March 26, 2023

Strong as Death is Love

John 11: 1-3, 17-45

Rev. David Germer

 Our Lenten journey is nearing its end as we make our way to Jerusalem and, ultimately, to the cross, with Jesus.

The lectionary texts have given us a series of heart to heart talks – conversations with Jesus in which the questions are often as revealing, if not even more revealing, than their answers or responses. We see Jesus connecting, in a personal, intimate way, with any and all who come to him and open themselves up to him – often in vulnerability, at times taking risks, and frequently, and as we’ll see in today’s passage: with deep emotion.

The text from John 11 is long, so I have some help in reading it. Listen for God’s word:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 

 [Jesus, delays – curiously – for the glory of God… and has some conversations about death and falling asleep – but does ultimately go, days later, to Bethany in Judea]

 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 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 began to weep. 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.”

 Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did believed in him.

 The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (Thank you, readers)

My sermon title this morning is stolen from the title of a book I recently finished reading that has nothing to do with Lazarus or the gospel of John – it’s actually a translation and commentary of the late biblical first testament books (like Esther and Jonah and Ruth) by scholar Robert Alter – and his title and mine is a line directly from his translation of the Song of Songs, the book of love poems: “Strong as death is love. Its sparks are fiery sparks, a fearsome flame. Many waters cannot put out love nor rivers sweep it away.”

We could spend months in this chapter of John’s gospel, and not adequately address the complexity and depths of what is happening in the story. Today, I want to simply offer and explore together two points – two fundamental truths I think this passage proclaims:

Death matters; and

Death does not have the final say.

That’s it. That’s the sermon. I don’t have anything new or particularly insightful to offer this morning, but sometimes we need to hear simple, basic truths again and again, or we need to hear them in different ways. So here is it again: death is significant and strong… and love is stronger than death.

Death is not a topic most of us want to dwell on. It’s not pleasant. It’s not an elective for which we eagerly sign up.

Henri Nouwen, a favorite author of mine (who will come again, later), tells a story of a friend who awoke one morning to find their pet bird dead in its cage, and he rushed to the store to buy a new bird so that he didn’t have to talk to his young son about the reality that we don’t live forever. Most of us wouldn’t go that far, but it’s relatable. There’s a reason that churches typically have packed sanctuaries for multiple services on Easter Sunday, and rooms full of empty chairs and pews on Good Friday. (Not all churches, but most.)

Death is not a fun topic, but we can’t rush past point 1 – death matters – to get to point 2 – love is stronger than death.

For the phrase “strong as death is love” to mean anything – and I want to suggest it means a great deal – we need to reckon with the reality that death itself is a powerful force, a fearsome flame. Everyone’s going to take this course, one way or another, so let’s face it head on as a requirement, not an elective, and see what it has to teach us.

Death matters, in part, because there is a finality to it.

There are a lot of stories in the Bible that warrant and invite metaphorical readings. Some mythic stories form the first testament: demonic possession stories, maybe even some miracles, some would suggest have scientific explanations that we’re better equipped to understand in the 21st century than readers were in the 1st century. Some see the resurrection of Jesus himself as a metaphor. A true metaphor, and beautiful, and worth giving your life to even, but not literal. (That’s a sermon for another day… I think Patrick might be preaching that sermon in a couple weeks? [a playful joke])

I do want to point something out about this particular passage: the raising of Lazarus may be even harder to believe than Jesus’ resurrection. Lazarus, John goes out of his way to point out, was dead for four days; the body had begun to stink. The soul, according to Jewish tradition at the time of the writing, had departed the body (after a 3 day grace period).

It’s almost as if John is pre-emptively saying, “you can’t write this off or wiggle around this one.”

Do you remember the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which people are bringing out their dead and piling them on a massive cart, and one poor man – a servant whose master is apparently done with him – is in the unfortunate position of having to try to convince people that he is not dead. His master is working against him, trying to convince the undertaker that he is deathly ill, and will be dead in just a minute; don’t mind what he says, please just go ahead and take him. The servant becomes more and more lively and convincing, apparently on the verge of a full recovery, when the owner finally gives him a lethal blow to the head, sending the now satisfied undertaker on his way with the body.

That is NOT what is happening here, with Lazarus. Science has come a long way, but they knew what dead was. Do you think Lazarus’ loved ones didn’t listen for a heartbeat? He was dead by a 1st century definition, he was dead by a 21st century definition.

Some believed that prophets, messengers of God, could heal people, but nobody believed that they could bring dead people back to life. They were no more primed and ready to believe that this actually could and did happen, than we are. But “believe” is exactly what people are called to do, over and over again, in this passage. “Believe,” Jesus says. “Believe in me;” “do you believe?” “I’ve said this so that they may believe;” and the last line of the passage: “many believed” – in Jesus, who literally raises the dead.

But the belief in the power of God in Jesus does not minimize the weightiness of death – for the sisters (both of whom express at least some belief, and a desire to believe), nor even for Jesus himself.

When he encounters the death of his friend, he doesn’t scoff at the emotion of Mary and Martha, nor does he minimize it, nor say that it’s misdirected. He doesn’t offer any of comfort cliches that folks sometimes use as a shield against the darkness of death. I bet you’ve heard some of these: “you’ll see him again someday;” “he’s in a better place;” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle;” or “heaven needed another angel” (which may be the worst one because not only is it unhelpful, it has no theological or biblical basis).

Instead, Jesus responds with a full range of emotions, displaying perhaps more emotion in this scene than in any other in the gospels.

Because of the reality of death.

First, he gets angry. Our text read, “he was greatly disturbed and deeply moved,” but a better translation is that “he was greatly disturbed, and grunted,” or snorted! Think of a horse, or a bull, (or maybe the donkey we’ll have for our Palm Sunday procession next week) angrily snorting in the face of some threat. Jesus, enters the scene hot, ready for battle – facing an enemy that he plans to defeat – death. And he’s mad.

Several weeks ago, I suggested that so much of our anger, that we’d like to think of as “holy, righteous anger,” is really self-righteous anger, exposing our disordered loves. Jesus’ reaction and example here is comforting to me, because it affirms that anger is indeed warranted in the face of death – that anger shows properly ordered love: love for people made in God’s image near the very top. We know that we are mortal, that death is part of each one of our stories… but it still hurts, and in the language of the Bible, it is not the way things are supposed to be. When it comes unexpectedly, or when it comes far too soon, like the for the two Reynolds High School students who independently took their lives over the past two weeks… in those cases, my response to death, and at times, even to God, for allowing that kind of death – is anger. I don’t know why God intervenes sometimes, and not others. And I’d be suspicious of anyone suggesting they do know why… but Jesus’ response to the death of Lazarus – greatly disturbed in spirit, deeply moved, snorting in anger – helps me know: God gets it. God’s angry about death, with us. God, too, has experienced the total absurdity of death.

After the snort, Jesus displays a different emotion – profound sadness. We see him weep just twice in the Bible – once over the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and once in grief over the death of his friend.

This is a great comfort for me, too. Jesus not only sees death as an enemy in whose face he angrily snorts… but he also feels the pain of the reality that the sting of death brings.

Death matters.

And nothing that we might believe about heaven, about God making all things new, about resurrection, can or should change that. That’s why on this Lenten journey of uncertainty, with Jesus, toward the cross… it’s appropriate, and necessary, to reflect on the weightiness of death – whether its the tragic loss of high school students, or the more expected deaths of parents or spouses or friends who live long, full lives.

Here’s my second Henri Nouwen reference, whose writing on death I find to be so helpful. Writing about the death of his mother, he says that deliberate remembering of loved ones who have died, with all the pain, sorrow, and sadness involved, is necessary, because in doing so we keep them as ongoing spiritual companions, and they “dispel in us a little more of our darkness, and lead us a little closer to the light. To remember means to cease from clinging, for by letting go, we do not lose them. Rather, we find that they are closer to us than ever.”

What Nouwen puts his finger on in those lines, is that death matters, not only because of the genuine, healthy, difficult emotions that it stirs and brings forth in us… but also because of what it allows, and opens up for us. Death in this sense, even amidst the suffering often connected with it, can also be understood, as an invaluable gift. A source, in fact, of life.

This is the mystery of death, and the paradox of God’s presence in the world – things are not as they should be, but we believe that all things will be restored and made right. And we really do believe it – some of us like Martha – boldly, vocally, but still uncertain; some like Mary – timidly, yearningly – but notice there is no judgment, for either of them, in this passage. I was amazed by how much ink and paper is devoted in commentaries to comparing the responses of the sisters in this passage, searching for clues as to whose response is better. I think the other story of Martha and Mary, which does invite that kind of comparison, is taken as an invitation to do the same here, but the passage itself does not invite this. They are each presented as loving sisters dealing with the death of their brother in a human, honest way. They trust that Jesus has power, but haven’t yet seen all that his love is capable of doing. Every tear has not been wiped away, even from the face of Jesus.

Jesus cries with us, and then cries out, in a loud voice: sleeper, awake! Lazarus, come out! Showing the crowds, and showing us, that death does not have the final say. Showing us that God chooses to be none other than the God of resurrection. The God who raises people to life.

At the beginning of the passage and story, Mary and Martha identify Lazarus as the one who Jesus loves.

Friends, that’s you, too. Those are your loved ones, who have died. The ones Jesus loves.

Death matters. And, God is love, and strong as death is love… even stronger. It has the power to unbind all that holds us from fullness of life. Believe the good news. Believe Jesus. Amen.


As you go, go remembering that strong as death is love… and death is very strong. It deserves the fullness of our emotions. And it does not have the last word. The God of resurrection, who loves you, does.

Thanks be to God.


[1] Erin Raffety, From Inclusion to Justice: Disability, Ministry, and Congregational Leadership (2022)

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