Year A

March 9, 2008

John Sewell

Woody Allen once said, “It’s not that I am afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Carl Sandburg wrote about human’s denial about dying in his poem: Limited.


I am riding on a limited express, one

of the crack trains of the nation.

Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze

and dark air go fifteen all-steel coaches

holding a thousand people.

(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and

all the men and woman laughing in

the diners and sleepers shall pass to


I ask a man in the smoker where he is

going and he answers: “Omaha.”

Carl Sandburg

Of course Omaha is no one’s ultimate destination. However we certainly are in denial about that most of the time. We may or may not mind dying but we would just as soon pass on the experience for today.

Death has always been a mystery. Everyone died eventually but no one ever came back to tell how it was. It might be wonderful, it might be terrible but there are no eyewitnesses to let the rest of the human race in on the secret.

St. John’s Gospel is constructed around what some call the Book of Signs: a series of signs that reveal that Jesus is the Son of God. There are seven of these signs:

Each in turn manifests with greater power the authority of the Christ.

first: water into wine,

seventh: death into life

In John’s Gospel, Lazarus rising from the tomb is the last of the Book of Signs, as the story moves into the Book of Glory: the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Martha, Mary and Lazarus were wealthy residents of Bethany about two miles from Jerusalem. They had a special relationship with Jesus. Apparently at Bethany Jesus did not have to do anything or be anybody: he could just be who he was. They made a safe and special place in their hearts and home for him.

Martha: in charge, managing the business/ household, got irritated with Mary for not helping.

Mary: quiet, introspective, the one who took the bottle of expensive perfume: Nard is made from an aromatic herb grown in the Himalayas. Imported in alabaster boxes.

It was used to scent the couches of kings, anoint heads of royalty at coronations and embalm corpses. It cost a year’s wages for a workingman.

{I don’t know who named it, Nard, but they obviously didn’t have a degree in marketing. Elizabeth Taylor would never call one of her perfumes a name that rhymes with baking fat!!!!}

Mary poured this ruinously expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair, making the point that she considered him “the anointed one” or messiah.

Lazarus: Nothing else is known from the scripture. A strong tradition has it that in 60 AD he fled to Cyprus and was bishop there for thirty years and died a second time.

Last Sunday’s Gospel: healing blind man on the Sabbath brought conflict with Pharisees. Now he withdraws across the Jordan to avoid conflict.

Then Lazarus gets real sick!! Martha sends word to Jesus. He stays on for two more days and then goes to Bethany.

Martha: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus: “Your brother will rise again!!”

Martha: “I know he will rise again at the resurrection at the last day.” The Pharisees believed in a future resurrection. They had gotten Martha that far already. So she repeats the party line.

Jesus: “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?”

He is asking her to believe him not just in a point of theology. Martha comes through too, “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”

F.D. Maurice, the great Anglican Theologian, said that the conversation between Martha and Jesus depressed him. How sad it is that after two thousand years, the church has gotten most Christens only to the point the Pharisees got Martha: resurrection in the future. Very few have ever gotten past the point of the Pharisees and made the leap that Jesus asked of Martha: resurrection NOW.

Robert Farrar Capon says, “It is perfectly plain in the Gospels: Jesus never meets a corpse that doesn’t sit up right on the spot. They rise because he is the Resurrection even before himself rises … .

Jesus don’t believe in resurrection,


Martha tells her sister, “The teacher is here and is calling for you.” Mary comes out quickly, followed by the other mourners. She also said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

Martha and Mary believed he could heal Lazarus when he was sick, but how he’s dead and even more he’s been dead more than three days!

[the Jews believed that a person’s spirit hung around for a while after dead. So he wasn’t completely dead for three days.]

They went to the tomb.
Jesus: “Open it up.”

Martha: “Not a good idea. He’s been dead for four days in this climate!

Jesus: “Open it up.” {They did.} “Lazarus come out!”


He was tied up in his shroud and wrappings.

Jesus: “Untie him and let him go.” {And they did} When Lazarus died he was with God. And then he hears Jesus calling him back from the dead. Do you realize that Lazarus literally met God coming and going!!! I just thought of that a few years ago.

Jesus is the resurrection and he doesn’t do funerals, just resurrections. Resurrection is not just some future event but resurrection is now!!! For those who believe, who can leap the leap — resurrection is now!!!

The story of Lazarus give us clues to every day resurrection:


UNCOVERY: Lazarus is buried. Jesus says open the tomb, Martha is horrified that there will be a smell.

And we too, when we are told to open up the secret tombs of our lives are horrified at what others and we might find and smell. The question is what’s dead? It’s like having an elephant in the living room. You walk around hugging the walls with this elephant in the middle of floor. But no one will say, “There’s an elephant in the living room.” Until someone speaks up nothing can happen.

The opposite of uncovering is denial.

DISCOVERY: The tomb is opened.

Jesus says, “Lazarus come out!” There is that long awful moment of silence, followed by muttering and a scene like revenge of the mummy when the shrouded corpse comes forth. When we begin to face our stuff, to hear the voice of Jesus say, “Come out”, we are afraid.

The opposite of discovery is fear.

RECOVERY: Unwrapping what is now alive, unwrapping the present (both the gift and the time), is a process that continues in this life and the life to come.

The opposite of recovery is death.

God doesn’t do for us what we can do for each other. We are called to do what we can do:

Uncover, Discover, And Recover.

God does do for us what not one of us can do for ourselves: raise us from the dead. Resurrection is up to God. All we can do is be dead. We will not raise ourselves by following the rules, getting our tickets punched.

The Gospel is about being in him here and now. The Good News is about eternal life, not endless calendar time. It is not calendar/what time is it, but Kairos/What is it time for? Like Lazarus, Jesus speaks to each of us —- insert your and my name in the _________________(Blank), COME FORTH!

This last sign of the book of Signs is but a sign of things to come.