Grace and peace to you again this morning, Fifth Sunday in Lent, and I hope this Lent continues to be a season of blessing and renewal for you.
In the older Prayer Book calendar of the Church Year this was called Passion Sunday-- to begin “Passiontide” and our more accelerated last leg of the journey toward the climax of our story and Holy Week and Good Friday. Leaning forward toward Jerusalem, clouds gathering overhead. In the 1979 Prayer Book calendar that title has moved on to next Sunday, which is now to be named “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” But in any event, whatever the title of the day and of these last weeks, a season of preparation, anticipation. We know the story, and so we know where we’re headed. Beginning to be time to get ourselves as ready for it as we can . . . .
We’ve paused along the way this year with St. John’s gospel on these Sunday mornings of Lent. Jesus and Nicodemus, and the conversation about being born, and being born again, born from above, born in the Spirit. Jesus and the Woman at the Well. “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Jesus and the Man Born Blind. “I once was blind, but now I see.” And now Jesus and Lazarus. And this morning, this familiar prefiguring and anticipation of Easter. Where the rubber meets the road. Real death. Several days in the tomb. The women of faith, Martha and Mary. The stone is rolled away. The one who was dead is alive again. We’ve heard this story before, and we will again, and very soon.
There are other miracles of what I suppose we might call “resuscitation” in the scriptures. Elijah and the Widow’s son in First Kings 17. Jesus and the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5. Peter and Tabitha in Acts 9. Although they involve revival from the sleep of death, they have the feel and pattern more of miracles of healing. Almost like the stories we hear of folks whose hearts have stopped on the operating table, but who are brought back by the sudden medical intervention of those electrical paddles.
None of those stories so dramatic as this one, in any event, which seems of a different category altogether. None so dramatically announce the defeat of death and the grave. St. John indicates his belief that it is this miracle—not, as in the other gospels, the cleansing of the Temple—that is the last straw for Jesus’s opponents. “From that day on," as John tells us in verse 53, just past the end of our reading this morning--“from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death.”
And this is the great turning point in John, from what is called the Gospel of Signs, to what is called the Gospel of Glory. The grand solemn procession to the exaltation of Jesus and his glorification at the Cross. The next story to be told is of the dinner at Bethany, at the home of Lazarus and Martha and Mary, where Mary will take that costly aromatic anointment and wipe his feet with her hair. When the family objects to the expense of this extravagant gesture, Jesus says, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial.”
A few weeks ago Dr. Bonnie Thurston, who retired a few years ago from the faculty of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary down the street, came up to Pittsburgh from her home in West Virginia to lead a diocesan clergy Lenten Quiet Day, with a series of very rich meditations on the Raising of Lazarus in this eleventh chapter of St. John. As with all the stories we’ve been reading this Lent, a story where we could pause for extended reflection at each line, almost each phrase. Not enough time to do that this morning, of course. But once again I’d suggest that this would be a good lesson to take home and to return to for reading and reflection and prayer over the coming week. I know I find something more here every time I read it.
So, a lot to look at. But what I would like to highlight for us out of it all this morning is the section that is the turning point, the pivot, of the story, which I think we might call the Confession of Martha. The culmination of a series here too. The Woman at the Well said, “He told me everything I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” And the Samaritans of the village say, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” So interesting that in John it is from the Samaritans actually that we hear this first direct confession of faith.
Soon after, Jesus asks the Man Born Blind, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man replies, “Who is he?” Jesus says, "you have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” And the man says, “Lord, I believe.” Which is what these Signs in the Gospel of Signs are all about. Pointing to Jesus, revealing, interpreting his identity.
And now Martha and Jesus. Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” And Martha: “Yes Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” And with that, the door swings open. Anything is possible.
There is to be of course an application here for us. John holding up a mirror for us, or opening a window, that we might see ourselves and our own journey of faith. And most appropriately in this Lent, as we have spent these weeks since Ash Wednesday in prayer, reflection, personal discipline, “reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
Martha opens her heart and turns to Jesus, and what happens next is something so astonishing we still hardly can picture it. I find myself thinking in a meditative way about what Jesus says as Lazarus stumbles out of the tomb, wrapped in the shroud of his burial. “Unbind him, let him go.” To ask in this Lent, what that burial shroud is in my life even right now. What forgiveness I need, what healing? I guess we all can go there, in our thoughts and memories—regret, remorse, sadness, loss. Things done and left undone. To know that what he desires for us and offers us is that we would be set free, healed, restored, forgiven. Unbound. That we would join him in his death on the Cross, that we might know a resurrection like his. Begin even now in this world and in this life to live in the fullness of eternal life.
As we live in our families, in our work, in the inner landscape of our mind and heart. This Lent, today, right now. He has better things in mind for us than we could ask for or imagine.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.