Look for the Life-Giver

“Look for the Life-Giver” (Fifth in the “Looking for Love in all the Right Places” series)
March 29, 2020
Denbigh United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Deborah Dail

John 11:1-45

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.”

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.” 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?” 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.”

Sermon

I wonder what Lazarus did with the rest of his life. I wonder what dead-in-the-tomb, raised-from-the-dead Lazarus did with the rest of his life. More importantly, I wonder what we will do with the rest of our lives.

Writer Michael Lindvall says: “When each of us awakens each morning, we are like Lazarus, given the gift of yet more life.” We are invited to ask ourselves each day when we wake up: “How will I spend the precious life I’ve been given as a gift from God?” (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year A, Volume 2; Fifth Sunday in Lent, Michael L. Lindvall, p. 108)

 

During this time of global pandemic, we are reminded daily of our mortality. We watch and read news reports of infection rates and death tolls around the globe and across the Peninsula where our church is located. It is sobering, of course. But it can also help us focus more clearly on the gift of life we are given each new day and how we will use that gift for God’s glory.

Jesus said: “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.” The Apostle Paul says in Romans: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord: so then, whether, we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8)

As I consider our Bible lesson today from John 11, I learn a lot about living and dying from Jesus and the others in this story.

I learn some things about friendship and its importance in life. Clearly, Jesus shared a close friendship with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. I think they were probably “refrigerator friends” – a term we use today to say you’re the kind of friend who can come to my house and help yourself to something from the refrigerator without asking. You know where the glasses are in the cupboard. When our children were younger, we had one neighbor boy named Vincent who would come to our house. Sometimes I didn’t even though he was there. He would call out to me: “Mrs. Dail, it’s time for chocolate milk. By the time I came to the kitchen, Vincent had gotten the milk and the chocolate syrup from the refrigerator and might be perched on the counter getting a glass. Vincent was definitely a refrigerator friend!

Mary and Martha, these “refrigerator friends of Jesus,” call for him to come when their brother Lazarus gets sick. It might have been the kind of call we hate to make and hate to receive – the one where you say or hear: “I think it’s time for you to come if you want to see Lazarus . . . your mom, your dad, your friend, your child your husband, your wife . . . before he goes . . . before she goes.” Of course, Mary and Martha also had hope that Jesus would heal his beloved friend, their beloved brother.

Jesus did come. He came at great personal risk because he was increasingly unpopular among those who wanted him gone, and his life was already being threatened. But he came anyway.

Jesus gets close to Bethany, but he’s too late. Lazarus had died days earlier. The funeral was planned. The obituary was written. The visitation at the funeral home had taken place, with grieving guests comforting Mary and Martha. Lazarus was in the tomb. He was in the grave. He was dead.

Jesus’ reaction upon his arrival is one that is confusing. It is a time when we see the mysterious truth that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Upon learning of Lazarus’s death, Jesus proclaims “Your brother will rise again.” Martha assumes this will be on the last day – a far-in-the-future resurrection that many Jews believed in. But Jesus makes it very personal saying: “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?” Martha’s answer is this: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Even so, when Jesus came face to face with Mary who was openly grieving and others who were crying, he was also moved to tears. Jesus grieved, too. The fully human Jesus, close friend to Lazarus, looked at the tomb of death and wept, prompting some on-lookers to say: “See how he loved him.”

As I have grieved the death of several of my closest friends in recent years, I’ve found connection with Jesus – a man who also grieved the death of people he loved. I have felt him weeping with me.

Jesus commands that the stone in front of the tomb holding Lazarus be moved away even though he is warned that the stench of death will overwhelm him. Jesus pauses to pray. Then, he shouts to the tomb of death and the one in it: “Lazarus, come out!”

Miraculously, Lazarus, still bound up in the grave clothes, emerges from the tomb, raised to newness of life. “Unbind him,” Jesus says, and “let him go.” Can you imagine the celebration that day?

So, I return to my original questions: I wonder what Lazarus did with the rest of his life. Unbound. Set free. Given a new life. What did he do with the rest of his life?

Did he tell the story of being raised from the dead by his friend Jesus to everyone who would listen? Did he live differently . . . with greater hope, greater purpose, greater joy, greater love? I wonder if he complained less and celebrated more. I wonder if he greeted each new day with gratitude and a longing to serve Jesus and to serve others. I wonder if he remained unbound from the things that tend to bind us in this life – fear, pride, prejudice, despair, refusal to offer or receive forgiveness.

I wonder what Lazarus did with the rest of his life. And I wonder what we will do with the rest of ours. But you’re probably saying, I’m not like Lazarus. I haven’t died and been raised by Jesus. What does any of this have to do with me?

Friends, if we have accepted Christ, we have been raised to newness of life. When we believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, we are given new life in him. “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation.” We are raised from the tomb of death, we are unbound and set free from the bondage of sin, we are set free to live, love, and serve the one who raises us up. This good news is for right now and it is for all of eternity.

Some of you may recall a hymn we sing at baptisms called “Baptized in Water”. “Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, dead in the tomb with Christ our King; one with his rising, freed and forgiven, thankfully now God’s praises we sing.”

“When each of us awakens each morning, we are like Lazarus, given the gift of yet more life.” We are invited to ask ourselves each day when we wake up: “How will I spend the precious life I’ve been given as a gift from God?”

I have shared with the Denbigh United Congregation before my experience of being with my friend Bonita in the days leading up to her death. Bonita and I met in high school and remained friends until her death two years ago. In the week leading up to her death, about five of us stayed with her in the hospital day and night. There was a lot of laughter and there was a lot of pain. It was excruciating and it was beautiful. On New Year’s Eve, Bonita wanted to have a little party in her room. She and I had already written her obituary. We had planned her funeral and the reception afterward, down to all her favorite foods, the color of the tablecloths, and the types of lanterns she wanted on the tables. (Bonita was an interior designer by profession and had a long career as an executive for IKEA International). She had gotten all her affairs in order. It was time for a little party.

From her hospital window we watched New Year’s Eve fireworks as Bonita delighted in each burst of exquisite color. Bonita commented on the little, brightly lighted Christmas tree and the other twinkly lights other friends had put around the room and found them wonderful. We all had the little plastic cups of juice with tin covers from the hospital refrigerator for our soon-to-come toasts. We laughed, talked, reminisced, and cried. At midnight we toasted with our juice cups. Bonita said this: “This has been the best day of my life.”

Despite Bonita’s impending death, she lived with others in mind, she laughed and she cried, she discovered humor and joy in unlikely times and places, she clung to her friends, and she held firm to her faith in Jesus – the resurrection and the life. She knew that whether she lived, or she died she was the Lord’s. She knew the joy of new life and she anticipated with joy her eternal life. Even as she lay dying, she could truly say: “This has been the best day of my life.”

How will you and I choose to live the life we’ve been given through Christ? Will we let others know Jesus has raised us from the dead? Will we let others know Jesus has set us free? Will we live each day as those who are alive in Christ? Will we serve as he served us? Will we sacrifice for others as he sacrificed for us? Will we love as he has loved us? Will we forgive as he has forgiven us? Will we live as grateful people aware that all that we have, all that we are, all that we hope to be is not of our doing but of Christ’s doing?

Often, I hear people resentful of others who seem to get something for nothing. “I’ve worked hard for everything I have. They haven’t,” I hear people say. Friends, is this really how we want to live our lives – angry, jealous, boastful of our hard work, resentful of others we perceive to have done less or to be less than us? Is that good use of our “Lazarus time” – our new life? Maybe, just maybe, a better use of our time is to live in humble gratitude to God. Not one of us can do anything – even take a breath, speak a work, work a job, anything – without God. We are absolutely and utterly dependent upon God for everything. And when it comes to our new life in Christ, we know that we are all undeserving . . . for by grace we have been saved through faith, lest anyone should boast.” When we live as humble and grateful people, we too can discover many more “best days of our lives.”

How will you and I choose to live the life we’ve been given through Christ? How will we truly embrace the new life that only Christ can give us? How will we choose to live the life we’ve been given today and every day?