lazarus-tombSermon for 5th Sunday in Lent  -  

Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California
The Rev. Eric Shafer, Senior Pastor

The gospel texts these last Sundays have something in common – they are all long! Today’s gospel is no exception as you have just heard – 45 verses. But, these are 45 very important verses, perhaps among the most important verses in all of the gospels.

The gospels record only two people rising from the dead. Jesus Christ is one of these. We will celebrate Jesus’ resurrection again soon on Easter. Today’s text from St. John’s gospel tells us the story of the other resurrection, of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. A very important story for us Christians.

I always struck by the miracle stories in the gospels. I often wonder why Jesus performs a particular miracle at a particular time and place. Often when Jesus carries out these miracles, there are many other people who could be healed, some even laying or sitting near Jesus when he chooses to perform a miracle for a specific person. So, I wonder why does Jesus choose to do the miracles he does and how does he decide on the person or persons to be healed?

Usually, the answer to these questions lays both in the text and context of the miracle story. Today’s miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead, the biggest of Jesus’ ministry on earth, is no exception.

In the text we learn that Lazarus is Jesus’ friend. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, are among those closest to Jesus. We can assume that no one is closer to Jesus outside of his disciples, Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother. Jesus heals Lazarus, he raises Lazarus from the dead, because Lazarus and his two sisters are among Jesus’ best friends.

But, as is often the case with Jesus’ miracles, there is much more going on here than just a close friendship. As usual, Jesus is making an important point, theological and practical, when he raises Lazarus from the dead.

At this point in John’s gospel, Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem in what he must know will be his capture and death. But, somehow, the disciples and others following him are not getting it. They do not seem to understand what is about to happen and why. They do not even seem to understand, at least sometimes, that Jesus is who he is. Thus, Jesus needs a dramatic moment, something to get their full attention, in this case, a very dramatic miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead. You do not get any more dramatic and majestic than that!

Commentators write that this miracle is not just or even principally what is seems. It is not really about giving Lazarus a new lease on life, even though that happens in this story. What this miracle is about is this: First, it is a response to a request from people, Mary and Martha, people who Jesus dearly loved. Second, this miracle is part of Jesus’ journey to death and resurrection and, finally, it is a sign by which people might come to believe. Friendship, that is love, a stop in Jesus’ journey to death and resurrection, and a sign of who Jesus really is. That is the back-story, so to speak, about this miracle, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

Other commentators point out the two miracles in this story, one obvious and one less than obvious. The obvious miracle is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The less obvious miracle, so to speak, is Jesus weeping over his dead friend. Think of this new picture of God, a radical change from the picture of God is Jesus’ day and even, perhaps, in ours: This one sent from God not only performs miracles because he can, but also because he loves the lives he touches. Jesus shows us a new picture of God, a God who cares and mourns. This is not a God who, from on high, tells us to quit whining and get on with our lives. This is a God, Jesus, who does his grief work, and promises to help us do ours as well.

Some of you may remember Rabbi Harold Kushner who had a best selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, some years ago. Well, Kushner, in s more recent book, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, suggests that there are three things that help us find meaning in our lives, that can bring relevance to our faith.

First, Kushner writes, we must accept the reality of pain in our lives. It is unhealthy to overprotect ourselves and our families from death, for example. The disciples were not different than we often are. They had such a difficult time accepting that Lazarus was gone that Jesus finally had to say it plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” Death is part of living, grieving those who have died is part of living as well.

Second, Kushner says that we need to belong to others. When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, what does Jesus do? Jesus tells everyone present to help unbind Lazarus’ grave clothes. Everyone in the gathered community must help to complete Jesus’ miracle. Lazarus could not do it by himself. He needed the gathered community of faith to unbind him and restore him to life. What a great description of our mission as Christians in these communities we call congregations – to unwrap the grave clothes that keep people from being restored to new life.

Third, finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, Kushner suggests that when we seek meaning in our lives we can find meaning by trying to make a difference in this world. That our lives will find meaning in this world through compassion and justice.

Several years ago I heard the Christian musician Peder Eide who played at the congregation I was then serving. In his afternoon concert, Peder shared his song, “Roll the Stone Away.” When I saw the song title, I assumed that it was an Easter song, about the stone sealing Jesus’ tomb. No, in “Roll the Stone Away,” Peder is not singing about Easter Sunday and the stone at the door of Jesus’ tomb. No, Peder sings of today’s gospel lesson, imagining Jesus singing at the door of Lazarus’ tomb:

“Roll the stone away, God’s glory will be shown
Roll the stone away, what I say is true
Roll the stone away, see the wonder God can do
Roll the stone away, got no other choice
Roll the stone away, Lazarus’ got to rise, God’s got to hear my voice.”

When Peder sings these words in concert, images flash on the screen behind him, images of the poor and needy in the USA and around the world. Peder’s purpose is crystal clear and illustrates Kushner’s third point perfectly: As Christians, we need to roll the stone away from our ears and hearts so that we can hear the cries of the poor and needy and find true meaning in this world through reaching out to the poor and needy with compassion and justice.

When the stone is rolled away from our hearts and lives we can help others unbind themselves, just like the community did for Lazarus. After we roll the stones away in our own lives, we can help unbind others, help to remove the blocks in others lives, blocks that prevent them from loving themselves and others.

One of the reasons that both my wife, Kris, and I were attracted to this congregation is your service to this community and how this congregation’s facilities are a community center, perhaps THE community center for this part of the city of Santa Monica. A lot happens here every day of the week and many of these activities serve the poor and needy. I only hope we can even grow these sorts of outreach, ones that serve those who others ignore.

Today’s gospel text, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, challenges us to do even more to reach out to the poor and needy.

Today’s text also asks us a more basic question, perhaps the most basic question: What miracle do we, you and I, need for and in our lives today? What stone needs to be rolled away from our minds and hearts so that we can become more compassionate to and for others, so that we can reach out more in love to each other and those around us, those we know and love and those who are strangers to us. Do we need to put aside selfishness? Is there a past hurt from a family member or friend that we should put aside? What are the blocks for us to seek justice, compassion and love for others, the real meaning of the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, the real purpose of the Christian church?

Roll the stone away, O Lord, from our hearts and minds, today and all days.


The Rev. Eric Shafer
Senior Pastor
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California


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