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Looking Death in the Face | A Sermon for Lent 1 from John 11:1-44

Two things converged on me this week that sparked some creativity-from-desperation for the sermon. The first was that I had two sermons to prepare–one on Ash Wednesday and one for the weekend. (Not to mention that I’m neck-deep in my Dissertation research…but now I’m just whining) The second was that the Gospel text is extremely long. I don’t care how dynamic the reader might be, that’s a lot of text to read in one shot.

I am extremely grateful to the Narrative Lectionary team at Working Preacher. Their podcast saved my bacon this week! Thank you! There are two important things I got from their podcast:

  1. Read the text in sections. Reading, preach, reading, preach. That went really well, I think.
  2. The key points regarding the conversation with Martha and Mary. If you listen to the podcast, and then listen to my sermon, you’ll see that I am indebted to them.

You can tell I had little time to prepare. I only took an outline up with me.

There are four sections to this text. Perhaps we could read one section, I could talk about it, then read the next, talk some more, and move through the text that way.

Part One: Two Haunting Phrases

John 11

1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,a “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 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.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 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. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin,c said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

  • There are two phrases that jump out at me in this passage.
    • The first is “the one you love is ill.” Can you relate to that statement? Many in our congregation are suffering great illness right now. Many of us wonder how long we can hold on? What if this is our last Easter.
    • The second phrase is, “Lazarus is dead.” Death is a part of life.
  • This is an intense topic. Nobody likes to talk about death. Our society spends billions of dollars every year trying to deny death and prolong it as long as possible.
  • Ash Wednesday – we are reminded of our mortality
  • Since this is a tough topic, i need to tell you one of the most interesting funeral experiences I’ve had. It just happened a couple weeks ago.
  • We are surrounded by death every day.
    • John Daley
    • My brother-on-law is on the brink right now.
    • The conversation with my parents about the green book.
  • People in other parts of the world face their ashes everyday in ways that we can only imagine.
    • The one second a day video about the children of Syria.
  • Lent is our Broken Journey. In the next two movements we are going to see how people typically deal with death, and how God meets us in this space.
  • Here we see a conversation Jesus and Martha

Part Two: Jesus and Martha

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

  • Martha expresses our most common reaction to death.
    • Why? and
    • God, it’s your fault!
    • This is probably the hardest part of doing a funeral as a pastor: meeting the family for the consultation. They look at you and ask, “why?”
    • How does Jesus respond to this accusation?
    • Here we encounter one of Jesus’ most famous lines. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
    • First of all, this is a scandalous statement. Who does he think he is? Well, Jesus claims to be the power of life itself. He is more than just a good teacher. There really is no middle ground with Jesus.
    • What is, perhaps, more interesting about this is when the statement appears in the story. It comes right in the middle. Lazarus is dead. Jesus asks Martha if she believes that he is the resurrection and the life, before he performs the great sign.
    • Our faith is in the Promise of God.
    • No one in this room has ever witnessed a resurrection.
    • The point is that all of us are in Martha’s position. We have been given a promise, and that is what our faith is in. Not the miracle itself. The Promise of God propels us into the future.

Part Three: Jesus and Mary

28 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.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 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. 32 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.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

  • Mary begins with the same question. Why?
  • Jesus responds differently to Mary. He sees the crowds around her who are mourning.
  • Here we encounter one of the greatest truths about God. God enters into our suffering.
  • Jesus was deeply moved. He loved Lazarus. Even though he knew what he was about to do, was overcome with the pain the people felt.
  • He could have said, “oh, quit your crying. Don’t you have any faith? I just told Martha that I’m the resurrection and the life. Don’t you believe?” He didn’t say any of that.
  • He wept.
  • Jesus entered our pain
  • Here we see the EMPATHY of God.

Part Four: Jesus and Lazarus

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 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 four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 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.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 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.”

  • This last movement is the source of our hope. It’s an amazing story.
  • Jesus says, Roll the stone away.”
  • The people respond, “No, Jesus. He’s been in their four days. He stinks!”
  • Have you ever smelled a decomposing body?
    • Story of Mr. Giggles
    • Embalming came to the U.S. during the Civil War.
    • Jesus was willing to enter into the stench of death, to bring life.
    • If God was just promise, then it would be empty words.
    • If God was just empathy, then it would be sentimental dribble.
    • The power behind the promise and the empathy is the fact that God does bring life from death.
    • Notice the key words in verse 42. “So that they may believe that you sent me.”
    • We begin the Broken Journey of Lent today. Many of us started it right here on Wednesday night, staring at death on each other’s foreheads.
    • Lent is a season of reorienting our lives around what really matters. Our current life is short. Our days are numbered. Let’s begin this journey…together.

 

 

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