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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Lazarus; Jesus Bursting into Tears

Lent 5A     John 11:1-45

(Also, for All Saints Sunday, Series B)

It is really tough when your best friend dies. When your good buddy dies. When your best friend dies too soon.  Cancer. Heart attack. Car accident. Many of you have lost your best friend and it has left you devastated. We all know those stories. We may have lived that story when a close friend of our dies. 

I have permission of the family to share the following comments. I remember when my good buddy Ray Osterloh died so many years ago. It seems like yesterday. Up there at Providence Hospital. There on the third floor. For so long. For so many weeks. With so many people coming to visit him. With his wife, Jan and two young sons, I watched Ray wither away and die. It was painful for him. It was painful for his family. And it was painful for all of us who knew and loved Ray. I remember his last words to me, “Make sure you tell them Ed.” I responded, “Tell them about what Ray?” He said, “Jesus.” Wow, how do you forget that? How do you forget that man? How do you forget that friendship?” It was a tough funeral too. The feelings ran deep for all of us.   Yes, there wasn’t a lot of sniffling that day but some deep sobs of remembrance and regret.

The gospel story for today is that kind of story. Jesus’ best friend or one of his best friends had died. The feelings were running deep.

There are four primary characters in this story:  Jesus, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.  Martha, Mary and Lazarus were good friends of Jesus; the Bible says that he “loved” them.  They were the kind of good friends that you could drop over to their house, kick up your feet and just relax with, and Jesus seemed to visit their home often.  They were intimate and familiar friends with Jesus. 

We know the Martha and Mary story.  Jesus came to visit their home one day and Martha, the home owner and perhaps the oldest sister, was very busy. She was scurrying about, getting the meal ready for Jesus while Mary sat relaxed at Jesus’ feet, wanting to listen to him teach.  Martha reprimanded her younger sister for not helping her with the food preparation. Jesus suggested that quiet Mary had chosen the better part, and scolded busy Martha for being too busy being busy.  So we pick up on the dynamics of their relationship, an honesty, a repartee.  Then there is the other story where Jesus was again visiting their home, and in this story, sensitive Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil and then dries his feet with her long hair with loving and gentle kindness. The Bible says that she was preparing him for his burial.  So we are aware of these stories about busy Martha and tender Mary, both dear friends of Jesus. 

Lazarus, the sister’s brother, was also Jesus’ close friend, the only close friend that is reported in the Bible, other than with John.  The Bible says that Jesus “loved” Lazarus.  Jesus was about thirty years old, and my guess is that Lazarus was about his age.  In other words, for me this is a story of having one of your closest buddies die, like when my good friend, Ray Osterloh, died of cancer while a very young man.  I know and you know what it feels like to have a close buddy, a close friend die, and the story of Lazarus’ death is like that.

The funeral rituals of Jesus’ day were obviously different than ours.  When somebody died, there was no embalming but immediately the body was wrapped in linen clothing and put into the burial vault, a limestone cave carved into the limestone rock. There was intense mourning for seven days and less intense mourning for twenty-three more days.  But the first seven days were days of intense grief and crying.

Now, here is the story for today.  It’s a classic story, with classic drama.  Lazarus was really sick and the two sisters sent word to Jesus, who had just healed a man born blind, that their brother Lazarus was very sick and perhaps soon to die.  Jesus got the message and waited two days. Why did Jesus wait two days?  All the commentaries argue as to why Jesus waited two days, but none agree.  The Bible says simply so that the will of God may be done.  So Jesus began his way to the home of Lazarus, knowing that his friend had died.

On the way, assertive, aggressive, “take charge” Martha came out to meet Jesus and gave him an angry earful.  “Jesus, if you would have been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus said:  “He will rise again.”  And Martha testily responded:  “I know he will rise again at the resurrection of the dead, but what good does that do us now?”  Then Jesus gave a word that has become one of the most treasured teachings of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever lives and believes in me will never die!”  Will never die!  It is one of the great lines of the Bible.  Then he asked one of the most important questions found in the Bible,  “Do you believe this, Martha?”  What a question.  Do you believe this?   Do YOU believe this?  That whoever lives and believes in me will never die?  Martha answered, “I believe.  I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God and that whoever lives and believes in you will never die.”  That is an incredible conversation, and we could stop here but the story continues.

Martha went back home to find her younger sister and told her that Jesus wanted to talk with her.  Mary left immediately, surrounded by her grieving friends, to find Jesus.  She too approached Jesus with the same testy reproach, “Jesus, if you would have been here, my brother would not have died.” But before Jesus could say anything, Mary burst into tears and so did all her grieving friends.  What was Jesus’ response to her tears?  The Bible says that he was “deeply troubled,” but the Greek word underlying this says that Jesus “shuddered with sadness,” that his body shook with emotion.  The word in classical Greek is used to refer to a horse, when it snorts, the horse’s whole body shakes, and so Jesus’ whole body shook or shuddered with emotion.  You and I have experienced this often in life, where a person is so grieved and sad, that their whole body shakes with sorrow.  Then came that classic line, the shortest verse in the Bible.  “Jesus wept.”  In our antiseptic way, we imagine a single tear running down his face.  Rather, the Greek suggests, Jesus “burst into tears.”  So here, in this little episode with sensitive Mary, there is no classic, eloquent teaching about eternal life. In fact, there are no words at all, but simply strong emotions and bursting tears that shake his body.

Within that Greek word for “shudders with sadness,” there is a connotation of anger, that Jesus was angry about something, and the scholars in the commentaries ponder what Jesus was angry about.  I know what Jesus was angry about:  he was angry that Lazarus died too soon, too young, that it hurt inside.  I knew those feelings of anger when my good friend, Ray, died too young and too soon.  I was mad, really mad inside.  You know those feelings from your experiences as well.

The story continued.  Jesus finally reached the little village of Bethany and then approached the burial vault of his friend Lazarus.  The Bible says that he was again “deeply moved” as he approached the grave. His body again shuddered with sadness. Yes, a person often feels that way as you approach the grave itself.  It is a time of intense emotion.  He said, “Remove the stone.”  And Martha, as always, having her own mind, contradicted Jesus and said, “Why?  The body has been in the grave for four days already and it smells.” Jesus ignored her and the gravestone was rolled away.  Then Jesus said a beautiful prayer:  “My Father, you hear my prayers.  You always hear my prayers.  Grant my request so that these people may know that you have sent me.”  Jesus cried out with a loud voice:  “Lararus, arise.”  Lazarus came out of the grave vault, covered with linen wrappings.  Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go.”

What a story!  It was said of the Messiah.  You will know that the Messiah has come  when the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news preached to them.  In the Gospel of John, this is the seventh and final and most important sign that the Messiah has come, for he has raised the dead. Jesus has raised his friend Lazarus from the dead who had been in the grave for four days.

So what shall we say about this story?

I first want to focus on the phrase, “shuddered with sadness.”  We all know that experience.  It is part of your life and mine.  I have been with many of you at these sacred moments, where the pain is so great, that all your body and emotions can do is shudder with sadness.  Or I recall leaving the home of young Peggy Arns after she had just died, leaving her two teenagers and a loving husband, driving around the corner and stopping the car and just sobbing into the steering wheel.  Yes, that is the way it is for us.  And for Jesus, the Son of God, too.

Some Christians will say, “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way if you believe in God and believe in the resurrection.  Our loved one is going to a better place, to be with Jesus where there is no pain, so don’t cry so hard or feel so badly.”  Well, that isn’t the way it was with Jesus.  He believed in the resurrection, in eternal life, in the heavenly mansion, but he also shuttered with sadness at the loss of his friend.  In other words, Jesus was not only the Son of God, but also the son of man, fully human, sharing our grief and our sorrow.  He was the model of godly grief, fully human, fully sorrowful.  He even taught, “Blessed are those who mourn, who grieve, for they shall be comforted.”

I like that phrase in the story, “See how he loved him. See how Jesus loved Lazarus.” That is the way with us in our relationships. See how we loved that person who has died. Whether that person is a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a child, a friend. When feelings run deep, you can see how the grieving person so deeply loved the deceased.

Recently, my good friend Bob died. It was tough. My age. A few years older. Cancer. Sudden death. Much too fast. Bob wanted to die at his condominium with his family. I would go up to their condo, when the whole family was there, gathered around the hospice bed in the living room, telling stories and laughing with Bob. You could see the love in the eyes and feel the love in their voices. “See how they loved him” As a pastor, I see it all the time. I see how they loved him. I see how they loved her.

Yes, feelings were running deep that day. 

Another thing that catches me in this story is that Mary was accompanied by her grieving friends who grieved with her.  There is something supportive and therapeutic about having friends around you who love you to grieve with you.  For example, this past week when Steve Beer’s mother died, their family and friends gathered around them to give them incredible support.  I have been with people when it has been just the opposite; when they grieve alone with no one around and there is a hollow echo to it all.  Or when the aunt of Tim Madsen died this past week; they had taken in their aunt to live with them three years ago; and now with the help of hospice, she had died.  What comfort Tim and his family had when friends came to be with them. 

That is what the church often is:  a community of Christ’s compassion and consolation to one another.  In our busy and active culture, we often don’t have time to live deeply with our feelings.  In our hurried up plastic world, we often don’t have time to share deep love or deep sorrow.  In our shallow materialistic world, we attempt to minimize death.  But not in the church.  We know love; we know grief; and we share it with one another.

I remember my cousin Lois’ funeral, coming back from Lake Oswego, Oregon, where she died as a young woman.  I was so proud to be part of the church.  I was proud of her priest who had visited her so faithfully, giving her the Sacrament.  I was so proud of her friends, nurses, reading teachers, who so faithfully were with Lois.  I was so proud of her congregation that rallied around her whole family.  Yes, I saw the church at its best when they supported Lois and her family through her death.   And that same kind of community was part of the story for today, with those friends of Mary gathering around her.  Yes, that is what the church is for.

The last thing I want to talk with you about is the classic line from John:  “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever lives and believes in me will never die but live forever.  Do you believe this, Martha?”  I have been giving funerals now for three decades, and I have never done a funeral without quoting this famous passage from the Gospel of John. In the funeral reading of resurrection passages, I always include these words from John. I know these words well, deeply within my heart. I get to that line, “Do you believe this, Martha?”  I then pause, and say the name of the person whose funeral it is:  And Jan said.  And David said.   “I believe. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, and that whoever lives and believes in you will never die.”  In the funerals, it is a moment of triumph, that the deceased believes in Jesus Christ and will never die.

And I ask you that question this morning, the most important question in your life.  “________, do you believe?  Do you believe that Christ is the Son of the living God and that whoever lives and believes in him will never die?  Do you believe? Do you really believe?” What a question for you and me this morning. And how we answer that question affects everything we say and do. 

This past week, Dean Krippaehne visited the New Member Class and I expected he would talk about being the leader of the Gospel Band and what that means here at Grace.  He didn’t talk about the Gospel Band at all.  Instead, he talked about how he used to believe in God, the Supreme Power of the Universe, but in recent years, he had come to know a living relationship with Jesus Christ.  He wasn’t quite sure how and when it all happened, but something had happened to him, and his was now a living, daily relationship with Jesus Christ.

Do you believe that you will never die?

It is my prayer that God will give you that quality of faith that was in the heart of busy Martha. Yes Lord, I believe that I will never die.


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