“Untied and Let Go” Colchester Federated Church, March 29, 2020, (John 11:1-45) Fifth Sunday in Lent (**Virtual Worship)

On this Fifth Sunday in Lent we have our final personal encounter with Jesus and some of his followers that leads to transformation in our Lectionary Gospel readings.  And this one is really something.  Before we get into the specifics, we can remember (as Professor Karoline Lewis shares in her John Commentary) that the Gospel according to John can be thought of structurally as the Book of Signs (Chapters 1-12) and the Book of Glory (Chapters 13-21.)  The Book of Signs focuses on Jesus’ Public Ministry which occurs over 3 years.  The Book of Glory focuses on Jesus’ last days with his disciples and the crucifixion and resurrection appearances.  There are seven signs in John’s Gospel: Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, healing the official’s son, healing a man who had been ill for 38 years, feeding the five thousand, walking on water, healing the man born blind (last Sunday’s story), and raising Lazarus from the dead (today’s story.)

Our story that we are contemplating of the Raising of Lazarus in John Chapter 11 is Jesus’ last and greatest act of public ministry.  It’s the last public sign performed by Jesus in John’s Gospel.  The whole point of the signs is to point to something beyond themselves.  It’s not just about the sign alone, but the direction it takes us that provides meaning.  Think of road signs and how they help us get where we need to go.  Some road signs we may like more than others, granted.  Though road signs are essential in understanding the rules of the road—which is why we have to learn them and get tested on them before we’re allowed to get behind a wheel on our own.

We can keep in mind that this last and greatest act of his public ministry—raising Lazarus from the grip of the tomb—is what causes Jesus to get a death sentence from the religious officials in the Gospel according to John.  It was the last sign he performed before people wanted to get rid of him forever.  Because how much more threatening can a person who has this kind of love and compassion and power be?  What kind of a God does this sign reveal?  This story is really something.[1]

Now Jesus has some friends who live in Bethany—Lazarus, Mary, and Martha—a brother and sisters in the same family.  Mary is the one who anointed Jesus with oil and wiped his feet with her hair.  Her brother Lazarus has fallen ill, so the sisters send word to Jesus, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”[2]  We know that Jesus is super close with this family—he loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.  John tells us that.  Now we might think that Jesus would take off running to meet them and heal Lazarus right away.  But he doesn’t.  Again, just like with the man born blind from birth last Sunday who Jesus healed (and Jesus said this was going to be for the glorification of God), he has the same response for the healing of Lazarus.  Jesus says, “This illness isn’t fatal.  It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.”[3]

By the time Jesus and his disciples get to Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead and in the tomb for four days.  Martha runs out to meet Jesus before he even gets to their home and tells him that if he had been here her brother Lazarus wouldn’t have died.  Jesus responds that her brother will rise again, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me will never die.”[4]  Those words of comfort we often hear at Christian funerals come from this story of the Raising of Lazarus.  Martha affirms that she too believes that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son.  Eventually Mary arrives on the scene, falling at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”[5]

Jesus sees Mary crying and all the others who had come with her crying too.  John tells us that Jesus was deeply disturbed and troubled.  Jesus himself began to cry.  In some translations of the Bible this is stated simply, “Jesus wept.”  That’s the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible (John 11:35)—“Jesus wept.”

Friends, let this story be a comfort for us in these trying and troubling times.  Jesus saw people grieving and he himself grieved and began to cry.  Tears can be holy and healing.  Tears can be a blessing because it means that we are feeling something—feeling scared or angry or sad.  No, those feelings aren’t always exactly comfortable.  And no, we probably don’t want to make our way in the world crying all the time because that feels difficult.  Though, remember that Jesus wept when he experienced people around him crying at the death of someone they loved and he loved.

As of my writing this sermon for our congregation on Tuesday evening and recording it on Wednesday afternoon—we’ve had 618 confirmed COVID-19 cases here in Connecticut resulting in 12 people who have died.  It’s not hard to imagine families who are grieving around us, and the grief is complicated because it’s likely that they were not able to be with their loved ones as they died.  (Just as Jesus was not there with Lazarus as he died.)  And it’s complicated because these families will not be able to safely gather together in community to remember and bury their loved one right now.  Yes, there are people in our state, in our country, and in the world who are facing grief in unbelievably complicated ways.  And we may be experiencing grief ourselves.

Though the tears shed in our story did not last all night, for joy came soon after.  Jesus came to the tomb of Lazarus, a cave with a stone covering the entrance.  Jesus told those gathered to remove the stone.  Martha reminded Jesus that the smell will be awful because by then Lazarus had been dead for four days.  Jesus reminds her that she will see God’s glory and says with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  “The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, his face covered with a cloth.”  Jesus commands, “Untie him and let him go.”[6]

How we may wish that Jesus was physically in our ICUs healing people who are facing this deadly virus right now.  How we may wish that Jesus could bring back to life those who have died.  Perhaps the comfort we can take from this sign that points us to something beyond ourselves is that death has never and will never have the last word.  God is a God of love and new life and second chances and hope beyond hope.  Thank God for all the doctors and nurses and researchers and healthcare professionals the world over who are in the business of healing.  And it’s up to us, it’s up to you and to me to give them a fighting chance for healings to happen.  By staying safe and staying home.  By taking personal responsibility for doing what we can to slow the spread of this virus.  By remembering on the days when we may feel despair and fear that we have one another to look after perhaps now more than ever.  And on the days where it all feels like too much, it’s okay to weep as Jesus did.  It’s okay to grieve for those who are losing their loved ones in especially difficult circumstances.  It’s good to go to God with our fears and to ask that God will help see us through.  Because God will.  And though we remain physically separated, we are not apart, and you are not alone.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Karoline M. Lewis, John, Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentary, 6-8.
[2] John 11:3, Common English Bible.
[3] John 11:4.
[4] John 11:25.
[5] John 11:32.
[6] John 11:43 and 11:44.