"Restorers of Life and Defeaters of Death"

Date Sunday November 04, 2018
Service All Saints’ Sunday
Text John 11:32-44
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "God is with Us and for Us"
Next Sermon "Giving Thanks TO, not FOR"

     The story of Lazarus being raised from death to life is one of my New Testament favorites. I probably have said that every time I have preached on John 11, so it’s not new news. But, this time I asked myself what part of the story is particularly significant to me.

     Before I address that, I can tell you what is my least favorite. It’s the reaction of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, to Jesus when he arrives. Now, I would not go quite as far as commentator Alyce McKenzie who describes the sisters as passive aggressive because in their initial communication to Jesus about their brother they do not ask him to come, but simply inform him of Lazarus’ illness. Then, when Jesus approaches their town they each, separately, run out and as Ms. McKenzie put it, “lay the identical guilt trip on him. “Lord, if you had been her, our brother would not have died.” (1) The questions that they do not speak, but which hang in the air, are, “Why did you not come when you first heard he was ill? Couldn’t this tragedy could have been prevented?”

     That brings us to the point in the story that is a favorite for many and is known as the shortest verse in the Bible. “Jesus wept.” Some in the account who noticed Jesus’ tears recognized them as a sign of his love for Lazarus. It’s probably true, as Tito Madrazo theorizes, that for Mary the tears of Jesus communicated that her brother is worth grieving for and that she is worth grieving with. However, some who saw Jesus weeping questioned his sincerity as they critique him for not preventing Lazarus’ death. (2)

     I’ve wondered if Jesus is weeping because he knows he could have prevented all this pain but could not do so because he had a bigger agenda to fulfill. Or, was he weeping because he knows that what happens next will lead to his own arrest and execution? Or, are his tears those of a tender heart that is moved when the beloved suffer?

     Then we come to the miracle. In spite of the stench caused by a four-day-old dead body, the stone was moved from the tomb’s entrance. Jesus thanked God publicly, so that the by-standers will know who gets the credit for what is about to occur. Then he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” We read, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.”

     When I imagine this scene, I picture the depiction in the movie “Jesus of Nazareth”, which was made in the 1970’s. It’s a desert scene, stark, the music is haunting, and a lone mummy-like figure steps out as gasps fill the air. It’s great…but that’s still no my favorite part of the story.

     The Rev. Samuel Chandler writes that he likes what happens next even more than Lazarus being called forth from the tomb. Jesus commands, “Unbind him, and let him go.” This is his favorite part because those watching – family, friends, neighbors - assist Lazarus to begin his restored life.

     Think about that, there are people we all know who are longing to live new lives, but they are still tangled up in burial clothes. They still have the sheets and coverings of death all over them. They are bound up in something – old, bondages, old arguments, old sins. Like Lazarus, they need help to begin the restored life Jesus has given them. (3)

     So, we are at the end of the text, and I still have not told you my favorite part. To find it, you have to keep reading to chapter 12, vs. 1, where it says, “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” It’s a dinner party in his honor, a special, but ordinary event. Life has gone on for Lazarus; he experienced a miracle and yet each day unfolds in ordinary ways.

     I like that because it’s so true for us too; we experience the miracle of being forgiven without earning or deserving it, a gift of God’s grace. Scripture proclaims that in baptism we were raised from death to life and will, one day, be united with Jesus in a resurrection like his. So, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we celebrate those who have gone before us; they are saints in the church triumphant. But we too are saints, saints of the here and now. Some day we will be one; until then we who have experienced the miracle of forgiveness live ordinary going-to-dinner-party lives. But, also, lives that have the power to transform.

     It’s been a week now since the carnage at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. People have gathered for funerals there, and elsewhere, including in Akron, there have been vigils and other acts of solidarity.

     In the past three years we have witnessed immeasurable pain in our country: a demonstration by white nationals in Charlottesville, murders of Bible study attendees in Charleston, attacks on concert goers in Las Vegas and all the horrific violent deaths in schools. These acts have been the result of racial and religious hatred, the frustration of feeling powerless and discounted and of course, mental illness. In my opinion, it's also the result of guns, particularly automatic weapons, being too easily available. 

     We, God’s saints, cannot be silent in the face of it. What do we do? The answer is simple, but not easy. We intentionally live out our faith. We unbind the power of God’s love and let it go. We are light in the darkness.

     So, we seek relationships with people who are different than we are to foster understanding and community; we connect with those who are suffering and let them know God is with them and for them, as are we; we serve others by meeting concrete needs; we love sacrificially and forgive unconditionally; we guard what comes out of our mouths and call those who harm with words to account. All of this happens in the midst of ordinary events made notable by the presence of Jesus.

     I recently read an article written by George F. Will about the book Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal” by Senator Ben Sasse, who happens to be from Nebraska. (In fact, I went to college with members of his family.) He writes that while the political problem we are facing is partisanship, the public health problem - which has mental, emotional and pysical implications - is loneliness.

     Americans, he writes, are richer, more informed and connected than ever, but also unhappier, more isolated and less fulfilled. Loneliness leads to a reduction of longevity, he says, “We’re literally dying of despair,” of the failure “to fill the hole millions of Americans feel in their lives.” (4)

     Although it was not mentioned in the article, and I have not yet read the book, I would guess that there’s a direct link between that despair, that hole, that lack of healthy connectedness and the violence that plagues our country.

     It's a situation that seems impossible, but so did doing anything about the fact that Lazarus was dead and in the tomb. But Jesus showed up, and he is the restorer of life and the defeater of death. Since Jesus’ power and presence is with and among us, we too are restorers of life and defeaters of death. We call forth hope and unbind God's love, setting it free in the world. That’s the task of Saints, Saints of the here and now, and that’s us. AMEN


(1)   “Lazarus Is Us: Reflections on John 11:1-45” by Alyce McKenzie, April 3, 2011, www.patheos.com

(2)   “Living by the Word” by Tito Madrazo, The Christian Century, October 10, 2018, pg. 19

(3)   “Unbind Him and Let Him Go” by the very Rev. Samuel G. Chandler, John 11:1-45, March 9, 2008, www.day1.org

(4)   “Our Epidemic of Loneliness” by George F. Will, Akron Beacon Journal, October 14, 2018, pg. A23