[Jesus] cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”John 11:43
It wasn’t that long ago that our confirmation class was meeting in person with other congregations, in the days before “social distancing,” and learning about today’s gospel reading. One of the groups that day performed a skit about the raising of Lazarus, and they used close to a whole roll of toilet paper to “bind” Lazarus in the strips of cloth mentioned in the reading. Imagine that! Using toilet paper so freely, hanging out with each other in person, all these things that we took for granted so recently! But not any more.
So, here we are, with me sharing another online sermon with you. I wish it weren’t the case, and I know that you feel the same way. But I am thankful that we can at least be together in this way. And what an incredibly hopeful reading we have assigned to us for this Fifth Sunday in Lent: the raising of Lazarus. One of the greatest miracles and greatest stories told in all of scripture.
It’s also a fairly long and complex story. So what I want to do today is to share with you five things that this story can teach us about our faith. And I’ll even use some alliteration to make it a little easier. So, this story teaches us about how to live out our faith: With courage; in the midst of confusion; by always being ready to confess our faith; by focusing on Christ; and by being together in community (even when community has to look different).
First is courage. To live as a follower of Jesus requires courage. Now, more than ever. You know who is a good example of courage in this reading? Thomas. The one we sometimes call “doubting Thomas.” In today’s story, we find Thomas being courageous, not doubting. When Jesus decides to go to Bethany to be with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, his disciples know that he is going right into the area where the religious leaders are looking for him, to stone him or arrest him.It is Thomas who says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Being a follower of Jesus requires courage. Then and now. And now, it seems, with so much uncertainty around us, we need the courage that our faith gives us, more than we ever have.
Being a follower of Jesus requires courage. But it can also mean living with some confusion. As much as we wish it would, being a baptized Christian doesn’t clear up all of our questions. Things still happen in our lives, and in our world, that are confusing, and that we can’t make sense of, not in this life.
That is certainly true with this pandemic. But it was true for Mary and Martha, too. They sent word to Jesus that his good friend, Lazarus, was ill. Jesus received the message, and stayed two days longer before going to be with them. By the time he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days.
Think of what Mary and Martha must have been thinking those four days! Through the funeral and burial of their brother, with Jesus not even considerate enough to show up and be with them in their grief! He could have healed their brother; but if that was not his plan or intention, he could have at least come to the funeral! But he did not. They were confused.
And oftentimes, we end up confused, too. Faith does not answer all of our questions. At least not in the time that we want it to. Sometimes, for whatever reason, Jesus delays. Faith, in those times, is the the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith, at times like that, and at times like this, invites us to trust Jesus in the midst of our questions. In the case of Lazarus, Jesus had a plan. He intentionally delayed going to Bethany, so that Lazarus’ illness and death could be used for God’s glory. That’s why Jesus delayed going to be with Mary and Martha. They could not have known that. Instead, they had to trust their good friend, Jesus.
And so do we. In the midst of our confusion and our questions, being a follower of Jesus means trusting him: trusting that he has a plan for us, too; a plan to bring us a future with hope.
Along with courage and confusion, though, this story teaches us of the importance of confession. And in this case, I don’t mean confessing our sins, but rather confessing our faith. In the midst of our questions, in the midst of the trials and tribulations in our life, we as Christians are called to confess our faith.
Martha does this in a remarkable way in this story. When Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” She replied: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” That is faith.
And then Jesus said 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.” And he looked at Martha and said, “Do you believe this?”
And that same question is asked of us all today: Do you believe this? Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? Do you have the courage to confess this when it is not easy to do so? Do you have the confidence to confess it when you are living through a confusing, painful time, as we are now?
We all want answers to our many questions about this pandemic. But in the midst of the confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety all around us, we are being invited to confess our faith. And to share our hope. Just as Martha did. Before Jesus even offered to raise her brother, she answered Jesus’ question with these powerful words: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” What an incredible confession of faith.
Courage, Confusion, Confession. Fourth there is Christ. Truthfully, Christ should be first, but I am following along in this story. One of the key figures in the story, of course, is Lazarus. A friend of Jesus who has fallen ill and died and is now buried in a tomb.
Here’s the thing about Lazarus: Just as much as we are Thomas, and we are Martha, and we are Mary, we are also Lazarus. Dead and buried in our sins. Bound by them. Captive to them. And there is only one way out. And that way is through Christ.
I had the opportunity to visit the tomb of Lazarus while visiting the Holy Land, and to descend to the very place where it was thought that Lazarus lay dead those four days. It was incredibly moving. I had a few moments alone there, and I thought about my life, this world, everything that I know, without Christ in it. I would be trapped in that tomb. A tomb of hopelessness and despair. A life without meaning or purpose or joy.
And then I thought of those words that Jesus spoke to Lazarus, as he lay dead in that tomb: “Lazarus, come out.” And isn’t that what Jesus says to us, too? He invites us to come out of death and darkness, to life and light. To a life of love and joy peace and and hope. In Christ, we have been given a new life. And now, in our life in Christ, there is nothing that we need fear.
By the way, down in that tomb, there was a plaque with a quote on it that seems very appropriate to share today. I haven’t figured out the source of this quote, but here it is:
The glory of God shall be seen by those who put their faith in Jesus in times of greatest distress and hopelessness; they are certain that He is greater than any distress, even greater than death itself.
Yes. Through our faith in Christ, we have a hope greater than any distress.
But the story is not quite over. The dead man came out, the story tells us, with his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Just like our confirmation kids did in their skit. And Jesus then said to the community gathered, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Now, surely Jesus could have unbound Lazarus himself. He probably wanted to. This was a dear friend of his. Surely he would have wanted to take that cloth off Lazarus’s face, and look him in the eye, and tell him how good it was to see him again.
But Jesus didn’t. He invited the community to unbind Lazarus, and let him go. And I think he did it to teach us about community. To teach us that we need each other. It is too difficult to live as a baptized Christian alone. We need each other. We need the community of Christ that is the church.
These days, we need that community more than ever. I think that this social distancing is this time of great stress and uncertainty is reminding us of this in a very powerful way. We need each other.
And even if we can’t be with each other in the same way, we need each other more than ever. It is too difficult to live as a baptized Christian alone.
So: Courage, confusion, confession, Christ and community. Five aspects of the life of a follower of Jesus that we learn from today’s gospel reading. It is the task of a lifetime to learn to live this way. Until that blessed day when we, too, having closed our eyes in the sleep of death, are woken by the sound of our name, by the resurrection and the life himself, who calls us out of death to life, and frees us to live with him forevermore.
Thanks be to God. Amen