Propers: The Fifth Sunday in Lent, A.D. 2017 A
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you want to terrify the entire world, raise a man from the dead. That’ll do it.
Death is the limit of all human ambition. It’s the period at the end of our every sentence. We plan our lives looking to the horizon of mortality. We eat what we eat, and work how we work, and take the risks that we take, all in mind of death. The healthcare, the pills, the food labeling, the gym memberships, the career paths, it’s all to keep us upright and breathing. We work hard for a living, so that we don’t end up homeless and broke and hungry and sick and cold—so that we don’t die on the street! The whole rat race is run because we’re born with death nipping at our heels. It is the one sure, strong constant in our lives: death and taxes.
Death is our master; it has enslaved us; it’s all we know! And if we didn’t die—well, if we didn’t die, how we would even know how to be human? What would human even mean?
And so when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, everything we think we know—about our limitations, about our humanity, about life itself—all that dies. And we are terrified not because we stare into an abyss but because we are blinded by the impossible intensity of the Light. Little wonder, then, that raising Lazarus is what gets Jesus killed.
In our Gospel reading this morning, we are coming to the climax of Jesus’ ministry. For three-and-a-half years He has traveled throughout Judea and the Galilee, working wonders, healing the sick, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. And as His reputation and His following have grown, so has the likelihood that He would end up on a Roman cross. You see, the Messiah—the Anointed One, whom God would send to save His people—had been expected for hundreds of years. All the Prophets pointed to Him. All of them promised the return of the King.
One of the prophets, Daniel, had even started a countdown. Religious authorities broadly agreed that Daniel had laid out a clear timeline for the arrival of the Messiah, replete with signs and predictions, all of which pointed to the year 30 A.D. And so, as the year 30 drew near, the whole of Judea was abuzz with messianic expectation. Any day now, they were certain, the Messiah would arrive—the Christ who would free God’s people Israel from servitude to pagan Rome.
The funny thing is that the Romans agreed. Their Sibyls—the seers and prophetesses of ancient Rome—spoke clearly of a coming ruler of the world, a Savior who would arise from Judea, “to whom men must do homage in order to be saved.” And so in the year 30, as we would reckon time, both the Jews and the Romans were feverishly searching for the Christ: the Judeans to follow Him, the Romans to get rid of Him. And they were pretty good at it too.
By the time of Jesus, several wild-eyed rabbis had come claiming to be the Messiah. Generally they gathered a hopeful following out in the desert, or some other convenient kill zone, and once they’d caused enough fuss the Romans would come along to nail them all to crosses. Such was the way of would-be messiahs.
Then along comes Jesus, who seems a pretty good candidate for the Christ. Wonder and terror have followed Him from His earliest days. And around age 30, He is baptized in the River Jordan by His kinsman John, right on time. From that point on stories abound, of miracles and healings, of angels and devils. He confounds the authorities and lifts up the lowly and forgives people their sins—which only God can do. But He is wily and unpredictable, eluding entrapment by those who oppose Him, while often confounding those who would follow Him.
Every time He says something so outrageous that His disciples might well abandon Him, it is accompanied by some astonishing sign affirming that God is with Him—or that God is Him. His reputation grows, as do the ranks of His enemies. But so far He has managed to avoid doing anything that would give Rome or her collaborators the needed excuse to bring the hammer down. Even so, it’s all coming to a head. Everyone knows it. If Jesus keeps this up, He will die.
Now, even in the best years, the Passover is a particularly volatile time in Roman Judea. Religiously observant Jews from the world over gather to celebrate this holiest of days in Jerusalem, the City of David and Temple of Solomon. And as we well know, a Middle Eastern city swollen with pilgrims is ripe for bloody insurrection. But after three years of very public ministry, Jesus makes it clear that this particular Passover is going to be His last here on earth. His Apostles are flummoxed; they know that at this point Jesus riding into Jerusalem would be suicide; the place is a powder keg. To their credit, they go along to die with Him. But first He makes a stop at the house of a friend.
Lazarus and his two sisters own a home in Bethany, two miles east of Jerusalem. It’s basically a wealthy suburb. They are people of significant means; they can afford what few others can. They are also friends and followers of Jesus. Though we don’t know this for certain, it’s quite possible that Lazarus’ sister Mary is in fact Mary Magdalene, meaning that this family probably knew Jesus back home in the Galilee. Whenever Jesus comes to Jerusalem, this is where He stays. The only problem is that this time—this last time—Lazarus is dead.
A sudden illness, it seems: one fast enough that they knew it to be fatal, yet slow enough that they had time to send for Jesus. He does not make it. By the time He arrives with His disciples, Lazarus has been dead in the tomb for four long days; in the Mediterranean heat, putrefaction has set in with a vengeance. The whole town, it seems, has come out for the funeral, not just from Bethany but many from Jerusalem as well. Lazarus was a well-beloved member of his community. And Jesus weeps, and Jesus mourns, and Jesus tells them to trust in the Resurrection. And then Jesus tells Lazarus to get up.
This is not the first time that Jesus has raised someone from the dead. There are other accounts in the Gospels. But never before has Jesus raised someone this dead—someone really most sincerely dead—so that there can be no mistake; this is not some last-minute healing or sudden resuscitation. Lazarus was dead and rotten. This is also the first time that Jesus has done something like this so publically, worked such an astonishing wonder openly before a crowd of scores or hundreds. Multiplying loaves, casting out demons, is all well and good. But openly raising the dead? My God. Who is He, who can bring a man back from the dead?
The same Voice that called light into being and stayed Abraham’s hand, the same Voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush and pronounced the Ten Commandments to Israel, this same Voice now calls out to the dead—to a corpse!—“Come forth!” And the dead man gets up. Because it doesn’t matter where you are—another planet, another century, another universe away, even down into the depths of hell itself—when Jesus calls, you get up. Ain’t no grave can hold you down.
And that tears it. That’s the end of all things. If He can defy death, He can defy anything, everything! Gods and devils and heavens and hells all cower before the One who can tear us from their talons with but a Word. Death is dead! Nothing could be more wonderful! Nothing could be more terrifying. We’ll have to kill Him now. We don’t know any other way to live.
Next week is Palm Sunday. Holy Week. If you’ve ever wondered why all of Jerusalem was in such an uproar upon seeing Jesus ride in to Jerusalem on a donkey, shouting hosanna, laying palm branches before Him, well, now you know. We had just seen Him pull Lazarus up from the dead. And the sad news, brothers and sisters, is that we are going to react this bone-shaking miracle as we would to anything terrifying and new: we’re doing to throw death at it. Because death is the strongest and the surest thing that we have ever known.
The Good News is that it’ll barely slow Him down.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.