The Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Karin I. Liebster, Associate Pastor
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW):
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
All Saints Sunday. Who are the Saints? There are several answers.
They are the martyrs, those who died for their faith in Jesus Christ, witnesses to the love of God and neighbor. Martyrs whose names we know and those countless ones whose names we never knew. Saints are people who have come through, fought and prevailed.
They come in many forms: miracle workers, healers, priests, prophets, poets, hymn writers, scholars, fanatics, pilgrims, clowns for God, fishers of people and in some cases persecutors. Many have suffered the injustices of this world: poverty; injustice between the races, the nations, men and women, the injustice of lawlessness.
But the saints are not only the venerated holy ones. They also are those we have known. Our blessed dead who rest from their labors. They are our loved ones whom we remember and miss. They lived ordinary lives of accomplishments and failures, of love and broken love, in families and alone, in times of war and need, in times of plenty and peace. They made no claims for their personal holiness; indeed they might be skeptical if they knew we called them holy.
Does one have to be dead to be a saint? To be remembered, admired, and the bad things fading into the distance? No. These are not the saints we are looking for.
In the Christian church the saints are those have who have come to know God, not by their own efforts but by the power of Christ. They have come to trust God’s faithfulness in spite of it all. Put their trust here more than in all other promises of happiness and wellbeing. The saints refuse to stop holding on to God’s mercy.
Mostly these are people baptized or longing to be baptized. For they have come to know God, not by their own efforts but by the power of Christ.
The power of Christ is demonstrated in the raising of his close, dear friend Lazarus. In this story we learn something interesting about how Jesus uses his power – never abusing it and so worth our trust and faith.
From the moment Jesus learns that Lazarus is ill, he rejoices. He knows that Lazarus will die, and he rejoices that this is an occasion for God’s glory to be shown forth. In our own grief or even without, this is hard to make sense of, it may even sound cynical. We maybe feel like Mary and Martha. All they can think is that they are quickly running out of time and options if Jesus still wants to do something for Lazarus who by the end of the story has been dead four days and is not embalmed.
But Jesus says, here we see God’s glory. It is in this story that Jesus who is God made flesh, flesh and blood like us -, reveals that he is the resurrection and the life. He says it to Martha just before our section of the story starts today.
It is just this word that we have – “I am the resurrection and the life.” That is not very much, it seems, but then, he, Jesus, is the Word, the Word of God, who was from the beginning, even before creation, and is now the Word made flesh. It is all we have and all we need: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
This is why Lazarus’ death is a joyous occasion for Jesus. The death of his close, dear friend is the occasion for God’s glory to become apparent. Soon after Lazarus is raised God’s glory comes to its full realization in the death and rising of Jesus, the Word. Now the power of Christ is fully present in this world which God so loves.
The power of Christ and the glory of God meld together. Moments before Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave – and Lazarus responds to Jesus’ voice like a sheep that knows the shepherd’s voice – moments before that Jesus prays, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. … I pray this so that all who are here may believe that you sent me.”
The miracle that then happens, that Lazarus hears Jesus’ voice calling him, is at this point almost an afterthought. He walks out of the grave while bound in his grave cloths. Mary, Martha, and the others will have to unbind him. What a beautiful image of the company of saints preparing the newly living one to walk into a new life.
As an aside, in Jesus’ empty grave on Easter morning, according to John, his grave cloths lie there left behind, the one for the head neatly rolled up in a place by itself. Jesus has left death behind, and even the grave cloths, risen to give us new life.
Sisters and brothers, had the story of Jesus and Lazarus been about the miracle itself and not the glory of God come to life, had Jesus listened to the complaints of Martha and Mary that he came too late, had he in the first place rushed to their home in Bethany and used his power while there was still time before Lazarus died, we would have a different situation.
We would be asking, well, could he not have healed more people? Why did he let the innocent baby die, why did he let my loved one die? Can he not add a little bit of time to my life? And soon we would be competing for Jesus’ and God’s favor and priority treatment. We would try to get Jesus to abuse his power in our own favor.
By the power of Christ God has been made known to us without our effort. God’s favor comes not selectively but is a blessing to all of humanity, to all of us. The resurrection and the life is freely available, unrestricted, in the Word spoken, the Word poured over our heads, in the Word ingested in bread and wine. Here is where Christians put their trust, and it cannot be moved.
We could close here if we wanted. There is a lot of comfort and cheering on and new seeds for faith to be had for the company of saints in Lazarus’ story.
But not in every stage of our grief are we ready and able to wrap our wounded hearts and souls around a story like Lazarus’s. We do feel left out and not recipients of God’s grace and favor.
And yet, we trust God. Like the saints we refuse to stop holding on to God’s mercy. We stubbornly pray with Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who dwell therein.”
We take a seat at the table on God’s mountain and participate in the banquet, waiting our turn for God to come by and wipe away our tears and tell us how death is now defeated. We can clearly see the new heaven and the new earth where the garden and streams of Paradise are now in the middle of God’s new city. We make ourselves citizens of the new Jerusalem and drink of the free water that is passed out, a gift from the spring of the water of life.
Saints we all are, living and dying and living, dear sisters and brothers, and all saints are here. Amen.