All Saints Sunday 11/4/2018
Jesus has completed his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. The triumphal entry into the city is already fading from memory. We’ve jumped from Mark’s gospel to John’s for this celebration of All Saints Sunday, so the timeline might seem a little crooked. But the trajectory of the story is the same: Jesus is getting closer to the Cross.
Since arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus has managed to make just about everyone angry. The shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” have given way to accusations of blasphemy, and threats of stoning. Jesus has gone back across the Jordan River to the place where John the Baptist was baptizing at the beginning of the story. While he is there, Mary and Martha send word to him that their brother Lazarus is sick. They ask him to come immediately, but he stays a couple more days. We can feel the tension building, even if Jesus seems not to be bothered.
Finally, he tells the disciples it’s time to head back to the city. “Are you crazy?” the disciples ask. “They were just trying to kill you!” But Jesus explains that Lazarus has died, and he’s going back. Thomas – you know, the one we call “doubting” Thomas, but I think it might be more accurate to call him “blurting” Thomas – he says, “we might as well go, too, so we can die with him, if that’s what he wants.” Once again, Thomas has said something that is much more profound than he realizes. Because dying with him is exactly what Jesus has been telling them all along they will need to be ready to do.
This section of the Gospel according to John is often called the “Book of Signs.” John only writes about seven miracles, and these miracles, or ‘signs’ all point to one thing: Jesus is the Son of God. He has come to Jerusalem for only one purpose: to die for the sins of the world. Before he can do that, there’s one more miraculous sign he needs to perform. And this miraculous sign outdoes all the others. It’s the all-time show-stopper of miraculous signs.
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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So 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?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.” When he had said this, he 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.”
“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. Today’s reading is the very end of a longer passage – the full story of Lazarus takes the whole eleventh chapter of John. In this long story, the most profound verse is even shorter than our New Revised Standard Version shows. The old King James gets right to the point: “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.
Death stinks. There’s no getting around it. But death is not the end of this story. This story is really about the hope of resurrection. Imagine what it would be like to be Lazarus, to be completely dead, and then to come alive again!
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 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 just 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.
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?
Our resurrection hope is not just tied to the future. We aren’t just looking forward to the end of time, when all things are made new. Baptism and the story of Lazarus are here to remind us that we experience resurrection now. We participate in God’s miraculous saving work now. We can live amid fear with courage, because God’s promise of resurrection gives us the confidence to resist the power of death over us.
David Lose writes, “God’s promise of resurrection isn’t an invitation to deny death – the death rate in my community is the same as yours: one per person and 100%. But God’s promise of resurrection does grant us both the permission and power to defy it.”
Death doesn’t get the last word, for Lazarus or for us. Whatever stinks in your life, Jesus is 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. Today, Charlie has made that big step, by presenting himself for baptism.
Baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace. It’s a visible act that represents the change that began when Charlie felt Jesus come into his heart, and decided he wanted to belong to God. In baptism, we are reminded that we have died to sin, and have been raised to new life, just like Lazarus. And just like Lazarus, we head into unknown territory when we walk out of the tomb.
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.
You see, Jesus could have made those strips of cloth fall right off of Lazarus. But he didn’t. He called to the others standing there, and invited them into the miracle. “Unbind him, and let him go,” he said. Jesus didn’t need their help, but by inviting the friends and family of Lazarus to participate in the miracle of resurrection, he draws them – and us – into God’s transformative work.
This is why that part you said in the baptismal service is so important – praying for each other, encouraging one another, building each other up as we grow in faith together – it’s how we participate in the miracle of resurrection, and offer hope to others who haven’t experienced it yet.
John’s Gospel only includes seven “signs” before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Raising Lazarus from the dead was the final “sign,” the final clue that Jesus was the one they’d been waiting for. The world is still looking for a sign that Jesus is the one, that there is reason to hope in resurrection. Saints, that sign is you.