Sermon for All Saints Sunday Yr B 2/11/2003

Sermon for All Saints Sunday Yr B 2/11/2003

Based on Jn 11:32-44

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, AB

By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson


William Willimon tells of his friend Stuart Henry who accompanied a father and his little son on their first visit to Duke Chapel. They walked up and down the aisles, heads upturned, amazed at the stained glass windows. The father asked his son, “Do you know who the saints are?”

   “Sure,” said the son, “the saints are the people where the sun shines through.”

   That’s not a bad definition of a saint. A saint is someone for whom the sun shines through. Those through whom the Son shines. 1

   Today is All Saints Sunday. A day in which we remind ourselves that there is a bond between Christians who are living and those who have died. In our gospel today, we see this interconnectedness between the living and the dead. We see, as did the little boy in Duke Chapel, Jesus the Son shining through Lazarus by giving him life after he had been lying dead in the grave for four days. However, before we reach that point in the story, we need to take a closer look at what happens before Jesus restores Lazarus back to life again.

   Today’s gospel picks up the story in verse 32, where Lazarus’ sister, Mary meets up with Jesus, and full of grief and sorrow, kneels at his feet, saying the following words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Are these words not filled with sadness and regret as well as faith? On the one hand, Mary is missing her brother Lazarus terribly. So in sorrow and regret she says, “IF you had been here…” Is this too not how we respond to the death of our loved ones? There is a sadness of the loss of our loved one, a feeling of void and emptiness without them. A recognition that life is never going to be the same without them. There is often also a feeling of regret mainly due to guilt associated with something we may have done or may have failed to do. IF ONLY I had not gotten into that tirade which upset my loved one and may have brought on his/her heart attack. IF ONLY I had taken that day off to pay a visit and say my final good-bye. IF ONLY I had made more of an effort to reconcile my differences with my father/mother. IF ONLY we had taken the time to plan more for the future and had made a will. Mary’s words of regret here teach us all that we need to live life by making each day count; so that we do not have to be condemned and weighed down by the IF ONLYS of life. Life in communion with Jesus frees us from the oppressive IF ONLYS. On the other hand, Mary’s words are also a remarkable confession of faith and confidence in Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Here Mary trusts and believes in Jesus, that he actually could have prevented the death of Lazarus had he been around at the time. Here is a trust, a confidence, and a faith that shines through like the beautiful multicoloured light of stained glass windows. An incredible faith in Jesus as the giver and restorer of life. Can we too not learn from Mary’s words of a confident faith in Jesus? Can we, like Mary turn to Jesus in our times of deepest sorrow and grief and seek his grace so that we too might be restored and given a newness of life, a newfound meaning and purpose for life?

   It is most interesting how John describes Jesus’ response to Mary’s words. In verse 33, he says: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The New Testament Greek of this verse is rather difficult to translate, since the word for deeply moved can refer to anger, reproach, and sternness. However, in light of the larger context of Jesus’ close friendship with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, surely he is not expressing his anger here. Rather, it makes more sense to that John’s description of Jesus’ response is one of deeply felt emotion, expressing his compassion and empathy towards his friends. Here the following translation of Dr William Barclay is helpful in underscoring Christ’s emotion: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and when he saw the Jews who had come with her weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit so that an involuntary groan burst from him, and he trembled with deep emotion.2 Here it seems to me that John picks up on something very profound that is essential to our understanding of Jesus. In describing Jesus’ response like this, John is communicating the humanity of Jesus. Jesus was a human being like us; therefore he shares everything human with us—including our sorrow and grief. Unlike the ancient Greeks who viewed divinity as apathetic, and incapable of any emotion; the real, true God can be filled with emotion and share with us in comforting ways, our sufferings and sorrows.

   After this description of Jesus’ demonstration of emotion, John goes on to tell us that Jesus then asks where Lazarus has been laid, to which those present invite him to “come and see.” And then for a second time Jesus lets out his sorrow and grief, John says in verse 35: “Jesus began to weep.” In Jesus’ humanity he is able, like us, to shed tears to release his sorrow and show us that he is in solidarity with us. And then, John describes the response of the grieving community, who happen to be “the Jews,” who said: “See how he loved him!” Here John underscores another very significant point—namely, that when we face the death of our loved ones we all need the care, the love, the compassion and empathy of the community. Here is a good example of the communion of saints at work. Death is not something meant to be faced alone, privatized, hidden, or denied. One day we shall all die, that, I believe is one reason for celebrating All Saints Sunday. In a death-denying society, we Christians and Jews face the reality of death together as a faith community to draw strength and comfort from one another, just as Mary and Martha drew strength from Jesus and the Jews who were also mourning Lazarus’ death.

   As the story unfolds, after the Jewish audience make their comment about Jesus’ love for Lazarus and wonder, like Mary, why he could not have prevented Lazarus from dying; John tells us in verse 38 that for a third time Jesus expresses his emotion: “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” Or as Dr Barclay translates it: “Again a groan was wrung from Jesus’s inner being.” Notice then what follows after this third expression of Jesus’ emotion. Jesus, going against the advice of Martha, and most likely surprising the whole audience, orders the tomb to be removed after Lazarus had been lying dead for four days, which according to Jewish tradition, the soul would have left the body. Over against the protests of the “stench” of a four-day-old, dead, decomposing body; Jesus orders the audience to “Take away the stone.” Then, after a prayer and with a loud cry, he says, “Lazarus, come out!” Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens! The four-day-old dead man comes out, grave-clothes and all! Next, Jesus instructs his audience to: “Unbind him, and let him go.”

   This last segment of the story is, I believe, very instructive for us on this All Saints Sunday. It reminds us all that the restoring to life of Lazarus is not only the work of Jesus, but also requires the cooperation of the faith community. It is the faith community who roll the stone of the tomb away. It is also the faith community who unwrapped Lazarus from his grave-clothes. So too, we are who we are as the Church today not because we have made it on our own. Rather, we are who we are today as a people of faith because of the legacy of faith that we have inherited from our ancestors in the faith. There is not a soul here today, I believe, who has not, somewhere along life’s journey been deeply influenced by the life of the saints who have gone before us. Whether it’s our parents, grandparents, our neighbours and friends, our Sunday School or other teachers, our pastors or other leaders in the Church—we’ve all benefited from the life and influence of saints. In fact, the saints who influenced us have been the very presence of Christ in our lives.

   In our world today, we can all too easily smell the “stench” of death. Death in the fast-paced lives that we live. Death in our obsession with “making it” no matter what, even if that means selling our very souls. Death in the prevalent values of consumerism, materialism, and individualism, which exploit people and the world’s resources without any limits. Death in our hunger and thirst for entertainment, which promotes violence as the means to solving life’s problems. The list could go on almost endlessly. Thank God that through Jesus and with the help of the communion of saints we are able to live a new, death-free life! We are called by Jesus to unbind the death-clothes of this world and set people free to live a life of love and abundance in Christ. Amen.          


1 Cited from: Pulpit Resource, Vol. 25, No. 4, Year B & C, October, November, December 1997 (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos Productions Inc., 1997), p. 21.

2 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Daily Bible Study: The Gospel of John, Volume 2 Chapters 8-21 (Burlington, ON: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd., 1975), pp. 96ff.




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