John 11:1-44 Common English Bible (Only select verses read)

Lazarus is ill

11 A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”

The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”

Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. 10 But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”

11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”

12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” 13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.

14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”

16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”

Jesus with Martha and Mary

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”

23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”

28 After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. 30 He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.

32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”

They replied, “Lord, come and see.”

35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb

38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”

40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?”41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

Sarah’s Message- Bethany: A Place for New Life

There’s so much that’s weird about this story. For starters, why did Jesus wait to go to Bethany? He gets word that his dear friend is dying, and he just hangs out for a couple of days. Part of what we skipped said that he waited and let Lazarus die on purpose so that God’s glory would be made known. That’s kind of awful. Maybe that’s just how the writer interpreted it, not really what happened. But either way, it’s weird.

Then there’s the question of a corpse being resuscitated. Was Lazarus really dead? Dead-dead? And then he came alive again? Four days later? Maybe he was in a coma. In which case it wasn’t as much of a miracle. It was more of a parlor trick. Because a dead person coming to life after four days doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know what to make of it. I just don’t know.

We’ve been learning in our gender classes, the one taught here by Laura and the ones on Wednesday nights, that when people tell you who they are or what they’ve experienced, we should believe them. So, for example, when someone tells us that their internal sense of gender doesn’t line up with their external presentation, we should believe them. When someone comes to us and says, I am a man. I have always been a man. I’ve looked like a woman, but I am a man, the only loving response is to believe them. When someone tells you who they are or what they’ve experienced, believe them.

I’ve had that refrain running in my head this week as I’ve read this story, and it’s been helpful. This is a story. People told it. For the people who told it, this story conveys what they experienced. A man who was dead was brought back to life. I believe them. I believe this is what they experienced, or that this is the best way they could find to describe something indescribable. They found a life not defined by death. I believe them.

And, that belief sits next to my disbelief. Which is how it is with a lot of the bible. You don’t quite know what to make of it. It’s confusing and kind of unbelievable, and yet I don’t want to let the story go, because there’s a lot I love about it even with its weirdness.

I love that when Martha and Mary are heartbroken, grieving, angry, they don’t cover it up. They’re honest about it. When their friend Jesus shows up, they both accuse him: if you’d been here, this wouldn’t have happened! They weep and they rage. And no matter how detached Jesus may have been on the way over, when he sees his friends in so much pain, he’s also upset, heartbroken, angry. So, we may not know about the resuscitation of a corpse, but we do know about this. We know about what it is to be heartbroken, or angry, or grieving.

These sisters are brave enough to tell the truth and be real. Jesus tells the truth. He’s sad and mad and real. Even though it’s messy. I love that about this story.

We’ve been talking about the biblical Bethany and our Bethany and where we see connections. This is one of those places. That honesty and messiness—I see that in our community, too.

This is a place where people tell the truth. Even when it’s messy and hard. We do it in small groups and bible study. Your leaders do it on session and deacons. We do it in our casual relationships, and deep friendships, and all together in worship. That’s part of our practice of testimony here in worship. When folks get up and share part of their lives like Amanda did last week and Susan will today the stories are never neat and tidy, things were bad, then I found God and it was all better. The stories are real and messy. There’s no formula. You never know what someone’s going to say when they stand up to share or raise their hands in prayer. And I love that. You don’t have to pretend here. Bethany is a place where we can be real.  

If our story for today ended with just Mary and Martha and Jesus all being real with each other, that would be enough. That would be a beautiful, powerful story.

But it doesn’t end there. In the midst of all this grief and pain and anger, Jesus goes to the tomb. And then the wild part happens: he says roll away the stone. He calls in a loud voice: Come out! And Lazarus comes out. And Jesus says, Unbind him; let him go.

Come out! Unbind him. These are words of life. I don’t know what happened that day, but these are words of life. Come out! Unbind him. Let her go. Whatever tomb you’re in. Whatever holds you trapped. Hear these words: come out! be set free!

If the Christian life is about anything, it’s about this: coming out of our tombs and being set free. This is what we mean when we talk about Jesus saving us.  

That language of being saved is hard for some of us. Because what are we being saved from in the first place?  Many of us don’t believe in an angry God that tortures people in hell, so do we really need to be saved? That’s a fair question, do we need to be saved?  What do we need to be saved from?

What do we need to be saved from? Shame? Too much work? Lies? Rage? What do you need to be saved from? Food? Alcohol? Abuse? The sinking feeling that you’re not good enough? What’s killing you? Cable news? The white supremacist, heteronormative, patriarchal, capitalist world order? What do you need to be saved from? Anxiety? Grief? Fear? These are our tombs.

The experience of three friends from Bethany was that when they were dying from fear and grief and anger, when they were literally dead, this voice called: Come out! Unbind her. Let him go. And they found life.

Jesus saved them. Barbara Brown Taylor helped me get my head around this in a new way. Instead of asking, have you been saved? She asks, “What’s saving your life right now?” Friends? Sleep? UberEats? That’s really just the miracle of food showing up on your doorstep. Sleep is the miracle of the restorative power of rest. Friends are the miracle of the presence of God incarnate.

What’s saving your life? What’s killing you? The voice of God is what calls us out of our tombs and into life.

That’s what happened that day at Bethany. It wasn’t just about Lazarus. They were all set free.

This story would be impossible to believe, except that I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it happen here at Bethany. I don’t mean the four day dead-dead corpse rising again. That sounds terrifying. I’m in this building alone a lot. I do not want to see a resuscitated corpse.

But I have seen people saved from what was killing them. I have seen life snatched from the jaws of death. I have seen people emerge from tombs.

This is a place where we can hear that voice that says, Come out! Come out! You are worth saving. Come out and be set free!

This is a place where we are told that we are holy, and beloved—for no other reason than that God said so.

This is a place for you to hear that you matter. You are enough.

This is a place to come out. Literally, if need be. If you have been told you are an abomination, that is the voice of death. This is a place of life. You are a beloved child of God.

This a place where you don’t have to believe the right things; there is no litmus test here. You are welcome. Period. This is a place to belong.

This is a place where we work on unwinding the stuff that still holds us bound. We work on our racism, and xenophobia, and sexism. We work on being judgmental and self-righteous. We want to be free of all that.

This is a place where you don’t have to pretend, especially if pretending has been killing you. You may be real here. And in being real, you will find life that is real and abundant. That’s been my experience.

This is a place where if you are weary, brokenhearted, or just plain broken, you are welcome to rest and be fed. You don’t have to earn your keep. This is a place of life.

This is a place to hear that voice that calls, Come out!

This is a place to practice saying those words to others: come out! Be free!

This is a place to find life, a life that is not defined by death. A life that calls us out of our tombs and saves us.