John 11: 1-53
Almost feels like I
was in another world last week. I suppose in some ways, I was [Dan
had spent 10 days in Israel].
passage for this Sunday comes from the 11th chapter of the gospel of
John. It is a rather long story, a familiar story I think, so
rather than read the entire story, I'd like to summarize parts of it,
focus on some key verses, invite you to follow along in your own Bible
or in the Pew Bibles:
Now a certain
man was ill,
village of Mary
and her sister
was the one who
wiped his feet
with her hair;
Lazarus was ill.
3So the sisters
sent a message
to Jesus, ‘Lord,
he whom you love
is ill.’ 4But
when Jesus heard
it, he said,
does not lead to
death; rather it
is for God’s
glory, so that
the Son of God
may be glorified
loved Martha and
her sister and
that Lazarus was
ill, he stayed
two days longer
in the place
where he was.
7 Then after
this he said to
‘Let us go to
said to him,
‘Rabbi, the Jews
were just now
trying to stone
you, and are you
there not twelve
who walk during
the day do not
they see the
light of this
those who walk
the light is not
this, he told
asleep, but I am
going there to
said to him,
‘Lord, if he has
he will be all
about his death,
but they thought
that he was
to sleep. 14Then
Jesus told them
dead. 15For your
sake I am glad I
was not there,
so that you may
believe. But let
us go to him.’
was called the
Twin, said to
‘Let us also go,
that we may die
17 When Jesus
already been in
the tomb for
four days. 18Now
Bethany was near
two miles away,
19and many of
the Jews had
come to Martha
and Mary to
that Jesus was
coming, she went
and met him,
stayed at home.
21Martha said to
Jesus, ‘Lord, if
you had been
here, my brother
would not have
died. 22But even
now I know that
God will give
you whatever you
ask of him.’
23Jesus said to
24Martha said to
him, ‘I know
that he will
rise again in
on the last
said to her, ‘I
the life. Those
who believe in
me, even though
they die, will
believes in me
will never die.
Do you believe
said to him,
‘Yes, Lord, I
believe that you
are the Messiah,
the Son of God,
the one coming
into the world.’
28 When she had
said this, she
went back and
sister Mary, and
Teacher is here
and is calling
for you.’ 29And
when she heard
it, she got up
quickly and went
to him. 30Now
Jesus had not
yet come to the
village, but was
still at the
Martha had met
him. 31The Jews
who were with
her in the
her, saw Mary
get up quickly
and go out. They
thought that she
was going to the
tomb to weep
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
Jesus saw her
weeping, and the
Jews who came
with her also
weeping, he was
‘Where have you
laid him?’ They
said to him,
‘Lord, come and
began to weep.
36So the Jews
said, ‘See how
he loved him!’
37But some of
‘Could not he
who opened the
eyes of the
blind man have
kept this man
38 Then Jesus,
to the tomb. It
was a cave, and
a stone was
said, ‘Take away
sister of the
dead man, said
to him, ‘Lord,
already there is
a stench because
he has been dead
for four days.’
40Jesus said to
her, ‘Did I not
tell you that if
you would see
the glory of
God?’ 41So they
took away the
stone. And Jesus
‘Father, I thank
you for having
heard me. 42I
knew that you
always hear me,
but I have said
this for the
sake of the
here, so that
they may believe
that you sent
me.’ 43When he
had said this,
he cried with a
out!’ 44The dead
man came out,
his hands and
feet bound with
strips of cloth,
and his face
wrapped in a
said to them,
‘Unbind him, and
let him go.’
45 Many of the
who had come
with Mary and
had seen what
believed in him.
46But some of
them went to the
told them what
he had done.
47So the chief
priests and the
a meeting of the
said, ‘What are
we to do? This
signs. 48If we
let him go on
believe in him,
and the Romans
will come and
destroy both our
and our nation.’
49But one of
who was high
year, said to
them, ‘You know
nothing at all!
50You do not
it is better for
you to have one
man die for the
people than to
have the whole
did not say this
on his own, but
priest that year
that Jesus was
about to die for
52and not for
the nation only,
but to gather
into one the
children of God.
from that day on
they planned to
put him to
The story concerns some good friends of
Jesus that appear frequently in the gospels at various points, Mary &
Martha, we hear about them often. And their brother Lazarus.
The three of them lived in the town of Bethany, which is just outside of
Jerusalem. Jesus has received word that Lazarus has grown ill.
So they requested that He come to heal him.
But Jesus decides to linger, to wait a
few days. He's in no rush, and even says something to the effect
that he's going to wait until Lazarus dies so that He can reveal the
true glory of God.
When he finally decides the time has
come, he says Lazarus has fallen asleep, and his disciples -- as is
classic in the gospels -- don't understand, they misunderstand Jesus.
He's fallen asleep, what's the rush? And Jesus says 'No, he has
died. So we must go to Judea'. The disciples resist going to
Judea, where Jerusalem is, because they know that Jesus' life will be in
danger. When Jesus convinces them to go, one of them says
'Alright, let's go and die with him', you know, this courageous view
that is short lived.
And so we see from the very beginning
there is a shadow of death that hangs over this entire story. When
Jesus arrives at Bethany, Martha comes out and meets him, and says 'Oh,
Jesus, if you had only gotten here earlier, then maybe you could have
done something'. Jesus responds with a very famous verse, verse
25: "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
says 'Yes, I believe, I believe you're the Messiah', though as we see
later in the story, she doesn't quite understand what that means.
And so she goes and summons Mary, and
Mary comes out to greet Jesus. And with Mary comes all of the
mourners, all of her friends and supporters, the 'wailers' who share in
her grief in a very traditional way of wailing to support Mary in this
time of grieving.
And when Jesus hears the wailing, and
he sees the grief of Mary, then we are told: "He was greatly
disturbed in spirit and deeply moved". He said 'Where have you
laid them?'. They said 'Lord, come and see'. And then the
most famous verse in scripture that everyone likes to memorize to show
that they can memorize a verse of scripture: "Jesus wept"
And the people respond: 'See how Jesus loved him'.
And then we are told once again that
Jesus is 'greatly disturbed' when he comes to the tomb. There's a
stone there, and he tells them to take it away, and they protest 'Lord,
the stench will be overwhelming', he's been dead now for 4 days.
The 4 days is significant, not just because of the stench, but because
the belief was that the spirit remained with the body for 3 days.
So after 4 days, you know, he's no longer 'partly dead', he is now
'wholly dead'. There's no hope for him.
Jesus insists, they remove the stone,
he gives a prayer of thanksgiving to God, and he commands Lazarus to
come out. Lazarus does. Jesus tells them to unbind him from
the cloths in which the dead are buried. And then many of those
who witnessed this believe, some, though, report him to the religious
authorities. The religious authorities begin to plot the death of
Jesus in response -- they can't tolerate this kind of behavior, it will
cause unrest, the Romans will come in and destroy us all, so better than
1 man shall die than the whole nation. So once again we come back
to this theme of death -- to death, to life, and then back to death
again in the text.
Here's the question I invite you to
ponder for this morning: we are told that Jesus intentionally
delays going to help his friend Lazarus. Waits for him to die
before he goes. So why, then, does Jesus become greatly disturbed
in spirit when he's confronted with the grief of Mary and Martha?
Why does he weep, when he knows that he will raise Lazarus from the
The New Interpreters Bible says these
versus are among the most difficult to understand in then gospel.
Commentators have struggled to interpret the words about Jesus' emotions
ever since they were written. All kinds of explanations have been
made about what causes Jesus to weep and be disturbed.
I want to suggest to you this morning a
way of understanding this text and the emotions of Jesus based not so
much on what John wrote about Jesus' emotions nearly 2,000 years ago,
but what we see happening in the homeland of Jesus and Lazarus today.
It is surely one of the greatest
ironies of history and religion that precisely there where the three
great mono-theistic religions converge -- Islam, Judaism, and
Christianity -- we see a constant state of disturbance of the spirit.
Most recently manifested in the massacre of the 8 Jewish students at the
yeshiva, which is a religious school in Jerusalem. Having just
returned from Jerusalem -- you can see me here at the end of a line of
15 clergy from around the United States who are part of this trip --
returned just 2 days prior to that massacre, and after the outbreak of
violence in Gaza.
I want to share with you three other
disturbances of the spirit that I witnessed and experienced while there.
One of the most frequented sites in
Jerusalem is the newest, perhaps the hardest to see. Yad Vashem,
the memorial to the holocaust.
It is an enormously powerful experience
to walk through this monument to the 6,000,000 Jews who perished under
Hitler's final solution. If you had an entire day there to spend
(we didn't, we had all of 2 hours), you could not begin to take in all
of the stories that are told of individual lives. Stories of
tragedy and heroism in that well laid-out journey through humanities
greatest horror, committed against our fellow human beings.
But by far the most powerful experience
for our group was found in a separate exhibit that takes but a few
minutes to experience. The children's memorial:
A candle-lit cavern of mirrors in which
the names of one and half million children are read in a continuous
loop, in a very solemn tone, as you pass through. More than one in
our group was visibly shaken by that experience, moved to the point of
tears as we came out on the other side. Not because of that sense
of the loss of innocence, but that overwhelming sense of the loss of the
innocent. So many lives. So many children. Can
any of us fathom the pain and agony of a parent, of a single parent,
unable to protect their children from such wholesale slaughter, let
alone millions of parents?
To understand modern Israel, and its
reason for existence, and its need for security, you need only to visit
Yad Vashem and the children's memorial.
The second disturbance of the spirit in
our group touring the holy land occurred after those Qassam rockets fell
on citizens of Ashkelon, resulting in the death of one person. And
what is particularly significant in that event is that this is the first
time that the militants in Gaza have been able to reach deeper into the
territory of Israel. Ashkelon, 20 kilometers away from the Gaza
Strip, has no protection -- they have not built bomb shelters as the
communities closer to Gaza have to protect themselves. They are
very vulnerable to these attacks.
And then the response, the
counter-offensive, launched by the Israeli Defense Forces while we
there, resulting in over 120 Palestinian deaths, nearly half of those
were innocent civilians. Collateral damage, folks just in the
wrong place at the wrong time.
It was not the newspapers which brought
the reality of this new, violent confrontation home to our group, but
our return to the old city, where we had just been two days prior, where
I took this picture of children playing in the street:
Blissfully unaware of the troubles yet
to come. And what we found, then, when we returned later was not
an ancient city full of tourists and shoppers, but a nervous city full
Hundreds of young men and women
carrying loaded packs and machine guns. What was striking and
disturbing to us was not just the sudden appearance of so many soldiers,
but their age. Young kids mostly, 18 or 19 years of age, casually
chatting with one another with their weapons at their side:
As if hundreds of well-armed soldiers
in the holy city amidst tourists and shoppers was perfectly normal:
And maybe in this troubled land, it is.
The locals hardly seemed to notice. But we did. And we were
very disturbed, as much by its apparent normalcy as we were by our own 'dis-ease'
to be found in their midst.
The third disturbance was wholly my
own, though I think some others in the group shared it to some degree.
I find it emotional just talking about it.
I lived for 3 years in a divided city,
Berlin. Many of you know that's where I met the love of my life,
pictured here gazing at a section of the wall from Berlin:
We found this at, of all places, in the
center at Chapman University when we went to take our daughter down to
school last Fall. They have this monument there to the collapse of
the Berlin Wall. It's in a very beautiful setting, but the wall
was anything but beautiful, I assure you. Very ugly, very
disturbing. And very much hated, despised, by people on both sides
in that city and throughout Germany.
When we came back from Berlin in 1981,
we thought we'd never live to see the day that the wall would come down.
And of course, the unthinkable happened. Through a grass-root
revolt of East German citizens after glasnost and the period of openness
from the Soviets -- a revolt, by the way, led to a large degree by
Christian pacifists in East Germany -- overwhelmed the wall when they
discovered the guards were not going to shoot and kill them. And
hence the celebration that began in 1989 and led to the unification of
When I had the chance to revisit, to go
back to Berlin in 2003, to walk through that area that had previously
been forbidden, where no one could walk except those East German
soldiers, I as a foreigner who was only a short term resident of that
city, had tears running down my cheek. I can only imagine how that
felt for the Berliners, for the people of that city and nation.
Walking through the wall that separates
Bethlehem from Jerusalem brought back all of those emotions that I
associate with the Berlin wall.
Even though I know that this wall was
constructed for a different purpose. "Good fences make for good
neighbors", we were told repeatedly by those on the Israeli side.
The security barrier -- and by the way, 97% of it is not a wall at all,
but just a fence -- is necessary to end the terrorist actions, the
suicide bombings, and undoubtedly has saved hundreds if not thousands of
lives since its construction.
But even as that may be, the reality
for the neighbors on the other side, is that they are increasingly angry
and bitter as the hardships caused by that wall mount day after day:
And even though the type of terrorist
attack that we saw this week in Jerusalem has been dramatically reduced
in the short-run by the wall and the fence, I fear that the devastation
caused in the long run will ultimately be much worse.
These are the disturbances of the
spirit that I and others in our tour experienced as we traveled through
the holy land. And the biggest impression I took away from that
experience was perhaps that for all its wonder, its beauty, its
incredible history and awe, the holy land is such a conflicted land.
Where can one find hope?
As you leave Yad Vashem you see this
verse of scripture:
Pay attention, you should recognize it:
"I will put my breath into you, and you shall live again, and I will set
you upon your own soil" -- from the lectionary text (I didn't select
it), read this morning, from Ezekiel 7, this vision of the dry bones
brought back to life.
That Israel even exists today is one of
the great miracles of our time. It truly is, and I celebrate it.
But it's not enough. A greater miracle is desperately needed if it
is to survive and to prosper along with its neighbors.
The simplistic solution I sometimes
hear for the complexity of modern Israel and its neighbors is that if
they would all turn to Jesus, their troubles would end. Never mind
the inherent anti-Semitism that is behind such a statement, Jews and
Muslims in the holy land have not taken to well to Christian crusades in
the past. And I don't think that's going to change any time soon.
But I would like to suggest that the
way of Jesus, as outlined in this text in the story of Lazarus in the
gospel of John, does offer something for all people of faith --
including Jews and Muslims, but especially for us as Christians -- who
seek reconciliation and peace in our world.
Jesus knew that Lazarus was going to
die, just as we all know that death is inevitable. We also know
that the world is full of violence. We all know that the way of
death is destructive, horrendous, terrifying. We know that this
way is all too common and too easily chosen by the weak and powerful
alike. We know this surely as Jesus knew this and experienced
it in the same land. So note that in this story when Jesus comes
to the place of death, when he comes to the tomb of Lazarus, when he is
confronted with its pain and despair, when he hears the wails of the
mourners and sees the grief of Mary, he weeps. And more
importantly, he becomes disturbed in the spirit.
Only the English translation does not
quite capture the full meaning of the Greek. It's not just out of
compassion he is moved, but rather out of anger that he is disturbed.
And still I ask: angry at what?
Disturbed by what?
In John's gospel, there is always
multiple-layers of meaning in each story that he tells. And in
this exchange between Jesus and the two sisters, we see this is not just
about the death of Lazarus, it is about so much more for which Lazarus
is but a symbol. There is a much larger reality at stake here.
Jesus has come not just to reverse the death of one man, but to reverse
the effects of death itself. It is not just Lazarus he unbinds,
but the life that conquers death that he brings out of the tomb.
Thus, Jesus is angry not just that
Lazarus has died, but that death and the ways of death are still so
prevalent. That the way of life found in God is still bound by the
stone of the tomb.
And this is the way of Jesus that I
believe that we are called to follow, the way to emulate:
To be angry that the terrorists target
the innocent to die for their cause.
To be angry that the collateral damage
of retaliatory attacks result in even more innocent deaths.
To be angry that Hamas celebrates the
killing of innocent Jewish teenagers.
To be angry that the conditions in the
West Bank and Gaza are intolerable, and in fact are a crime against
We should not just be angry, we should
be outraged that our government has not done more to bring and end to
We should be outraged that we cannot
curb the proliferation of arms sales in abroad and at home.
We should be outraged of the dubious
wars fought overseas while so many needs at home -- for the uninsured,
for our children, our schools, the homeless and hungry -- remain unmet.
We should be outraged.
Like Jesus, we should be greatly
disturbed in spirit that so many are needlessly dying while war
profiteers make millions on the weapons that do the killing.
To believe in Jesus as the resurrection
and life means that we do not accept this way of the world. We do
not accept this way of violence, of retaliation, of revenge killings.
We refuse, however, to turn our anger
into hatred. We do not stand at the tomb of Lazarus and ask "Who
is responsible for this death?" that we might seek revenge. No, we
stand at the tomb of Lazarus and ask "How do we remove the stone?".
How do we let loose life and hope into our world, that death will not
have the last word.
We believe that there is an alternative
to an 'eye for an eye' and a 'tooth for a tooth' that is found in each
of our traditions. Life, greater than death. Love, stronger
than hate. Compassion, justice, and affirmation for our common
humanity is the way of peace, and the will of God for our world.
May it be, for the sake of the
children, and for us all.