Fear Not the Kingdom of God

March 9, 2008

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jn 11: 1-45

Westminster Tower

Dc. Larry Brockman

I’d like to start by thanking Chaplains Jane and Erin for inviting me.  I have found that this wonderful organization is the embodiment of what it means to be ecumenical.  They strive to do their utmost to encourage all the residents in their own individual faith experiences.   And yet, these Chapel services build that special sense of unity amongst all the faiths by sharing what’s common among us-  the living Word of God.    

Can you put yourself into the shoes of Lazarus?  My wife had a heart valve replaced six years ago.  She experienced one of those “near death experiences”.  Although she tries, she can’t quite communicate in words what she experienced.  But I can see in her eyes that it was something very special.  She talks about experiencing unbelievable joy.  And then, she was told that she was going back.  And I also know that she has not been the same.  No, she has a much deeper faith, and God and his will for her matter much more now than ever before.  I believe Lazarus had the same feeling.  Let me explain: 

In the culture of Jesus time,  It was generally believed that the soul left the body after 3 days.  So, by waiting as long as Jesus did, 4 days, nobody could claim that Lazarus had not died.  The Pharisees were, well, totally blown away.  And that explains why Jesus waited as long as he did.  It wasn’t because he didn’t know what would happen; and it wasn’t because he was insensitive to Martha and Mary.  No, it was because he wanted this incident to be clearly understood as a miracle; one that would give glory to God.  And He wanted to show them that he was who he said he was- The Son of God. 

This miracle was powerful- it moved and it touched many people.  And so, the Pharisees were frightened at the number of people Jesus had touched.  Ironically, the Pharisees fulfilled the parable in Luke’s gospel about another Lazarus.  This other departed Lazarus is told that:  “If they do not believe Moses and the Prophets; then neither would they be convinced if someone is raised from the dead”.  Indeed, the raising of Lazarus simply hardened the Pharisees; it didn’t convince them.  And they went away plotting to kill both Jesus- and Lazarus.     

Now it’s possible that one or so of you may have had a “near death experience” like my wife.  And you may have had the same kinds of feelings.  Because most of the people who have had the experience have one of two consistent paths to talk about- either stepping into the light, and incredible joy; or stepping into the darkness, and fear.  If so, you understand what Lazarus felt- rising, and stepping into the light with Jesus at the end of the tunnel!  And yet, I’ll bet that most of you have not had such an experience.  But, most of you have gone through a faith conversion.  You’ve accepted Christ as your savior, and you have been “born again”.  That brought you a feeling of indescribable joy.  And, you don’t want to go back.  There’s no happy return to that previous life.  Yes, all of you experience a resurrection of a kind, when you accept Jesus, and turn away from death to sin.   

But, there’s much more to the Lazarus story than that.  Because it also prefigures Christ’s Resurrection; a Resurrection to everlasting life.  In fact there are many parallels between the raising of Lazarus and the rising of Jesus.  First, there are mourning Mary’s in both stories-  Lazarus sister in this story, and the Mother of God in Jesus’ story.  The mourning Mary’s tell us something about faith.  In fact, both Martha and Mary showed great faith when they both independently said:  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Yet, it was limited faith- limited faith.  They understood that the body would be resurrected on the last day.  But they did not understand that only death brings resurrection to everlasting life,  And so, the death of Lazarus brings tears.   

In fact, the Bible says “And Jesus wept” (The shortest verse in the Bible).  Some say it was a natural human emotion from losing someone who was close to him.  Perhaps, but there’s another view.  You see, the death of Lazarus, and the whole scene surrounding Martha and Mary- the town, the Jews, the crowd, the whole scene- was a clear and unmistakable sign of the power of Satan.  The power to bring chaos between various factions and to cause physical death.  That could surely have caused Jesus to weep.  And raising Lazarus would show the Glory of God in the face of that evil;  Just as the raising of Jesus showed that Glory of God on Easter Sunday.   

Second, both were buried in a cave for three days.  I have already talked about what that meant to the Jews at the time- a perceived separation of the soul from the body, the certainty of death.  Then there’s the similarity in the burial clothes.  Both were wrapped head to foot and anointed.  But there is a difference, too.  Lazarus was raised with the burial clothes still on, symbolizing the fact that he was returning to physical life.  But Jesus clothes were carefully rolled up and left behind, symbolizing the new, everlasting life to which we are called.   

Lastly, the apostle Thomas is given a cynical role in each story.  His faith is found lacking in both stories- faith in the first case that Jesus can return to Judea lest he be captured by his enemies; and faith in the second case that Jesus was risen at all.  It would seem to us that Thomas, and indeed the other apostles were hard headed because over and over Jesus had foretold his story.  “I will suffer and die and be resurrected on the third day; I am the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in me will be saved”.  And yet they just didn’t get it.   

But do we get it either?  Do we understand what life and death are all about?  Have we really listened to what these Resurrection stories are telling us?  Be honest- the idea of death, certain that it is, is frightening, something that we don’t want to think about.  We don’t want to hear that we are going to suffer; and that we are going to die, even if we hear that we will be resurrected to everlasting life.  Because, most of all, we are afraid of death.   

I heard a preacher recently who said something very interesting.  He said that the bible tells us, in various ways, not to be afraid, 365 times- once for every day of the year.  Think about that.  We are consistently told not to be afraid; to believe in Jesus; to go where he leads you; and to be not afraid.    As we go into the last couple of weeks of Lent, reflect on whether you truly get it.  Whatever your circumstances- young or old; healthy or not; suffering or not; you are where you are today by the Grace of a loving God.  And you can resolve to believe in Him and trust him.  Be not afraid.  And imagine that you are Lazarus walking out of that grave. 

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