Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I looked back at my sermon from the last time we heard this Gospel reading three years ago, and it turns out that it was the first Sunday we were completely locked down due to Covid. In an attempt at levity in the midst of an otherwise very serious sermon I noted that Martha warned Jesus about opening the tomb, saying “Lord, by this time he stinketh”, and speculating that we might say the same thing after we were let out of our homes again, which at that time I said “in a few weeks.” Little did any of us know that it would be months.

In any event, at that time I said we could identify with our Lord’s reaction to the death of his friend Lazarus, encapsulated in what is famously the shortest verse in the bible: Jesus wept. Though we are no longer home-bound, the state of the world today–war, disaster, economic insecurity–should remind us once again that our God is a God who, in Christ, knows and shares all our sorrows.

Consider again this moving account. Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died, yet Jesus knows how this story ends. Just in last week’s Gospel, in which Our Lord says the blind man’s condition allowed God’s power to be made manifest, so does he say of Lazarus’ condition: “This… is for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” Jesus, who tarries two days in Jerusalem upon hearing of his Lazarus’ sickness, knew by the time he had left for Bethany that his friend had died. Upon his arrival he informs Martha that he intends to raise Lazarus from the dead. And yet, upon approaching the tomb, Jesus weeps. He knows Lazarus will live again, yet his grief is no less real.

My friends, none of us knows how God, in his Providence, has determined to use all the crises which afflict his world to his own divine ends. God knows and will transform whatever the power of evil throws at us to mysteriously and miraculously work his own purposes out. Even so, because we have a God who is not only high and lofty, but who has chosen in Christ Jesus to take on our very nature, we also have a God who despite knowing the ultimate triumph of life nonetheless weeps with us in our grief.

But having a God who suffers with us is not sufficient if that’s all we have to say about God. But thank heavens, we also have a God who is in control, and this reality of having a Lord who is both provident and incarnate is, I believe, the only thing that can satisfy the longing of our hearts for hope in the midst of adversity. To put it plainly, I don’t know how one gets through our life without utter despair without Jesus; thank God we have Jesus, who is our help and our salvation.

We must hold these two truths–that God is in control and that Jesus feels for us–together, lest we believe in a God who is powerless or who is distant. This being the case, I have to amend something I know I’ve said in sermons before (not that I was entirely wrong, but rather that this tension means that sometimes the whole truth is obscured). I know I’ve said in sermons before that the miracles of Jesus are presented differently in John’s Gospel than in the so-called “Synoptic Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Specifically, while those three Gospels use the Greek word dynamis (or “deed of power”) to refer to the miracles, John uses the word seimon (or “sign”), suggesting that each of the “signs” including the raising of Lazarus–point to a truth about God in Christ beyond the act itself.

Now this is true. The raising of Lazarus has something larger to say about Jesus being the Lord of Life in a larger sense. The healing of the man born blind that we heard last week has something larger to say about Christ’s mission to enlighten all and bring spiritual sight to those formerly blinded by sin. The feeding of the five thousand has something larger to say about Jesus’ promise to feed us always with the bread of heaven. One could go on.

Okay, that’s all true, but reading the signs exclusively as signs can give us the incorrect impression that Jesus merely used these needy people as object lessons rather than seeing their humanity and need for the provision of real practical blessings. We need not make that mistake though, and the reason why is found in the text as clear as day. Jesus did not get up and give a talk on the meaning of his miracle at the wedding in Cana. He simply did it (and got a little irritable in the process, if you recall). The five thousand were genuinely hungry. The blind man was oppressed and Jesus both gave him the promise of salvation and refused to accept the pharisees’ nonsense. And, then, most profoundly, Jesus, knowing he was about to raise him from the dead nonetheless keenly felt the loss of his friend and the grief of Mary and Martha and wept openly.

Thus, we have a God who is both all-powerful and all-loving. As we approach again the great and Holy Days which present to us our Lord’s pain and his glory, his passion and his triumph, let us hold fast to the one who alone shamed the powerful with weakness, who alone disclosed divinity through perfect humanity, who alone can save us.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.