By the Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell
RCL Reflection, Lent 5A
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March 26, 2023
When Jesus 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.” John 11:43-44
Oh, fellow preachers! There are so many directions you could take with the story of Lazarus. There are 45 verses of deep, rich content here, which makes it challenging to narrow down the possibilities. We could preach on this same text for several weeks and still not exhaust all of the excellent homiletical options!
Of course, the direction you choose to take with this scripture will depend on you, your context, and your audience. But, here are a few of the possibilities (a few of many!) that spring to mind:
- Focus on the fact that Jesus does not initially appear too concerned about Lazarus’s serious illness, and he stays where he is two days longer. Why does he do this? Is he being insensitive? How do you think Mary and Martha feel about Jesus’ not coming right away?
- Explore how this text foreshadows Jesus’ own death and resurrection. In 11:2 we are told that Mary, Lazarus’s sister, was the one who anointed Jesus with perfume. In 11:7-16, the disciples express concern that if Jesus goes to Bethany he might be met with adversity; they fear for his safety. And, at the climactic point of the story, Jesus raises Lazarus from death (11:43-44). How do each of these instances in the text anticipate and help to frame Jesus’ ultimate triumph over death?
- Spend time with one of the shortest, yet most profound verses in Scripture: 11:35, “Jesus began to weep.” What does it say about Jesus that he wept? How does Jesus’ own grief and empathy enable us to relate to him more fully?
- Talk about how raising Lazarus from death was a turning point in Jesus’ ministry because it caused a great deal of alarm with the chief priests and the Pharisees, who then had greater incentive to put Jesus to death (see 11:45-53). Why would Jesus’ raising Lazarus from death cause them so much alarm?
Although there are loads of different avenues to take with John 11:1-45, if I were going to preach from this text on the fifth Sunday in Lent, I would explore how death first has to occur before one can be raised from the dead. I would attempt to bring to life the deep, heartfelt grief of Mary, Martha, those in Bethany, and Jesus himself. I would also highlight the fact that Lazarus is, indeed, very much dead before Jesus raises him to life. The fifth Sunday in Lent feels like the ideal time to explore such deep themes. Congregations often prefer to shy away from the pain, suffering, and death that must come before Jesus’ resurrection on Easter, which is a reason they may avoid some of the more somber Holy Week services. However, spending time with these themes the fifth Sunday of Lent allows you, the preacher, to “go there” before you ever get to Holy Week.
A final thought: Although it may seem like a stretch, you might also explore how Jesus’ own approach to Lazarus’ death lends insight into our own stewardship of life and death. How can spending time with Lazarus’ story make us better stewards of our own lives and living? How can awareness of our own inevitable deaths make us better stewards of the time we have on earth? How can awareness of the deep, genuine relationship Jesus shares with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus make us better stewards of our own relationships?
So many sermons to preach, so little time! What direction will you take with this text?
So often, music speaks more powerfully than words are able to. What hymns can you weave into the service that will provide a harmony of sorts for this text? Two suggestions that come to mind are “What Wondrous Love Is This” and “I Am the Bread of Life.” In addition to the music shared during worship, the liturgy can also prepare the congregation to delve into the deep, profound themes of the text by highlighting them and offering perspective on them.
This text offers a great jumping off point to talk with youth about death and resurrection. This conversation could take lots of forms. For instance, you could talk about why Jesus did not come right away and ask them what they think about that. Or, talk about Jesus’ own grief, and explore how that may change how they relate to him. You could talk about the moment when Lazarus is raised from death. What images come into their minds? What do they see, hear, touch, and smell at the moment “the dead man” comes out of his tomb (11:44)?
Invite children to imagine what it might have been like to be Mary or Martha, whose brother had just died. How would they feel if they were Mary or Martha? What would they want Jesus to do to help them? Use these questions to help them think about the story, and then emphasize that Jesus did help Mary and Martha. Invite them to see how Jesus helps us when we are going through something difficult.
The Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell serves as pastor of Hiland Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, Pa.