Scripture: John 11:1-46
Last week a friend of mine was on vacation in Norway. She’s turning 40 later this year and she told me this was a bucket list trip for her – she’d always wanted to see the Northern Lights. Which got me thinking about bucket lists. If you’re not familiar with the term, a bucket list is a list of things you want to do before you die – before, as we say, you kick the bucket. (Hopefully my friend who’s turning 40 has a little more time, of course, but you can’t leave them all to the end.)
So tell me – what’s on your bucket list?
After my friend told me about her trip, I started thinking again about what’s on my bucket list. I’d like to go to Antarctica one way – to have made it to all seven continents in my lifetime. I’ve always wanted to get a Ph.D., and I’d really like to live abroad for some period of time. Honestly, some of those things at this point might be more fantasy than goal – it got me thinking that maybe I need to start putting some smaller-scale (and more affordable) items on the list.
In any case, the idea behind having a bucket list is that life should be lived differently in light of the reality that we will one day die. Recognizing that our time on earth is limited inspires us to do the things we’ve always hoped to do someday, because we know we’re not going to have forever to do them. Life is given new meaning, life becomes richer and fuller, in the long shadow of death.
In today’s Scripture passage, though, it’s different: instead of life being given new meaning in the face of death, life is given new meaning in the face of life.
As always, let’s go back to the beginning. We’re spending this season between Epiphany and Lent this year with Jesus’ “I am” sayings– the seven images he uses in the Gospel of John to reveal some aspect of his identity – and asking what they tell us about Jesus and what that means for us. We’ve heard Jesus tell us so far that he is the light of the world, the good shepherd, the gate for the sheep, and the bread of life.
Today the scene shifts to Jesus and his disciples, hanging out somewhere that is not Jerusalem or the surrounding region of Judea, where the religious establishment has already tried to have him stoned for heresy. The story begins with a message from Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha, who live in Judea, in a town just outside Jerusalem called Bethany. You may know Martha and Mary already from a scene in the Gospel of Luke, where Martha serves Jesus dinner and complains that her sister isn’t helping while Mary listens to Jesus teach – but this is the first time we’ve met them in John, and the first mention of their brother Lazarus, who Jesus apparently also loves. Lazarus, the message says, is very sick.
Maybe you’ve gotten a call like that sometime in your life. The message Jesus gets doesn’t include a demand or a request, but the expectation is there – when you get that call, circumstances allowing, you go. And yet Jesus doesn’t go. He says something instead about all of this being for God’s glory, and he waits. As many times as I’ve read this story, I have to admit that the seeming callousness of that still gets to me. Taking your time to prove some sort of point, however lofty that point may be, just does not seem like the most pastoral response to me. But he’s Jesus, and I am not.
Two days later he decides it’s time to go, though his disciples object because, after all, last time he was in Jerusalem they did try to stone him; and by the time they get to Judea, Lazarus has already been dead for four days. I’ve read in some places that according to popular Jewish belief at the time, a person’s spirit hovered over their body for three days when they died. In any case, the point here is that there’s no mistaking it, Lazarus is good and dead. The mourners have gathered at Mary and Martha’s house; they’ve brought their casseroles; the haze that often seems to appear when someone dies has begun to lift and the reality of death has begun to set in. There is – so we think – no going back.
Jesus hasn’t even gotten to the house when Martha runs out to intercept him and, without so much as saying shalom, says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.” There’s no mistaking the accusation in her voice, and again, I’m sure a lot of us have been there, blaming others in our grief, blaming ourselves: if only. Of course, in this case, she’s right. But then Martha adds, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” I find this depiction of Martha really poignant, both lashing out in her grief and straining to say the right thing, to hold onto the faith she knows she is supposed to have.
Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha says, “Yes, I know he will rise again on the last day.” Some Jews at that time, not all, did believe in the resurrection of the righteous at the end of time, and Martha seems to cling to that, or at least make this statement of faith that she knows is the right thing to say, but again, you can almost hear what she doesn’t dare to say: But that’s the last day, what about now, I need hope now. And, again, maybe you’ve been there, where all the things people say to comfort you in a time of grief just aren’t really that comforting at all.
Jesus knows this. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says to Martha – his fifth “I am” saying in John’s Gospel. “Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” These words are still part of our funeral liturgy. What exactly Jesus means by them is not yet clear, but he asks Martha whether she believes them, and she says she does. Whether she really does in that moment or not, she seems to know the conversation is over.
Martha goes back to get Mary and, when Mary comes, those gathered mourners come with her. She levels the same accusation at Jesus that her sister did: “If you had come sooner, this wouldn’t have happened.” When Jesus sees her crying and all the mourners crying, John tells us he was “greatly disturbed in spirit.” The Greek actually makes it clear that he is angry, though at what, nobody can agree on: is it the apparent lack of faith he sees? The presence of the mourners encroaching on this scene? Or could it be at death itself and the pain that it lends to the human experience? John tells us next that, after Jesus asks to be led to the place where Lazarus is buried, he begins to weep. Again, we might ask, why? Is the reality of his friend’s death hitting him – even being in control of what comes next? Is he struck by the raw grief of Lazarus’s sisters?
Jesus approaches the tomb and says, “Roll away the stone.” They do. Jesus gives thanks to God and then calls into the emptiness, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus does – still wrapped in grave clothes.
What does this scene remind you of?
We’re in chapter 11 here, but in chapter 12, Jesus will enter Jerusalem for the last time, riding on a donkey and greeted by crowds waving palm branches, and head toward his own death. This story of the raising of Lazarus is a clear foreshadowing of things to come, right down to the iconic stone rolled away from the tomb. But there are differences, too: while Lazarus was raised by Jesus, Jesus was raised by and through his own divine power; Jesus’ grave clothes were found in the tomb, neatly folded, while Lazarus stumbles out of the tomb like a bewildered mummy.
I’ve heard it said that the raising of Lazarus should be called a resuscitation, not a resurrection. This is not the resurrection that Martha spoke of that was to take place at the end of time. This is a guy who was raised from the dead to, presumably, one day die again. Lazarus will still start to stoop a little as he gets old and get arthritis in his hands and begin to forget things more and more; this is not the transformed, resurrected, eternal body that Jesus promises us by his own example.
So I’ve sometimes struggled a little with what this story is supposed to mean, this resurrection before the resurrection that isn’t really resurrection at all.
But maybe that’s the point – that when Jesus tells Martha “I am the resurrection and the life,” he means both life and resurrection, now and later. Martha believed that her brother would rise on the last day. But she needed hope now. She needed life now. And that’s what Jesus offered, both to Lazarus and to her.
A few weeks ago Jesus told us that he was the Good Shepherd and, he said, “I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” At the time I defined “abundant life” as life lived fully in the love and grace of God. But let’s flesh that out a little bit. What do you think of when you hear the phrase “abundant life”? What does it look like to have abundant life right here and right now?
Here’s what I think it looks like:
I think it looks like forgiving someone who’s hurt you, whether or not your relationship with that person stays the same. I think it looks like keeping the Sabbath when your job expects you to work 80 hours a week and be on call for the rest of them. I think it looks like actually daring to know and believe that you are lovable and loved as you are. I think it looks like leaving water for migrants in the desert even knowing you might get arrested for it. I think it looks like refusing to demonize people you disagree with, even while you stand up for what you believe is right. These are the kind of things that you can’t just check off a bucket list. These are the kind of things that require you to die to something old in order to find life in something new.
Death, the power of death that Jesus defeats both in the raising of Lazarus and finally in his own resurrection, isn’t just about physical death. It’s about everything – the fear, the pressure, the complacency, the self-doubt, the self-righteousness – that separate us from abundant life. As one of my commentaries put it, “Jesus defeats the power of death because in him the world meets the power of love incarnate.” And therefore, the same writer says, the church’s job is “to claim that God’s life-giving power in Jesus is the power that determines the believer’s existence, not the power of death.”
We talked about our bucket lists, about how we might live our lives differently when we live them in the face of death. But how would you live your life differently if you lived it less in light of your own eventual death – and more in light of the life that Jesus offers, both after you die and right now?
And believe me, I’m not knocking traveling or skydiving or anything else that might add fun and adventure or a sense of accomplishment into our lives. I still want to do some of them! But in the end, it isn’t those bucket list items that really make for abundant life.
But let’s bring this back to the question we’re asking in this season of the church year, which is not just what we’re supposed to do but who Jesus is. As the writer Rob Fuquay put it, “Jesus didn’t say ‘I can give you resurrection and life.’…Instead he said, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’ He is New Life. We find it in him. We experience it in the God we can know.”
As for Lazarus, I suppose he died again one day. But I also bet that the rest of his life was never the same – and neither was Martha’s, or Mary’s. Because they knew, now, that something in this world was stronger than death – they knew the Someone who is Resurrection and Life itself – and so they lived, not in the grip of fear and hopelessness, but in the power of love that wins. They lived like even death itself led to life again.
At least, that’s how I hope the rest of the story went. It’s what I hope for them, and for you, and for me.
 Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 687.
 O’Day, p. 694-695.
 Rob Fuquay, The God We Can Know: Exploring the “I Am” Sayings of Jesus, p. 115