a Sermon for Lent 5A
Text: John 11:1-45
Our story is almost over. Jesus is nearing Jerusalem. And in one final, glorious act, Jesus reveals the very thing He has come to do. A big show of great, inhuman power, in which the whole purpose of the mission is revealed.
For us to get there, we have to abandon our own blindness.
Martha, then Mary reveal the human confusion in Jesus’s mission; confusing prevention of death for an act of love. But we already know that “for God so loved the world.” To Jesus, prevention of death is not an act of love. Lazarus needs to die.
The text tells us that Lazarus’ death is needed to reveal GOD’s glory. We may then jump to the conclusion that his death is a pawn in a game; a ransom or exchange. That some eggs need to be cracked to make an omelette. Sorry Lazarus. We may see his death as a permanent sacrifice, intentional and meaningful; for a greater purpose.
But the necessity of Lazarus’s death is based not on permanence of physical death, but the temporary and subjective nature of true death. Jesus’s power is found not in preventing death, but in bringing life. It is not in intervening in Lazarus’s death, but giving him new life.
All those people Jesus heals in the gospels are given new life: restored to community and given a true life. It is a symbol of restoration, not prevention.
Clearly we confuse the nature of restoration. We talk as if Jesus would turn back time and return us to those greatest hits of our lives. Honor roll, graduation, wedding day, birth of children, whatever highlights flood back to us. Or when we could stand up straight, play tennis, sing, hear! That a God of reconciliation and restoration is in the business of preventing pain.
That our savior keeps us from dying—rather than saving us from the death we already possess.
We’re all bright enough to know that this isn’t literally true. Friends, spouses, children have died and we know that they knew the love of Christ.
So our blindness and unbelief comes out in other ways. That our families and churches and communities must be protected. That if Jesus truly loved us like we love Him, we would never die. Never suffer. Jesus wouldn’t sit there and wait, only to raise us from the dead later.
So wasteful. Painful. Intercede, Jesus! Keep me from feeling pain. Keep me from doubting you. We may be tempted to leave our family and friends because of grief. Go somewhere else. We might be happy there. Maybe.
We are promised a true life, not a permanent one. We are given gifts to share, not squander. We are saved, not protected. We are offered mission and certain death.
Restoring the Afflicted
Jesus arrives in Bethany, which means “House of the afflicted.” It is just two miles from Jerusalem. His death is immanent, days away. Like Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night in chapter 3 and the woman at the well running into Jesus at noon in chapter 4, the death and return of Lazarus is literarily bonded to Jesus’s death and restoration. No room for prevention. As Jesus says elsewhere to Peter when the disciple vows to prevent Jesus’s death: “Get behind me, Satan!” Lazarus is to die and be restored.
It isn’t about family or life or death. It isn’t about how much Martha and Mary love their brother or convince Jesus to perform a magic trick. It is about the glory of GOD being revealed. Lazarus is no prop. The stone is rolled away, Jesus calls Lazarus by name, and a risen man is revealed.
The man shuffles out, feet and hands bound by cloth. He needs to be freed. So Jesus calls for his freedom. “Unbind him, and let him go.” Lazarus, held captive to death, to the ritual of binding the dead to permanent rest, prevented by the living to live again.
The people are told to unbind him and let him go. Perhaps still bound by their obsession with permanence; forced to remain shackled by expectations, even in death.
Jesus reveals what GOD does: unbind and restore. And what is to happen next will reveal that truth to everyone. After Jesus dies He will be unbound, then let go.
Lent invites us to an annual reminder of our regular need to learn and be restored. That the Christian purpose is to restore the world. A world fractured by division, bitterness, and greed, long before us. A world bound by human rituals of death and imprisonment. Jesus returns to remind us “Unbind him and let him go.” Like Elsa in Frozen, we are told to “let it go.”
The hang ups and the hurt. Let it go.
The judgment and criticism. Let it go.
The need to control everything and make it the way we want. Let it go.
We aren’t saved, we are being saved.
The GOD mission isn’t done until we complete it.
No one retires from ministry as long as Lazarus is bound. As long as Jesus is bound. Stuck in that tomb. Where we can blame one another for our problems. When we do that, the tomb is still full of the dead. The buried.
Let Jesus go. Unbind Him and let Him go.
The funny thing is that Jesus cannot be bound. Jesus is fulfilling the mission whether we’re here to do it or not. If St. Paul’s won’t do it, Jesus will find others to do it. Because Jesus isn’t bound by us (He can’t be).
Our work is not to preserve St. Paul’s. It is to restore the world.
We must let Him go. For next we follow Him to Jerusalem.