Sermon - Fifth Sunday in Lent (4/7/2019)
Is. 43:16-21; Ps. 126; Phil. 3:4b-14; Jn. 12:1-8
“Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, to the home of Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those interviews where someone is asked, If you could invite five people to a dinner party, living or dead, whom would you invite? For me, I think I’d like to have been a fly on the wall at the dinner party described in this morning’s gospel reading. Let me try to explain why this particular dinner is so fascinating to me.
First, it takes place not long after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. You probably recall that story. Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, live in a town called Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem. Somehow Jesus knows them and has had a connection with them for a long time. When Jesus and his disciples hear that Lazarus is sick, some of the disciples of Jesus warn him: You can’t go near Jerusalem now, it’s too dangerous, people there are trying to kill you. And when Jesus decides to go to Bethany, his disciples are exasperated with him. Thomas, the future Doubting Thomas, is recorded as saying, presumably sarcasticly, “Great! Let’s go die with him.” So death, and the fear of death, are very much on the mind of Jesus and his disciples even before they set foot in Bethany.
And when they come near to Bethany, they learn that Jesus has come too late. Lazarus has been dead for four days, and the whole village is in mourning. First Martha, and then Mary, come to meet Jesus on the road outside of town, where the father met the Prodigal Son, so Jesus doesn’t have to walk alone through the village of mourners to get to their house. And both Martha and Mary are deeply grieving. For their brother, of course, but also probably at least somewhat for themselves – because the future would have been dangerous in those days for two presumably unmarried young women, still living at the home of their birth family, when the head of the household dies. And both Martha and Mary separately say to Jesus, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In their grief, in their fear, this is where they are: what could we have done to prevent this death? What should Jesus have done to prevent this? Why did God let this happen?
Jesus says first to Martha: Your brother will rise again. And Martha responds, dutifully, with the catechism: Yes, I know that, he will rise again on the last day. But I’m not sure that was very helpful to her at that moment. I’m not sure that’s a helpful answer to the question Why? Or to the question Now what? Or to the question How? And then Mary comes, weeping, with the weeping villagers. The word translated “weeping” here means a deep, almost ritual wailing. And Jesus is greatly disturbed.
Disturbed because he sees his friends, people he knows and loves personally, utterly at a loss to cope with what has happened to them. Disturbed because of how death and fear are weighing down on Martha and Mary and their community, at how trapped they were by death and fear. Disturbed because he has come to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God, the love of God that is stronger than death and every other thing that separates human beings from one another, the mercy of God that reaches the darkest and most fearsome places – because he himself is resurrection and life, and here are his friends who have been knocked off their feet by death. Disturbed because he, Jesus, knows that God is the God of the living and not of the dead, that all are alive for God, and because his friends don’t yet have that faith, because his friends are still caught up in death and its fearful grip on them.
And so Jesus says, Roll away the stone. And he calls Lazarus by name. And says Untie him, and let him go free. Untie everybody, let everybody go free from the fear of death, from the questioning and the emptiness and the loss, let everyone free. I am the resurrection and the life – whoever has this faith, even though they will die, will live, and everyone who lives and has my faith will never be defeated by death. And so Jesus not only performed a miracle that day, raising someone from the dead. Jesus began to teach Martha and Mary and their community – and Lazarus too – how to be free of death and the fear of death, how to live even now into the kingdom of a God who can overcome even death, how to live knowing that even though one day we will die, and everyone we love will die, and everything we work for and build in this life will one day disappear – still, for the eyes of faith, there is a life from God that has already begun that will never die.
This is what Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, an experience of the living Jesus, that led him to say everything he had been, everything he had ever worked for, everything he had ever accomplished, was worthless compared to the life that God is bringing. For the sake of Jesus, Paul writes, I have lost everything, and I regard it as rubbish, in order to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead. Paul too has experienced Jesus who is the resurrection and the life, and he wants to learn from following Jesus what it means to be set free from death and the fear of death.
Well, if there were plots against Jesus before he went to Bethany and disrupted the funeral of Lazarus, it got even worse afterwards. The powers that be know how to manipulate people through fear – if the kingdom of God means freedom from death and freedom from the fear that death induces in us, then Jesus is even more of a threat to them than they had realized.
And so, a short time later, Jesus comes to Bethany again, to the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. It is literally the night before Palm Sunday. The very next morning, Jesus will ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, the Messiah will enter the temple, and in rapid succession all the events we will recall over the next couple of weeks will take place. But first, the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples spend the Sabbath with Martha and Mary and Lazarus, and when the sun has set, as observant Jews they celebrate the end of the Sabbath with dinner together. Jesus and his friends who are beginning to learn from him how to live in the Kingdom of God, how to live in freedom from the fear of the death. And Jesus, at least, knows what he is about to do.
And, to some degree, so does Mary of Bethany. For while they were at supper, Mary took a ridiculously expensive bottle of the finest perfumed oil, breaks it open, and pours it on the feet of Jesus. Judas complains that this is an extravagent waste, and whatever his motives may have been, at one level he wasn’t wrong. How many times did Jesus quote the prophet, I desire mercy and not sacrifice? How many times did Jesus say, sell what you have and give to the poor? But Jesus stops him: Leave her alone. (For the Greek scholars in the house, the word Jesus uses is: Aphes, let her be, forgive her.)
Because what Mary is doing is not only a response of gratitude and joy at having her brother back. It’s not even just a response of gratitude and joy at beginning to learn from Jesus how to live in God with confidence and hope even when death is in the air. Jesus says, Mary’s gesture reveals that she is beginning to understand how to live without fear of death. She anoints me today, she performs this part of the ritual for my funeral, while I am alive, while I am still with you. She is not waiting for my funeral. She understands what Judas does not. Her life is no longer about waiting for death, but about living life now in the face of death, with confidence and joy and deep gratitude.
It would have been amazing to have been there, for dinner that Saturday night before Palm Sunday in Bethany. To be with Jesus, gathered together with people Jesus loved, and whom Jesus had freed from death, listening as Jesus teaches them how to live in freedom from death. To see them express their gratitude and joy with unexpected and extravagant gestures of love. It must have been a remarkable event.
Although, one might say, an event not so different from our gathering today. For if we are doing this right, we too are gathered for a meal, in honor of the living Jesus who is present among us. We are gathered with our friends and neighbors whom Jesus loves, and whom Jesus has freed from death, and who are learning from Jesus and from one another how to live in freedom from the fear of death. And we also learn to express our gratitude and our joy in this freedom with extravagant gifts to the living Jesus. For has he not told us that, whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for him? And has he not told us that the poor will always be with us, so we will never lack opportunities to show our love and gratitude to Jesus living in our midst?
May the Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead be present with us here today. May the Jesus who endured death at our hands teach us to live with confident faith in the God of the living. May Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, show you how to live in the shadow of your own death and the death of those you love, with gratitude and joy. May Jesus unite us in his own body with everyone for whom he died, those here present and those separated from us, and like Mary of Bethany, may we respond with unashamed gratitude and love.