04/06/14 Sermon (April 6, 2014) “Taking Away the Stone"

posted Apr 22, 2014, 12:16 PM by David Hawkins   [ updated Apr 22, 2014, 12:17 PM ]

Scripture Reading: John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.

So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

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.

But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”

The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”  Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.

Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “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?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

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.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.

Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 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.

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.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?”

They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 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.”

Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.”

When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”

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

(after the reading)

“We live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God.”

Sermon: "Taking Away the Stone"             Rev. David Hawkins

It seems like every time Jesus goes near the town of Jerusalem, something goes wrong. He ends up leaving town in a big hurry. His ministry is blocked by people who are offended by the words he says and the things he does.

Now, we have to admit that sometimes Jesus does and says things that make it easy for folks to be offended. Going into the temple and driving out the money changers, like he did at the beginning of John’s Gospel, probably had something to do with the fact that Jesus wasn’t all that welcome in town.

But whatever it is, we see throughout this Gospel Jesus returning to Jerusalem over and over, only to find the door closed to him. He is turned away, again and again, sometimes under the threat of death.

In fact, the last time he was shut out of Jerusalem was not too long ago in chapter 10. Jesus had irritated some of the crowds by his answers to their questions, especially by his claim that he was God’s son. This was enough for them to threaten to stone him to death for blasphemy. Jesus barely escaped with his life.

And so we can understand a little bit of Jesus’ reluctance to go anywhere near Jerusalem any time soon, even if his friend Lazarus is sick. It’s too dangerous for him there. It’s too dangerous for his disciples. They are simply not welcome.

But when Jesus begins to think that his friend Lazarus is dead, he changes his mind. Which seems very strange to the disciples. After all, now there’s even less of a reason to go back. What good can he possibly do? The time when Jesus could actually have done something had long passed. All he can hope to accomplish now is to offer some words of consolation to Mary and Martha, and that hardly seems worth the risk of being killed. Bethany is just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem, and things have a tendency to go wrong the closer Jesus gets to the big city. It looks like it’s a fool’s journey. There is nothing for him in Bethany. That door is closed to him.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to care. He’s going back, even it means taking the chance that the religious leaders in Jerusalem might find out he’s close by. He’s going back, because closed doors and roadblocks don’t seem to matter much to him. He’s going back, because he loves Lazarus, and he’s going to do whatever it takes to be with him, even if it means putting himself in harm’s way.

When Jesus gets to the edge of town, his worst fears are realized. Lazarus is indeed dead, and Martha is deeply disappointed in him. If he had been there, she says, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s an understandable feeling. I think most of us know what Martha is talking about. God, if you were really with me, you wouldn’t have let my daughter die. God, if you loved me, I wouldn’t have cancer. God if you exist, why do you allow bad things to happen to us, and to the ones we love?

These are the kinds of questions we ask in the time of our deepest grief. These are the questions we ask our pastors, and these are questions our pastors ask themselves. And the hard thing is, there are no answers to these questions. Even Jesus doesn’t try to answer the questions that Martha has for him Why did Lazarus have to die? Where was Jesus? Does Jesus even care?

Instead, all Jesus can do is remind Martha of her faith. Because sometimes, faith is all we have. Sometimes, in the face of all the evidence that God has forgotten us, it’s only faith that helps us remember that God still loves us and cares for us and grieves with us.

And Jesus does grieve with Martha. He knows what Martha is feeling, because he feels it as well. Jesus knows very well the meaning of death. Death is a bitter and implacable enemy. Death is permanent. Once the stone of death has been rolled into place, there is no going back. Death cannot be overcome, cannot be healed, cannot be reconciled. It is the final word.

Except for one thing.

Death is not the final word. As powerful as death is, as real, and as inevitable as death is, God is still more powerful than death. God has the final word, and that Word is Jesus Christ.

There is no stone big enough to block Jesus from reclaiming his friend Lazarus. There is no tomb deep enough or dark enough to keep Jesus from finding him, and bringing him back into the light. There is no prison, not even the prison of death, that can prevent Jesus from liberating those he loves.

The ministry of Jesus Christ is, and always has been one of liberation. Liberation from sin, liberation from demons, liberation from blindness, liberation from pain, liberation from sorrow, even liberation from death. Jesus came into the world in order to free it. Jesus came to roll the stones of our tombs away.

But we are not always ready for these stones to be taken from us. This sort of liberating freedom is scary, and threatening. And when word of Jesus rolling away the stone in Bethany reaches the religious leaders in Jerusalem they immediately look for ways to roll it right back into place. This cannot be allowed to continue, they say. We have to put a stop to it.

Because for a lot of people, faith is not about freedom. Faith is about rules. Faith is about the law. Faith is about litmus tests and codes of behavior. After all, who knows what might happen if we let this crazy preacher, this loose cannon Rabbi in Bethany tear down our carefully constructed theology, our systematic doctrine?

No, we have to stop it now. Even if this Jesus has to die, it’s better that one man die, if it saves the nation from the chaos that would be unleashed by his so-called ‘Good News’.

Jesus hears about their  plans, and wisely decides to leave town. And so, once again, the doors to Jerusalem have been shut in Jesus’ face. The stone has been once more rolled into place, and Jesus has been kept from entering the city.  

But not for long. In just a few days, Jesus will knock once more at the city gates. They will be opened, and he will be welcomed with the shouts and songs of cheering crowds waving palm branches, a procession to rival the entry of a king.

And his very presence will drive the religious and civil authorities to finally complete their plans to rid themselves of this troublesome teacher. The threat of his liberating ministry will finally be eliminated. Order will be restored. The radical ideas and the dangerous teachings of this false Messiah will be shut up in the tomb, a rock will seal it, and the voice of this Christ Jesus will finally be silenced, once and for all time.

But it won’t stay like that, will it? Jesus has this habit of rolling those stones away.

Regardless of the roadblocks that have been placed before us in our lives, regardless of the doors that have been shut in our faces, even in our deepest grief, our loneliest despair, Jesus Christ promises us life, not just rising again sometime in the future, at the end of time, but new life, right here and now, in the present circumstances of our everyday lives. Jesus has taken the stone away for good and calls each of us out of our tombs into the light, and he can’t wait to unwrap the cords that bind us.

All we need to do is listen for his voice.  

Thanks be to God. Amen.