5th Sunday of Lent
S. Lent 5.20 “Though He Die…” John 11:17-27, 38-53
Jesus says: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” And we love to hear that. Good news. Welcome news. But then He adds: “Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” And we go: “Uhm, wait. Hold on. “Even though he die?”! Whoa! What? Rewind, Jesus! What do you mean “even though we die?” You said believers never die; and, quite frankly, I liked the sound of that better! So which is it: will we die or not die?”
And Jesus says: “Yes.” And grins. An inscrutable grin. A bit… unsettling.
The first person who heard Jesus say this was his friend Martha. She was a little… put out with Jesus, shall we say, nicely? Pretty hopping mad at Jesus is probably a more accurate summation of Martha’s mood. We need to remember this, to fully make sense of the situation: Martha, along with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus, were “special friends” of Jesus. They were the three he just seemed to like hanging out with, a frequent guest in their home in Bethany, near Jerusalem. Does Jesus have favorites? Well, as a matter of fact, he seems to have. And Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were leaders in that clubhouse. An enviable place to be right?
Well, not so fast. When Lazarus got a mild, flu-like illness, that started with a sore throat, cough, fever, but suddenly turned into a weird sort of pneumonia, the sisters sent for Jesus saying, in the NIV: “Lazarus is real sick. It could be the Corona(!) and he has some underlying respiratory ailments that make him high risk. Jesus! Get here, quick!” And they figure because they have a “special relationship”, Jesus will drop everything and rush to Lazarus’ bedside and do “the magic hands” thing that he does better than baby Yoda.
But… Jesus does not do this(!). Instead, Jesus goes, real laconic: “For most people, the coronavirus is just a mild, flu like illness that’s no big deal. This will not actually lead to death but to the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And the disciples go “Huh?” And Jesus just stays where he’s at, a couple more days. He doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything. Just loafing. And after two days, he says: “Let’s go to Judea.” And the disciples are like: “Judea’s under lockdown for the Corona. It’s banned. It’s non-essential travel. Besides, everyone hates you there and tried to kill you on your last visit, if you will recall?”
Jesus replies, (yawning): “we have to walk in the light; oh, and our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep but I’m going to wake him up”. And the disciples (in a verse I treasure!) go: “you know, sleep is the best remedy for the Corona. Not a lot else you can do, really. Probably we should just stay and let him rest.” And Jesus goes “Lazarus has died, and for your sake, I’m glad that I wasn’t there, so that you may believe.” The disciples go “But…you said it wasn’t deadly!”Thomas goes “let’s go that we may die with him. Because the only thing about the Zombie Apocalypse when it comes…” and the other disciples go: “Yeah, we’ve seen your t-shirt. But didn’t you think, seriously, there’d be more Zombies in the Zombie Apocalypse?”
So this is why Martha comes in a little hot. “This is Your fault, Jesus! If you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died, but even now, I know you can fix it.” She’s re-thinking whether it’s an advantage or a disadvantage to be a “special friend” of Jesus. She’s thinking the answer is “Yes.” Jesus smiles and says “Lazarus will rise again.” And Martha’s like, “Yeah, yeah, sure, sure—in the Resurrection, at the Last Day. Like we learned in Saturday School. Great.” And Jesus says His line about being the Resurrection and the Life and that whoever believes in Him, even though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Him will never die. Does Martha believe that?
And Martha’s like: “I’m confused whether believers live or die; and I know, like Luther, if I ask, You’ll just say: “Yes,” and grin at me, inscrutably. And Jesus grins at her. Inscrutably. And Martha, after an awkward silence, says, “OK, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” And Jesus grins at her. Inscrutably. Martha, not tremendously happy, stomps off and finds Mary and says “The Teacher is here and calling for you.” Even though, actually, the Teacher wasn’t calling for anyone. He was just standing there. Grinning. Inscrutably. But Mary was always the favorite of the favorites and if she got the tears going, anything was possible…
And her tears got Jesus, so much so, that, for the only time in the Bible, Jesus wept. And you heard the rest. He goes to the cave, orders the stone rolled away, is unconcerned about the stench or the risk of airborne transmission of the Corona that killed Lazarus and says “Lazarus, get out here!” And Lazarus, wrapped like the mummy in the opening credits of the old Jonny Quest cartoon (which I love) comes stumbling out. Jesus says, “loose him, and let him go.” And the chief priest and Pharisees gather together, more than 10 of them, but social distancing and hand washing and say: “This has got to stop. If we let this guy keep holding services without social distancing like us, the Romans will come and take away everything.” Caiaphas says “Better that we just kill Jesus now; better one should die for all the people, lest we all perish.”
Which is really stupid! Why would you want to kill the One Guy in all the world who can raise the dead? Such stupidity! Sure glad that doesn’t happen today, that we’d never shut down the one place, in all the world, that connects us directly with Jesus, granting herd immunity from sin, death, and all ills.(!)
But, frightened people do dumb things. FDR was right that fear itself is more fearful than war, death, and plagues. It makes even Christians do dumb things…
But Jesus anticipates all our dumb moves, makes them serve him. He let us kill him, so that dying, he would destroy death, once and for all; and rising to life again, he would open the door to Eternal Life.
Which brings us back to Martha’s conundrum: will believers live or die? Well, “YES!” I’m not going to kid you about our safety precautions. Any of us could die, anytime. My son has me as the 13 seed you don’t want to play in the 1st round of his “corona bracket”. Church isn’t a magic charm giving death immunity. She dispenses the medicine of immortality that guarantees a good death, a dying with Jesus. But, it’s only when we’ve learned to die—with Jesus!—that we can really live, with faith toward God, love for neighbor, courage in the face of devils, diseases; with an inscrutable grin; like Jesus…(!)
I want to be clear on this: coming to church to hear the Word and receive the Sacrament can never hurt you, can only benefit you in soul and body. You have Jesus’ Word on IT! Believe Him! But if, out of respect for government, high-risk, concern for family, health, you stayed home this morning, maybe listening online, saying Matins, reading the Bible, it’s all good. No bad choices today, just difficult ones, all with cons. Whether here, at home, locked up or locked down, Jesus will find you. Even in the grave, he’ll track you down, like Lazarus.
It’s not our good choices that save, but Jesus’. If we die, he’s got us. If we live, it’s for him. Even when all hope is gone, when the grave door slams on us, his “come forth” will raise us, grant us Peace, Joy, surpassing understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Forever. Amen.