We continue today our journey through these lengthy narratives, these incredibly rich stories from the Gospel of John. Thank you, Warren, for taking on the challenge of reading this incredible story for us today, in addition to the amazing story of the dry bones from Ezekiel.
I can promise you that we have now reached the outer limits of the length of Gospel stories, and beginning next week—Palm Sunday—our Sunday readings will return to their usual length!
Since we’ve been moving through these stories sequentially—first the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night; then the meeting between Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well; then last week the story of the healing of the man born blind—you may have noticed the reappearance of certain key words and themes from the previous weeks.
There’s the theme of light and darkness, day and night, seeing and not seeing. There’s the double meanings we have encountered before: with Nicodemus there was the language of being born, and being born from above; with the woman of Samaria, there was literal water from the well and living water; and last week we had the notions of physical blindness and spiritual blindness. Today in the story of Lazarus we have the language of sleep and death: multiple meanings.
The other thing you may have noticed as we have moved through these past few weeks is that the Gospel of John keeps upping the ante, raising the stakes in terms of what we are meant to see in Jesus, and asked to believe about Jesus.
We started off with the convoluted late-night conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus that left Nicodemus unconvinced. Then, with the woman of Samaria, we have Jesus revealing things about her past and her declaration that he is a prophet. She goes on to ask, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” In last week’s story, Jesus does something even more extraordinary: he heals a man of his lifelong blindness.
More and more about Jesus’ power, his abilities, and his identity is being revealed. The man born blind testifies, “Lord, I believe.” We’re moving from unbelief, to uncertainty, to belief.
Throughout these stories, too, Jesus utters these “I am” statements, with “I am” being biblical code-language for God. In the Bible, “I am” is a name of God. So when Jesus makes these “I am” statements, he is revealing his divine identity, that he is God. Jesus says to the woman of Samaria, “I am” the Messiah; in the story of the man born blind, Jesus says “I am the light of the world.”
All of that leads up to today’s story, in which something even more unimaginable happens, something that shatters all the categories and all the boundaries that we know, including the most profound boundary we encounter, that between life and death. We have been led to this place, step by step, with more and more about Jesus’ identity being revealed to us through each story; Jesus’ identity is slowly emerging, as though from a fog into clarity, from darkness into light.
In an encounter much like those between Jesus and the woman of Samaria, and Jesus and the man born blind, Jesus speaks with Martha, his beloved friend and Lazarus’ grieving sister. She has faith in Jesus: she says, If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died; but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him. She has a profound faith in Jesus.
He says to her, Your brother will rise again. And she replies, I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. It’s again one of those double-meaning moments in conversation: ‘He will rise.’ ‘Oh sure, he will rise—eventually, when we all do.’
And then, “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?” And Martha’s response: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” This is the most complete confession of faith in Jesus that we have seen in these stories. It goes beyond the man born blind’s confession of “I believe,” and fills in all of the rest of the content.
Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. This confession is the prelude to the most astounding miracle of Jesus in the gospels: the raising back to life of a man who had lain dead in a tomb for four days. A man so profoundly dead, the story wants to tell us, that there was a stench in the air outside the rock tomb.
I’m going to stop with the story there. This is an incredible story, a story that challenges us on so many levels, and leaves us with so many questions. Our very human tendency is to try and rush in and answer those questions.
We may have decided that this story just cannot be true, because things like this just don’t happen. We may have decided that the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead is just a metaphor, or a literary device meant to foreshadow God’s resurrection of Jesus from the tomb and death. Or perhaps we have been in the place of Mary and Martha, and prayed fervently that a loved one not be taken from us, only to have our hopes and prayers disappointed, leading us to conclude that if God ever did raise the dead, he’s not doing it anymore.
Those are real and valid questions to bring to this story.
And yet, this season of Lent and this journey we’ve been on together, challenges us to not rush in so quickly with our predetermined answers in the face of profound mystery.
We are invited to move from a very certain unbelief—this can’t be true; to uncertainty—maybe I don’t know everything, maybe something else is possible, I wonder…; to a confession of belief—I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God; I believe with you, with you Jesus, all things are possible.
We are invited to move from our need to be in control, to know everything, to manage everything, to a willingness to not be in control, to be vulnerable, to be open to God’s surprising ways and God’s amazing grace. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas once described faith as ‘long training in being out of control of our relationship with God.’ It’s when are willing to let go of the ways we have known that we can be open to being met by God, just as Nicodemus, and the woman of Samaria, and the man born blind, and Mary and Martha and Lazarus were.
What is important in these stories is not the particular outcome, the particular things that Jesus does: revealing the woman of Samaria’s past, healing the man of blindness, or even raising Lazarus from the dead. We’re not meant to focus the particular deliverable, the outcome, as though these are stories of Jesus performing some amazing parlour tricks, pulling rabbits out of hats and making astounding things happen. Ta da!
We’re meant to focus on the encounter with God that becomes possible when we are willing to be open to God doing a new thing. In all of these stories, God is doing a new thing in Jesus. Each of these characters, to some degree, had an openness to being encountered by God in a new way.
As the stories show us, this is a particular and individual journey. We each travel at our own pace, with our particular life circumstances: our gender, our social location, our personal histories. Yet as I said at the beginning of Lent, this season and its stories are a resource for us, a resource that meets us wherever we are on our journey and invites us to take the next step.
As we move into the final week of our Lenten journey before entering Holy Week, I’ll leave you with a question to ponder: Where are you in your journey of faith?
Are you like Nicodemus, a seeker with some nagging questions that you can’t quite bring yourself to face by the light of day? Are you like the woman of Samaria, tired of the way it has been and thirsting for something more? Are you like the man born blind, willing to risk it all for a simple faith that promises new life? Are you like Mary and Martha and Lazarus, willing to have all of your expectations shattered by the one who is the resurrection and the life?
Wherever you are on the journey, know that God is there with you, prompting you, inviting you to take the next step. Soon we will gather at Christ’s table, where God will meet us in the bread and the wine. Wherever you are on the journey, may you receive what God the Trinity has to offer you: new life; hope; the balm of healing and forgiveness; freedom from all that weighs you down; a new dream; a new song; resurrection; life.
In the name of the One who is the resurrection and the life. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2017. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.