Did Lazarus Really Die?

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on March 28, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here. 

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “God, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

It’s been about three weeks now, since myself and Rev. Jeanette made the decision to no longer worship in person each week. I remember scrolling my social medias, and post after post were updates, rapidly evolving updates, about the dangers and the impact that COVID-19 was having on people around the world. I stumbled across an article of a priest who had just tested positive, just days after leading a service surrounded by 500 of his congregants. 

There’s this feeling I get in my gut, maybe you’ve experienced it too. It’s a feeling I get when I know something has to be done, and often it’s a feeling that comes when I would rather not do that thing, even if I know it’s right. I call that feeling God, because it’s the truest thing I have learned to know. 

After I read about the priest, I imagined the feelings of guilt and fear he had, upon learning that he had the virus at the same time as he was interacting with hundreds of the folks he was tasked with caring for. I don’t want to be responsible for doing that to any of you. Even if this decision seems like too much, even if the bishop or the state hasn’t told us we couldn’t meet, I’d rather be too severe and keep us all safe. 

It turns out, we made the right decision, but it still was monumental. We still had to, and continue to, grieve a loss in some ways. This thing we call church, the worship service and fellowship time and bible studies, those things are no longer going on the way they had, in the ways that had become routine, tradition even for us. It’s almost like those things died. 

What are the things you loved about meeting in person, about being in a community physically? Whether this be at church, or another area of your life. What things have seemed to die since this pandemic has hit?

Today’s scripture encounters death, or what we think to be death in a profound way. This story starts with Mary and Martha reaching out to Jesus, telling him that their brother, Lazarus is very sick, and probably on his death bed. In response, Jesus tells them that this illness Lazarus had was not going to lead to death. Days later, Lazarus died. I wonder what Mary and Martha were thinking. Jesus lied to us. Who does he think he is, reassuring us with false hope? I can’t believe this. We had faith that he would be okay. 

So Mary and Martha took care of the procedures that their culture did when someone died. They prepared his body and placed Lazarus in a tomb. Days later, Jesus came back to Bethany, and reached out to Mary and Martha. Still grieving, Jesus invited them to go to the tomb. Jesus in some ways encouraged their grieving to continue, but he also interrupted their grief process, because he had a different story to share with them. 

When they got to the tomb, Mary and Martha understood death to be final, for Lazarus to be gone forever, erased almost as his body had began to decompose in that tomb. Jesus allowed them to be sad, hurt, angry, and confused. He let them grieve. He grieved with them. Jesus wept. 

And then, he called for Mary and Martha to remove the stone in front of the tomb where Lazarus was buried. Martha questioned him. What do you mean, Jesus? Our brother is dead. His body has started to smell. Why are you asking us to do this? Haven’t we encountered death enough at this point?

Jesus says this to Martha: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” And they removed the stone, Jesus prayed to God, and then shouted, Lazarus, come out! And he did. 

Mary and Martha were shown that death was not the final answer, not for Lazarus and not for us. In fact, they were shown that this thing we call death, the body shutting down and no longer being alive, that isn’t the kind of death Jesus is even interested in. Yes, Jesus grieves with us when someone or something dies, Jesus weeps. And, Jesus is much more interested in helping us to understand resurrection, the truth that the kind of death we talk about is not the end of the story. 

When we moved church, the thing we’ve known church to be for our whole lives, when we moved that online, part of what we knew church to be died. Almost like the church is Lazarus, right? We watched as thing we know and love and understand in a specific way was taken away, was pulled from us fairly suddenly. We had to grieve that, and perhaps we still are grieving that. Jesus grieved that with us, he wept alongside us. And then, he showed us that the death we understand death to be, is not the end of the story.

Jesus brought us all to the tomb, to that place where we were at a loss for words, still grieving, still trying to get used to a new reality without this thing that is important to us, and then Jesus showed us resurrection. Jesus called out to this thing we called church, this thing that in all ways, is bigger than a building, and he called out to it, “Come out”, and it did. 

 Before going to the tomb, before even returning to Bethany, Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” And it is alright. Jesus knew that life had never even been in question, that the church was never really gone to begin with. That is good news.

This thing we call church walked right out, still wrapped in the cloth we buried it in, and proved to us that resurrection is something we can trust in. Resurrection is where Jesus is right now. 

Jesus showed us resurrection in church members getting groceries for one another, in virtual meetups, in community in the comments section, in views and likes and shares, in care packages sent to our families. Jesus proved to us that sometimes death is not death at all, it’s simply a change in the ways we view that which is alive.

Jesus peels back our layers of faith, to show us that faith goes deeper than what we think we can handle, goes beyond what we can possibly understand at any given time. Jesus pushes us to see a reality that is much greater, much more complex and beautiful and full than anything we could have asked for or imagined. 

I believe that Lazarus never died, because his spirit, his soul, that never was lost. In the same way, I believe that the church never died either. But we might have thought it did, because we were used to seeing it a certain way. I believe however, that we have never been more alive. Because now, we are searching for God in new ways, yearning to see Jesus and community in holy ways that we’ve never imagined before. 

As you think about resurrection, about uncovering the life that never left in the first place, maybe in new ways, my last question for us is this: How are you seeing moments of resurrection now, in the midst of what we might consider to be a death? How is God changing the ways you view Church in this season? 

Friends, I don’t come to you today to tell you that death is easy. As someone who, like many of you, has lost people close to them, it would be silly and irresponsible to try to act like loss is anything but traumatic and brutal and hard. But I do come today, through this screen, from the sanctuary known as my living room, to remind you that our church, the place I’ve grown to love and cherish and trust, that church is still very much alive.

Through each of you, through our community in Mission Hills and across California, to those worshipping with us today in Texas, in Massachusetts, in Alaska, and beyond, we see the life that has never left, and we are honored to call that Church. As you leave this place, may you remember that Jesus promises us resurrection, now and always. As Easter people, may we be reminded of new life, as we continue journeying towards the cross, the promise of great love. 

In her book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans says this: “Even when I don’t believe in church, I believe in resurrection. I believe in the hope of Sunday morning.” This is my prayer today for each of us, that we believe in a resurrection that is full of hope. As you leave today, may you go with a hope for new life, remembering the promise that God makes, that this thing we call death is not the end of our story. Go in peace, Friends. Amen.


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