November 30, 2014
Mark 13:24-37
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Raising Lazarus



from the book
A BUCKET FULL OF MIRACLES
Preaching The Miracles Of Jesus


Jeff Wedge



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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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them." After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." 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. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

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." And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 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. 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."

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


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It is, perhaps, ironic that a lesson which has been the subject of as much critical discussion as this one has should be found here, on the eve of two of the busiest weeks of the year in the average parish. Even the week of Christmas is usually not as packed with extra worship services, additional sermons to prepare, and other activities as are the two weeks immediately preceding the celebration of Easter.

And yet, here is a lesson which has been the subject of substantial discussion, much of it centering on the very basic question of whether the story is a dramatic construction of the evangelist or if it has a basis in the events of the life of Jesus. The scholars seem to be quite divided in their assessment, which can add yet another burden to the harried preacher when it is time to prepare the sermon for this Sunday. When so much else requires attention, it is necessary to face the intellectual rigors of sorting out divergent scholarly opinions in order to prepare the weekly sermon.

The main difficulty seems to be that the story of such a spectacular miracle would, logically, be certain of inclusion in the synoptic gospels, if it were known to those evangelists. And, as important as the family of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha appear to be (both in John and Luke), there is little reason why it would not be known at least to Luke if the story actually happened. The argument is, of course, not as strong as it sounds as it rests on the silence of the synoptics, not on any demonstrable comments.

The story certainly does fill an important place in the fourth gospel as well as in the Lenten season in this year (John 11:32--44 is also appointed for All Saints' Day in Cycle B). The raising of Lazarus is the event which is the climax and conclusion of Jesus' public ministry. After this Jesus retreats to wait for the coming of the Passover, his hour, and the climax of his life (John 11:54).

This purpose is retained in the sequence of lessons in this year, in the lessons appointed for Lent 4, this Sunday, Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Resurrection Of The Lord. Even though the third Gospel Lesson of the sequence is taken from Mark, the events are parallel to those of John, thus retaining the dramatic Johannine building to the absolute climax of the Good News with the readings of Easter, which is the true basis for the other lessons in the cycle.

The lesson today, for all the controversy which has swirled around it, serves as the perfect transition from the public ministry to the Passion, and as a dramatic foreshadowing of the events of the coming Holy Week.


About The Text


In fact, the arguments over the factuality of this lesson are generally not something which needs to be mentioned from the pulpit. Perhaps in a study group such questions might be explored, but they have little place in a sermon.

This lengthy lesson might be an excuse for a shortening of the proclamation on this day, which is understandable, if lamentable. The various strands of the gospel to this point are brought together by a master and the stage is expertly set for what is to come. The preacher, to do justice to this lesson, should make the effort to do the same. At the least, we are approaching the end of the journey of Lent, and as we travel up to Jerusalem for the concluding events, this lesson affords a chance to prepare for the hectic events to come.

Words
ill - The word used here is, literally, weak, and it is used in the New Testament both in a literal sense, as here where weak is taken physically, and read as ill, and more figuratively (in some translations) in places like Acts 20:35, where the sense is economically weak, or poor.

Mary was - The word is actually is (an example of an historical present usage), but has been changed to simplify the tenses after the centuries have made the past more appropriate. It would seem that the evangelist is identifying a person known to his readers, or at least a family whose ancestors (of a generation or two ago) were known by reputation to those who heard his gospel.

who anointed the Lord - This identification is out of place here, as the anointing doesn't actually occur in this gospel until John 12:3. Further, the title Lord is an uncommon one in John. It may be that this identification has been taken from a source, or perhaps John is influenced at this point by Luke, with whom he seems to have been somewhat familiar.

glorified - This word, which incorporates an important concept in this gospel, has at least a double meaning in this saying of Jesus. It certainly has the usual meaning of the rationale for an unusual circumstance which will be utilized to show the working of God in this world ("so the Son of God may be glorified") and to bring people to believe in Jesus (which occurs in 11:45).

In addition, the events that unfold in these verses also serve to point to the cross and the glorification of Jesus on the cross. Further, the crucifixion is presented by the evangelist as the direct result of Jesus' public ministry in general, and the miracle recounted here specifically.

light of this world - This term brings back the themes of this gospel and connects them directly to this incident. Further, in the sequence of the church year, this also harks back to last week's lesson. The concept here is also double--edged. First, Jesus points out that the light is still present, which is taken to mean that the time for Jesus' public ministry still has some period to run. While there is time, Jesus continues to minister where he finds a need. In addition to this obvious interpretation, the application of the phrase here also points to the cross, where Jesus illuminates the world through his death.

fallen asleep - Most people understand this term as a euphemism for death. In the New Testament the Greek word translated here is used both as a euphemism and in the literal sense of sleep. The term is also used in Sirach 46:19 as a euphemism. Here the disciples misunderstand euphemism and assume the literal use of the term is meant. This leads Jesus to state quite clearly that Lazarus has died. Even today, the use of euphemism is quite common, particularly when referring to death. The list can be quite long, and includes terms such as "passed on," "gone," and "departed."

Thomas - Didymus in Greek, Thomas is the Greek form of the Hebrew name which means twin. In Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18), Luke (6:15), and Acts (1:13), the name appears only in lists of the disciples. It is only in the Gospel of John that Thomas merits more than a passing mention.

In John's Gospel, Thomas is, perhaps most notably, the disciple who doubts the first appearance of the resurrected Christ. Previously he is mentioned in this lesson and in John 14:5, where he responds to Jesus' long comments with a statement of his ignorance. From all three of these incidents, it seems almost as if Thomas has taken over some of the actions we expect, based on the generally more familiar accounts of the synoptics, to be credited to Peter.

Thomas' identity is not completely clear. One suggestion is that his name comes from the fact that he was the twin of Jesus. This suggestion is found most clearly in the gnostic writings (see The Acts of Thomas, Gospel of Thomas, and The Book of Thomas the Contender). The last named source includes sayings from Jesus directed to "Brother Thomas," which might be understood as an acknowledgment of the familial relationship. All three gnostic writings also refer to Thomas as Judas Thomas. This has led some to suggest, based further on some of the details in the gnostic sources, that Judas' betrayal might have roots in a sort of sibling rivalry.

Thomas is the traditional founder of the Indian church, but only after trying mightily to beg off of the assignment. Eventually he goes to India and gives his life in the founding of the Indian Christian church (known traditionally as the Thomist Church). All these details are, of course, traditional and legendary at best.

Thomas' comment in this lesson is both a misunderstanding and a prophecy. As it stands, Thomas' suggestion that the disciples should join Jesus in his imminent death in Jerusalem clearly indicates his misunderstanding of the events Jesus is talking about. In this instance Caiaphas is the better prophet (John 11:50). However, after Jesus' death and resurrection the words of Thomas describe the life of Christians quite accurately, particularly for those Christians who are preparing for baptism during the Lenten season.

fellow disciples - This term is a hapax legomenon, and perhaps embodies a flash of jealousy in response to Jesus' description in verse 11 of Lazarus as "our friend." In Greek the word used of Lazarus is philos, which is better translated as "beloved," which might be the source of jealous feelings.

to console them - The Jews, according to verse 8, have been seeking to stone Jesus. Here, however, the Jews are merely the people who have come from Jerusalem to comfort the family on the death of Lazarus. There is no evidence that there is any sinister reason for the presence of the mourners, and nothing sinister about their actions until after the miracle actually takes place. Clearly, these are not necessarily the Jews who are trying to stone Jesus.

The mourning for a death at this time usually took place after the burial. In large part this was dictated by both the laws of the Jewish tradition and practical considerations. Embalming was not commonly practiced among the Jews of this time and place, and it did not take long for a body to begin to smell. Thus, a rapid burial was the norm, and the mourning took place after the body had been placed in the tomb.

There are those who point at these mourners and suggest that in the original version of the story, as taken from the Signs Gospel, Jesus met the mourners immediately after the burying of Lazarus. The account here has been edited by the evangelist, apparently to add to the dramatic nature of the story.

I am - In the lesson of last week, the man born blind used this phrase, and it's significance was examined. Here the phrase is also used, this time by Jesus, and here it is an ego emi phrase, and provides a self--revelation of Jesus' divinity and nature. At the conclusion of his statement, Jesus questions Martha's acceptance of his revelation.

I believe - Martha's response to Jesus' question begins with the same formulation normally used to introduce a creedal statement. Martha's answer is composed of three statements which, taken together can be regarded as a creedal form.

Privately - It isn't clear why Martha approached Mary privately, except to direct the reader's attention to Mary, and to separate her from the Jews around her. Even this statement is not evidence that the Jews are enemies of Jesus in this context. The statement also implies that Jesus asked for Mary's presence at the tomb, but that is not explicitly stated.

The Teacher - This seems to be the term used by the followers of Jesus to refer to him when he was not physically present. The term is largely another way of speaking of Jesus as a Rabbi (a Hebrew word usually taken to mean teacher), as is established in John 1:38 and 3:2. The use of "Teacher" as a title of respect is found in other areas of the Jewish tradition at the time of Jesus, perhaps most notably in the use of the title "Teacher of Righteousness" by the residents of Qumran to refer to their most important leader and interpreter of scripture.

greatly disturbed in spirit - The word translated as greatly disturbed appears only five times in the New Testament. The root meaning seems to include some element of anger, which is not readily apparent in the translation. In verse 33, the word is modified by in spirit, while in verse 38 it is modified by in himself. In both cases, there is an element of anger mingled with other disturbances in Jesus' emotional state.

The exact cause, or target of Jesus' anger here is not clear. The Jews have been suggested as targets because of their obstinate refusal to show faith in Jesus, but this is not clearly stated in the text. It is important to note that in the Gospel of John, the theme of Jewish hypocrisy, which is employed in the synoptics, is absent. Thus, to remain true to the spirit of the gospel, it is important not to label Jewish hypocrisy as the target of Jesus' anger.

Another possible source of Jesus' anger might be the simple human response to a death that puts people Jesus was close to through an emotional ringer. While this suggestion likely involves a modern reading of the recounted events, it does provide an potentially interesting tension as a key to understanding Jesus' reaction.

a stench - Martha's comment about the potential stench brings up a variety of issues. The first is the question of funerary practices at that time among the Jews. If Lazarus had been embalmed, then not only would the stench be lessened, but the miraculous nature of these events would be greatly enhanced. While there is not a complete consensus on the details of burial customs at the time, embalming does not seem to have been the common practice at this time.

The bandages that hindered Lazarus' appearance from the tomb are sometimes suggested as an evidence of the use of embalming, but they are more likely to be the typical wrappings applied to a body at the time.

Another important aspect of this comment is the rather blunt intrusion of reality it represents. Suddenly, in the midst of the highlight of the sequence of signs, we find this expression of unsavory reality. It is a reminder that these events happen in the midst of a real tragedy for the family, with a Jesus who shares many of the feelings of grief and rage at the events themselves.

I thank you - The Greek word translated here is often used, at least in Christian writings, as the technical term for the community meal - the eucharist. The Greek term, eucharisto soy, is used only with reference to the feeding of the 5,000 in John, where it has a clear reference to the eucharist. Here there is no such reference, which points out the tendency in Christian usage to maintain both the simple use ("thank you") and the technical sense ("eucharist") of the word.

bound with strips of cloth - The use of strips of cloth, while not an indication of embalming, has caused some questions. One image that is brought up is that of a binding which wraps the arms with the body and the feet together, almost as if the binding was that of a classic Egyptian mummy. Another possibility is of a looser binding, with the legs and arms being bound independently.

While clearly the second sort of binding would make the physical details easier to fit together, the idea of binding the legs together should not be dismissed entirely. Consider the fashion, which resurfaces on occasion, of a dress that ends below the knees, with a small diameter of hem. This often causes the person wearing such a garment to shuffle along rather than walking with a more natural stride.

Parallels

Once again, the Gospel of John does not provide an exact parallel to incidents recounted in the synoptics, but it does present echoes of familiar stories from that source. More than simply similarities which lead to academic questions, in this case the similarities lead to rather serious questions.

In Mark 14:3--9 (and in the parallel accounts in Matthew 26:6--13 and Luke 7:37--50), an unnamed woman anoints Jesus. Luke places this event in an unnamed town quite early in his account, Mark and Matthew set the story in Bethany just before the final Passover begins. Many commentators point to this event, at least in the chronology provided by Mark, as the anointing of Jesus which was required prior to burial. Tradition has suggested that Mary was the person who anointed Jesus' feet in this story, but there is no basis in the texts to back up the traditional version. Other traditions identify Mary with Mary Magdalene, but, again, there is no corroboration of this supposition beyond the identity of names.

In Luke 10:38--42 we are introduced to Mary and Martha, two sisters from Bethany. In this story, Martha is the more active sister. Mary chooses to sit at the feet of Jesus, but Martha is bustling around, preparing food and serving her guests. A complaint brings forth the observation that Mary has chosen the better part. While her activities are not as prominent, Mary is given credit for having a better understanding of Jesus' presence and significance.

In John's account, Mary's understanding is more rudimentary than Martha's. In John 11:27 Martha makes a confession that echoes that of Peter at Caesarea Philippi. In John 11:32, Mary is only able to see that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus' death, not reversed it. Thus, compared to the account in Luke, Martha's understanding has deepened, while Mary's understanding has receded.

This identification of a parallel between Luke and John assumes that John knew at least portions of Luke's Gospel, and used those portions which he found to be most pertinent. An extension of this Johannine awareness is the possibility that this story is an example of a parable becoming an event. In Luke 16:19--31 is the story of a poor man named Lazarus who died and the developments after his death (and the death of a local rich man). The story ends with a rejection of a plea for Lazarus to return from the dead and confront the surviving brothers of the rich man. Luke 16:31 states, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

Some commentators, particularly those who seek to eliminate the miraculous elements from the gospels, suggest that this idea has been made into the story as John presents it. As the name Lazarus appears only in the Lucan story and chapter 11 of John, the supposition has been given some credence.

An alternative suggestion involves the possibility that the synopticists had some knowledge of John, or at least of his sources, in this case the Gospel of Signs. Or, assuming the story reflects an actual incident, the situation gives rise to questions about why the raising of Lazarus is conspicuously absent from the synoptic accounts.

It has been suggested that the story was not mentioned in an effort to protect the family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus from retribution by the local authorities. Unfortunately this suggestion includes a number of further implausibilities, including the basic idea that such a notable event and the local participants in the action would, within a generation, fade completely from local mem--ory. This is not particularly likely, especially in a village where descendants of the participants (if not the elderly participants themselves) were still residing.

Another possible explanation for the synoptic omission of this story is that the source was a story with anonymous characters. In this case, John would have made the identification of the characters as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Clearly, from John 11:1, the evangelist expected that the hearers of the story would know (or at least know of) the family. There is often a tendency to identify known people with anonymous characters in stories which could certainly have taken place here.

All of this leads to some significant questions, perhaps the most important of which is the essential historicity of the miracle. In the synoptics the stories of the raising of the dead (Mark 5:21--43 and parallels in Matthew 9:18--26 and Luke 8:40--56, also Luke 7:11--16) come earlier and are not highlighted as the culmination of the public ministry of Christ as is the raising of Lazarus in John. Further, in the fourth gospel the elements of the story have been arranged to emphasize the dramatic nature of the story. Jesus' delay in arriving, Martha's comments, and the fact of the completed burial all add to the dramatic intensity of the story. With this clear tendency to heighten the elements of the story, the entire story is sometimes questioned. While there is no corroboration for this miracle from the synoptics, there is little reason to doubt the basic narrative comes from an historical incident.

Finally, Jesus' question about the location of Lazarus' burial site is precisely the information that will be sought about the body of Jesus later in this gospel. John 20:2, 13, and 15 all involve questions about where the body might be found, particularly when it is not where it is expected to be.


The People

As Individuals

Mary and Martha are already known from the Gospel of Luke, and expected to be known to those who hear this story in John. Luke 10:38--42 presents the episode of Jesus visiting the home of Martha and Mary, and Martha is very busy with the typical labors of a woman in those days (and also, quite frequently, in present time), while Mary sits at Jesus' feet and listens to his teaching. In response to Martha's complaints about Mary shirking her duties, Jesus rebukes her and defends Mary's choice as the better one.

Here Martha is once again bustling around, and the more forward of the sisters, but the relative understanding of the faith on the part of the sisters has changed. When Martha is pressed by Jesus to go beyond the understandings current in the Judaism of the day (expressed in 11:24), she makes a confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (a messianic term), and as the one coming into the world (which harkens back to the description of John the Baptizer in John 1:15, 27, and 30). This confession is at least as appropriate as that of Peter (earlier) at Caesarea Philippi, and seems to be made publicly, as opposed to Peter's, which was made only before Jesus and the disciples.

Mary, on the other hand, is only able to echo Martha's opening statement (11:21), and she never grows past that statement (11:32). In this story it is Martha whose faith has deepened and matured, while Mary remains with the faith both Martha and she began with.

Lazarus is, at most, a rather shadowy figure in this story. The name comes from Eleazer (God helps), which might have been a consideration in selecting a name for this story, but likely had nothing to do with selecting the name. There is no indication of his position in the family (younger or older brother), but he is most likely the guardian of his sisters at the time of his death. His death would seem, thus, to bring with it the specter of economic difficulties for the women.

Clearly he was the object of much affection from both his sisters and Jesus, and his sudden death was an emotionally wrenching time for all of them. This makes the actions of Jesus in delaying his departure appear somewhat callous, even knowing that the final result would be the restoration of Lazarus to life. It is usually thought that Lazarus was merely restored to life, not resurrected. Hence, he could look forward to another death eventually.

Jesus' actions in this story are somewhat questionable, particularly the delay in heading for Bethany. Even though the delay does heighten the impact of the eventual miracle, it also subjects at least the sisters and the mourners with them to the emotional turmoil of experiencing a loved one's death. Jesus also has an emotional reaction to the death of Lazarus (11:35), even though the event was not only completely expected but also soon to be reversed.

The mention of the four days Lazarus has been in the tomb (11:39) has led to efforts to determine Jesus' location prior to miracle, but such attempts are generally futile. The comment does serve to remind readers that preparing the body for burial was the task of women, so both sisters were quite sure Lazarus was dead, as they had, almost certainly, prepared the body. This is a subtle reminder of the absolute verification of this miracle. Those who had prepared the body, and thus were absolutely certain the man was dead, were witnesses to the raising of Lazarus.

As Images And Signs
This is the climactic miracle of the Gospel of Signs. And, as are all the miracles in that source, it is meant to bring people to faith. John 11:45 points out the success of the miracle in that regard. This miracle is followed by the entry into Jerusalem and the Passion account. If these were originally part of the Gospel of Signs, then this climactic miracle was also a transition in the original text from the public ministry that brought people to faith, and the passion that brought Jesus to glorification.

Lazarus can be seen as a symbol of baptism. He submitted to the death and the days in the tomb, and then was raised to a new life by Jesus. Baptism is a symbolic death to our old life and a re--birth into a new life in Christ, which is precisely what happens with Lazarus. Inclusion of a lesson that refers to the Sacrament of Baptism is highly appropriate in the waning days of Lent. The season derived from the period during which catechumens of the early church prepared for reception into the church through the sacrament.

Further, many assume that Lazarus was still dead when he came out of the tomb. This is sometimes known as the "miracle within a miracle," based on the understanding possible in the text that Lazarus was only restored to life with Jesus' final words, "Unbind him, and let him go" (John 11:44). In saying these words, according to this conception of events, Jesus is commanding death itself to let Lazarus go so he may return to life.

A very important theme in this gospel surfaces in this lesson. This is the idea of Jesus' glorification, which is first mentioned here in 11:4. The reference here is to a future event, which we are well aware is the event of the crucifixion. The theme is reintroduced in John 12:16, 23, 28; 13:31ff; 17:1, 4f.

This lesson also echoes the themes of the previous lesson by once again presenting Jesus as the light of the world (John 11:9--10). Clearly, Jesus is the light of the world, and by Jesus' light men walk safely, apart from him, men walk in darkness and stumble repeatedly.


The Action

In The Story

The lesson for this Sunday is the pivot point of the Gospel of John, as well as for the Lenten season. This is the transition from the public ministry, which concludes with this incident, and the beginning of the Passion Narrative with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem which occupies our attention next week. In many ways, the Lenten season can be best understood as a journey to the cross. This episode is the point at which the focus changes from a public ministry centered on bringing people to faith to the passion which centers on the glorification of Jesus. This story includes references in both directions, to the events which have come before (in addition to those previously mentioned, see also John 11:38), and to events which are coming in the remainder of the gospel.

A common occurrence in John's Gospel, often used as a means to elucidate the action, is confusion on the part of other participants in the action which allows Jesus to explain events. This Johannine confusion occurs at least twice in this story, among the disciples when the news of Lazarus' illness arrives (John 11:8 and 12), and again during the conversation with Martha (John 11:21--22 and 24).

After Jesus clarifies the situation, Martha's response is that of faith incarnate. Significantly, she also uses eschatological titles for Jesus, which is a clear sign that the end is fast approaching.

Finally, this lesson stops much more abruptly than John does. Following the conclusion used here, events in the gospel lead immediately to a description of the plot to kill Jesus. In response, Jesus withdraws to Ephraim (11:54--55) until the Passover crowds began arriving in Jerusalem and provide some safety with the threat of riots if he was captured publicly.

Martha's open confession (John 11:27) can also be considered as part of the reason for the plot to kill Jesus. She provides a rationale for the concern of the Jews which leads them to plot the death of Jesus. Her confession can be taken as evidence that the devotion to Jesus is spreading and taking on political overtones. This is certainly a rationale for Caiaphas' comment in John 11:50 and quite likely one of the things which lead to the comment.

In The Hearers
In this lesson Martha, the faithful follower, comes to a full understanding of Jesus. She begins with faith, but also with a flawed understanding. As a direct result of her conversation with Jesus, she is led to a more complete understanding. This is an endorsement of both the need for faith and the need to strive for a fuller understanding of the meaning of the faith. Some of the Jews who have come from Jerusalem to commiserate with Martha and Mary come to believe as well. Mary, on the other hand, has taken the first steps of faith, but shows no evidence of growth.

Other Jews, starting in John 11:46, plot the death of Jesus. It is an interesting point that verse 46 starts with a "but," as in many conversations. Consider the young woman responding to the offer of a date with "You're nice, but ..." People usually dislike hearing whatever it is that comes after the "but," to the point that merely hearing the "but" is enough to cause a reaction even if the words to follow are not spoken. Here the lessons leave it out, but the results come back in the events we remember over the next two weeks.

If we assume, as seems possible, that Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were prominent citizens of Bethany, it is further reasonable to assume the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, including Caiaphas the high priest, heard of the events surrounding Lazarus' death and restoration to life quickly, probably from some of the mourners who did not believe in Jesus as a result of these events.


The Sermon

Illustrations

Three quotations about death and immortality:

Maria von Trapp, after the death of her husband, "For hours I would just sit near his grave, begging his pardon and forgiveness. Gladly I would have dug him out with my own hands if I could have made him alive again, giving me another chance."

Publius Syrus, "Grief diminishes when it has nothing to grow upon."

Woody Allen, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying."


Considering Jesus' maddening delay and the need for patience:

An American tourist couple was eating in a swank Parisian restaurant and the husband was fuming at the delay in getting a waiter to his table. Finally, he yelled, "Hey, waiter. Can't we get any service in this place?"

A waiter appeared and asked frostily, "What would you care to have?"

"Well," drawled the husband, "let's start with a bottle of your best champagne."

"Certainly, monsieur. What year?"

"What do you mean, what year?" screamed the red--faced husband. "Right now!"


When considering the way faith works, for Martha, Mary, and us:

There was a city dweller who retired and bought a small farm and a single cow. A few weeks later the cow went dry. When the newcomer reported this to a neighbor, the neighbor was surprised. The city man said he was surprised as well. "I can't understand it either," he said. "No one was ever as considerate of an animal as I was of that animal. If I didn't need any milk, I didn't milk her. If I only needed a quart, I only took a quart. I just don't understand it."

Of course, a cow must be milked regularly to maintain the flow of milk. And a Christian's faith must be used regularly as a guide for Christian living, not just in times of trial or testing.


Jesus' prayer in John 11:41--42 brings to mind the following story:

A father watched his son carry a heavy rock across the yard. He called out, "Son, why don't you use all your resources?"

The son protested, "But, Dad, I already am!"

"You haven't asked me to help you."


On the need to grow in faith, knowledge, and understanding:

Ed Wynn once commented that he got his first job based on the results of a simple test. Two personnel experts looked into his ears. He was hired, Wynn recalled, "because they could not see each other."

Approaches To Preaching

For those with access to the hymn, "I Receive The Living God" is a recounting of four ego emi sayings, including that found in 11:25. Reviewing these sayings as they are presented in the hymn could provide an interesting way to summarize the revelation of Jesus as the Christ and as a summary of the Lenten season as the Sunday of the Passion and Easter approach.


Although there are an abundance of possibilities within the lesson itself, the word which follows this lesson is, in itself, worth at least a mention as a possibility. That word is but (John 11:46). Actually a word people dislike hearing, here it certainly changes the significance of the story that forms today's lesson from the climax of the series of miracles which began back in Cana to a proximate cause of the crucifixion. Sermonically, that "but" is a the point of transition for us in this Lenten season, from what we have heard to this point to what we will hear in the next two weeks; public ministry to Passion Narrative.


It is very possible to focus on Lazarus and the way that he has been given a new life. In fact, so have we, in our Baptism. While we haven't had so dramatic a demonstration of this new life as Lazarus did, it is just as real, and should be just as life--changing an event as this likely was for Lazarus. We know little about the remainder of Lazarus' life, but we will know quite a lot about the rest of ours before it is finished. The challenge is to live that new life in faith.

The words of Thomas can form the basis for our answer to that challenge, and as a plan for a Christian life - both for baptismal candidates and for Christians already in the family.


Quite often the stories in the Bible seem somewhat out of touch with the reality that confronts people every day. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, that brutal, dirty reality intrudes in the form of the stench Martha is concerned about. Not that it is merely the smell of death, but a smell that is, after four days, no longer able to be hidden by the oils and spices used in funeral preparations. It seems that no embalming was used in the funerary practices of the time, and any stench was greatly offensive. In fact, in the culture any contact with a dead body was regarded as rendering a person ritually unclean until they had gone through the proper rituals to remove the stain.

The reality of our lives also intrudes and stands in the way of our following Jesus, of doing what he commands us. Sometimes it is a stench we are trying to avoid, other times it is something less offensive, but equally compelling that we wish to avoid (or accomplish) that gets in our way. The real world intrudes in our discipleship quite regularly, and as our Lenten journey draws to a close, it is appropriate to reflect on the ways we fall short because of those intrusions.