those alternative paths shuts just a little bit more and Jesus entrusts more of his life to God his Father.
And finally, we come to conclusion of the story. We come to Lazarus’ tomb.
The tomb is a simple cave with a stone at the entrance. We read that “Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb.” Realize what Jesus is seeing. Jesus is seeing his own tomb. Jesus knows that he’ll be in another tomb like this with another stone rolled in front. Jesus still could’ve run away and lived. But he closes the door on any alternative paths a little bit more; he believes into God’s resurrecting power and plan. And he says “Remove the stone.”
So they open the tomb, and Jesus comes to the final decision point – he could still run away. The escape door is still cracked open, he could run away and still avoid the humiliation and pain of crucifixion.
But Jesus says “Lazarus, come out!” He slams the door shut on any alternative. There’s no escape now. Lazarus comes out alive, and we finally see all that Jesus can do.
If Jesus knows that this trajectory he’s on – the one that led to him raising Lazarus from the dead – if he knew that this would lead to the cross, Jesus must also know that it’ll lead to resurrection. But Jesus has a real, visceral, visible, and logical reason to see crucifixion in his future because Jerusalem’s leadership wants to kill him. So going forward here requires pure faith in the resurrecting power of God. There’s no rational reason to hope in this. But that’s the kind of hope that Mary, Martha, and Thomas put in Jesus when they believed into him and entrusted their whole lives to him.
When he raised Lazarus, Jesus foreshadowed his own resurrection. But to get to that, Jesus has to go through the humiliation and pain of crucifixion. Jesus knows the leaders in Jerusalem already want to kill him. Jesus knows that raising Lazarus from the dead is a HUGE DEAL. So this seals his fate.
Remember the baptismal vow for this week. With the whole church, we profess our faith and belief into God. This vow, just like the story of Lazarus, calls us to entrust our whole lives to the resurrecting power of Jesus. Believe into this. Throw yourself into the grace of God. Stake your life on this claim that God exists, that God came into the world as Jesus, that God lived among us, that God died on the cross, that God rose again all because God loves us.
In this story, we see the door to escape being slowly closed until it’s finally slammed shut when Lazarus is raised from the dead. I wonder if any of us still have our escape doors open?
So many of us think “I believe in Jesus, but if this whole Jesus thing doesn’t work out, I’ll still be fine.” Maybe we do this church thing because that’s how we were raised and we don’t know anything different. Maybe we’re not really committed to this, and whether or not Jesus rose from the dead wouldn’t make much of a different on our lives.
We are called to go further; to dive in deep. Mary and Martha entrusted their brother’s life into Jesus. Jesus entrusted his own life into God’s resurrecting power. And we are called to do the same. We are called to believe into God’s resurrecting power and entrust our whole lives into Jesus.
That’s a huge calling. So I want to help us do that. If you got a bulletin, you should have two identical inserts that have “Living the Call” at the top. Could you get those out? If you didn’t get a bulletin or don’t have those inserts, that’s ok, I’m going to go through the two questions on them then give us time to wrestle with them on our own.
The first question is “What is one way you are already entrusting your life to God as our Creator, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit?” The second question is “What is one new way you could entrust your life to God which you could commit to pursue this week?
I’m going to give us a couple minutes of silence to wrestle with those questions. I would invite you to write an answer on the line underneath each one. Then I would invite you to copy your answers onto the second insert. I invite you to keep one for yourself and give one to someone else who’s here today – a family member, a friend, whoever’s sitting in your pew, just somebody. That way we can be accountable and know that someone else knows what we wrote down and can check on how we’re doing with that sometime this week or next Sunday. And that way we can go out from here with the intention to actually do something with this. So I’ll give you a couple minutes for that, then I’ll close this portion of the service with a prayer before we move on and get ready to come to the table together