O Lord, in the calming of our minds and in the longing of our hearts, in word and song and sacrament. Speak, O Lord, for your servants are listening. Amen.
Martha gets right to the point: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These are words spoken in faith; words spoken from a place of deep grief; words that form in our hearts with grief that comes because of death. God, how can this be? Why must this be? Why now? Where are you? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother…my sister, my mother, father, child, husband, wife friend…if you had been here, death would not have come.” Even when it is the best option after a long and difficult illness, we feel the weight of death that robs us of moments not yet shared and memories not yet made. The apostle Paul writes: Death is THE enemy (1 Cor 15:26). And we know—this is truth.
None of us escapes it. Every one of us knows the power of death’s sting first-hand. So today’s story is our story. And not just our story. It’s Jesus’ story and God’s story too.
When Jesus hears that his good friend is ill he tells his disciples they will go to see Lazarus who lives in Bethany. Bethany is just two miles from Jerusalem. To go there will move them closer to danger. Those in authority there have it out for Jesus. He’s proven himself—there have been signs, and teachings and healings… he is a threat to the status quo and the powers that rule. Going to Bethany moves Jesus closer to the cross. He knows this. Still he chooses to go.
He learns that Lazarus is ill and stays put for two days. We can speculate on why but the story only says that Jesus is confident that Lazarus’ illness will not lead to death. Jesus tells his disciples that God’s glory will be revealed.
When Jesus and the disciples finally make their way to Bethany, Martha runs to meet them with the news: Lazarus is dead. Jesus is too late. His heart breaks. John writes that “Jesus weeps”. It’s the shortest verse in all of scripture. And maybe that’s because where there is death, words fall short. Emotions run too deep with pain and heartache. Jesus feels this first-hand. He is human, after all. But he is also God. His story is part of a bigger story. And so is yours.
Jesus’ tears, his broken heart is not where the story ends. Jesus goes to the tomb; he stands at death’s door. He doesn’t keep at a distance. He shows up where and when all hope is lost. He is God—who transcends time, is Lord of all time and Lord of all that lives. In this story we meet Jesus, both human and divine at work on our behalf. It is Creator God in Christ who calls Lazarus by name and Lazarus, dead for four days, emerges from the tomb. Death is no match for the power of God’s love.
Jesus tells Martha and Mary that he is the resurrection AND the life. It’s God’s future promise and present reality. Resurrection happens—on the last day and on this day. The stench of death can’t keep Jesus away. The cries of grief can’t silence the shepherd’s voice. Jesus is the gate through whom Lazarus is drawn into new life. This is true for you and for me too.
Some of you know that I just returned from a trip to the Holy Land. It was a Christian pilgrimage led by Professor Karoline Lewis from Luther seminary. We covered a lot in eight days. The trip included a stop at Lazarus’ tomb—where tradition says this story took place. I climbed down a steep, winding, narrow flight of stairs, deep into the ground, crouching into the small space believed to be Lazarus’ tomb. There was really only room for one. To emerge from that space, you had to keep your head low to the ground and thread your body through the small opening in the rock, like a baby being born.
I was met by cheers from the group, waiting for me and welcoming me back among them. It occurred to me then that this exercise was an affirmation of God’s vision of community: to show up for others; to be the voices of encouragement and support for others. We muck this up plenty, but God’s vision is for community to be an avenue through which God in Christ works to create healing & wholeness.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday—a day in the church that we set aside to remember loved ones who’ve died. We do not lift up the famous, or the rulers of nations or those with great wealth or remarkable talent. We remember loved ones who had an impact on our lives, who were integral to the community that made us who we are: wives, husbands, parents, children, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, friends. Their stories are forever woven into ours, death can’t take that away. Together our lives are caught up in God’s story who established through Jesus, that life conquers death and love wins.
We give thanks for that hope as we gather at the Lord’s table now, where with all the dear saints, we are fed by God’s grace and sent out to be that good news in the places that are hungry for God’s love. Amen.