“For the Sake of the Crowd Standing Here”
Bible Text: John 11:32–44 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest
I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here,
so that they may believe that you sent me.”
Our lectionary today takes us to John’s gospel as we recognize All Saints Day. John’s gospel is far more ethereal, opening with “In the beginning was the word and the word was God,” proclaiming from the very beginning Jesus is one with God. In this gospel we hear the list of “I am” statements. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the good shepherd.” All of these “I am” statements draw a hearer to believe Jesus, who appears to be a man, is so united with God, he is the one who nourishes us for the journey, illumines the way to life and is the source of salvation.
Jesus accompanies these teachings with wondrous works. Though fewer in number than in the gospels of Matthew, Mark or Luke, they are remarkable and witnessed to only by the writer of John’s gospel.
In one case, a person who was ill for 38 years (5:2–9) was cured and another who had been blind since birth received sight (9:1–7). In another narrative, Jesus transformed vast quantities of water to wine in Cana. John’s gospel only relates seven instances as evidence of Jesus’ capacity to change lives, but they astound all who witness them.
These are the “signs” that point to the truth about God and life that find expression in Jesus. Our reading for today picks up at the end of Jesus’ three-year ministry, as he heads towards his fate in Jerusalem.
When his friends Mary and Martha demand he come to heal their sick brother Lazarus, Jesus takes so much time to get to Bethany, Lazarus dies. Enraged, Martha accuses Jesus that had he been there, Lazarus would not have died.
In their exchange we hear the iconic statement from Jesus “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Listen to the rest of this story as I read from John, chapter 11.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he—who opened the eyes of the blind man—have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he 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.”
Dear God, We confess that sometimes we are so busy, life is so hectic, and we are so distracted, that we become anxious in silence, in prayer, in these moments on Sunday morning. So, come into this silence. Speak your word to us in it. And give us the patience and the faith to hear within and between the words about who you are and the love that brought us to life. In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
One Sunday in late summer, I arrived at the Church at my usual, early hour, so I could prepare in the quiet. As I walked past the Memorial Garden, my eye caught something and I stopped, still. For all the time I’ve spent in this garden, I’d never expected to see what remained in the early morning light, and it took me several long moments to let the image seep in, to make sense of it, and to let all of my emotions settle.
In the center of the gracefully curved walls, was a white trellis and chairs, in almost neatly lined rows facing it. Some of the chairs were some askance, as if some left hurriedly, and others were off to the side, where I imagine a string quartet would have played. Tossed on the ground were a few streamers with ribbons and bells and flowers—this worship service had been a celebration. The air was still palpable of joy and life.
This sight took my breath away. In the early dawn, alone in my quiet, what is already a sacred place became even more so. I brushed off a dew-covered seat and imagined what those saints had witnessed and were still blessing with smiles.
The prior day, a wedding was held in our Memorial Garden.
When I related this story to others, some reacted with an “eww, why would anyone marry in a cemetery?” Well, our memorial garden is not a cemetery. The impeccably manicured garden, flowering bushes, and dove statue holds those we love and is where many will later rest. Children play. Dogs are walked. Members sit in quiet. Our garden is filled with life.
I imagine the couple who decided to commit their lives to each other and ask God’s blessing upon them, did so in the garden when they realized that the love that blossomed in them was from God, birthed through the generations, who had literally loved them into life, and who now rested in the garden.
In my heart and mind, I can only imagine how their saints would have danced and waved streamers and clapped their hands for the joy of marriage and new life. Of course, they wanted to host the party.
Today is All Saints Day. We set aside this Sunday to celebrate with gladness those in our lives who have gone before us and loved us into life. In our protestant tradition, these saints are not canonized by Rome, but are those souls we hold in our heart and who linger in the balcony of our lives.
“Saints,” Frederick Buechner wrote, are not “plaster statues, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil thing their whole life long.” “Saints,” Buechner claims, “are essentially life givers. To be with them is to become more alive.”.
All those who created this Church are our saints: those who sat in these pews, sang in our choir, played the organ, led our outreach, taught our children, oversaw this sanctuary and visited the sick. Saints.
Each one of us is surrounded by our own saints: our parents, perhaps a spouse, grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our teachers, mentors, friends near and far who inspired us, loved us, expected much of us, and prodded us to become who we are.
Our saints encourage us and remind us of the faith they received from those before them. Our saints teach us to be faithful in our own days, to seek victory in this life and trust Jesus for victory into the next life. They comprise our Communion of Saints.
And, they remain present in our lives. Have you noticed how you seem to be in relationship with them still? When we say things like “Wouldn’t he have been proud?” or “Wouldn’t she have loved all these grandchildren?” We remember in a way that suggests that he, somehow, is proud and that she, somehow, in the mystery of God’s time, loves these children she’d not met.
Or, we might say, “every time I hear that hymn, I smile, remembering how he would embed another melody within, just for us.” And in embracing these memories, we appreciate the hymn’s character more deeply.
For some, this All Saints Day is one event in a long string of firsts. The string of firsts refers to the holidays observed in the first year without someone. The first Thanksgiving. Putting up a tree. Facing Christmas and starting a new year all the while remembering and grieving. As we celebrate All Saints Day today, we also accept someone’s grief may still be so fresh, the absence of a loved one so profoundly silent, that the thought of saint is not sweet, not even close to bittersweet. The grief may be palpable.
For Mary and Martha, mourning their brother, they were not ready to celebrate All Saints; they were inconsolable at their loss and frightened of the finality of his death…for him and themselves. When someone close to us dies, it challenges everything we believe to be true of life now and life beyond.
Complaining to Jesus, they invoked a Jewish tradition of faithful prayer—lament—by daring to take God by the lapels and speak honestly of their pain at this human experience. You heard the words, but imagine the tearful-rage: “If you had been here, our brother would not have died!” Jesus on the other hand does not placate them as passive children; he does not condescend to them by claiming Lazarus’ death was “the will of God,” which tragically too many people today may say at a deathbed, and should never be even thought.
Instead, Jesus shares in their emotion, for great love evokes gut wrenching grief, such that “Jesus wept” as well. Perhaps this scene in John’s Gospel is its version of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane—a place where Jesus endures the tragedy and pain in human life we cannot escape, affirming our fear of dying and of death. In Jesus, we do not get to by-pass the finality of death, but we do not die alone or linger in death.
In our scripture passage, the writer takes pains to recreate the visceral reality of death, asking us to smell the stench and imagine a stone so heavy Jesus could not move it.
Then, Jesus reveals what he has proclaimed all along—he is one with God—by praying “Father…I knew you always hear me.” He says this not for his or God’s sake, but “for the sake of the crowd standing.” Then Jesus shouts “Lazarus come out.”
When Lazarus came from the tomb, with grave clothes still on, we can believe God and Jesus are one, able and willing to claim Lazarus in life and in death.
This scene also foreshadows all of what is yet to come. In only a short while, it will be Jesus, who goes into the tomb and by the power of God will be raised.
Theologian and famous preacher, Fred Craddock observes, “It is as though one held up to the light a sheet of paper on which was written the story of the raising of Lazarus. But bleeding through from the reverse side of the paper, and clear enough to be read, is the other story of death and resurrection of Jesus.”
If we pay attention to the Halloween decorations, the plastic corpses and skeletons and the Styrofoam tombs, littered across front lawns; they play on our fear of death.
Death is a defining event in our lives, for those we love and for our own lives. But, death does not define our life, our theology or faith. Jesus is aware of just how difficult that is to believe so that when he prayed to God, “for the sake of the crowd standing here” and called Lazarus out of the tomb, it was also for you and me, for our sake. Jesus spoke to God and calls us to believe he was always and is always one with God.
Claiming Lazarus after death proved his promise: we will be with God beyond the horizon of death. Later, in John’s gospel, Jesus asks us to imagine a mansion with many rooms, places for all of us that are not bound by time or place.
The second and equally important relationship God has with us through Jesus is here and now. Jesus loved Lazarus and Martha and Mary in this life, demonstrating the reality that God comes to us. Eternal life begins right now. We are to set aside our fear and live as if death has no power in our days. Jesus asks us to live as in life and in death we belong to God.
The people who learn to live with gusto and courage and swing out as wide as possible, in the face of death, do so with the confidence in Jesus now and Jesus’ ability to be the victor when all their strength and life is gone. These saints in our life realize before they die, they are to live and want the same for us…life.
Sixty-eight names are listed in our worship bulletin of congregants and family of members who have died since our last All Saints Day. If the past year has felt more grief-filled than others, you are correct. It seems wrong to calculate the significant percentage increase since last year, for these are names of beloved and not data points. But, pause and recognize the breadth and depth of grief among us.
Many of you recently buried a loved one. If you have not, you are sitting next to someone who is recreating a life with only memories. This is when the Church is to hold one another, be another’s strength until they are strong, tell the story of God’s love – not in words but with a brave presence and compassionate heart. This is when the church is to tell the story again of the last supper, when Jesus promised to be with each of us again in paradise.
The classic movie Places in the Heart, about a segregated town in the midst of the depression, portrays in its final scene the communion of saints during Holy Communion. The audience sees Sally Field surrounded by people from her life. Some are alive and join her in worship. Some in the scene have moved out of town. Some have died yet appear in the scene as they did in life. All sit together, side by side, and participate in the passing of the bread. The visual reminds us that all believers of all time celebrate together the gift of God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ.
When we celebrate Holy Communion, we do so with all the saints who have gone before. Siblings in different congregations, cities and countries are with us at the table. Those children who are away at college are, yet, with us.
We celebrate with the past, including those disciples at the last supper who handed to us this tradition to all those before us. We celebrate with those present and future believers in the communion of saints. We are tethered to one another through the one who came to be with us in all of life and through death…our savior Jesus Christ.
 Fredrick Buechner. Wishful Thinking, a Seekers Guide, (San Francisco: HarperOne; Rev Exp edition, 1993) 102.  Frances Taylor Gench. Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 86.  The NRSV translation of this verse is “Jesus began to weep,” which faithfully indicates the verb tense in the Koine Greek. I chose the more familiar and oft memorized translation from the KJV, “Jesus wept” as this has been so meaningful for members throughout generations.  Fred Craddock, The Gospels, Interpreting the Text, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981) 141.