Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fifth Sunday in Lent - John 11:1-53

The raising of Lazarus is the last and perhaps the greatest sign in John's Gospel. It brings the coming age into the present, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. It also points us toward Holy Week, the Paschal Mystery, Good Friday and Easter, as John tells us that "from that day they took counsel how to put Jesus to death."

Like Mary and Martha, we might find ourselves disturbed that Jesus delays in coming to the aid of a beloved friend. Preachers might acknowledge these feelings. But the point in preaching is not to explain away Jesus’ action. As in his healing of the man born blind, Jesus' purpose in raising Lazarus is not to bring comfort but to reveal God. Yes, Jesus is moved with compassion. But even the loving concern that we are told Jesus has for Lazarus and the sisters is secondary to Jesus' purpose of making God known. Moreover, we are reminded that in John's Gospel, Jesus responds in his own time and not in response to the prompting of others.

The real purpose of Jesus' delay is to make clear that Lazarus is dead and that his rising is a miracle or sign. When Jesus arrives Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Lazarus has begun to rot. He's begun to stink. According to rabbinic teaching, his soul, believed to hover over the body for three days, has departed. By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus is dead. The only hope of restoring Lazarus to life lies in "the resurrection on the last day." Jesus proclaims, "I am the resurrection and the life." Ego eimi!

We know all too well that dead is dead. Like Lazarus, our only hope of life beyond death is Jesus' promise. Jesus says, "Those who believe in me, though they die, yet they will live. And everyone that lives and believes in me will never die." Believing that Jesus was victorious over death when he was "lifted up" on the cross, our hope for life beyond death both for us and for our loved ones rests entirely in Jesus.

In baptism our hope is realized. In baptism, much of what we hope for on Resurrection Day takes place. In baptism we are wrapped in death like Lazarus was wrapped in grave clothes. And from that watery grave, we hear Jesus call us by name, "Child of God, come out!" We hear the words of Jesus—"Unbind him, and let him go"—and God frees us to live a new life, even in the face of death.

That's what this story is all about. Jesus has the power to call us from the grave and unbind us from death. And Jesus does this for us as surely as he did it for Lazarus. Jesus not only calls us from the death that stands at the end of life. Jesus calls us from all the deaths that are part of life. Unbound from death, we are let go to live a new life.

To be unbound from death and let go to live a new life means continuously struggling with the question of how to use life to bear witness to Christ and to proclaim Christ's dominion. That's what Jesus is asking Mary and Martha to do. Jesus is standing with the grieving sisters at Lazarus' tomb and asking them to be unbound from death and open to new life. He says, "Take away the stone." And Martha shows just how bound up in death they are. She warns of the stench. But Jesus calls the sisters to breath in the stink of flesh that's been rotting for four days. Jesus challenges the sisters to stare death squarely in the face and to trust that they will see the glory of God revealed in new life. 

Kicking away the stone, breathing in the stench of death, and trusting in new life are the struggles of the baptized. These are also the tasks of Lent. Mary and Martha did it. They took away the stone and breathed in their brother's death. We are all mindful of saints who did it, women and men who, in the last weeks of their lives, take away the stone and breathe in their own death, sometimes even planning their own funeral. We all know of congregations who, after a long and hard struggle with how they can best use their life to bear witness to Christ and proclaim Christ's dominion, vote to take away the stone of congregational survival and breath in their church's death in order to proclaim what Mary and Martha saw, the glory of God revealed in new life.

"Lazarus, come out! Unbind him, and let him go." Mary and Martha saw Jesus stand outside their brother's tomb and shout. But for us, Jesus does one better. For us, Jesus climbs into the tomb himself, so that God can blow the stone away and defeat the power of death—from the inside. Jesus unbinds us from death and lets us go to live new life in a way that proclaims that the day of resurrection is coming and bears witness to the One in whom that day comes. Unbound from death, we are let go to live new life now, here, today.

The journey of Lent will surely direct us to a tomb and call us to take away the stone, to breathe in the stench of death, and to trust that Christ brings new life. The journey of Lent brings us where Christ has led the way—to be unbound by death and let go to live new life.

Where has the journey of Lent brought you and yours? What does it mean for the people of your congregation to be unbound by death and let go for new life? What does it mean for us to approach our tombs, to take away the stone and to breathe in death? What does it mean for us that God will be revealed in new life? How can we use our life to bear witness to Christ and proclaim Christ's dominion? What stones do we—both as congregations and as Christians—find difficult to kick away from the door of our tombs?

These are the issues to struggle with in preaching. For these are the questions of Lent. These are the callings of baptism. Jesus frees us to live in new ways that bear witness to Christ and proclaim Christ's dominion. Jesus frees us to trust that he will bring new life and that we'll see the glory of God. Be unbound from death and let go for new life! That’s the goal of the sermon.

Craig Satterlee, a member of The Liturgical Conference Board, is the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair of Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

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