5th Sunday of Lent
April 6, 2014
John 11: 1-45
Wartburg Home, Mt. Vernon
In our 1st reading this evening, the prophet Ezekiel (37:12-14) conveys to Israel a message from the Lord God, viz., that he shall raise them up from the grave. Like the prophet Second Isaiah, whom we heard on Wednesday, Ezekiel is speaking, and thru him God is speaking, to a nation in exile, a nation dead and buried as much as we might say today the Assyrians or the Aztecs are. God will open the grave in Babylon and bring Israel back to life, back to their own land, and so revive their nationhood, their corporate identity as Israel—and as his people.
All that is a foreshadowing of a different kind of grave-opening and revival—of individual resurrection. Many Jews had begun to believe in the resurrection of the saints on the last day—Martha testifies to this in her dialog with Jesus (John 11:24).
And Jesus opens the door to this last day, ushers in the final age of human history, ends the old era and its covenant and begins a new era and a new covenant. Some of you are old enuf, I think, to have heard Winston Churchill late in 1942 declare that the successful Allied invasion of North Africa was not the beginning of the end of the war, but it was perhaps the end of the beginning. When Jesus raises Lazarus from the tomb, he signals the end of one period of salvation history, the period of sin and darkness and death. The glory of God is about to be revealed in Jesus’ own resurrection—that is the beginning of the end of Satan’s kingdom: the end of the Dark Lord’s rule (if I may allude to the Harry Potter stories with a term that aptly describes our ancient foe). The resurrection of Jesus is the end of death. It’s the victory of God’s righteousness over our sins. The resuscitation of Lazarus—which isn’t a true, permanent resurrection like Jesus’—foreshadows the personal, individual resurrection of all God’s beloved friends on the last day.
Jesus evidently loved Lazarus and his sisters. St. John says so (11:5), and Jesus’ emotional upset and his tears also testify to that love (11:33-36). He loves us no less than those 3 disciples. At the Last Supper he will tell those gathered around him that they are his friends for whom he’s about to lay down his life (John 15:13-15). As we gather at this table to celebrate his passion, death, and resurrection, and like the apostles to eat his Body and drink his Blood, he covenants with us as his friends, beloved, worth not only his tears but also his life.
The 2 key words in the gospel this evening are life and glory. At the beginning of the Lazarus story, Jesus tells the apostles that his friend’s illness “is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified thru it” (11:4). St. Irenaeus’s most often quoted line may be, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” God created us for life—this natural life, to be sure; but more surely, for eternal life. When Jesus raises Lazarus and orders that he be “set free”—we understand that Jesus sets us free from more serious bonds than a shroud!—he points to God’s being glorified by the resurrection of the saints.
The Son of God will be glorified thru what happens to Lazarus because this last “sign” of Jesus—John’s word for the miracles that Jesus performs, starting at Cana—precipitates the final, deadly plot of the chief priests and elders against him. They decide that he must die to save the nation (11:50): how ironic is that? On the cross Jesus will be revealed as king, savior, redeemer, and Son of God—the one whose lifeblood saves every nation, to the glory of God.
The gospel passage ends, “Many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him” (11:45). We haven’t seen what Jesus has done; we’ve only heard about it. That carries its own blessing, as Jesus will tell Doubting Thomas after the resurrection (John 20:29). We know that the belief of Thomas and of the rest of the Eleven who were witnesses to the crucifixion and resurrection did more than “begin.” They lived out their belief and preached it, and many of them died for it—Thomas in far-off India. We don’t know how many of Mary of Bethany’s Jewish friends went further than a “beginning” of belief, how many deepened that faith, lived it out, and perhaps suffered for it. In that sense, the Lazarus story isn’t quite complete.
And in that sense, the story is addressed to you and me. We’ve certainly begun to believe in Jesus as the Christ, as “the resurrection and the life” (11:25). It remains for us to bring our belief to its fulfillment, to live it out until the last day.
God bless you all!