Resurrection and Life (4/2/17)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Text:  John 11:1-45 (The Message)

One more long and complex tale from the writer of John. As with the others we have covered in this Lenten season, we could spend several weeks trying to unpack this story and still not come to any definite conclusions about the many difficult questions it raises. What thoughts and feelings come up for you as you’ve heard this old, familiar story read one more time?

I already vented, in this week’s Midweek Message, my frustration with Jesus choosing to delay going to the home of his dear friends when one of them was sick and dying. This is not the way friends ought to treat friends, is it? From my very human perspective, it doesn’t seem to serve God’s glory for Jesus to increase the suffering of his friends by his absence. But nearly every commentator gives some well-argued explanation for Jesus’ delay. There is also powerful good news in this challenging story.

Several authors, commenting on this text, are puzzled that the story only occurs in John’s gospel. It is strange that such a remarkable tale would not be a big part of the Jesus’ story in one or more other account. Is it possible, as some commentators suggest, that, rather than being an account of an actual event in the life of Jesus, it is instead a well-told allegorical tale. Perhaps, it is a tale woven by John and his community on the claim, familiar to them, that Jesus was “the resurrection and the life.” Without going into all the details of the argument, I will say this makes some sense to me.

Surely, the ancient story turns on Jesus’ proclamation to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” There can be little doubt that John was making a case for Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. In John’s account, this last miracle, this final sign was the one that pushed the religious authorities over the brink, that led them to plot actively to do away with Jesus. His willingness to speak truth to power, along with his growing popularity, was more than they could take. It threatened to dismantle their whole comfortable way of life – a way of life built on collaborating with the Romans to keep the hated pax romana and to maintain their wealth and power over the lower classes of their own people. Jesus’ proclamation and practice of God’s deep love for the poor and outcast made no sense to them. Surely, the poor and sick and outcast had chosen their way of life and brought their misfortunes on themselves.

Tom Wright says that the word Bethany means, literally, “house of the poor.” He writes of the village that ”there is some evidence that it was just that: a place where poor, needy and sick people could be cared for; a kind of hospice a little way outside the city.” He continues, “Jesus had been there before, perhaps several times. He may have had a special affection for the place and it for him, as he demonstrated again and again his own care for those in need, and assured them of the promise of the kingdom in which the poor would celebrate and the sick be healed” (Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part Two, p. 4).

When Jesus made the journey to the big city, he didn’t stay in a suite at “Herod Tower” or “Pilate’s Palace.” He stayed with his friends, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in Bethany; he hung out with his people at the “house of the poor.” Of course, this makes it all the more curious that he didn’t respond quicker to the news from Mary and Martha. But sticking with allegory argument, let’s assume there were lessons to be learned in the unfolding of this text.

Tom Wright, again, suggests that Jesus tarried in the wilderness to pray. He had withdrawn there after his conflict with the religious authorities over his healing of the one born blind and his controversial teaching in the temple (John 9 and 10). He knew that the religious authorities were plotting against him; he needed to consider carefully whether or not he would be following God’s plan by returning to the city at this point. Wright says, “He was praying for Lazarus, but he was also praying for wisdom and guidance as to his own plans and movements” (Tom Wright, op. cit. p. 3). Note that, when he tells the disciples that he is going, their response is, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The religious leaders are out to kill you, and you’re going back?” In the end, dear old “Doubting Thomas” is the one who speaks up with a kind of resigned courage, “Come along. We might as well die with him.”

It’s a mixed bag – God’s glory, strategic praying, setting up the sign, teaching something about deep faith and patience with God’s timing, maybe a mixture of each – caused Jesus’ delay, but eventually he did show up. Once he was on the scene, he had three significant encounters – one with each of his three friends. On hearing that he was finally on his way, Martha hurried out to meet him. She cautiously scolded him for not coming sooner while holding fast to her faith in him. “All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.” “Even now, I know that whatever you ask, God…will give you.” Once more a woman of deep faith is rewarded for her insight and belief. He shared with her this greater, deeper truth, “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even    though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all.”

Next, he encountered Mary and the company of mourners. Deeply distressed by their pain and suffering he joined in their weeping. Many have argued that his tears were evidence of Jesus’ true humanity. In John’s view, this is true, but it is not enough. Remember that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Holy One in human form. The transforming power of this statement for those first readers, and, perhaps, for us, is not just the claim that “Jesus wept” but by extension the realization that “God wept.”

Dan Clendenin argues that “the God whom Christians worship is not a remote and aloof ‘sky god’ somewhere way out there…{God is] a tender God who is deeply moved, even grieved, by anything and everything that threatens our human well-being. This compassionate and empathetic nature of God is the reason why the Scriptures encourage us to bring to [God] every anguish, confusion, anger, perplexity, and anxiety” (Daniel B. Clendenin, “Jesus Wept,” March 9, 2008, The great God of the universe by which all was created, the God supposed to be above and beyond all human feeling and vulnerability was found weeping in the house of the poor. God reached down and touched the pain and God wept with God’s people.

Finally, Jesus stood before the stone-cold tomb, perhaps considering that he will soon occupy just such a cave behind a rolled stone. There he called his friend by name, “Lazarus, come out!” Instead of a stinking, rotting corpse, Lazarus came forth healed and whole. Resurrection and life! The great God of the universe, who has been known to weep with her people, proclaims a resounding “no” to death and all that kills and an eternal “yes” to life in all its abundance. This is indeed God’s plan – that Jesus, the Christ, gives his life to bring all life into the fullness of its being.

My friend, Peter Carman wrote today’s opening hymn for seven lesbian and gay friends who had come out. It was written as an anthem of liberation for lgbtqia people, but it is also a song of freedom for anyone who has ever felt themselves locked in a closet or sealed in a tomb. Does it speak to you at all on this day?

When I was hid in secrets,
I could not find the day:
enclosed in self-deception,
my spirit slipped away.
In pain I sought to slumber,
bone weary, still, alone,
until at last you found me,
and called me through the stone.

If John’s tale – allegory or not – holds any truth, it is this: by name, the Resurrection and Life calls to us and sets us free, rolls away the stone from every tomb and liberates us from every closet. We come out healed and whole, proclaiming the glory of God, and we carry the good news with us wherever we go. Thanks to the Creator, Christ, and Breath of Life. Amen.

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We are a progressive Baptist Church affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA. We have been in Palo Alto since 1893. We celebrate our Baptist heritage. We affirm the historic Baptist tenets of: Bible Freedom, Soul Freedom, Church Freedom, Religious Freedom

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