Lent 5A: Heartache, Miracle, Invitation

John 11:1-45

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Once again we’re offered – or faced with, depending on your mood 🙂 – a really, really long story from the Gospel According to John. As with the earlier stories, it can be both helpful and effective to focus on a particular detail to help hearers enter the story as a whole and experience its evangelical force. This week, however, I was struck by the dramatic movement of the story and how following that movement can offer us an opportunity to take stock of, and participate in, God’s ongoing and dynamic action in the life of our congregations.

There are, I think, three major movements to this story. The first is heartache. Not just the heartache of Lazarus’ death, which was undoubtedly significant, but also the particular heartache of Jesus’ delay. Whatever his motives (v.4-5), Jesus’ delay intensifies the pain of Martha and Mary, both of whom begin their interactions with him by sharing their distress and perhaps even accusation using the exact same words: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.21, 32). This is pain, disappointment, and hurt, and it is something that every single one of us has experienced at some time in our lives.

The second element of this story is miracle. It comes first as a promise, though only later does the force of that promise take hold. When Jesus initially declares that Lazarus will be raised, Martha assumes he is speaking about the promised resurrection of all at the end of time and she gives her affirmation in words that sound like they come out of a first-century creed: “Yes, Lord, I know that he will rise again in the resurrection of the last day.” But Jesus means something more, something immediate, contending that the life he offers is not merely an end-times promise but something that makes a difference here and now. And that promise provokes from Martha the confession that Jesus is Messiah reserved only for Peter in the other gospels.

The miracle promised earlier in the story comes to fruition when Jesus comes to Lazarus’ tomb. One detects that he is not necessarily a welcome presence. Not only did both sisters confront him with their disappointment, but the crowd also voices their belief that if Jesus had cared more he would have come sooner and thereby averted this tragedy. Yet in the very midst of this disappointment and doubt, Jesus surprises them all, first with his command to remove the stone to Lazarus’ tomb and, second, with his call for Lazarus to come out. And Lazarus does. This is what we call a miracle, but in John’s Gospel is called a sign – something that reveals the character and commitment of God to God’s children. Interestingly, that miracle/sign provokes different reactions. Many of those present come to believe in Jesus (v.45). But in the verses that follow those of our appointed passage, this same miracle/sign prompts those who oppose him to plot his death (46-53).

I find it striking that even something that would seem as clear-cut as raising someone from the dead is not unambiguous. It demands interpretation, and while some are comforted and spurred to faith by Jesus’ miracle, others are threatened and hardened in their opposition. Further, I’ve wondered if this is always the way it is with God’s activity. That is, simply because God’s activity will change us, it will comfort some and threaten others. Even the promise of new life, that is, comes only as good news to those who recognizes that the old life is not enough and only threatens or upsets those who don’t want to change.

It would be tempting to end here, if only because there’s a lot to unpack in Jesus’ life-changing but disruptive miracle/sign and we might well want to tarry with how we are experiencing God’s activity in the midst of our own various heartaches. But the passage goes on to one further move: invitation. That is, even while the action to raise Lazarus from the dead is clearly and decisively Jesus’, yet he invites those around him to participate: “Unbind him and let him go” (v.44). I will confess that this is the part of the story that really grabbed my attention this week. I mean, Jesus did not have to issue that command. He might have gone over to Lazarus himself and unwrapped him, then given him a heartfelt and congratulatory smack on the back on his return from the dead. But rather than linger in the limelight of his miracle, Jesus invites those around to get involved, to play a part in seeing this miracle move forward. I think the same is true with us. We are not only called to be witnesses of God’s action in our lives, but also to be changed by what we see and thereby invited into the ongoing reality of what God is doing. God does the miracle, but God also gives us a part to play as it unfolds in our life.

All of which makes me wonder: where are you and your community in the movement of this story, a movement that I believe is not limited to this one story but can be traced throughout Scripture and, indeed, throughout the history of God’s people right up to and including the folks you will be preaching to this week. Is your community, Dear Partner, experiencing some element of heartache? If so, perhaps the promise of resurrection is what you are called to preach, a promise that we are perhaps used to assenting to but don’t always realize is making a claim and impact on us here and now. Are you witness to a miracle/sign of God’s activity that may not only prove life-giving but also disruptive and potentially divisive? If so, perhaps you can not only affirm those who recognize God’s movement and believe, but also comfort and challenge those who are anxious about the change that is afoot by reminding them that God’s work in our lives never leaves us unchanged and that God will accompany us into the unknown future. Or are you standing on the “other side” of the miracle, in awe of what God has done and is doing but not yet drawn in to participate. If so, perhaps it’s time to startle your community with the promise that God not only does miracles, but invites us to participate in them, in this way extending their impact and drawing others into the new reality they create.

This story is long, dramatic, and when all else is said, pretty awesome story. And here’s the thing: it’s not done yet. Your invitation and privilege, Dear Partner, is to tell it again this week and thereby invite your folks into the ongoing work of the One who is, indeed, the “resurrection and the life,” even here, even now. Thank you for your commitment to share that promise, and blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,


Post image: Giovanni di Paolo, “The Resurrection of Lazarus” (1426), detail.