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by Mike Kinman, Rector of All Saints Church, Pasadena

The gospel isn’t meant to be gulped down on Sunday morning, but gnawed on through the week so it really becomes a part of us. You’ve got to work at it, like a dog with a good bone! Here’s the Gospel for this coming Sunday — the Fifth Sunday in Lent — with some notes and more “food for thought” on love, loss and the gift of tears. Gnaw away!

Fifth Sunday in Lent: John 11:1-45

There was a certain man named Lazarus, who was sick. He and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were from the village of Bethany. Mary was the one who had anointed the feet of Jesus with perfume and dried his feet with her hair, and it was her brother Lazarus who was sick. The sisters sent this message to Jesus: “Rabbi, the one you love is sick.” When Jesus heard this, he said, “The sickness will not end in death; it is happening for God’s glory, so that God’s Only Begotten may be glorified because of it.” Jesus loved these three very much. Yet even after hearing that Lazarus was sick, he remained where he was staying for two more days.

Finally he said to the disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” They protested, “Rabbi, it was only recently that they tried to stone you — and you want to go back there again?” Jesus replied, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk by day do not stumble, because they see the world bathed in light; those who go walking by night will stumble because there is no light in them.” After Jesus said this, he said to the disciples, “Our beloved Lazarus has fallen asleep. I am going to Judea to wake him.” The disciples objected, “But Rabbi, if he is only asleep, he will be fine.” Jesus had been speaking about Lazarus’ death, but they thought he was talking about actual sleep. So he said very plainly, “Lazarus is dead! For your sakes I am glad that I wasn’t there, that you might come to believe. In any event, let us go to him.”

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Since Bethany was only about two miles from Jerusalem, many people had come out to console Martha and Mary about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary stayed at home with the mourners. When she got to Jesus, Martha said, “If you have been here, my brother would never have died! Yet even now, I am sure that God will give you whatever you ask.” “Your brother will rise again!” Jesus assured her. Martha replied, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the Resurrection, and I am Life: those who believe in me will live, even if they die; and those who are alive and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes!” Martha replied. “I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, God’s Only Begotten, the One who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, Martha went back and called her sister Mary. The Teacher is here, asking for you,” she whispered. As soon as Mary heard this, she got up and went to him. Jesus had not gotten to the village yet. He was at the place where Martha had met him. Those who were there consoling her saw her get up quickly and followed Mary, thinking she was going to the tomb to mourn. When Mary got to Jesus, she fell at his feet and said,” If you had been here, Lazarus never would have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the other mourners as well, he was troubled in spirit, moved by the deepest emotions. “Where have you laid him?” Jesus asked. “Come and see,” they said. And Jesus wept. The people in the crowd began to remark, “See how much he loved him!” Others said, “He made the blind person see; why couldn’t he have done something to prevent Lazarus’ death?”

Jesus was again deeply moved. They approached the tomb, which was a cave with a stone in front of it. “Take away the stone,” Jesus directed. Martha said, “Rabbi, it has been four days now. By this time there will be a stench.” Jesus replied, “Didn’t I assure you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took the stone away. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said, “God, thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd, that they might believe that you sent me!” Then Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out of the tomb, still bound hand and foot with linen strips, his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus told the crowd, “Untie him and let him go free.”

Many of those who had come to console Martha and Mary, and saw what Jesus did, put their faith in him.

The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?

The raising of Lazarus is a climactic moment in John’s Gospel on several fronts. First, it is the seventh and final of Jesus’ miracles or “signs”
in John. Seven is the number of perfection or completion, so this sign and the words that accompany it both from Jesus (“I am the resurrection and the  life…” and from Martha, “I believe that you are the Christ…”) represent the complete confession of who Jesus is.

It also represents the climax of the Jewish authorities desire to kill Jesus. The verse immediately following this reading (John 11:47-53) tell
of the Pharisees gathering to plot against Jesus and ends with “So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death.”

The action moves quickly after this point. Chapter 12:1-11 tells the story of Mary anointing Jesus (for burial), immediately followed in 12:12-19 by the triumphal entry into Jerusalem … Palm Sunday.

The raising of Lazarus story sets the stage for all that is to come. Jesus’ identity as “the Christ, the Son of God” is bound up in his power over
death — in his own death and then his resurrection.

A few things to chew on:

The familiarity of this story robs it of much of its power. We have heard it enough that we know how it ends — Lazarus doesn’t stay dead. But try to read it as if for the first time. Lazarus is first gravely ill and then dies. This is tragic, but not unusual. We are surrounded by illness and
death, and Lazarus’s is no different from any of those. So how do we look at the illness and death we encounter with the eyes of Jesus, saying “it is for God’s glory.” That is not the same as saying it is good, but it is saying that every part of our lives and of life here on earth — even the worst, most tragic parts — are opportunities to glorify God.

Think about that. The AIDS epidemic, which still kills more than 1 million people a year — mostly in highly impoverished nations — can be an opportunity to glorify God … catastrophic climate change, which threatens to destroy our very planet – can be an opportunity to glorify God …IF we let Christ work through us to be healers and resurrectors.

Try This:

Have you ever felt like a part of you has died? Great loss can do that to us. Maybe it’s the death of a spouse, partner, lover, friend, child, or family member. Maybe it’s a moment of great shame. Maybe it’s experiencing something that shakes the foundations of your faith.

We can become prisoners of these experiences, these losses. They can prevent us from living full lives. And yet in the middle of them, Jesus
stands with us — shedding tears with us, but also saying “Unbind him. Unbind her. Let them go.”

This week. take a few minutes each morning to think about what is binding you? Are there places where you feel life has been taken from you? What is preventing you from living a full life? Offer them to God in prayer. Ask for new life. And imagine what unbinding might look like in your life.

Write This:

You can feel Mary’s pain and even anger in this story. Her brother is dead and she is in deep grief and she is not happy with Jesus at all. When Martha goes to meet him, she stays home. When she finally goes to see Jesus, her tone is accusatory: “If you had been here, Lazarus never would have died.”

When deep tragedy strikes it is only human to lament and even rage at God. If you journal, this week write about a time where you either were or were tempted to say “God … Jesus … where the hell were you???” What was the situation? Were you able to express those emotions? If so, what was that like? If not, what held you back? And what do you think God and Jesus’ reaction would be?

Fears of Tears

“Jesus began to weep.”

“I’m sorry.”

This is the phrase that in white, American culture most often accompanies tears.

“I’m sorry.”

Our tears activate our apology reflex. Before we can even catch our breath sometimes, we are pushing out the sorrys.

But what are we sorry for?

We’re sorry for showing emotion. For showing we’re not in control. For having a moment of truth and reality that might make someone else who is uncomfortable in circumstances that aren’t controlled feel, well, uncomfortable.

Our apology reflex from our tears is a symptom of something terribly wrong in our society. On a deep level, we not only don’t consider it virtue to be real with one another, we consider it vice.

Jesus suffers from no such malady.

Thank God.

Jesus weeps. And he does it without apology.

His friend is dead, so he cries. And he does it without shame.

Sure, he’s about to raise him from the dead. Sure, the sun will come out tomorrow. But right now, his friend is dead and he is in grief.

So he cries.

And he does not say “I’m sorry.”

This verse is perhaps more profound and powerful than the actual raising of Lazarus. Can there be a clearer statement of Jesus as Emmanuel … as “God with us” … than this?

Jesus could have looked at a dead Lazarus as a broken pipe that the expert plumber knows how to fix. But instead, he allows himself to grieve the tragedy openly and honestly.

He doesn’t avoid the pain of being human. He doesn’t hide the pain of being human. He embraces it without apology or shame. And in so doing, he claims our pain and tears as his own … he claims our pain and tears as holy.

That’s right. Our tears. Yours and mine. They are not a sign of weakness. They are not even merely acceptable. They are holy. They are a sign that we are created in the image of a God who loves deeply … and deep love cannot exist without the possibility for deep pain. Deep love cannot exist without tears.

Jesus began to weep. And the people’s response was not ridicule but “See how he loved him!”

Lord Christ, let our tears flow. Let them flow without apology or shame. Let them flow as a healing balm. Let them flow as a sign of our wonderful humanity.

Let our tears flow as holy signs that we are holy people, created in the image of a God who weeps for us and with us … always.

Check out the rest of Sunday’s readings

The Lectionary Page has all of the readings for this Sunday and every Sunday — click here for this Sunday’s readings.

Collect for Sunday — Pray this throughout the week as you gnaw on this Gospel.

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and  affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Want to read more?
“The Text This Week” is an excellent online resource for anyone who wants to dive more deeply into the scriptures for the week.