Hope and Tombs and Dry Bones

SERMON: April 2, 2017

John 11:1-45 (The Message)

11 1-3 A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”

When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”

5-7 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed on where he was for two more days. After the two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.”

They said, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The Jews are out to kill you, and you’re going back?”

9-10 Jesus replied, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in daylight doesn’t stumble because there’s plenty of light from the sun. Walking at night, he might very well stumble because he can’t see where he’s going.”

11 He said these things, and then announced, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.”

12-13 The disciples said, “Master, if he’s gone to sleep, he’ll get a good rest and wake up feeling fine.” Jesus was talking about death, while his disciples thought he was talking about taking a nap.

14-15 Then Jesus became explicit: “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.”

16 That’s when Thomas, the one called the Twin, said to his companions, “Come along. We might as well die with him.”

17-20 When Jesus finally got there, he found Lazarus already four days dead. Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of the Jews were visiting Martha and Mary, sympathizing with them over their brother. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him. Mary remained in the house.

21-22 Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.”

23 Jesus said, “Your brother will be raised up.”

24 Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.” Jesus said, You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Master.” Martha said, “All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.”

28 After saying this, she went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.”

29-32 The moment she heard that, she jumped up and ran out to him. Jesus had not yet entered the town but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When her sympathizing Jewish friends saw Mary run off, they followed her, thinking she was on her way to the tomb to weep there. Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33-34 When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, was deeply moved. He said, “Where did you put him?”

34-35 “Master, come and see,” they said. Now Jesus wept.

36 The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”

37 Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.”

38-39 Then Jesus, still moved, arrived at the tomb. It was a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

The sister of the dead man, Martha, said, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days!”

40 Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

41-42 Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.”

They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken so that they might believe that you sent me.”

43-44 Then he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face.

Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.”


A few years ago, my daughter Ashley lived in Washington, DC. I enjoyed visiting her there, but never quite managed to time the trip so that I could see the famous cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin at their peak. But one year I made sure the timing was as right as the weatherman could predict. I lived in Western Michigan at the time and as you can imagine, winter there always seems to drag on and on. So I was really counting the days until I could experience spring in Washington, DC.

As luck would have it, for the first three days of my trip the weather was awful! It was cold, raining, and altogether miserable. Jonquils and hyacinth – and yes – cherry trees were in bloom, but in contrast to the chilly, wind-driven rain, they seemed kind of corny and fake. It looked as if someone had come along and stuck plastic flowers in the cold mud.

But Sunday was a different story. The rain stopped and the temperature rose significantly. As a matter of fact, the temperature that day broke records at 84 degrees! All of a sudden, those tacky plastic flowers became altogether real and natural. Just as I was beginning to think winter was following me everywhere I went, it was suddenly Spring!

Even though spring is usually beautiful in East Tennessee, the journey we take through Lent can seem like a cold, dark trudge. We begin to get weary and footsore on our walk to Easter Sunday. Easter lilies now would seem out of place, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t tired of Lent. John’s gospel asks us to pause on our journey and hear the story of Lazarus and his sisters as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on a cross; as if we are accompanying Jesus as he previews his own dark days to come.

Lazarus dies, is buried, then recalled by Jesus from death to life. Yet we know the focus is not so much on Lazarus himself as it is an illustration of what will happen to Jesus. This is Jesus’s last miracle, an act that seals the inevitability of his crucifixion, the final push propelling Israel’s religious leaders to plot his death. By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus knowingly pulls the trigger on his own crucifixion.

Earlier, Jesus and his disciples fled from Jerusalem. There, temple leaders confronted Jesus about his claims of divinity, while already clutching rocks in order to stone him. However, this is not the death Jesus must die, and so he goes back across the Jordan River, away from their threats.

While he is there, word comes to Jesus that Lazarus, one of his dearest friends, is mortally ill. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, send for Jesus, believing he can heal their brother. Yet Jesus stays where he is; knowing God wants more from him this time. Not a miraculous healing, rather the wonderfully impossible task of raising Lazarus from the dead.

Imagine Jesus’ anguish and frustration at allowing his best friend to die, knowing he could prevent it. What must Mary and Martha be thinking when the days go by with no sign of Jesus?  In the long sleepless nights, did Jesus call on God to spare him this cup as well? Certainly, the human side of Jesus experiences both grief and anger.

After two days, Jesus tells the disciples he must return to Jerusalem – or rather to Bethany, a short walk from the city. Naturally, the disciples are astonished! Jesus wants to go back to where he was nearly stoned to death in order to wake up his friend who has fallen sleep. It takes Jesus a few tries to get his followers to understand. Finally, Thomas shrugs in resignation, convinced the temple authorities will not stop at killing Jesus; they will stone the disciples, as well.

You may have noticed that all the scripture readings for today begin in desert places of dry bones, dark caves and the depths of death and despair. Psalm 130, which we used for the Call to Worship begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice.” Ezekiel surveys the dry desert bones of Israel. God calls him to “prophesy to these bones” so they live and know God’s mighty power. Ezekiel prophesies and the dead bones are fleshed, and stand up on their feet, breathing and alive. Jesus calls out to Lazarus, whose dead body rises to its feet, breathing and alive.

But first, Jesus stands on the outskirts of Jerusalem, waiting. He waits for Martha, the quiet doer, the steady one, the one who dutifully goes on, even in the depths of despair. Within Martha there is a deep faith, a conviction Jesus is Lord.

Jesus also waits for Mary, the passionate one, who demonstrates her faith with extravagant gestures, the one whose emotions are bigger than life. No one is ever left in doubt about Mary’s feelings.

Dutiful Martha approaches Jesus alone; Mary is at home prostrate with grief. Jesus simply waits for her to speak. Finally, Mary bursts out, “Lord, if you had been there, my brother would not have died.” A deep breath. Then a whisper,” but I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus answers, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha nods in resignation. “Yes, I know he will rise again at the last day.” Perhaps Jesus takes step forward, and places his hands gently on Martha’s shoulders. “You misunderstand me, Martha,” he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Your brother will live – today! Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

Martha’s conviction rises up and becomes pure faith. “Yes, Lord,” I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

When told of Jesus’ arrival, Mary runs to fling herself at his feet. “Lord, if you had only been here my brother would not have died!” Mary throws her anguish, confusion and anger at the feet of Jesus because that is the very place it belongs. Jesus is overwhelmed with emotion.  He weeps aloud, and John reveals the heart of God: “Jesus wept.”

The stone is rolled from the tomb. Jesus prays aloud, then shouts: “Lazarus! Come out!”

Lazarus stumbles out, still bound in burial cloths, his face covered by a piece of linen. The onlookers are stunned. “What are you waiting for,” Jesus tells them, “go unbind him and set him free.”

At times, we all find ourselves in dark tombs of our own making. Tombs filled with dry bones, in the depths of despair, unable to move on. Hope is what happens to somebody else, and we certain there is no spring under those fake flowers – only more cold and dreadful winter. We are stuck on the road to Easter.

We might be like Martha, who wants to believe, but can’t emerge from her own tomb until she is willing to declare Jesus is the Christ, sent by God to be Emmanuel. Or like Mary, we might be entombed in anger and resentment. How are we to experience resurrection in our lives when we can’t leave those things behind? Some may hesitate in the tomb’s entrance, still holding on to what binds us.

Jesus stands before the gaping hole of our burial place. He is God’s listening presence as we cry out in despair. We are welcome to throw our anger, grief and disbelief at Jesus’ feet, where they belong. Jesus calls us out into the light of God where he is waiting to receive us, no matter what kind of shape we’re in.

In these final days of Lent, let’s free ourselves from the tombs of sin, shame, injustice, privilege, and narrow stagnant beliefs. Then we will see the hope and joy of Easter; the promise fulfilled. The certain knowledge we will one day rise with Jesus.

God tells us, “You shall know I am the Lord when I… bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.”