Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 2, 2017

2017.04.02 “Lazarus Who Laughed” – John 11: 1 – 44

Central United Methodist Church
Lazarus Who Laughed
Pastor David L. Haley
John 11: 1 – 44
The 5th Sunday in Lent
April 2nd, 2017

The Raising of Lazarus

“A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”

When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”

Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed on where he was for two more days. After the two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.”

They said, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The Jews are out to kill you, and you’re going back?”

Jesus replied, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in daylight doesn’t stumble because there’s plenty of light from the sun. Walking at night, he might very well stumble because he can’t see where he’s going.”

He said these things, and then announced, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.”

The disciples said, “Master, if he’s gone to sleep, he’ll get a good rest and wake up feeling fine.” Jesus was talking about death, while his disciples thought he was talking about taking a nap.

Then Jesus became explicit: “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.”

That’s when Thomas, the one called the Twin, said to his companions, “Come along. We might as well die with him.”

When Jesus finally got there, he found Lazarus already four days dead. Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of the Jews were visiting Martha and Mary, sympathizing with them over their brother. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him. Mary remained in the house.

Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.”

Jesus said, “Your brother will be raised up.”

Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.”

“You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Master. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.”

After saying this, she went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.”

The moment she heard that, she jumped up and ran out to him. Jesus had not yet entered the town but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When her sympathizing Jewish friends saw Mary run off, they followed her, thinking she was on her way to the tomb to weep there. Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?”

“Master, come and see,” they said. Now Jesus wept.

The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”

Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.”

Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb. It was a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

The sister of the dead man, Martha, said, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days!”

Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.”

They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken so that they might believe that you sent me.”

Then he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And he came out, a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face.

Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.”

That was a turnaround for many of the Jews who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him. But some went back to the Pharisees and told on Jesus. The high priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the Jewish ruling body. “What do we do now?” they asked. “This man keeps on doing things, creating God-signs. If we let him go on, pretty soon everyone will be believing in him and the Romans will come and remove what little power and privilege we still have.” – John 11: 1 – 45, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson


On a recent Monday morning, I looked at my calendar and thought I had an easier week. Shortly after that thought, I received an email notifying me that a retired firefighter had died, could I do his service on Thursday? Sadly, I had just met him at a breakfast the previous Tuesday – I can see him sitting there smiling – 6 days before he collapsed and died. Even for those of us who deal with death regularly, the fragility of life can be shocking.

That evening, I sat in the living room with his stunned and grieving wife, children and grandchildren. A few days later, facing the same family and their friends, I held the service. At such times, whether as clergy or friends, we do our best to provide comfort and hope, though we know it will not be enough to assuage their loss, and the grief that follows, especially after the funeral is over and the mourners are gone.

Because we know such scenes – because we have experienced death and loss and grief – the scene in today’s Gospel may be foreign but it also familiar to us. Someone (Lazarus) has died; those who loved him (Martha and Mary) grieve, and friends gather to comfort them.

This scene marks the fifth conversation of Jesus we have heard over these Sundays of Lent, with the tempter in the wilderness, the rabbi Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and last week, the healing of the Man Born Blind. However, none of these conversations grab us as much as this one, the story of Jesus and Martha and Mary. It is the final sign in John’s Book of Signs: as Jesus offered the woman at the well the Water of life; as at the healing of the man born blind Jesus was the Light of the World; here at the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

Even though we love this story, it raises questions that still puzzle us. The first and most obvious is: “After receiving word that his friend Lazarus was sick, likely to death – Why did Jesus delay?” The reason John gives is that by doing so, it gives greater occasion to show God’s glory. Having said that, I don’t think you would take it kindly if you call me when someone dies and I say, “I’ll be there in four days; let’s let this ripen a bit.”

Therefore, we sympathize with Martha when she gives Jesus a piece of her mind: “Master, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Or, as we might translate: “Don’t rush right over, Mr. Compassionate, because you’re TOO LATE!” Or as the eloquent King James Version puts it, “Already yet he stinketh.” (Will Willimon, He Waited Two More Days?”, A Sermon for Every Sunday, April 2, 2017)

On the other hand, for our sake, we should be thankful things worked out as they did, that Martha and Mary and Jesus had this conversation, because now when Jesus shows up too late for us, at least we have something to hold on to: “I am” – said Jesus – “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.”

As Fred Craddock put it: “The church clings to these words like few other sayings of Jesus. The scene of Jesus with two grieving sisters, weeping at the grave of their brother and his friend, has offered comfort and hope unmatched by any other resource, biblical or otherwise. Most Christian funerals allude to these words or this scene.” (Fred B. Craddock, “A Twofold Death and Resurrection,” The Christian Century, March 21-28, p. 299.)

What Jesus is saying is significant, but we often miss it, or misinterpret it, as Martha did. What Jesus is saying is, the life of the world to come, the resurrection life, a full and abundant life, does not – cannot – wait until we die to begin, it begins the moment we put our trust in God, who alone transcends death.

I have always loved the words of the late Henri Nouwen. In his book “Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, he says this:

“When we reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die, then oppression, persecution, and even death will be unable to take our freedom. Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge — a knowledge more of the heart than the mind — that we are born out of love and will die into love, that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love, and that this love is our true Father and Mother, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us. (Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift:  A Meditation on Dying and Caring, p. 17)

Another question raised by the story is, “Why is Jesus so full of emotion?” When Jesus sees Martha and those with her sobbing, the text says, variously, “a deep anger welled up within him”, or “he was deeply moved and troubled.” (NIV). Then, on the way to the tomb, the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” (11:35).

Anger, deeply moved and troubled, weeping – what is this? Perhaps Jesus hated the ruin and sorrow that death brings to life, which he saw in his friend’s Martha and Mary’s faces, in their tears, in the stench of his friend Lazarus. Perhaps he sees in the death of Lazarus his own death, soon to occur. Indeed, this is one of the great ironies of this story: Jesus knew that by calling Lazarus out of the tomb, he soon would enter it. No wonder he is deeply moved; we would be too, in the face of a gathering storm?

Perhaps the tears and emotion Jesus displays in this story speak so powerfully because they show us, Jesus, Word of God incarnate, crying our tears, knowing our fear, experiencing our dying and death. The same Jesus who said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Finally, what are we to make of the raising of Lazarus? Though the story takes 45 verses, the raising of Lazarus takes only two. As Jesus strides toward the tomb, even Martha and Mary are pulling on his sleeve, reminding him that Lazarus has been dead four days. Nevertheless, at Jesus direction, they roll away the stone, there is a moment of dramatic silence as Jesus prays, and then yells: “Lazarus, come out.” The text says: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” “Unbind him,” says Jesus, “and let him go.”

How does a man dead four days come back to life, the original “Walking Dead?”? How could he walk, with hands and feet bound tight? And – he’d better keep his grave clothes handy, for Lazarus was only resuscitated not resurrected, raised only to die again: there is no Lazarus still out there walking around.

Though the story doesn’t say what happened, my favorite version is the one written by the playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1928, entitled “Lazarus Laughed.”

As the curtain goes up, Lazarus stumbles out of the dark, blinking into the sunlight. After his grave clothes are taken off he begins to laugh. The first thing he does is to embrace Jesus with gratitude. Then he embraces his Martha and Mary and the other people gathered there.

He has a clear look in his eye; it’s as if he’s seeing the world for the first time. He reaches down and pats the earth affectionately. He looks up at the sky, at the trees, at the neighbors as if he had never seen them before, overwhelmed by the incredible brightness of everything. The first words he utters are, “Yes, yes, yes,” as if to embrace life all over again.

Lazarus makes his way back to his house and eventually somebody gets the courage to ask the question everybody’s dying to ask: “Lazarus, what is it like to die? Lazarus begins to laugh even more and says:

“There is no death, really. There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy. Death is not the way it appears from this side. Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos. It is, rather, a portal through which we move into everlasting growth and everlasting life. The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the One who gave us our birth. Not because we deserved it but because that generous One wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear in the next realm. The grave is as empty as a doorway is empty. It is a portal through which we move into greater and finer life. Therefore, there is nothing to fear. Our great agenda is to learn to accept, to learn to trust. We are put here to learn to love more fully. There is only life. There is no death.”

Soon, Lazarus’ house becomes known as the “House of Laughter.” Night after night, there is the sound of singing and dancing.

Soon, the spirit of Lazarus who has come back from the dead with the message that there is nothing to fear, begins to spread through the whole village. People began to live more humanely and generously with each other. There is less conflict than before. A joy settles over the whole community because someone has come back saying there is finally nothing to fear.

But not everyone is pleased. The Roman authorities sense that one who lost his fear of death is a threat to their control. How do you intimidate someone no longer afraid of death? They move on Lazarus, and tell him to knock off the laughing. All he does is laugh all the more. “The truth is,” he says, “there is nothing you can do to me. There is no death. There is only life.”

They arrest him, taking him all the way to Rome. The play ends with Lazarus standing face to face with the Roman emperor, the most powerful man on earth. He says to Lazarus, “You have a choice. You’ll either stop this infernal laughter right this minute or I’ll have you put to death.” And Lazarus laughs. And says to the emperor: “Go ahead and do what you will. There is no death. There is only life.” (Eugene O’Neil, Lazarus Laughed)

“I am, right now,” says Jesus, “the Resurrection and Life. Those who trust me, even though they die, yet shall they live. And those who live, trusting me, shall not die. Do you believe this?”








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