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Signs of New Life 

John 11: 1-45
Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin  


God of life, God of transformation,  God of the Lenten journey,  help us to discern your still small voice.   Open us to change and growth that we may walk with the risen Christ.


Several years ago, a couple of books were published entitled Children’s Letters to God, and then later More Children’s Letters to God.  These books collected some rather clever and occasionally insightful letters from youngsters writing to God.

Listen to a few of them:

-from Joyce – Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.

-from Norma – Dear God, Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?

-from Larry – Dear God, Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms.  It works with my brother.

-from Jane – Dear God, Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t you keep the ones you have now?

A couple of years ago, I led worship at a funeral.  Afterwards a close relative of the person who died came up to talk with me.  He began to tell me about an experience he had, some years previously, where he himself had “died” in a serious car accident.  After the accident he remembered hurtling down a tunnel at great speed, then emerging into a brilliant light at the gate of the most beautiful garden he had ever seen.  But someone at the gate had gently turned him back, saying “Not yet.  It’s not time for you yet.  You have to return”.  Then he woke up to find himself in a hospital bed.

It had clearly been an immensely powerful experience for him, an experience of great depth, yet until he spoke to me about it after I had just buried his family member, he had never told a soul about it.  He was terrified that in this age of reason and science, no one would believe him; that he would be mocked.  And so he kept it to himself.

Yet many people report having had similar experiences.  Is there any truth to these stories?  Is there really life after death, or as some psychologists suggest, is it a comforting myth which helps us to avoid facing our own mortality?

A minister friend of mine and I talked about this over lunch a little while ago.  He suggested that once you have gone through a death – your own or someone else’s – you cannot ever return to being “normal”.  You can never go back to what you were.

He himself had survived what might well have been terminal cancer while in his forties.  He said “And I will never be the same after having cancer.  I can’t go back to being whatever I was before that experience.”  The early Christians understood what it meant to have died and been born again into new life.  They experienced the new life of Jesus and found the courage to leave the old behind.  Others died to their old way of life, and became new beings with new hopes and visions, new commitments and priorities.

Our Gospel reading is a very poetic telling of the story of the raising of Lazarus.  This story is full of symbolism and meaning.  It is interesting that this story is told only by John.  The other Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, do not record this event.

This is the last in a series of seven signs of Jesus reported by John.  John likes the number seven.  You see, John does not use the word “miracle”.  He uses the word “sign” and so this section of John’s Gospel has often been called the book of signs.  Signs are events which point to the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God.  Beginning with the miracle of the changing of water into wine at Cana, through several stories of healings, and the feeding of the five thousand, we come to the last sign of Jesus – the story of bringing Lazarus back from death to life.

When people hear this story they usually want to go right to the ending.  Here we have a breathtaking, unheard of, remarkable sign of the in-breaking of God’s power, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection.  So no wonder the end of the story attracts our gaze, it is where the fireworks are.

Some people though, like the middle of the story.  They are captivated by the shortest verse in the Bible.  Verse 35 says, “Jesus wept”.  People see here the humanity of Jesus, the sharing of his feelings.  We are not told why he wept, and many assumptions are made by preachers who reflect on this verse.  Is Jesus moved with grief over the death of his friend?  Is he in sorrow over the unbelief of the people around him?  Is he anticipating his own death, and grieving that?  John does not say.  But we are drawn to this picture in the middle of the story, of Jesus standing there with tears slowly falling down his cheeks.

But, by John calling this miracle a sign, he is saying that, whatever happened at the tomb of Lazarus, its function was to point beyond itself to something else.  John wrote his Gospel about 70 years after the death of Jesus.  His writing came long after the writings of Paul, Mark, Matthew and Luke, who wrote in that order.  John was not trying to be historical or to film a documentary about the life of Jesus.

John was writing for people who already knew something about Jesus and his life and death.  He was attempting to reflect theologically on the current events of his day in light of the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  He was trying to answer the question, “Where is God in all this?”  He was dealing with a situation where there were varying interpretations about the life of Jesus and quite a bit of controversy in the early church.

John is the Gospel which has all of Jesus’ “I am” statements.  “I am the bread of life.”  “I am the light of the world,”  “I am the gate for the sheep”  “I am the good shepherd”  “I am the true vine”  “I am the way, the truth and the life” and then the one we heard today, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  There are seven “I am” statements.  I told you John liked the number seven!  You see, the Gospel of John is not concerned with historical accuracy.  It is concerned with theology and offers us a series of signs which point to the nature of God, and the nature of Jesus as the one who was sent from God.  So let’s explore the story and see where this sign leads us.

Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus in hopes that he could save their brother from death, but Jesus appears not to care.  He does not come when they call him.  He simply hangs around for two more days killing time.  Not unlike how God appeared not to care and didn’t come when Jesus called to him from the cross.  Have there been times in your life when you felt abandoned by God?  A time of crisis, a time of depression, a time of great grief?

My mother died at a very early age when I was twenty-five years old.  This was certainly an experience for me of the absence of God.  In my own way, I was saying, “God, if you had been here, my mother would not have died.”  I was wondering why?  What now?  What next?

This story reminds us that we are not alone in this wondering.  Mary, Martha, Jesus, the disciples have all had this experience.  They had their doubts even while remaining faithful.  Mary and Martha even got angry at Jesus.  You can hear it in the tone of their voice when they said, “Lord, where were you?  (You’re late.)  If you had been here earlier, my brother would not have died.”  But then, according to John, Jesus performs a miracle; or to put it more accurately, Jesus performs a “sign.”  This sign points the way to the reality that, while we may have the experience of feeling abandoned, God will always be there for us.

Jesus has the stone rolled away and calls out, and Lazarus, comes forth alive.  Of course this foreshadows the experience of Jesus’ own resurrection after three days in the tomb.  This points to the Easter experience.  This is a sign that Jesus is the one who gives new life, and life in all its abundance.

What keeps us from experiencing new life, from accepting the promises of Jesus and trusting in him?  Where are those places for us into which God needs to breathe new life?  What are our places of hopelessness?  What experiences keep us entombed?  What are the stones in our lives that keep us shut up, in the dark, in the closets of our lives?  What will it take to call us forth into new life, to really live our lives the way we were meant to live them?

Life can be full of surprises.  Our plans may or may not turn out the way we intended.  But the truth of the Gospel of Jesus endures.  The resurrection of Lazarus is a prelude to the cosmic resurrection of Jesus, and the opportunity for new life for us all.

We can have resurrection experiences in our own lives.  Perhaps after the loss of a job, or the loss of some physical abilities, or the loss of a loved one, we go through the valley of the shadow of doubt and dry bones, but we can emerge on the other side to a resurrection experience of new life.

This is a true story told by Robert McAfee Brown, who wrote an excellent book called The Bible Speaks to You.  In that book he tells a story of a man who was burdened by guilt and what this story of Lazarus did for him.  McAfee Brown was an army chaplain and was on a troop ship in which the American Marines were returning home.  On board the ship, they had a Bible study group, and near the end of the trip, they were studying this story in John.

After the study group, a marine came to him and said, “Everything in that chapter is pointing to me.”  He went on to say that he had been wracked with guilt for the last 6 months.  He had gone straight from college to the Marines.  He had been bored with life and had gone out and got into big trouble.  Nobody knew about it, but he knew that God knew about it.  He felt guilty, he felt his life was ruined; in fact, he even said that he felt he had killed a piece of himself, and he felt like he was dead.

But this young Marine went on to say, “After reading this chapter I have come alive again.  I know this resurrection Jesus is talking about is real here and now, for he has raised me from death to life.”  His troubles were not over, but in his time of inner turmoil and through his deep sense of guilt he had found that Jesus truly is “the resurrection and the life.”

That’s what counts.  Jesus is the resurrection and life for those who experience times of darkness in their lives, those who walk through the valley of the dry bones, those who have experienced the loss or death of something or someone important to them.

In one sense, this story of Martha, Mary, Lazarus and Jesus is the whole Gospel of John in miniature.  John knows that Easter is just two weeks away.  He is aware that we will need to get through the sadness of Good Friday, and the waiting, wondering hours of Saturday.  So he gives us a clue of what is coming.  He gives us a note of hope, but reminds us that it will all be done in God’s time.

We may never know what exactly happened in Bethany many years ago, but we do know for certain that Jesus is still the resurrection and the life.  Believe it.  Grab hold of it.  Live it!


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