There is no death in God
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Lent 5, 29th March 2020
For today’s sermon, I’m going to walk through the gospel passage for today – John 11:1-45, commenting as I go.
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.
It’s interesting that we haven’t got to the part of John’s Gospel which tells of Mary anointing Jesus with perfume, yet he refers to it as having happened. This shows how the gospels are not meant to be read as historical documents, in the sense of this happened and then that. It also shows how often something only makes sense in the light of what comes later, and this is definitely so with this entire story. In mentioning Mary’s anointing of Jesus, the gospel writer alludes to what Mary was doing in that anointing. In one way, it was pointing to what was to come: Jesus’ death, but on another level, it was a response to Jesus as the presence of God, who is constantly flowing out of him/herself as generous love. Mary mirrors what she sees in Jesus. Only after the resurrection will she realise that she can do more than mirror that. She can be a source of generous love too, and in fact, that is actually the point of her life. That is what Jesus alludes to when he later tells his disciples (and John passes on to us!) that they will do greater works than he did.
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.”
The word ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘fame’, which would mean this is happening to make God more famous, rather ‘glory’ means reputation. To see the glory of God then, is to see what God is really like. In other words, this event, of Lazarus’ death, will show what God is like.
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.”
It’s odd to say that even though Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, he didn’t bother to go and see them when they needed him. That’s because there’s a mistranslation. The gospel writer doesn’t say though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but because Jesus loved them. The translators couldn’t bring themselves to say that Jesus intentionally didn’t go to see them, because they can’t see why he would do that. After all, he’s so caring, and isn’t this story about how much he cared? Well, it is, but his caring is far deeper than for Lazarus and his sisters. If this event is to show us what God is like, then Jesus must wait for Lazarus to die before he goes to him. This is not a random act. Jesus never does random. All his actions have a purpose.
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.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t tempted by the devil in the wilderness. This is John’s temptation scene. The disciples tempt Jesus to avoid danger and thus give up on his mission. Rejecting their suggestion reinforces his sense of purpose. Later, the phrase ‘come and see’, usually used for others to come and see Jesus, reinforces the fact that he is discerning his purpose. Now is the time for him to act.
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.”
Jesus explains that Lazarus really is dead. Whatever he does for Lazarus shows what God does with death, and will encourage belief in him. This will not be a miracle though. It is not even to be an amazing event. Later in the gospel, Lazarus is mentioned amongst guests at a party. No-one even bats an eyelid that someone who died is alive again. That’s because this is not about Lazarus, but what God does with death.
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.
Martha is not happy with Jesus. She redirects her grief onto him, blaming him for her brother’s death. How often does grief become the funnel for other emotions? Sometimes people allow loss and grief to define who they are and what they do – like Captain Ahab and the great white whale.
But even now, (Martha goes on,) 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.”
Whatever the resurrection and the life is, it is not just a future thing. Jesus emphasises “I AM the resurrection and the life”, meaning I am that for you now. The same is true for us, Jesus can raise us to new life, here and now.
When (Martha) had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” Martha doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about, so she pretends he wants to talk to her sister.
And when (Mary) 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.”
Mary repeats what Martha says to Jesus, but in a different tone. Kneeling at his feet, as one who learns from a teacher, indicates she is open to the possibility of there being more going on than she realises.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Jesus 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!”
This is the key line in the whole story. It seems that Jesus is showing empathy for those he loved and then expressing his love for Lazarus, but that’s not the case. There is something far more profound going on here. We’re told that Jesus cried, while everyone else was weeping. Two different Greek words are used here. They’re not the same thing. The weeping of Mary, Martha and everyone
else, is ritual wailing, which would have been led by professional mourners. There would have been
some grief being expressed, but it was much more than that. That’s what Jesus was crying over. And he was also crying because he knew that what was going on in that ritual response to a death, would lead to his being killed. The job of professional mourners was to stir up grief. Especially in a case where someone was killed by the Romans. They would stir up feelings, encouraging hatred, emphasising enmity. It’s a practice that still works today. In 1989 Slobodan Milosevic got his Serbian people all riled up by digging up the casket of a 600 year old Serbian commander who had been killed in battle by their ethnic neighbours. That drove them to a war of ethnic cleansing, in which they killed thousands of people. It makes me wonder what our nation is doing with Anzac Day commemorations. Is there more going on than just honouring those who died, or reminding ourselves of the cost of war? And why did we spend 170 times as much commemorating World War One, as the French did, even though they lost 28 times more soldiers than we did? The bible tells us that death is an intrinsic part of human (fallen) culture. The rivalry that leads to it and the rivalry it creates forms and strengthens our sense of who we are. You might say ‘but as Christians, don’t we make an individual’s death define who we are?’ The Crusaders definitely did that. They rallied soldiers to the cause around the fact that the Muslims had taken control of the holy sepulchre (the supposed grave of Jesus). But they overlooked the fact that the grave was empty, which completely reverses the possibility of using death and sacrifice to justify being against others. It undoes all that.
We are told that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved, but that’s a mistranslation. What it says in the Greek is that he snorted angrily and shuddered. That is the divine response to human culture which is so bound to death.
I have mentioned a few examples of being bound to death in order live. Also what comes to mind is how much death features in so many of the stories of our culture – in books films, television and games. Death is a key part of them. We might think they are just stories, but there is only so much death in our stories because it is culturally significant. One reason Jesus died is to undo our holding on to death and undo our fear of death. He could only do that by dying and then coming back to life. That makes sense for our fear of biological death, but this is not only about that. It is also to do with killing and sacrifice involving being against one another, being jealous, being threatened, being in rivalry. By raising Lazarus to life, Jesus is showing us God is profoundly NOT involved in death. That includes all that is oppressive and life-denying. It’s when we use religion, or laws, or anything else in our culture, to deny life, rather than help it flourish. This story tells us that death, which we think is integral to our lives, does not have to be. I have highlighted some of the ways we allow that to be, but there is much more, for example, what does it mean for biological death to mean nothing to God? The answer to that, and realising that life without the rivalry that leads to death and which creates death, is possible, is what radically changed the lives of the early Christians. It was the way they began to live completely unthreatened by others and be able to forgive and love them, that the writer of John’s Gospel refers to as ‘believing in Jesus’.
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.