March 29, 2020

Fifth Sunday in Lent - Year A

You'll find a video of the entire service at



2020 Mar29


Lent 5 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by Berkeley Johnson


It’s a blessing to be with you all today. I’ve been offering hospice visits over the phone, and I imagine we’ll do some by video before all is said and done, so I’m starting to get used to this.


I’m finding that the Spirit is present, in and through our technology; and I’m guessing you are finding that to be true as well. God-willing, I’ll be meeting virtually with our students this coming quarter, and


God’s presence and Spirit
will be there with us.


I’m going to make four points today; three will be quick, and the one about the raising of Lazarus will be more fleshed out. I don’t know that anyone is really going to remember much, if anything, of what I say today, so the best I’m hoping for is to bring us into the present moment, to remind us that we’re a community, to offer some words of comfort and reassurance, and trust that these words will nurture and sustain us through the hours, days, and weeks to come.


The first point is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “you are in the Spirit, because the Spirit of God dwells in you.” I guess, if you remember nothing else, remember that. The Spirit of God dwells in you. The Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Divine, dwells in each and every one of us.


As for Ezekiel, the second point is that God can bring forth life, even from the driest of bones. And notice that even after they’re all knit together, they’re still not truly alive until the breath of God, from the four winds, has been breathed into them. And isn’t that an apt image, and stark reminder, of where we find ourselves in the current moment, facing a virus that takes life through the taking of our breath.

The third point has to do with this lengthy passage from John which we just heard, about the raising of Lazarus, so let’s spend a little time with that.


The first thing that jumped out at me, that never had before, was Martha’s confession: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”


Everyone knows of Peter’s confession, because we build a whole Sunday around it; but Martha’s confession is just as significant, isn’t it?


Then there’s the matter of Jesus’ tears. I, and many others, have often interpreted these tears as a sign of Jesus’ humanity. People are grieving, and Jesus grieves the death of his friend, Lazarus, as well. But, that answer has never been quite satisfactory, because it not only contradicts Jesus’ mood in that moment, but it is also inconsistent with John’s Jesus throughout the Gospel.


One of the problems is that we lose a lot with the English translation, where it says he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” As one commentator, Debra Dean Murphy, points out, the Greek text actually has Jesus doing something much more “primitive, animalistic, even – something closer to ‘snorting like a horse.’”[i] Jesus, in this moment, is not sad, as much as he is agitated, annoyed, irritated, indignant, and vexed.


Now of course, those are human emotions as well, and they are much more consistent with the Jesus we see throughout John’s Gospel.


Remember his confusing, abrupt reply to his own mother, at the wedding at Cana, when the wine runs out? “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”


Or in the chapter that follows this one, when Judas objects to the lavish outpouring of nard as Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. What does Jesus say? “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


We must remember that in John, there is no anguished cry from the cross; there is no weeping in the garden the night before his death. To the contrary, John’s Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.”


Plus, we know from this reading that Jesus already knows the outcome, that he has even intentionally delayed getting to Bethany, because he is going to raise Lazarus from the dead. So I dug a little deeper to see how we could reconcile an indignant, vexed, and snorting Jesus, with the famous tears from this passage.


First of all, what is Jesus so disturbed about in his spirit? Surely, he’s not upset at the people for grieving. Jesus can be harsh at times, but not towards people who are already suffering or in pain. The best answer, therefore, appears to be death itself.


Jesus is going to have to confront
his own death, isn’t he?

So here he is, confronting death. That’s a pretty big deal; and if the human Jesus, even John’s Jesus, is going to get worked up over something, I figure it would be death.


So, what about the tears? This is what I came up with: Jesus is about to perform the crowning achievement of his earthly life. This is it: the culmination of everything he has been working towards; the zenith, the final, and most significant, of the signs in John. He is going to stare down death,and raise Lazarus from the dead.


It doesn’t matter who we are, or what our vocation is, when we get to ultimates, we become emotional. Artists, athletes, yes, because we see them on television. We see the tears when they achieve the ultimate in their field. I’m thinking of Hall of Fame and Oscar speeches, where there often isn’t a dry eye.


But also for us, when we reach a milestone, a pinnacle, everything we have worked and toiled for; we are humbled, we are thankful, we are human, and in our humanness, we are often overcome with emotion, and we weep. The outcome is known, the race is won, and yet we weep. Yes, John’s Jesus is so overcome with emotion in the moment, that he weeps; but I’m suggesting that perhaps it is over more than simply the death of his friend.


As I prepared this sermon, I kept asking myself why, in the midst of a global pandemic, does the origin, nature, and reason for Jesus’ tears in this passage matter so much that I’m making it my central point? The best answer I could come up with is that maybe, just maybe, it’s because they are tears of recognition, that even though Jesus is certain of the outcome, this is the moment, the ultimate achievement of his earthly life, the ultimate fulfillment of his purpose, the ultimate disclosure of his identity, and the ultimate reality of his being: Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, is, as Martha says, the Resurrection and the Life, the one who is coming into the world. And that self-awareness, that self-recognition, that God has given him power, even over death, is so awesome, and so monumental, and perhaps, so humbling, that in that moment, it brings even Jesus to tears.


And perhaps, in the midst of the fear and scarcity and death that seems to be encroaching all around and seeking to overwhelm us, we needed that stark reminder, that Jesus has already stared down, snorted at, and overcome death; and that, ultimately, through him, we will as well.


But wait, there’s one more part of this story to contemplate! As David Lose points out in his online commentary, Dear Working Preacher, “the community is called to participate.”[ii] We are called to be part of this raising of Lazarus as well: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. And Jesus said to them “Unbind him, and let him go.” So, we have a role to play in restoring each other to full life in the community, even if that role right now involves staying home, not doing nothing, and not going anywhere.


My fourth and final point centers on the spiritual Communion we shared last week, and will share again, a little bit later in this service. Though it’s strange and different to be doing it this way, from a distance and through our various screens, the reflection time during the spiritual communion last week was actually the most meaningful part of the service for me, as I took the instruction on page 14 of the worship booklet, to reflect on my relationship with Jesus, to heart.


  • How does Jesus raise us to new life in the present age?
  • In what ways are we entombed?
  • In what ways does Jesus call us to come out of our tombs?
  • In what ways does Jesus call us back to life?
  • In what ways, can we follow Jesus’ instruction to unbind each other and restore one another to full life in the community?

I have to confess, I’m out working and caring for others, so I don’t necessarily pray for an outcome for myself in regard to this pandemic. Sure, I pray for my own protection, and the protection of all, but for me, outcome-based prayer can create the very anxiety I am trying to keep at bay. Rather, I try to live my faith, serving others, and breathing and trusting that no matter the outcome, I’m going to be ok, and we’re going to be ok.


And I think that’s what this lesson today is about: it’s simply based in the trust that the earliest Christian communities had in Jesus, in light of his Resurrection; this is the extent to which they trusted and believed in him; that even if he takes his time getting here, and shows up two days late,


Jesus is on his way,
and it’s going to be ok,
and we’re going to be ok.


[i] Debra Dean Murphy, “Snorting at Death”
[ii] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, “Present-tense Salvation”

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