Sermon: Lent 5 Year A*, March 29, 2020
The Rev. Eileen Weglarz
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 6:16-23; John 11:1-44
In John’s story about the death of someone close to Jesus, we see Jesus’s human nature vividly expressed in his own emotions. John writes that, when Jesus came upon the formal mourners in Bethany, “He was greatly disturbed in spirit.” He was “disturbed” again a few verses later when he came to Lazarus’s tomb.
This is somewhat puzzling. The weeping of the mourners is followed ultimately by Jesus’ own weeping, yet their weeping “disturbs” him before it “moves” him to weep. The Greek word translated here refers to anger, a kind of emotion that can move us to action or indignation. There are also two other Greek words in John that help us understand Jesus’s emotional state when he came to Bethany. The weeping of the mourners is described with a word that refers to formal funeral behavior in the Ancient Near East. Sometimes mourners were paid to wail continuously so as to make sure everyone within earshot knew that the departed person was sorely missed. They were, so to speak, professional mourners.
The word describing Jesus’s weeping is a different word altogether from the word for the weeping of the mourners. It is a word that can be accurately translated as “bursting into tears.” While the formal mourners set up the expected protracted weeping and wailing, Jesus’s own reaction was spontaneous and troubled.
But what use are his tears? He purposefully delayed his arrival at Bethany until after Lazarus was in his grave. Why cry now? For Lazarus? For his sisters? We want to join Martha and Mary in the exasperated greeting when they finally see Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Where were you, Jesus? What kept you so long? Why save your tears for this day, after Lazarus has gone to his grave?
I think Jesus’s indignation, as well as his tears, has to do entirely with his love and compassion for Martha and Mary as well as for his friend Lazarus, and even for all those who were there that day mourning with the family. That we are continuously blinded to the truth, that where Jesus is there is life, makes Jesus angry over our spiritual state. He weeps at our suffering because of his love, but his anger is not fruitless or pointless any more than his compassion is fruitless or pointless.
I recently heard about a dentist who travels to Central America every summer for a week or so, visiting the same remote village each year, where he performs tooth extractions. There is little else he can do. There are no resources for good continuing dental care, no fluoride in the water, no understanding of basic health concepts.
It makes him angry to think that there is so much potential for good health in the world, but because of economic injustice, ignorance, governmental apathy, and a dozen other factors, villagers in this tiny mountain village and in thousands of others throughout the world, they have no health care. It makes him angry, but he knows he cannot fix all those problems. He can only come one week a year to do what needs to be done most immediately. So he pulls teeth.
There are times when we have to do what we can and let God save the rest. Lazarus’s sisters and the mourners gathered with them had done all they could. But, what we discover is that Jesus was not really absent as Martha and Mary supposed. He said at the beginning of the story, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory.” The presence of God covers the whole story even when—and perhaps especially when—the sisters are least aware of it.
When we gather around the graves of loved ones—that may be a time when we are least aware of God’s presence. But our lack of awareness and understanding does not make God any less present.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”
When the psalmist said, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” he can’t have been far from the words Martha and Mary spoke to Jesus when they saw him approaching Bethany that day. And when later in the psalm he says, “I wait for the Lord… and in his word I hope,” he is speaking directly to the edge of the hopelessness they must have felt about their brother’s expired life, days after the funeral.
Psalm 130 addresses that question asking, “Are there any limitations to the love of God, any lengths to which Jesus simply cannot go to redeem those who turn to him?” This is the psalm that John Wesley, founder of Methodism, heard the day before his great conversion at Aldersgate. So we must be careful when we ask God the deep and penetrating questions about his care for us. His answer may claim the rest of our lives!
The coronavirus pandemic that has gripped our country has, in many ways, jolted us from our day-to- day earthly realities to an awareness that perhaps we need, more now than ever, a renewed faith in God, a revived awareness of the lengths Jesus went, and will continue to go to bring us new life.
We are tempted to live in fear—fear for the lives of our loved ones and fear for our own lives. Our mortality seems closer than ever. And we want to cry out, as did Martha, “Lord, where are you?” But I believe that God is calling us as we make our way through the turmoil surrounding us, to renewed faith, to a kind of resurrected faith in Jesus’s power to save us, empower us, and call us to life eternal, beginning now.
It is as if Jesus is calling us from the spiritual tombs into which we have fallen asleep, a kind of spiritual death or apathy. He is calling us out of our tombs to witness faith that has no bounds and to a renewed understanding of God’s love. Are there any limitations to the love of God, any lengths to which Jesus simply cannot go to redeem those who turn to him?
It is a question asked by the evidence of our lives, if not the words of many of us. The story of Lazarus from John’s gospel provides an answer that is unsurpassed. “Unbind him and let him go.” When Jesus says these words, they echo through the story of Lazarus, through the story of each and every saint who has died in the Lord, echo right into the midst of our very lives.
“When we are bound, it is, in the end, always death that binds us. The cloths that wrapped Lazarus’s hands and feet were nothing compared to the binding powers of death itself. We are bound by so much that we lie in the doorway of the tomb day after day, awaiting the arrival of Jesus to set us free and call us to life. What if Jesus came into this church this morning, took a long and steady look at us and declared in a loud voice, “Unbind him and let him go! Unbind her and let her go!”?
“What if that was to happen, not in some theatrical way, but in a real way, just when you were yawning your way through another sermon? If Jesus pointed at you or me and exclaimed, “Unbind!” what would be let loose in us? What is so dead about us that we have forgotten that it died?
“What about us has been in a forgotten tomb of our existence so long that we no longer even notice the stench of its decay? Or the effect decay has had on our own lives and in our relationship with others?”
Have we given up on the power of the church’s ministry, given up on the meaning of the “Body of Christ?” Has our commitment, having once seemed to stretch the whole of our hearts, faded to a little corner of our existence, all but dying out in us? Have we long since begun to approach each and every problem of our lives as though we had no one to rely on but ourselves?
Have we given up on the community of faith that was once so alive in us, given up on our church, made our faith a matter of petty personal moral choices, rather than the clarion call to a whole new life with purpose?
Have our own spiritual lives, and the choices we’ve made that all but close out personal time with God in prayer or in reading the scriptures, left us all but spiritually dead? Have we chosen to be as good as dead and bound in our graves of apathy and disinterest so that some of those who love us turn to Jesus and say, “If only you had been here, his faith would not have died in him?”
Has the time come for Jesus to re-enter our active consciousness, to look directly into our fading eyes and say, as he did to Martha and Mary, “Take away the stone. Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
He said this to them and they took away the stone. And all hell broke loose, as it were, and Lazarus was alive, by God! And so can you be made alive. So can you. So can I.
Take away the stone. A heart of stone is not much more than a stone. But Jesus can bring life where before there was death. If there are parts of your life that feel dead in their tracks today, roll away the stone, and wait for the power of Jesus that will fill any heart that makes room for him.
Roll away the stone. Cast all of your care and fear upon Jesus. And then stand strong in your resurrected faith. Amen.
*Adapted from a sermon by Robert J. Elder, First Presbyterian Church, Salem, printed in Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XVI, Number 2: February, March 2005.