March 29 2020
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-45
How are you feeling in the midst of the current situation?
What is encouraging you these days?
Frequently I see or hear the statement, “We’re all in this together.” True and encouraging. It does help knowing that you’re not the only one going through this. But I need more than that. Because people find ways of forcing division, finding fault lines that widen into opposition—even when everyone is in the same boat. So I need encouragement and hope that don’t come laced with suspicion and hate.
So I am deeply grateful to God and to you for this opportunity together. Our worship liturgy and especially today’s Scripture readings are full of encouragement and hope, in the Word of God.
Jesus was in the region of Perea, east of the Jordan River, slightly northeast of Judea and Jerusalem when he got word that his friend Lazarus was sick, and it was serious. But when he heard that news, Jesus didn’t immediately go to be with his friend. Instead, despite the urgings of other friends, Jesus deliberately waited. He waited, for something he knew but they didn’t.
So what is God’s Word to suffering? In today’s Gospel reading, we hear Jesus not only respond to suffering but anticipate it. Over and over, in the face of all that we are experiencing today—Jesus is the Word of God. Listen:
When Mary and Martha send word that their brother is sick, Jesus speaks: “This sickness will not end in death. . . . [I]t is for God’s glory, so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” What does he mean by that? He means just this: Illness and suffering, then and now, are not random evil—as if the devil is running free with no one to stop him. Things don’t just happen. God’s word tells us that he has a purpose in everything that he allows to happen. Even today, be not afraid—God is in charge.
Jesus and his disciples were about 20 away from where Lazarus and his sisters lived. Walking there would have taken no more than a couple of days on foot, even in the heat. But Jesus waited for two days.
When he finally decided to go, Jesus’ disciples try to stand in his way: But Teacher, they say, if you go back into Judea, you’re playing right into your enemies’ hands!
Jesus’ response is so calming: Yes, he said, you might think I’m walking back into darkness. But don’t you remember—I AM the Light of the World (John 8:12; 9:5)? Walk with me. It’s going to be all right. Jesus said that 2000 years ago, but he’s talking to you and me, too. As we walk in the shadow of sickness and death today, we, too, can fear no evil if we stay close to Jesus. The written word of God calls him the “light for our paths” (Ps.18:28; 119:105).
But before Jesus and his disciples can get going, he has to teach them something about interpreting Scripture. When Jesus says Lazarus is sleeping, his disciples mistake a figure of speech for a literal fact. They think “sleep” means “dozing,” but Jesus means “dead.” So he corrects them and then echoes God’s word to Ezekiel: “[F]or your sake, I am glad I was not there [to stop Lazarus from dying], so that you may believe.” Because seeing leads to believing.
God knows we are people of limited comprehension. We are sometimes blinded by the forces that swirl around us. But God’s Word says, Keep your eyes open. You’ll see my Spirit at work.
When Jesus and his disciples finally come near to their hometown, Martha and Mary meet him before he gets there. And instantly we know what these sisters have been saying to each other inside their house, because they both say the same thing to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Martha starts with that complaint, but she persists in faith. She says, You weren’t here to keep my brother alive, “but I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” And when Jesus assures her, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha answers, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
But Jesus wants her to understand what he wants us to understand—that God is more powerful that sickness and death, and he is with her now. So he says, Martha, “I AM the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” And Jesus puts to Martha the same question he puts to us today, “Do you believe that?”
Notice again: Jesus wants Martha to move beyond religious talk all the way to trusting God’s word. Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” That’s what Jesus wanted to hear.
So he turns to Mary who meets him in just the same way her sister did. And I love the difference in how Jesus is the Word of God to her. Mary loves Jesus. We know that because she’s the one who had washed his feet with perfume and dried them with her hair (John 12:1-8). She’s the one who stopped serving Jesus to sit and listen to his teaching (Luke 10:38-42). But for Mary, this was not a day for teaching or for testifying; this is a day of mourning. So Mary laments to Jesus as Martha had done, and then Mary breaks down.
When Jesus sees her and all the people around her crying, the Bible says, “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Now in our human thinking, we automatically link that verse to the later one that says, “Jesus wept.” But the original language says Jesus didn’t just cry; he got mad. Scripture doesn’t explain exactly what Jesus was angry about, but I think we can make some educated guesses–educated by our own experience. What angers us when we suffer, fear, grieve? We get angry at evil and furious at death.
Now we know Jesus is God Almighty—yesterday, today, and forever. The forces of death are not beyond his control. But to pursue the reason for his incarnation, his journey to the cross and beyond, Jesus limited his own options and stood still that day in the face of death. He let his friend die. How excruciating that must have been! Enough to make you cry.
So Jesus—God and man—cried. And his tears spoke the Word of God—I know how you feel. I care how you feel. That’s Good News! Our faith is not in a distant God who sees and knows but never feels. And even better, our God doesn’t merely feel. He acts. God keeps his promise: “[T]he Spirit of life [will set you] free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). A better day is coming. “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5b).
And the rejoicing begins when the Son of God speaks:
“Take away the stone!” he commands.
He calls in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
Lazarus comes out, swaddled in grave cloths.
And the Son of God says to all who see, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go!”
In Christ Jesus, God demonstrates his power over our ultimate enemy—death.
To us today—whether we are safe in our homes and just tired of being inconvenienced; struggling for breath on a hospital ventilator; angry and sad at being shut out of the first cry of our child or the last words of a friend; fearful of what may happen tomorrow to us or to someone we love—what is God’s word to suffering?
Well, here it is: As the Old Testament prophets would say, Thus saith the Lord:
Be not afraid. I am in control.
Walk close to me and watch for the moving of my Spirit.
Rest assured, death will not defeat you. You are mine.
And peace be with you. You are safe in my heart!
All Contents (except quotations) Copyright 2020 Beverly C. DeBord.
All Rights Reserved.
[37:1] The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.  He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!  This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”  So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.  I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’”  So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.  Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’  Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”
[8:1] Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,  because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man,  in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.  Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace;  the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.  Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.  You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.  But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.  And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days
Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.” After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept.*
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.