Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 11:1-45

The Death of Lazarus

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. 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.” 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.” 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.” 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 the Resurrection and the Life

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. But even now 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.”

Jesus Weeps

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she 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.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He 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!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. 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.

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)


Delmer Chilton talked this week about his grandfather’s very sly wit, one that snuck up on you. For example, he used to tell a story about a man who died.  They had the funeral at his home, with the preachers and immediate family on the porch, mourners standing in the yard and an open coffin in the back of a mule-drawn wagon.  After several sermons and much weeping and gnashing of teeth, the widow climbed onto the wagon seat next to the undertaker who drove the wagon up the hill to the family cemetery. The road went underneath the limbs of a very large oak tree and the wagon bumped heavily on an exposed root.  At that moment, the “deceased,” snorted and coughed and sat up in the casket – not dead but alive, having been in a deep coma, apparently.   

Some years later, the man died again.  His funeral played out exactly like the previous one. As the wagon neared the oak tree, the widow leaned over and whispered to the driver, “Why don’t you go wide around the tree this time?”

Funny stories aside, why didn’t Jesus get up and go when he received Mary & Martha’s message? We can say, that Jesus was testing their faith, that Jesus knew Lazarus would come back, that this was meant for the greater good, but we are left at this point in the beginning of the Lazarus story, with pain and heartache.

I imagine you might have asked yourself this question a time or two also. You have found yourself praying for Jesus to show up amid a very hard situation, an illness, or even impending death. You have wondered whether God would come. As we wait for Jesus to appear, we remain faithful by naming the pain and calling for him to show up once more.


Ezekiel is famously called by God to “consult the bones”—actually, to preach to the bones. Notice in this powerful text that the question of the Lord, “Can these bones live?” can only be answered—initially—as, “No!” At least not in their current state. The activating word of the Lord must first assemble the bones, put them in order, add sinews, flesh, and skin, and finally—a healthy dose of breath called from the four corners of the earth! It’s a big job—a God-sized job—to bring life where there has been death.

Of course, Jesus’ miracle of bringing Lazarus forth from the grave after 4 days is a God-sized job, too. In fact, Jesus is very clear that this whole setup is so that the glory and power of God may be known. 

We can only wonder how Lazarus might have felt about the whole thing, but he is called forth without any consultation from Jesus and soon rejoins the family and friends at the table. I wonder who’s the “lucky” person who get’s to sit next to Lazarus.

We are in the season for considering how God brings new life in the midst of death; Paul writes that “…he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11b) As in Ezekiel, the word for spirit is “breath, wind, spirit.” If we are going to live again— as the bones, as Lazarus, as Jesus—it will be by the Spirit that God gives, that same spirit that has been present since the birth of the cosmos. 


Every time I read the story of the raising of Lazarus, I think of Delmer’s Grandpa’s little tale.  In particular, I think about two things: 1) in both stories there was someone (or some ones) who would have preferred that the corpse stay dead, and 2) it always makes me wonder how the deceased felt about coming back to life. Some of the people were not happy that Jesus had brought Lazarus back to life. There is a hint of their discomfort in verse 37, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  Things get really heated in the aftermath–-in the verses following our reading.  There the writer contrasts those who believe with others who “went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.” What follows in verses 47-50 is a scene of cold, political calculation. They cared nothing for the fact that Lazarus had a new lease on life, that he had been restored to the arms of his loving family and friends. No. All they cared about was that a person like Jesus would upset the political and social balance of power, might upset and frighten the Romans and, in the process, threaten the elites own positions of wealth and influence.  So they decided, “Better for him to die than all of us,” and the wheels were set in motion for the death of Christ.

Does Jesus frighten you? More importantly, does the gospel of Jesus Christ threaten to upset your life? If it doesn’t, you haven’t been paying attention–-either to the Gospel or to your life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when Christ calls us, he bids us to come and die.  That is meant both figuratively and, ultimately, literally.  

  • We are called each day to die to selfishness and privilege. 
  • We are called to regularly examine our lives and let go of all the many ways we resist Christ by holding on to our dignity and our precious individuality. 

Christ calls us to drop those things so that our hands will we free to take up our cross of servant-hood. We leave behind our deep concern for self, so that our lives will be free to follow Christ in a life devoted to serving others. If that does not frighten us and threaten our sense of security and our plans for a safe and leisurely retirement–then we have failed to understand the nature of what it means to be a Christian.  If we’re honest, most of us would rather drive the wagon of our life in a wide loop around the “tree” upon which Christ was hanged.

Which leads me to my thought about how the deceased may have felt about being recalled. I don’t know what Lazarus life was like before he took sick and died; but from the fact that Jesus loved him and his sisters grieved him so, and the whole community turned out to mourn with them, he must have been quite a guy, with a pretty good life. So, though we don’t know much about what happens after death, given the fact that Lazarus appears to have been a righteous person and considering all the stories of the tunnel of light and the warm, loving presence who receives you that we’ve all heard–I just imagine Lazarus settling in to eternity quite happily. And then he gets the call, “Lazarus, come out!” and there’s a whoosh, and a movement faster than the speed of light and then, instead of being in warmth and light and love, Lazarus finds himself back in a cold, dark tomb, bound head to foot in burial cloths and about to gag on the stink of his own rotting flesh.  

I think that had that been me, I would not have been happy about it.  And, eventually, he will hear the story about how his good friend Jesus, who loved him, let him die and rot in the grave, so that Jesus could demonstrate his divine Son of God healing skills. After all–isn’t that what Jesus said and did? “What kind of Messiah is that” Lazarus thinks, “who will let you die so he can show off?” How often have we found ourselves wondering what God is doing in our lives?  We love God, we trust God. We love Jesus, we trust Jesus.  But sometimes one has to wonder. 


And the reality is, as it says in Ezekiel, the wind, the breathe of God, the spirit of God, blows where it will when it will, and we are never totally sure when and where that will happen; or where that wind might blow us, and what it might do to us and through us. Just as God used Lazarus to show forth Jesus as the Son of God, full of God’s power and glory and love; God uses us in the same way—and often times we are no more aware of what we’re doing and no more responsible for its success than a corpse in a tomb. God acts in and through us just as God acted in and through Lazarus.

We are invited this day to die and live with Christ. We are called to come out of the dark tomb of our fear and hesitation; we are commanded to unbind ourselves from the limitations imposed by our desire for stability and success. Dying to self and embracing God’s future, we are invited to step out with Jesus and Lazarus and all the saints into the grand adventure that is life after death, an adventure that begins now and continues through the grave into eternity.