The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday in Lent (2023)

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Rev. Cn. Richard Hogue
March, 26, 2023

            It’s hard to believe how quickly Lent seems to fly by, as we stare down the long march of Holy Week beginning with Palm Sunday next week. In the bustle of it all, take the time and feel free to close your eyes and relax now, if you are comfortable doing so, as I take us back through the Gospel story and point out some things. Perhaps by closing your eyes you might see something new. I’ll pause just a moment so you may breathe and get yourself comfortable.

Today, we get a rather long foreshadowing of Jesus’ power to make life present in the face of death. Lazarus has little more to do in the passage, though, outside of what befalls and then who uplifts him, he is shrouded in disease, darkness, and death. Otherwise, it is a story about Martha, Mary, and the witnesses of this resurrection event. The Gospel even betrays that a bit in the stories very first lines: “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.” Mind you, Mary hasn’t done this anointing in John’s Gospel, yet, as it happens in the following chapter. Mary of Bethany must have been an exceptionally popular disciple to the earliest Christians, as the Evangelist namedrops her and refers to the anointing in advance. Clearly she stuck out in the minds of church folk then.

She and her sister Martha set everything in motion, sending for Jesus knowing that their brother is not long for this world. Despite this, Jesus remains in the Transjordan for two more days, outside of Judea in which are Jerusalem and Bethany. Perhaps he fears reprisal upon reentering the territory controlled by the religious elite and the Roman overlords. He knows that his going back risks arrest and great tumult.

The juxtaposition of Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus provides wide latitude for interpretation and self-reflection. What Jesus risks to show the power he has is as powerful as the act of resurrection itself, in some ways, he will be trading a life for a life. Immediately following the end of our reading today, the plot to kill Jesus takes shape as witnesses go to tell the religious authorities of yet another mighty deed of Jesus. Parallel with this is the statement by Thomas the Twin, one of Jesus’ disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” We say that we die in baptism with Christ, but this takes on a literal tone. The disciples, while easily and often confused by Jesus, are not so confused about this situation. It is a lovely irony that the same Thomas—who we often mislabel as “doubting”—is the first to say, “let’s go and die with our rabbi,” proving not to be much of a doubter, but rather a deeply faithful realist.

Likewise, the perhaps even deeper faithfulness of Mary and Martha is shown by the statement they each make upon seeing Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha, being who she is, hears that Jesus is approaching, and rushes to the outskirts of the village to meet him, while Mary stays home to welcome mourners. Martha also adds, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha seems a little perturbed with Jesus in her response. The reason why is that Jesus’ response seems facile to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha is a believer in the Jewish theology of that time that on the last day all believers would be resurrected to life from Sheol, the place of the dead, a sort of inert underworld. Her response makes her feelings and beliefs clear: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” You can almost hear her rolling her tear-filled eyes.

Jesus takes things in a whole new direction, probably sensing her limited patience in her grief, saying 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?” Still, her faithfulness shines through, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Martha is profoundly convinced of Jesus’ power, and thus his seemingly feeble initial response to her, along with the fact that he only came two days after she and her sister called for him, marks an impatience of the faithful that I think all of us share at times.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ is saying I am the resurrection and the life, here and now, available to you, Mary, Lazarus, and everyone. It’s not about what happens later, it is about this moment and how we respond. Catastrophes and death are still real, but it is through the person of Jesus and his divinity that even the most awful situations can ultimately be made beautiful. It is precisely by undoing our expectations that God can make the impossible possible.

More than anything in this story, the faithfulness of Martha and Mary shines through, turning what seems like a miracle story into one of exemplary discipleship. Their calling upon and conversations with Jesus reveal that the real purpose of Jesus life may not be some distant promise of eternal life, but a fundamental current of the present that helps us to live in ways we never thought possible. The sisters speak to Jesus about life, death, faith, and unfaltering love. The real miracle is the relationship we all have access to, one with God, who risks everything to be with us, even life itself.

So, the real question that’s left for us: do we follow Jesus, and how? Wake up Lazarus, and choose how to live now that you have access to the fullness of life in Jesus. Open your eyes, breathe, you are unbound. Amen.

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