Sometimes, I like to begin a sermon by taking an inventory of how many times, over the last 26 years, I’ve written one on the particular scripture with which I’m dealing. As to John 11, this morning’s reading of the raising of Lazarus, I’d say I’ve written sermons on no less than five occasions in my pastoral ministry. I could say this is because I preach on the three-year cycle common lectionary so every text included in that lectionary will certainly come up at least once every third year. This story is likely to be found in each of the three years…A, B, and C. We find this scripture at this particular time in the liturgical calendar…Lent, but, just as likely, this text might be found during the traditional observance of All Saint’s day. This is a clue here to the method John has in mind when he wrote this scripture and another clue in its frequent use because when a scripture is used more than once and at varied times in the church’s life, we have to assume it holds some importance. This one does.
John’s Gospel written some 50-60 after Christ’s death on the cross, Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven…50-60 years after the first and many sightings of the resurrected Christ by the many witnesses who saw him, ate with him, were instructed by him is very likely to have been a product of both oral history and emotional memories. These first witnesses to the miracle of life after death would pass on their tales to succeeding generations, their children and their followers. Like all the Biblical writers…Old and New…John’s writing was based on a certain bias. As so often happens with memories, they become embellished, expanded on testing the limits of truth and myth. John wanted people to see Jesus as a human being but, he didn’t want to lose sight of Christ’s divinity so, in the raising of Lazarus, both human frailty and divine power sit side by side.
Since the writing of this scripture came post-resurrection, John had the advantage of balancing the tale on these two realities – the human nature of Jesus Christ and Christ’s divinity. This may or may not have been readily recognized by his listeners but it would certainly be viewed as new information to those who were seeking the truth about Jesus with a thought of perhaps, joining his band of believers. We hope for the divinity of Christ but we trust in Christ’s humanity and the reason is simple. If Jesus can grieve for the loss of a friend then so can you and me. Tears are not an expression of a lack of faith in God or even, less faith in God. If Jesus can feel pain and suffer from thirst, as he did on the cross, then our need to eat, sleep, drink, these needs seem reasonable and even expected. Again, not a loss of faith but an honest expression of our human nature, one shared willingly by Christ himself.
It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to realize John’s intention in telling this story. Raising Lazarus up, calling him forth from the tomb, demanding his burial wrappings be removed, all this was a precursor to Christ’s own burial, the empty tomb, the abandoned funeral wrapping, which had cushioned his broken body on the stone slab upon which he had been laid. Life restored in Lazarus would also be a precursor to Christ’s life restored at the moment of his resurrection. But there would be a significant difference in these two returned lives. Lazarus would some day experience death again but Christ would not and by his willingness to take on our sins, Christ made it possible for death to never again have the last word in our lives. For John, burdened and blessed with the task of telling the story and sharing this good news, it was imperative that the Lazarus tale be told so that those who had never witnessed either the death or life restore again of these two men would know, without doubt, one foreshadowed the other but the second restored life forever for all of us. Praise be to God! Amen.