Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 26, 2023
John 11:1-45 Commentary
Comments, Questions, and Observations
The word “love” is used only three times to describe Jesus’s feelings for the siblings, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but it permeates the entire narrative.
Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus to let him know that their shared beloved, Lazarus, is ill to the point of death. Jesus tells his disciples that this will all end in the glory of God, so even though he loved them, he did not immediately go to the Bethany.
“Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus…” is not so much a narrative pivot point as it is an anchor point. No matter what happens next, we can come back to the knowledge that Jesus loves them. It was not a lack of love that kept him away, nor was it a lack of love that led to Lazarus dying. God’s glory does not cancel out God’s love. Jesus knows what is to come in this saga (the glorifying miracle), and he loves them. That’s what we know. What we see is that even though he knows how this story ends, Jesus feels and expresses genuine love for his friends, joining them in their suffering.
Martha also seems to be anchored in the knowledge of Jesus’s love for them. When she meets him as he is headed to Bethany, she freely laments and shares her heart with Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She believes that Jesus is powerful, and she trusts that power as well as the fact that Jesus loves them. I think that Martha’s next two statements show that her faith continues to be strong, even though Jesus was not there when they needed him: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” And, “I know that [my brother] will rise again…”
Even though Martha has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, she does not doubt the goodness of the Lord, or the love of Jesus Christ. When Jesus tells her that he himself is the Resurrection and the Life and asks her about the kind of belief she has, she appears to be just as honest as she was in her grief: she is sure that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. (Preaching sidenote: by doing so, her proclamation brings together our two previous lectionary texts!)
Martha goes to Mary privately to tell her that Jesus is waiting for her. I love the gentleness of Jesus here. He allows Mary to come to him, as she is ready, with her grief. Like Martha, Mary laments to Jesus, “If you had been here…” but she does so at his feet, having knelt in reverence and acceptance of who Jesus is to her: a posture of one anchored to the love of Christ.
This intimate moment has a significant audience: a whole crowd of people has followed Mary, assuming she is going to Lazarus’s tomb to publicly mourn. And here in this moment, Jesus expresses his own love for Mary and for those who are hurting by the death of their friend. Seeing all of these people weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” In other words, his feelings are all stirred up inside him—even though he knows what is to come and that this loss is only temporary, his heart aches with those who are hurting. Out of his great love, Jesus empathises with those who mourns and he joins them in their suffering, offering his own tears.
As Jesus cries, some recognize that it is a sign Jesus’s love for Lazarus, while others express the very human habit of judging how someone else should love, arguing that since Jesus has such miraculous power, if he really loved Lazarus, he should have kept Lazarus from dying.
In fact, this is such a common human habit, John the gospel writer’s earlier anchor to the bond of love between Jesus and this family becomes all the more important. Lazarus’s death has nothing to do with how much (or little) Jesus loved him (or his sisters). We were told as much when we started this story—even if we would rather have had Jesus work his miracle before Lazarus died. We have no idea if Jesus would have stopped Lazarus from dying, or if we would still be here where we are with the story, four days later, standing outside of Lazarus’s tomb.
I think that’s the likely outcome though, because this story, along with being anchored to God’s love, is anchored to death. At the very beginning of the chapter we are told that the Mary in this story is the same Mary who will later anoint Jesus with costly perfume, kneeling at his feet again, this time washing his feet with her hair (John 12). When that happens, Jesus says that Mary did it as part of preparing him to be buried. It is a pure act of loving worship. Death is inevitable and unites these two accounts.
As we all know, Jesus’s death was an act of immense, pure love. It was the result of him choosing to join with humanity to the utmost degree, entering into and taking on all the kinds of our suffering.
But death is only one prong to this anchor; the other is resurrection. Jesus tells his disciples that they will see the glory of God through what he does for Lazarus; he tells Martha that he is the Resurrection and the Life. And now, as he stands outside the tomb where Lazarus’s dead body has been lying for four days, Jesus is overwhelmed by love, deeply moved yet again. Out of that great love, Jesus Christ resurrects Lazarus from the dead, calling him forth from the tomb. Jesus tells the witnesses to unbind Lazarus and let him be free (the resurrected life in a nutshell).
Jesus talked about his death and the cross, about how he would be lifted up for the sake of his beloved. But—and correct me if I’m wrong—I can’t recall a time where Jesus calls himself “death” or something like that. Suffering is included in some of his titles, and is assuredly a major component of the prophecies about him; but when Jesus speaks, he reveals himself as the Resurrection and Life—like he does here. The resurrection is as much an act of love as Christ dying for us is. If we believe that, we will see the glory of God. Amen.
The perfect tense of the verb oida (to know) makes another strong appearance in our text. (If you didn’t read last week’s gospel lectionary , oida is a keyword in John 9.) This time, it’s Martha’s statements about what she knows in verses 22 and 23 that culminate in her belief and faith in verse 27.
[Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
Life’s pivotal moments are full of experiences of being deeply disturbed and moved as Jesus was here. I remember the time I sobbed the entire time I was writing a funeral sermon for a dear friend who died too young; I made it through the service itself only slightly more composed. I remember, too, just a few weeks ago walking with my dad towards the man I love and feeling deeply moved by what was happening as we committed to one another through marriage, and the way in which my dear friend was moved to tears during her wedding homily for us because she knows our story and how God had shown us great love during a number of years of singleness. I’ve heard the Word of the Lord on more than one occasion and been deeply moved to the point of expression by God’s personal care, promises, and love for me. I’ve seen the same sort of overwhelm on the faces of parents as their children make their entry into this world or their lives through adoption, and I have felt it when watching commercials that depict people helping one another with lovingkindness. It is entirely human to be affected in this way. It is also entirely divine, for it can only happen where there is love.
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