sermon on John 11:1-45
This is a hard Lent to preach with these lectionary Gospels. It feels like getting up after Shakespeare at a talent show and saying, “um, I wrote a love sonnet to my toothbrush but could only come up with 13 lines.” I mean, just what’s one supposed to say after these amazing dramatic passages? With today’s grand finale, I’m not going to touch the Psalm or valley of dry bones or God’s life-giving Spirit dwelling in you, though they’re plenty sermon-worthy. It’s just they end up as background compared to this Gospel.
And for the focus on John, again since there’s no way to hold onto all of it, I’m going to try approaching it by focusing on Jesus’ actions. Partly I’m recalling a classmate pointing out that in the Spanish version of this Gospel of Juan it is “el Verbo” that becomes flesh—the verb, an active God at work in our bodies, our lives, this world.
In spite of that activity, though, the first verbs with Jesus in this reading are passive. He listens to hear the message the sisters send. That’s a decent beginning, with the assurance that God hears our prayers and requests.
Much harder is his lack of response. Jesus waits. He does not go. Last week, we observed the longest absence of Jesus in the Gospel, 28 verses where the story continued without him. Now comes this longer timespan. In fact, deathly long. The two days Jesus remains and doesn’t go help can only makes us fret and feel frustrated. He said the illness wouldn’t lead to death, but—unless he means something very different from the reality we understand and experience—death came.
Maybe this two-day wait is preparing us for an even more difficult three days beginning on Good Friday, fearfully fretting whether we lost our bet, lost hope, if God is a loser, a failure, if we’re forsaken. Or maybe on those three days Jesus is busy conquering death and hell. More still, the wholeness of our lives can feel these long waits seeming too separated from Jesus, with no help we yearn to receive, just deafening silence.
The next verb might interrupt our discouraged isolation, even in the face of death: Jesus goes. His disciples warn that he’s probably going to get himself killed (which is precisely the truth), but he goes charging into danger to confront evil powers. He has courage, and he encourages his followers. Whether you heard and spoke it as ironic resolve or the battle cry of being outgunned in a Western, Thomas says, “Let’s go die with him.”
After Jesus goes, then he finds. That’s an important part of his engagement with our worries and suffering and our existence. Later details will be closer and more emotional, but first Jesus comes and finds us where we are.
Following that isn’t a direct verb, but is a question mark in the dialogue as Jesus inquires, prompting our response. “Do you believe this?” he asks. Do you trust me with life? Do you expect more than what you see right now? Do you know where to look for help? He challenges us with Martha to work on our theology, to keep pondering, to figure out what we believe, since that makes a difference.
That’s his encounter with one sister, but with Mary, it’s something else. He calls her, and she needs that beckoning into relationship. She needs maybe the chance to complain, to lament, to launch questions back. After all, our theological preparations involve practice trusting, but we trust in God and not in our explanations. It’s God who saves us, not our beliefs. And Mary needs that deeper, core moment. I don’t like head/heart contrasts, but she does seem to be operating at a gut level, maybe in grief of not being able to think straight. So Jesus doesn’t test her faith or question her theology. He sees her weeping and is also greatly disturbed. We, too, need this emotional God, a God who can be moved, who isn’t passionless but enters our pain, with empathy and compassion, knowing our hurt by having experienced it. Here, at last, is a God who responds to us.
The next verb is famously identified as the shortest verse in the Bible. Two words. Jesus wept. Maybe it’s the shortest because it says it all, that a God of constant sorrow is so remarkable there’s no more to say. Or maybe it’s so miserable, so tragic that we don’t want to dwell on it any more. (A side note: it portrays the paradox of our faith that a similarly brief verse of two words says, “Rejoice always” (1Th5:16). Somehow our heart, our very being is in joy even though and through weeping. Both are with God.)
To continue, the crowds rightly question how the tears of Jesus matter. On the one hand, having One who understands your crying and abides with you is such good news. But we desperately need God’s love not just to be sad with us, but to do something about it, to be able to bring us past it, to change things.
So change things Jesus will. He comes to the grave and commands that the tomb be opened. Even in her faithful trusting, Martha is resistant and protests the idea, warning (in my favorite verse of the King James Version) that “he stinketh.” That shows this is a closer encounter still. Jesus had been present with theological questions, pointing toward truer belief. He’d been present in groaning and weeping and sorrow. But now he will face death and will not be repulsed into giving it the last word.
Standing firm, the next two verbs are conversational. First, Jesus prays. Though there’s the odd sense of God talking to Godself, it reminds us that God isn’t defined by independence, as the highest authority, but is always God in relationship, in communication. The next obvious step, then, is that Jesus speaks to the dead man. Even death will not sever relationships with him. His voice, this Word of God, the active Verbo-in-the-flesh calls one he loves into new life.
Perhaps the summary is in his last command: “unbind him and let him go.” The work of Jesus, present in our bodies and active in our lives, the task of God is love and compassion, understanding and encouragement, is constantly creating and undoing all that binds and confines you—the sin and harmful relationships, the despair and lack of understanding, the grief and trauma, the injustice and illness, the identities and histories that held you captive.
As a last word of this Lenten season, he reorients you, renews your head and heart, your gut-feelings and physical potential, assures you of his presence and promise in baptism, overcomes death, and sets you free with his love. That’s more than I can say; it can only be enacted in your life.
J — The holy gospel according to John.
ALL — Glory to you, O Lord.
M&M — Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
J — 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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
ALL — The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
J– 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” ALL — 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
ALL — The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
J — Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
ALL — Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
J — When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
ALL — 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.
M1 — When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him,
M2 — while Mary stayed at home.
M1 — 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.”
J — Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
M1 — Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
J — 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?”
M1 — She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
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.”
M2 — And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.
J — Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.
ALL — 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.
M2 — 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.”
J — When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?”
ALL — They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
J — Jesus began to weep.
ALL — So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
J — Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
M1 — Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
J — Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
ALL — So they took away the stone.
J — And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
ALL — The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.
J — Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
ALL — Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
J — For the Word of God in scripture,
M1 — for the Word of God within us,
M2 — for the Word of God among us,
ALL — thanks be to God.