This Lent our lectionary has offered us a series of monumental Gospel readings from John. The readings we’ve heard have their origin in the way the early church prepared people to be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter. And today, we get the last of four profound, similar stories, and before I talk about it I just want to review a little. Each of our Lenten Gospel readings so far has involved a debate, turned on a misunderstanding, and dealt with a major human question.
The first Gospel of John character we met was Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to Jesus by night and argued with him about the meaning of spiritual birth. The second week we met the Samaritan woman, who sat with Jesus at a well and argued with him about the meaning of water. Last week we met a man born blind, who was healed by Jesus and argued with the Pharisees about sight. Each of these three learned that the way their religious upbringing had posed those questions wasn’t big enough. That it couldn’t substitute for the living action of God. And most importantly, they realized that Jesus himself was and is the living action of God right in front of us.
Nicodemus learned that Jesus could give him what he was seeking by calling God’s own life to life in him. The woman at the well learned that Jesus could quench her deepest thirst and cause a spring of divine water to well up within her. The man born blind learned that Jesus could make him see what is true, and that to say yes to him is what really clarifies your vision. And all three of them learned that the questions they had been asking were smaller than what God offers.
So these are the three characters who have accompanied us through Lent so far with their debates, their misunderstandings, and their revelations. Those three stories raised deep questions about birth and water and sight. And today we hear a fourth major story from John, the story of the raising of Lazarus, which is going to raise a deep question about life. Now in one sense this is a different kind of story. You will notice immediately that there is not a sustained debate here the way there was in the other three. There’s no long dialogue. There is, however, a confusion here. Actually, there’s more than one, but I am only going to talk about one, and it shows up three times. Martha says it, Mary says it, and the crowd says it too. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Now in one sense this is the most natural human reaction, and I completely understand why Mary and Martha expressed themselves this way. They are angry, they are grieving, and when we are grieving we feel like we would give anything for even five more minutes with that precious person. Jesus is supposed to be a healer: if he really cared, surely he could have extended their lives, given them just a little more time. I felt that way when my mother died, and I’m sure others of you have had thoughts like that as well. It is a natural part of grief.
In a sense, one of the other things Martha says is also a natural part of grief. Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again, and she says, “Yeah, in the resurrection on the last day,” which is honestly, not all that comforting when what you really want is to see the person come in the door with the mail or give you just one more hug. Martha wants more time, not pie in the sky.
And I think Jesus understands, because he is grieving too. This family is among his closest friends. John tells us Jesus was crying. But John also tells us how he answered Martha: He said “I am the resurrection.” The resurrection that Martha thinks is supposed to arrive only at the last day is here now. It’s not pie in the sky later. The life of the world to come has begun, says Jesus; it’s right in front of you, in me.
But Jesus doesn’t only tell her that he, now, is the beginning of the life of the world to come she had been expecting only far in the future. He goes to the tomb, and he calls first to his Father: I thank you for hearing me! he says. And then he calls to the dead man: Come out! And Lazarus walks out of the tomb a living, breathing human being again. Now this is something even greater than opening the eyes of a man born blind, even greater than healing a leper, even greater than turning water into wine. This is turning death into life. And it’s a huge hint about the real power of Jesus.
Why do I say it’s a hint? Because it’s ultimately pointing to what’s going to happen to Jesus himself. This is a hint of the great miracle of Good Friday and Easter, though it’s not the same thing. People sometimes wonder why, if Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Christians make such a big deal about Jesus’ resurrection. Hadn’t this already happened once? Well, sort of, but here is the whopping difference: Lazarus died again. Jesus brought him back to this life, which is, yes, a major sign of the power Jesus has. But Lazarus eventually grew old and declined and went the way of all flesh. Jesus’ own resurrection is into a new, forever life. Jesus is the first person ever to experience permanent resurrection life, the life of the world to come, which after Easter day became the gift of God to all who will unite themselves with Jesus.
Once the Good Friday to Easter barrier has been broken, Jesus does not just do healings, as surprising as they are. He does not just do resuscitations, as surprising as this one is. He does resurrection. He is resurrection. The life from God he unleashes is something completely new, and it is available now and it is available here and it is available to everybody who will open their hands to receive it from Jesus. And once you have said yes to it, there is nothing, nothing, that can stop that resurrection power. Literal death can’t stop it. Metaphorical death can’t stop it. Loss and failure and tragedy and shame can’t stop it. The end of the world can’t stop it. Nothing can stop it.
Everything else can be stopped. All of our bodies are going to come to an end, lie cold in the ground and return to dust. All that we love is going to perish, and all the things we have cared about most will be forgotten. These Lenten Gospels challenge us over and over: are you looking to Jesus only for a little more and a little better of all this perishing, temporary stuff that we call daily life, or are you looking to him for something unending and new and alive beyond what you could imagine?
Are you looking to him to buy you a little more time, or to walk up to the tombs in your life and shout: Come out! In other words, how big is your hope? I want to tell you something: when Jesus Christ is what you’re hoping in, it can’t be too big.