Monthly Archives: April 2014

Without a Doubt – Sermon on John 20:19-31

It had been a crazy day. It started early in the morning, with all that confusion at the tomb, all that running back and forth. Now it was evening, and the disciples were huddled together again, just as they had been over the Sabbath. Only now, the room was filled with fear and confusion, instead of sadness and despair. Instead of asking “What shall we do now?” the disciples were asking, “Can it be true?” Somewhere in all the chaos, Hope tried to work its way into their minds, but most of the disciples were giving in to Fear. That’s why they had locked the door. They were afraid.

Some might have been afraid of Jesus himself. After all, if he was alive, as those undependable, weepy women kept insisting, he probably would have a thing or two to say about the way they had all abandoned him. Guilt and shame at their failure might have given some of the disciples a reason to fear rebuke from the teacher they had promised to follow, no matter what.

Some were afraid of the religious leaders, certainly. If Jesus’ body was gone, the high priest’s henchmen would be scrambling to find it. The first place they’d look would be here, among the Lord’s closest friends and followers. A few remembered Jesus telling them that he would be killed, but that he would rise on the third day. Didn’t it make sense that the religious leaders would figure one of them had taken the body, to make it look like Jesus had arisen? But, if that were true, who would have done such a thing? Probably someone who was not in the room when they’d locked the doors. A quick glance around the room found the disciples in their usual little groups … but … where was Thomas? Hmm…

Suddenly, all the whispers and the talking stopped. Someone gasped. A familiar voice was coming from the center of the room. Hear the Word of the Lord, from the 20th chapter of John’s gospel, beginning in verse 19, right where we left off last week…

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I think Thomas gets a bum rap. He’s been nicknamed “Doubting Thomas” because he demanded to see the evidence with his own eyes, before he would believe that Jesus was really alive. We could joke about Thomas being from Missouri, the Show Me State, where seeing is believing and the proof is in the pudding. But in reality, Thomas is no more skeptical than the other disciples, whose hopes had been dashed by the crucifixion. He just happened to be late for dinner on that first night.

Earlier that morning, Mary Magdalene had repeatedly complained, “They’ve taken him away, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.” She thought that Jesus was still dead, right up to the moment he said her name in the garden. And when Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb, to see for themselves, they walked away scratching their heads. None of the eleven really believed that Jesus was alive, as far as scripture tells us. All of them were filled with doubt, even after Mary had come back to say, “I have seen the Lord.” So Jesus has to put in a personal appearance, to convince them all that he really is alive.

If you compare the two appearances in today’s passage, they are nearly the same. The door is locked. Jesus suddenly stands in the middle of the room and says, “Peace be with you.” Then he shows his hands and side to prove he is the same Jesus they saw die on the cross, but who now is very much alive. After the disciples respond to this good news, Jesus says a few more words. The stories are almost identical.

But not quite.

For one thing, at the first appearance, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and share the good news, and he breathes on them as he says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission happens moments before Jesus ascends into heaven, and in Luke’s version of the story, the disciples don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost, but John never was much for chronology. His story is less concerned with making the dates match up, and more concerned with getting the word out: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Believe the Good News! And keep in mind that for John, believing is always a verb, never the noun “belief.” Believing is what John is very eager for us to do. And once we believe, it is a short leap to receive the Holy Spirit and be sent out to help others see, so they, too, may believe.

Jesus tells his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23). John isn’t talking about sin as moral failure so much as refusing to believe in Jesus.

Theologian Elisabeth Johnson writes, “Jesus is not giving his disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. Rather, he is further specifying what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be “released” (aphiemi) from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be “retained” or “held onto” (kratéo). The stakes of this mission are very high indeed.”

And because the stakes are high, Jesus has to make sure each disciple is convinced of the truth. All the disciples must see for themselves that Jesus has been raised from death to new life.

Seeing is believing throughout John’s gospel. “Come and see” weaves its way throughout the story John presents. We find it in the first chapter, when Jesus meets the first disciples who have been following John the Baptist, and they ask where he is staying. “Come and see,” he says (Jn 1:39). A few verses later, when Philip invites Nathaniel to meet Jesus, Nate asks, “Can any thing good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip says, “Come and see” (1:46). Then the Samaritan woman at the well runs to tell her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29) and when Jesus arrives four days too late in Bethany, he asks Mary and Martha where they’ve buried Lazarus. “Come and see,” they tell him (11:34). In fact, we find some form of the word “see” more than twenty times throughout John’s gospel, and “seeing” means everything from physical sight to full understanding[1].

But Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to his friends. Thomas did not see Jesus. The disciples tell him later, just as Mary told them last week, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas is skeptical, just as they had been, only moments before Jesus showed up.

So, a week later, Jesus goes through the whole appearing routine again, only this time, it’s for Thomas’ benefit. While the other disciples simply rejoiced when they recognized the risen Savior, Thomas offers a confession that is profound and personal: “MY Lord and MY God,” he cries out. Not just “the” Lord. Not just “Son of the Living God,” but MY Lord and MY God. In an instant, he moves from skepticism to trust. Thomas “sees.” All the disciples see.

Because Jesus keeps showing up. He repeatedly appears to those who need some visual proof he has risen. He doesn’t judge or criticize, he just keeps showing up until they get it. He offers shalom – not the familiar “fear not,” even though they are obviously afraid – but “peace be with you” three times, twice in the first visit and then again, just for Tom.

Remember last week’s question, “What keeps us from recognizing Jesus, when he’s standing right in front of us?” Is it fear? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of Jesus himself, convinced that he would judge us for our unbelief if he stood in our midst? Are we afraid of the people outside the door, the ones who threaten our sense of safety whenever we try to talk about our faith? Those disciples who huddled in that locked room were afraid for their very lives. Unlocking the door and going out into the world to offer forgiveness of sins would have put them at great risk. Are we willing to take such a risk as that, to put our lives on the line for the sake of the Gospel?

On Thursday, Dr. Jerry Umanos was one of three people who were shot as they walked out of the CURE International Hospital in Kabul. Jerry was a pediatrician who worked six months of every year at the Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago’s inner city, so he could spend the other six months of each year treating children and training local doctors in Afghanistan.

In a televised statement, Dr. Umanos’ wife said, “Jerry always wanted to serve underserved populations. Afghanistan was just one of them. He always had a desire to be the hands and feet of Christ. He was always a light for Christ, and he had a love and commitment that he expressed for the Afghan people because of that love for Christ.” Jerry Umanos put his own life on the line for the sake of the gospel. You probably know stories of others who have done the same thing, risking everything in order to share the good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. These are people who dared to unlock the door and step out when they heard Jesus say to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We need to unlock the door and go out into the scary world with the peace of Christ, so that all may believe and have eternal life.

Not only do we need to see the resurrected Christ, we need to realize that the world is looking to us to see him. How are we showing resurrection to a desperate world? How are we offering shalom instead of fear? Jesus sends us out, just as surely as he sent those cowering disciples. And we don’t have to go to Afghanistan to find people who need to see Jesus. Some of them are right here in front of us, just as surely as Jesus stood right in front of Mary and Thomas, urging them to believe.

This week, a young man came here looking for help that I could not give him. He needed a place to live. The most I could offer him was a night in the New Ulm Motel, but he needed more than that. The best the county could offer him was a trip to the homeless shelter up in St. Cloud. And his situation is not unique. The school counselor at Jefferson Elementary School will tell you that there are currently about nine students who are officially classified as homeless. There are many more who do not meet the official criteria, but who are functionally without a permanent home.

How are we helping them to see the resurrected Christ? How are we helping them to know the love of Jesus, to believe in him, so that they might have eternal life?

Can we let go of our own fear long enough to unlock the doors that keep us from reaching out in Jesus’ name? Can we dispense with our own doubt long enough to see where Christ is sending us to share good news?

The final verses of today’s passage give the purpose statement for John’s entire Gospel:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The disciples who had lived and walked with Jesus, the ones who had watched him die and be buried, they all needed some visible sign that he was really alive again. Jesus gave it to them, as often as they needed to see it, so that they might believe. But we should not feel left out, just because we weren’t in that room on Easter night.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. That’s us. We are the ones for whom John wrote his book, so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name.

As we live that life in the name of Jesus, let us show others what we have come to see, that Jesus died for our sins, and he rose again to give us eternal life. Let us join Mary and the disciples in boldly saying, “We have seen the Lord,” as we proclaim “The Lord is risen, he is risen indeed!” Let us join with Thomas in naming Jesus as our Lord and our God, so that through our witness all may see him, all may know him, all may believe and have life in his name. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Richard Dietrich, Feasting on the Word,Year A Vol. 2,  397.

Racing Toward the Impossible – Easter Sermon on John 20:1-18

It was good to just rest. After all the events of Friday, it was good to find some quiet time to process everything. The sound of those nails being pounded into the cross, the darkness, and the smell of death were overwhelming. So it was good to observe Sabbath, to have some time to think, the second day after Jesus was crucified.

Oh, I know you would rather talk about the third day. That’s the one everybody likes to celebrate. But that second day, that quiet Sabbath, was important, too. All of the disciples needed that day, to come to terms with the way things had played out. It wasn’t what anyone had expected, and getting over the shock of realizing Jesus was really dead would take some time.

What would happen now, without a leader? Continue reading

Good Friday

Not dusk,
no moon or stars, as on a clear night;

This dark was thick, oppressively thick;
All the goodness that ever existed
had been sucked out of the world.

And we were

It was so….

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

– Latin 12th c.; German, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
Translated, James W. Alexander (1804-1859)

A New Commandment

Meditation for Holy Thursday – John 13:1-17, 31-35

We gather soon, as they did in that upper room. Some will take off shoes and socks, and let the warm water bathe tired feet. Some will wash another’s hands instead. Some will receive bread and wine (or juice) and remember, as we were commanded to remember, that night when Jesus said, “this is my body, this is my blood.”

That same night, Jesus also said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Washing feet, wearing a towel, kneeling in front of each disciple, serving. That’s the example Christ shows us.

And he gives a new commandment: “Love each other, just as I have loved you.”

It’s easier to remember bread and cup, Lord Jesus.

I’d rather wear a towel and serve, dear Lord.

But love? The way you love?

Lord help me.

Whatever you have to do…

Meditation for Holy Wednesday on John 13:21-32

Get on with it.

Get a move on.

Hurry up!

We’re burnin’ daylight, people!

What are you waiting for?


Jesus said, “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

Get on with it. If you’ve decided to betray the Savior of the World, there is no time to waste.

Get a move on. This betrayal sets everything in motion. There are lots of players involved. They are waiting for their cue from you.

Hurry up! The time has come. Get going. There is no reason to wait any longer.

What are you waiting for? It’s too late to change your mind. What’s done is done.

We’re burnin’ daylight, people! Did you hear “Walk while you have the light” only yesterday?

Hustle! Time is of the essence. Go. Now.

Do quickly what you are going to do. Get it over with, for your own sake. Don’t draw out the agony of knowing you have caused an irreversible sequence of events to unfold, events that will lead to the death of the One you call Lord, Master, Teacher.

Oh, I’m sorry, Jesus. Were you talking to Judas?

I thought you meant me.



We Would See Jesus

Meditation for Holy Tuesday – John 12:20-36

I’ve always wondered what happened to those Greeks who approached Philip. Did they stand aside, waiting for a private audience, while Philip found his brother to go with him to Jesus on their behalf? Did they tag along behind the brothers, hoping for a word with the Word made flesh? Or did they merge into the crowd as Jesus began to teach about his own death?

We never learn the answer. By the end of this passage, Jesus has slipped away to hide from the crowd. Interesting … Many times, Jesus has escaped the pressure of the crowd around him, leaving them to pray, to be alone with his inner circle of disciples, or to rest. But I don’t recall anywhere before this that Jesus has left the crowd specifically to hide.

It is doubly ironic that, just before Jesus hid from the crowd, he told them to “walk in the light.” Just before sneaking off into the shadows, Jesus says, “If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.” Yet Jesus knew exactly where he was going. The Light of the World was about to enter his darkest days on earth. 

Lord, help me to follow you through the shadows of my own fear, my own blindness, into the light of your glorious resurrection. Keep me focused on you, sweet Lord Jesus. Amen.

A Pound of Nard

Holy Week Meditation on John 12:1-11

This was NOT a funeral dinner. It was supposed to be a funeral dinner. Martha had been working on it for days  – but Jesus had changed all those plans when he’d shown up at Lazarus’ tomb. Now, instead of sharing fond memories of the deceased, the friends gathered around this table were talking and laughing with him. Lazarus had become an overnight celebrity: The One Who Was No Longer Dead. This was a celebration dinner.

But Death does not get to sit at this table. Lazarus offers visible proof that Death has no power over Jesus, and even if those enjoying Martha’s fine cooking don’t fully comprehend it yet, we know that Jesus will completely defeat death before John’s story is finished. For now, let’s take a closer look at this feast in Bethany, and especially at the gift Mary brings to the guest of honor.

The other gospels tell us that the nard was in an alabaster jar. The only way to open the sealed jar was to break it, so this was an all-or-nothing gift. It’s possible that the nard might have belonged to Mary’s dowry, so pouring out this perfume on Jesus’ feet could have signified a substantial sacrifice on Mary’s part. If she had been saving the nard for her own bride price, this gift has suddenly reduced her marriage chances to practically zero.

But Mary gave it all. She poured the entire contents of that jar onto Jesus’ feet, and rubbed it in with her hair.

What an intimate, scandalous thing to do! For an unmarried woman to touch a man was shocking. For a woman to let down her hair in public was also considered completely inappropriate behavior. Yet, here she was, abandoning all decorum as she wiped the perfume on Jesus’ feet with her hair. In a few days, Jesus would kneel at the feet of his disciples and wipe them with a towel in exactly the same way. But Mary was not using perfume like soap and water. Jesus said that Mary was anointing him for burial. Mary could not know the details of what was to happen in just a few short days, but she could worship her Lord now, in the present moment, with all she had to offer.

These last days of Lent are always the hardest for me. I get weary of lamenting my sins. I want to say, “Enough already! I’ve repented! I’ve confessed! I’ve submitted myself to discipline! I’m tired of all this introspection and self-examination! I’m ready for Easter! Let me get on with my life!” But do you hear those words? “I,” “Myself,” “Me,” “My?” It’s easy to fall into that trap of self-absorption, to become self-centered, instead of Christ-centered. These forty days of Lent, like the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, are just enough time to weaken us so Satan can tempt us to lose our focus on Christ. Mary comes to remind us to choose the better part, to keep our eyes on Jesus, to serve him with all that we are and all that we have.

As we enter Holy Week, let us ponder what we can offer the Lord of All. What would cost us as much as Mary’s perfume cost her? What are we willing to sacrifice to bring honor and glory to the One who died so that we might live?


Palm Sunday … Passion Sunday

This is a day to let the scriptures speak for themselves. We marched in triumphantly (we had to sing through the processional hymn twice – Hosanna, Loud Hosanna!) and sang our responses to each reading, but here’s the gist of it. Grab a palm branch and read along, as we enter into Holy Week together. I’ll be posting a reflection on the daily readings throughout the week. Come, let us worship at the foot of the cross.

CALL TO WORSHIP from Psalm 118

Leader:       O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
Let the people say,

People:       “His steadfast love endures forever!”
Leader:       This is the gate of the Lord;
People:       The righteous shall enter through it.
Leader:       The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
People:        This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
Leader:       This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!
People:       Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
                   We bless you from the house of the Lord.
Leader:       Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
People:       O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
                   for his steadfast love endures forever.


We praise you, O God, for your redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. He entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph and was proclaimed Messiah and King by those who spread garments and branches along his way. Just as we carry these branches, may we follow Christ in the way of the cross, that, dying and rising with him, we may enter into your kingdom, through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

GOSPEL LESSON – Matthew 21:1-11      


NEW TESTAMENT LESSON – Philippians 2:5-11


GOSPEL LESSONMatthew 26:14-35 

RESPONSIVE READING            Matthew 27:1-52, 54

One: Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him,
Many: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’
One: Jesus said, ‘You say so.’ But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them,
Men:  ‘Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’
One: For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him,
Women: ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.’
One: Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said,
Many: ‘Barabbas.’
One: Pilate said to them, ‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ All of them said,
Many: ‘Let him be crucified!’
One: Then he asked, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more,
Many: ‘Let him be crucified!’
One:  So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered,
Women: ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’
One: So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying,
Many: ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’
One: They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read,

‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’

Men:  Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying,
Women: ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’
One: In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying,
Men: ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” ’
One: The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said,

Women: ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’
One: At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said,
Men: ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.
One: Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said,
ALL: ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’


The Scent of Myrrh

One afternoon during Holy Week, I sat with a woman who had decided it was time to die. She told me stories of her childhood, of her parents and her grandparents. She told me stories about her husband and their life together. It was a good life. She had no regrets. There were many things she didn’t understand, but she was done asking questions. She was done, period. This was a woman who had always done exactly what she set her mind to do. Now, she had set her mind to die. I anointed her forehead and hands with oil, scented with myrrh.  We prayed together for God to give her peace.

I didn’t want to tell her that deciding it is time to die and actually doing the business of dying are two different things. From what I’ve seen, dying is hard work. I remember another woman, who lay on her deathbed for weeks. When she awoke one morning, she exclaimed, “Oh no, I’m still here!” When I asked how I could pray for her, she answered, “Just ask Jesus to bring me home.” She was ready for death, but death was not quite ready for her.

Last night, I anointed congregants’ hands with myrrh as part of Good Friday worship. Myrrh was one of the spices brought to Jesus when he was a baby. It was one of the spices brought by Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Christ’s body for burial. The beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, wrapped in the same perfume.

We enter into Holy Week waving palm branches. It doesn’t take long for the joyous shouts of “Hosanna!” to change into “Crucify him!” The hard work of Christ’s death is described in vivd detail as the week progresses. Each year,  we enter into the mystery of death that becomes life, the finite becoming infinite, as we move toward Easter. But before we can fully experience the joy of resurrection, we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And it is hard work.

Original artwork by Rev. Chris Suerdierck, used with permission.

Dead Man Walking – Sermon on John 11:1-45

Hear the Word of the Lord:

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.So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

It’s interesting that Lazarus is introduced to us through his sisters, rather than the other way around. This family was apparently well known to the original audience of John’s gospel. Verse two mentions another story about them that won’t happen until the following chapter. The aroma of perfume and the smell of death are closely linked in these two stories. They are framed by another story, one that contrasts those who believe in Jesus with the religious leaders who are becoming more and more threatened by Jesus and the signs of God’s power working in him. Just before heading to Bethany, Jesus left Jerusalem under the threat of being stoned. After he raises Lazarus, the religious leaders will conspire in earnest to kill Jesus. No wonder Thomas tells the other disciples, “We might as well go too, so we can also die with him.”

Jesus is clear about his purpose from the very beginning. Everything he does has one goal: to glorify God. It may seem cruel to have let Lazarus linger two more days, but Jesus had a reason for waiting to set out for Bethany. This final miracle would surpass the signs Jesus had already performed. For those who still questioned whether or not he was Messiah, this final act needed to be definitive. But his decision to wait certainly caused great consternation among his disciples, and even more for Mary and Martha.

Let us return to the scripture…

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Teri Peterson writes:

In the tradition at that time, it was believed that the spirit of a person finally departed on the third day after death. So on the fourth day, when the funeral was over and the finality of death was starting to settle in for Mary and Martha, Jesus comes to visit.

The fourth day. The first day that it was really real—that there was no chance Lazarus was just sleeping, no chance this was all a bad dream. Both Martha and Mary meet Jesus with the same words: if you had been here…

How often have we used those words? Lord, if you had been here…Lord, if you had come when I asked…Lord, life hurts and I asked for help and I feel like you left me out here to suffer…Lord, it’s too late, the grief is here to stay now.

The door is shut. The tomb is sealed.

Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Has God’s apparent absence in your life made you grieve? There was a time, at the end of my first marriage, when I wondered where God was, and if he still cared about me. It took me a long time to realize that God had not, in fact abandoned me. It was the other way around – I had abandoned God.

God was waiting for me.

When Martha tells Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” it’s hard to tell if she is confessing her faith in Jesus and his power to heal, or if she is accusing him of neglecting his friend.

Either way, Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and then he challenges her. Jesus asks Martha if she believes. It’s interesting that John always puts this word into its active verb form. John doesn’t talk about belief as a noun, but always as what Jesus asks us to do. And this time, Martha’s statement is clearly an affirmation of faith. “Yes, Lord,” she tells him. “Despite all indications to the contrary, I believe you are Messiah.”

Let’s get back to the story…

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks. In a couple of weeks, another Mary will ask this same question as she looks into an empty tomb. She will weep as Jesus does now. Here, in this long passage of scripture, the most profound verse is even shorter than our New Revised Standard Version shows. The old King James may be more accurate: “Jesus wept.” But why did Jesus weep? Those around him assumed it was for sorrow at the loss of his friend. But Jesus knew before he ever headed out to Bethany that he would be raising Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus wept, not because he had lost a friend, but because the scene around him was full of chaos, full of the very suffering he had come to eliminate once and for all. Hope for resurrection had been displaced by the havoc of sin and death. Those who accompanied Jesus to the tomb didn’t understand that Jesus wasn’t weeping for Lazarus; he was weeping for them.

The Word of the Lord continues…

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 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.”

Death stinks. There’s no getting around it. Imagine waking up in that cave,* wrapped tightly in cloth, unable to pull the covering off your own face, because your hands are still bound. It’s dark, and it stinks in there. What you smell is your own rotting flesh, that somehow isn’t rotting anymore. But the stench is still hanging in the cave around you.

And you hear a familiar voice, muffled, but easy to recognize. Your dearest friend is calling to you to come out. You don’t even know which direction the door is, or how to get to it. But you wriggle around enough to get up, and you inch your way toward the light. As you trip over yourself, struggling to get free, there is a gasp from the crowd that has gathered outside this cave. They are as surprised to see you as you are to be there.

And then you must decide. Do you fall back into the tomb, or do you step out into the unknown? Because what lies ahead is completely new territory. No one has ever done this before. No one has ever been completely, unquestionably dead, and then been called back to life after being buried in a tomb for four days.

But here you are. As you stumble forward, that voice you love says, “Unbind him. Unbind her. Let them go.” And the bandages come off, and you can see Jesus standing there, tears streaming down his face, welcoming you back to life.

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Death stinks. There’s no getting around it.

But here’s the thing: we can’t experience resurrection until we experience death. We can’t accept new life in Christ until we allow our old, sinful lives to end. What do you need to let die, so that you can come out of your tomb? What binds you to death, and prevents you from living abundantly, fully, as a new creation?

Whatever keeps you wrapped up in a dark cave of pride, hatred, lust, greed, or deceit, or whatever stinks in your life, hear the voice of Jesus calling to you, “Come out of there!”

And then you must decide. Do you fall back into the tomb, or do you step out into the unknown? Because what lies ahead is completely new territory. But you don’t have to go there alone. When Lazarus stepped out of that tomb, there were friends at hand to help him get out of his grave clothes, to support him and love him. That’s what this community of faith is for: to help each of us get unbound.

And what about our church, here on the corner of Center and Broadway? What do we need to let die, so that this congregation can experience new life in Christ? What binds us so tightly we can’t move forward? What shroud keeps us from seeing the neighbors around us? What prevents us from experiencing resurrection?

So here we are. As we stumble forward, that voice we love says, “Come out of there! Get unbound!” We are stepping into new territory. But Jesus is right there, waiting for us. Let it be so.

* Thanks to Teri Peterson for the idea of seeing the resurrection from inside Lazarus’s tomb.