John 11:1-6, 17-45
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,[a] “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus[b] was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was…..
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus[d] had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles[e] away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.[f] Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,[g] the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews, who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
When I saw what the lectionary had in store for us today, my immediate thought was, “Oh, no way!” I mean, it’s hard enough to preach on this text under normal circumstances. Did Jesus really bring Lazarus back to life? Maybe he just brought Lazarus out of a coma. Our logical minds don’t know what to do with such a story. But in this time and place? I thought, “I am not preaching on Jesus raising people from the dead. Not now, when some of us are grieving. Not now, in the middle of a pandemic. Not now, when it won’t happen again.” But after I wrestled with it, I realized it does have some messages for us today.
First, notice Jesus’ response to gathering outside the tomb. He weeps. This verse has always been lifted up as a sign of Jesus’ humanity. In fact, it’s one of the statements we used in confirmation class recently. We put events from Jesus’ life on pieces of paper around the room, and the confirmands had to go and stand next to something that they themselves had experienced that week, and then read the corresponding story from the Bible. Jesus ate with friends. Jesus got angry. Jesus got in trouble with his parents. Jesus cried for a friend. But why, though? Jesus knew what he was about to do. He knew that Lazarus was going to come out of that tomb in a few minutes. So why would he cry because of something that was temporary? Maybe he cried for his friends Mary and Martha, because of their pain, the way I get choked up at funerals even for people I didn’t know, because of the pain I see in the faces of those they left behind. Maybe he cried for the plight of humanity, aware that the love he told us to live with means we will get hurt. And maybe he cried because even temporary losses are still cause for grief.
We are surrounded by many losses, large and small. To the children and teens who are watching: I know you have lost out on visits with your friends, whether play dates or romantic dates. You have lost out on sports, concerts, shows; events you’ve been working hard for and looking forward to for months, even years. Some of this is temporary, and some of it you will never get back, and I’m so sorry. It’s okay to be sad. It’s also okay to be mad. It’s okay to say “It’s not fair!” because it isn’t. Whatever you’re feeling is natural and okay, and it’s okay to let yourself feel it. Try not to take it out on your family because none of this is their fault either. They would love for you to be able to go to school and be with your friends and do all the things you’re supposed to be doing.
To the college students and young adults who are listening: Some of you have lost school in the way it’s supposed to be done. You’ve lost campus life, or you’ve lost your first real job, or the chance to excel in that new project you were trusted to oversee. You’ve lost freedom at a time when your life should be defined by it. You are constantly connected digitally, which is great, but you’re realizing that it’s not enough. It’s okay to grieve what you have lost, what you are losing every day. Whatever you’re feeling is natural and okay, and it’s okay to let yourself feel it. Try not to take it out on your family.
To all those in the middles ages of your life: Some of you have lost the ability to work at the office, the loss of camaraderie with coworkers and staff. Others of you have lost work entirely, lost your financial stability. Those of you still working in essential jobs—you have lost a sense of safety that you may have taken for granted. You’ve lost your ability to come home and immediately hug your family because now you have to shower first before you’re safe to touch. Whatever you’ve lost, your feelings are natural and okay, and it’s okay to let yourself feel. Try not to take it out on your family.
Senior citizens, you have lost, too. You’ve lost faith that your retirement fund is enough. You have lost a great deal of freedom. You have lost your independence, your belief in your own self-sufficiency, as your grown children are now insisting you are too vulnerable, and suddenly you feel very old. Try not to take it out on your family.
Regardless of your age, these are all significant losses, and it’s okay to grieve. Name the lost opportunities, the things that are, the things that aren’t, the things that never will be. It’s okay to feel however you feel. Jesus wept. You can, too.
But there are other lessons in this story for us today. Twice the passage points out that Lazarus had been dead four days. The belief at the time was that the spirit of the deceased stayed near for three days. By emphasizing that Lazarus had been dead four days, they were making it clear that this situation was beyond hope. The spirit was gone. The body had begun to do what bodies do after death. Hope was dead.
In the Gospel of John this story was a sign of God’s power, a sign that Jesus was who he said he was. But to me, what this story is about today is that our situation is not beyond hope. We are not beyond the reach of hope. Hope is still alive, even within our walled-off places. Even within our isolation. Even with the countless things that were wrong in our lives before COVID-19 came along. We are not beyond the reach of hope.
had a friend who was a novelist in the Christian publishing industry. People often asked her what set apart Christian fiction from general fiction. Did her characters have to be overtly religious? Did they have to pray? Did she have to use her books to try to get people “saved?” Sure, the publishers had rules about language and behavior, but she defined the difference between Christian fiction and general fiction in one sentence: Christian fiction must have hope. Maybe that’s what a Christian worldview requires, too. We have hope for a better tomorrow. We have hope for changing the world. We have hope for humanity. We have hope in humanity.
When my 18-year-old was around 9 or 10, she told me that she didn’t ever want to take statistics. She said the only practical application for statistics is to determine your odds in winning a prize. “And who wants to know that,” she asked, “for what would life be without hope?” Indeed. But sometimes it is so hard to find.
I have told you this story before, but I think we need to hear it again. A few years ago John Jenkins, the President of the University of Notre Dame, wrote an article in which he talks about optimism. According to Father Jenkins, “Optimism is . . . the conviction that whatever the challenges, the situation is not really deeply problematic or grave. No matter how bad the situation, a solution . . . is just around the corner.” He then goes on to talk about the events leading up to World War II. He says, “It is striking how many leaders were committed to a kind of dogged optimism in the face of looming disaster. Hitler and the Nazis could be mollified, they assured themselves and others; they were not a serious threat. Such optimism might have been justified when Hitler first took power. But as promise after promise was broken, as Jews were more and more victimized, as one small nation after another was overrun, as the preparations for war advanced, it is hard to understand this attitude. Some seem to have been committed to an optimism that led them to believe firmly that the threat was not so serious and disaster could be avoided, until the bloodiest and most destructive war in human history was upon them.” Sheer optimism can be a dangerous thing. It convinces us there is no problem and so we do not work for a solution.
The opposite of optimism is, of course, pessimism. If the optimist believes the problems aren’t serious, the pessimist believes the problems aren’t solvable. And if a problem isn’t solvable, then response is futile. We just need to accept the doom that is upon us. Both extremes lead us to the same place. They excuse us from serious thought and courageous action.
Fortunately, there is a better way. Hope does not excuse us. In fact, hope demands. “It demands first of all that we see the world as it is. It demands that we assess, seek to understand, analyze, think, argue, seek solutions, overcome frustrations and failures. And, most importantly, it demands the courage and commitment of common action.”
Blind optimism is easy. Sheer pessimism is simple. But hope? Hope says, “Yes, I see this problem. We can defeat it.” Hope proclaims, “Yes, I know it’s a demanding/grueling/heart-wrenching problem. We will rise above it.” Hope exclaims, “Yes, I know we’ve never done it this way. We will change . . . and be better for it.” Hope demands. Hope insists. Hope calls us and claims us for its own. What we need is a little hope.
Hope is what says death will not win.
Hope is what says disease will not win.
Hope is what says violence is not the answer.
Hope is what says peace will prevail.
Hope is what allows us to believe that God can call forth life out of even the darkest cave.
Thanks be to God.
 Jenkins, John I. “The Demands of Hope.” Thirty Good Minutes, airdate December 21, 2008.