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“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Just about everyone has prayed this prayer, in some form or another. God, where were you when my daughter was arrested? When the one I trusted betrayed me? When I got the diagnosis? When I lost my job? When my son, grandson, wife, mother died?
In the midst of life there is death. Sometimes, many times a day, as described in a chilling song from the Sondheim show, “A Little Night Music.”
Every day a little death
In the parlor, in the bed
In the curtains, in the silver,
In the buttons, in the bread.
Every day a little sting
In the heart and in the head,
Every move and every breath
And you hardly feel a thing
Brings a perfect little death…
In the midst of life, there is death—and at times, the only thing we can do, like Mary, is to cry out into what feels like the void where God lives, our song of lament:
Lord, if only you had been here…
We are just about at the midpoint of John’s tightly structured gospel, and we have come to the last and greatest of seven signs, all designed to reveal to us the truth about Jesus. We’ve heard about most of these signs in our Sunday gospel lessons, though one of them fell between our passages.
The first sign: turning water to wine at the Cana wedding.
The second sign: healing the child of the royal official, who came all the way from Capernaum.
The third sign: healing the paralyzed man by the Bethesda pool.
The fourth sign, the one Jeff preached about while filling the sanctuary with the aroma of freshly baked bread: the feeding of five thousand people.
The fifth sign—the one between the passages, one we did not hear about: Jesus walking on water.
The sixth sign—one I’d planned to preach on last Sunday, a casualty of my knee surgery: the restoring of the sight of the man born blind.
And today. The seventh sign. Numbers are incredibly important in scripture, and seven is the number of perfection, of wholeness. This sign perfectly shows who Jesus is: he is the giver of new life. In his own words, “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” (John 11:25-26).
“I AM.” This passage, in addition to showing us the culmination of the seven signs, also gives us an opportunity to talk about another feature unique to John’s gospel: the famous “I AM statements.” Whereas Jesus in the other three gospels is hesitant, even cagey when it comes to either confirming or denying his identity, in John he speaks openly (if poetically) with statements like:
I AM the bread of life (John 6:35, 48)
I AM the light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5)
I AM the gate (John 10:9)
I AM the good shepherd (John 10:11)
And the one that may be the most stunning of all, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58)
Those who heard Jesus say these things would have had no problem identifying the exact thing in the Hebrew Scriptures he was referencing; they would have had a big problem, an enormous problem, maybe even an insurmountable problem with the implications of what he was saying. To say “Before Abraham was, I AM” is for Jesus to identify himself as being one with God, whose name in Hebrew, a name so holy Jews to this day decline to say it aloud, means, “I AM WHO AM,” or “I AM WHO I AM,” or “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.” It is no exaggeration that these “I AM” statements forms the foundation of Christian claims about the identity of Jesus, our confidence that he is the visible incarnation of God among us. In Jesus, we claim, we find one who is both fully human and fully divine.
And now Jesus says, “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?
In the midst of life, there is death.
When we think of Jesus as ‘the resurrection and the life,’ we can’t help thinking about his resurrection, how God did not allow death to be the final word of this beloved son, how on the third day he was raised again, according to the scriptures. But—have you ever noticed this?—in each and every gospel, there are other resurrections, somewhere in the middle. My friend Rev. Miller Hoffman pointed this out, and now I can’t stop seeing it. Many scholars think the stories of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain are resurrection stories that have been reworked and plopped down in the middle of the gospels. And we’ve read the other more obvious ones: Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels; Jesus raising the son of the widow at Nain, in Luke; Jesus raising the daughter of the synagogue leader in Matthew. Every gospel has a least one resurrection in the middle, and here we have John’s. My friend Miller says, “This is Lazarus raised a couple weeks before Easter to remind us that resurrection is more common than we think.”
Resurrection is more common than we think.
For those of us reading this story some two-thousand years later, it’s critical that we get beyond the specifics and the logistics of Jesus reanimating a corpse and recognize the profound truth that Martha preaches right in the middle of her devastating experience of loss. While Lazarus is still stone-cold-dead and decaying in the tomb, Martha affirms God’s loving intention towards her, and him, and all of us. “Yes Lord, I believe,” she says, with no evidence, as yet, that her bizarre, unspoken request might actually be answered. When it comes right down to it, she doesn’t want Jesus to open the tomb after all… In the King James Version, her warning is, “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days” (John 11:39). The demand for life seems like an outlandish one, a request that can’t possibly hold up to the smelly reality.
This is the part of the story that is ours. This is is for us. Both sisters speak with our voices, and whether we are Martha—wavering in our confidence in the goodness of God even in the face of our own pain—or like Mary—moaning in her grief—we are represented here. Our anguish is heard, and lifted up. Our prayers rise up to God like incense, whether they are words we can formulate or sighs too deep for words. Jesus hears the words and the sighs. Jesus not only hears, he weeps right along with us, he is disturbed in spirit, which means he is angry, at the old losses and the new, the wounds that have scarred over and the ones still bright with blood. And if Jesus hears, God hears.
Jesus gives us signs as to who he is, and who God is.
In the Cana wedding wine, Jesus shows us a God who showers us with delicious abundance.
In the healing of the gentile royal official’s son, Jesus shows us a God who breaks down barriers of ethnicity.
In the Sabbath-day healing of the paralytic at Bethesda pool, Jesus shows us a God who is not bound by our ideas of who or what is appropriately devout.
In the feeding of the hungry crowd, Jesus shows us a God who offers his very life to nourish us and give us strength.
In his water-walk, Jesus shows us a God who refuses to remain hidden behind the veil separating earth and heaven, but who joins us here and now.
In the healing of the blind man, Jesus shows us a God who destroys once and for all the notion that our pain is somehow earned and deserved; who rejects any causal connection between sin and suffering.
And today. In the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Jesus shows us a God who weeps when we are weeping, and who is the bringer of life in the midst of death.
Every day a little death, or a big one. Somewhere today a family is reeling because their son was killed in an accident involving a drunk driver. Somewhere else, a family is homeless because of a fire. Somewhere else, troops are marching on a town and people are hunkered down in terror. Somewhere today, thousands upon thousands—hundreds of thousands—of people are barely surviving in refugee camps. Somewhere today someone’s heart has broken because of an unkind word.
In the midst of life there is death. But God hears the prayers of each and every one who suffers, whether they are howls of anguish or silent whimpers. “I AM the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says, and promises that in the midst of death, God will bring life.
God hears. God weeps. But there is resurrection in the middle of the story, even before the glorious promised ending. God hears, and God weeps, and God will bring life. May it be so, and thanks be to God. Amen.