The Fifth Sunday in Lent
2 April 2017 // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him. Then said Thomas . . . Let us also go, that we may die with him.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I’m not sure, but I don’t think I’ve ever preached here before about Lazarus. It’s an incredibly familiar story, maybe too familiar. Sometimes these stories – stories of miraculous healing, even resurrection – become so familiar that they don’t astonish me any more. And maybe it didn’t astonish you. It’s just the story we tell on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. But for a moment, imagine you just wandered in off Charles St. this morning. In fact, some of you may have simply wandered in. What are you thinking right now?
Perhaps you’re thinking — “I knew it! I walk in here to hear the music, and they read this story (actually, this woman came out and kind of sang it at us for some reason), it’s from a thousand-year-old book, and it’s about a dead guy coming back to life. How gullible do they think I am!?”
You wouldn’t be the first one, you know. Doubts about Jesus aren’t new. Modern, enlightened Americans don’t have the market cornered on suspicion about the stories in the Bible. A few verses on in this very story some of the people who actually saw Lazarus walking around couldn’t bring themselves to believe. One group believed; one group couldn’t. One writer put it like this: “The result of the miracle, as always, is division. Because Jesus is who and what he is — he inevitably divides people.” (Morris)
Jesus divides, he brings us to a point of crisis, a point where we have to decide. Lazarus is back from the dead — and you’re either a believer or a skeptic. But to both groups, the story stands as an invitation. So let’s look at both invitations this morning.
First: The Invitation to Skeptics — Jesus invites skeptics to investigate his claims. Bring him your doubts and ask your questions. Actually read the Bible (you have no idea how many people tell me they can’t buy the claims of Christianity but they’ve never actually read the Bible themselves).
Do some digging about the story of Lazarus in John’s gospel, and you’ll find the book of John is really two books: The first part is sometimes called “the Book of Signs,” where John shows Jesus the miracle-worker, doing signs or semeia, a word that meant “proof.” Raising Lazarus from the dead was Jesus’ seventh and climactic sign. In the Hebrew Bible, when God showed up, he performed signs (splitting seas, burning bushes, getting water out of rocks), and they showed his “glory,” that’s how people knew who he was. Jesus miracles showed his “God-ness” – he’s demonstrating his bona fides, the very “God-ness” of Jesus. The Hebrew stories told of a God who gave life to his creatures and created by the power of his Word; Jesus gives new life to Lazarus by calling him out of his tomb.
You may doubt the veracity of all these stories, you may think I’m delusional to stand here and tell them. That’s OK. What may happen, though, is that you investigate and come face-to-face with Jesus, and he may be something your heart has been longing for your whole life. He may answer questions you didn’t even know you were asking. Do you want the world to be a better place? Jesus did, too. Do you get angry at injustice? Want more peace and less violence? Does your heart break because children starve and mothers get cancer and men kill from prejudice? Jesus’ heart broke too, and one reason he performed miracles was as a promise: It will not always be like this. This, too, shall be made right. Listen to this from a book about why Jesus performed miracles:
Jesus’ miracles in particular were never magic tricks, designed only to impress and coerce. You never see him say something like: “See that tree over there? Watch me make it burst into flames!” Instead, he used miraculous power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. Why? We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order. The Bible tells us that God did not originally make the world to have disease, hunger, and death in it. Jesus has come to redeem where it is wrong and heal the world where it is broken. His miracles are not just proofs that he has power but also wonderful foretastes of what he is going to do with that power. Jesus’ miracles are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we all want is coming. (Keller)
If you’re skeptical about Christianity, these stories are an invitation to you to dig in and find out more. Are you willing to risk that?
Point two: The Invitation to Believers — For the rest of us, Jesus says “Ok, you believe — now follow.” In this story, Thomas says, rather facetiously, “Let’s go to Judea too, so we can die with him.” I like Thomas. I like passive-aggressive. But I think Thomas said more than he knew. Unwittingly, Thomas lays out the second invitation here, the invitation to the believer to pay the cost of following Jesus. Bonhoeffer wrote: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” When Christ calls us, he bids us to come and love, come and forgive, come and be the means by which God ultimately renews the world, come and let the world mete out its blows upon us, come and die. One of my mentors used to say: “The church is an anvil that has worn out many a hammer.”
But here’s the thing – don’t be afraid to follow Jesus to die. Don’t be afraid.
Did you know that raising Lazarus led directly to Jesus’ own death? You can trace a causal line straight from Jesus raising Lazarus to verse 53, which says “From that day on they made plans to put [Jesus] to death.” Jesus, who calls us to follow him in his death, knew what this miracle would cost him. Calling Lazarus from his tomb would lead Jesus to the cross and into a cave behind a stone of his own. But when Jesus walked to his death, he didn’t go in defeat; when he wept over Lazarus, he didn’t weep in weakness. In the Lazarus story, Jesus “groans in himself” when he walks toward Lazarus’ tomb. That’s a strange Greek word (embrimomai), and it usually refers to horses, to the the loud “snort” horses make, but when it refers to people, it’s the sound of rage. B. B. Warfield, principal of Princeton Seminary around the turn of the 20th century, said this about Jesus’ anger in this story:
It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb . . . ‘as a champion who prepares for conflict.’ The raising of Lazarus thus becomes, not an isolated marvel, but . . . a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus’ conquest of death and hell. What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf.”
He knew what it would cost him and he did it anyway. Jesus went into death. This event pulled him inexorably toward Holy Week. And we are pulled inexorably with him into those events and to die to ourselves again and again and again. But don’t be afraid, my friends. Don’t be afraid. Because the story does not end behind the stone.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Go Deeper //
- Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995).
- Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York, N.Y.: Dutton, 2008), 95-96.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, N.Y.: Collier, 1963): 99.
- B. B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ (Philadelphia, 1950), 117 (quoted in Morris, 493 n.72).
- For audio of this sermon, click here.