Clevedon Presbyterian Church
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Leaving Tombs

February 25, 2018
Martin Baker

25 February 2018      Leaving Tombs   Martin Baker


The first 11 chapters of John have sometimes been called ‘The book of signs.’

Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding. Abundance, celebration, new meaning in old customs.

Overturning the tables and upsetting those involved in the Temple Worship. A sign that Jesus brings a new living relationship with God - a different way of worshipping.

A visit by Nicodemus at night. Talk of God’s enormous love for the world, and the Spirit which blows where it wills.

Stories of Jesus bringing healing, of calming of waters.

All speaking about this word of God which has become flesh coming into the world. All speaking about the light that shines in the darkness. All speaking about a faith that leads us into a new understanding of ourselves as God’s children.

And today, in this story we hear about the culmination of these signs. Life out of death. Lazarus coming out of the tomb.

John 11:1-45

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." 4 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." 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again." 8 The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?" 9 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. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them." 11 After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." 12 The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." 23 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." 24 Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." 25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" 27 She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, and the one coming into the world."

28 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." 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 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. 32 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." 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" 37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 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." 40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 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." 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 44 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."

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

Let Us Pray

There is a strange thing that happens in this story today of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In fact there are a number of strange things that happen as a consequence.

A cave, a stone lying against it. Jesus says take away the stone. Martha says Lord there is already a stench because he has been dead for four days. Anyway, Jesus prays calls the dead Lazarus out of the tomb. And the dead man comes out. That’s the first strange thing. The fact that there is a stench of death about the place that’s not strange, that’s highly believable. But then the dead man comes out of the tomb all wrapped in his burial bandages and Jesus says unwrap him.  And we are told as a result many believed in him.  That’s not a strange thing. If you saw that happen you would believe wouldn’t you.

And that brings us to the second strange thing. It doesn't say all believed in him. It says many believed. That tells us that some didn’t. Not enough proof? A man who had been dead, Jesus calls him, Lazarus come out, the dead man come out comes out of the tomb is now alive. He has been resuscitated in some way. And some people who saw this happen didn’t believe. So we learn that that kind of proof wasn’t totally convincing.  As far as Jesus was concerned. That’s the second strange thing.

Remember, these are signs. We are being called to look beyond even these extraordinary things, to the greater reality to which they point – the Glory of God and Jesus as God’s word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

If we have trouble talking to others about the truth of the Christian faith then we are not alone. Extraordinary things can happen and even they are not enough to convince some people.

The dead man comes out, some didn’t believe and the third strange thing, the third odd thing is that after this happens, after some people see this happen, they shoot off and tell tales on Jesus. So you see this amazing come back to life miracle and rather than being amazed or celebrating you go and complain to the authorities

Think he can get away with bringing new life out of death does he. We’ll see about that.

They deliberately get him into trouble with the Pharisees and Chief Priests.

That’s a strange thing.

And in the time honoured tradition the Chief priests and the Pharisees aren’t sure how to react so they have a committee meeting to discuss it. Which isn’t a strange thing at all. I used to have a poster on the wall that says - feeling a bit lonely, not sure what to do,  – then call a committee meeting.

But then we do get to the next strange thing. And this is the strangest thing of all.  As a result of this committee meeting, those in power look for ways of having Jesus killed.

So dead man, comes alive after the life bringing Jesus appears and calls him out of his tomb. Some people see this and don’t believe. Some see this extraordinary event and go and tell on Jesus to those in religious power. And that these leaders on hearing the news form a committee resolve to find a way to have Jesus put to death.

So ordinary, if unpleasant things, stinking bodies and committees mixed up with extraordinary things. A dead man comes to life. Some don’t believe even though they see this. Some actually take the time to tell on Jesus. And as a result a group decide to find a way to have Jesus killed.

He brings life and the consequence of this is that some plot to have him killed.

Death stinks. In all its forms. It’s upsetting. Expectations, rules, order,  all get mixed up. Death creates chaos in our struggle for meaning.  

No order. A time when there are no rules anymore.    I remember a few years ago in Auckland I was conducting a funeral,  followed by the burial out in West Auckland at Waikamete cemetery. There was some problem with the directions and the hearse which I was sitting in, the young funeral director driving, coffin in the back,  went down a cul-de-sac. We were followed by a good 15 or 20 mourner cars. And there was a moment there when we finally reached the end of cul-de-sac that we had no rules for. No preparation for. Not only did the old black Rolls had to navigate out of a very small turning circle it also had to find its way back in front again as more and more cars kept coming down the little West Auckland street.

And particularly strangely, many of the mourners who followed us down the cul-d-sac would have been familiar with West Auckland, and the fact that this was a cul-de-sac – there was no way out. And still they came.

There is awkwardness in this. Nothing prepares you. Some encounter a miracle and don’t believe. Carry on as if nothing has happened even. Some see this new life as a threat, as an offence and want to see the bringer of new life done away with. Others believe. Others we find later after the fear and denial, others find their lives transformed, become agents of new life themselves.

In the midst of all we face those options remain. They’re ancient and modern responses.

A story today of a  time and place where the one that brings life is condemned to death.

But  there is no new age death denial here. Death is death. The shortest verse in the whole bible. Jesus began to weep.  The end is the end.  A big and ultimate full stop.    No crossing over. No passing away.  There are times when we face the hardest reality that we all face. And it does not make sense. And in the midst of this confusion Jesus says I am the resurrection and the life. Then he says to Martha do you believe. Martha says yes I believe.  

A message we hear repeated almost every week, repeated by those who have seen death who have somehow survived some disaster or other is that they almost all say that they have learned again how valuable life really is. And every time I hear some survive tell us that message I agree. But then the stench of death. The arguments, the hesitation to forgive, the terrible knowledge we have that we have the capacity to enrich our lives and the lives of others but hesitate. We nurture our anger and the words done to us and our inside knowledge of another’s fragility. What capacity we have for goodness but something gets in the way. The four day old smel,l the fear, the insecure.

The story is about, movement and conviction to be moved in our encounter with Christ, to certain, confident bold belief in the power of Jesus over death.. But the smell never goes away. We normalise and adjust to death dealing, we can even respond with anger and violence when the words of life are spoken in our midst. Soren Kierkergard said an interesting thing. He said that we limit and diminish ourselves in order to avoid confrontation with the terror, perdition and annihilation that dwell next door to any person.  He saying that we can’t live life in in its fullness until we come to a point of conviction around which all other aspects of life must be based.   Jesus says I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live. Our salvation lies in the gospel claim that we have that power to make choices. We can choose to be embraced by God’s love and the promise of eternal life, today. It starts today.  

Extraordinary things happen. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb.   Life is a starting point.  I am the resurrection and the life. Then he says do you believe this. Yes. With all our doubt and uncertainty . With all our conviction and hope. We can say yes to a greater claim on our lives. Choosing the God of life. AMEN