Fifth Week of Lent. John 11:1-45; Ezekiel 37:1-14
Did any of you hear this story this week? The mayor of a French village has issued a blunt decree to residents: “Don’t Die!” "It is forbidden for any person not having a plot in the cemetery ... to die on the territory of the village." Offenders will face a "severe punishment." "The first dead person to come along, I'll send him to the state's representative," he said.1
I wonder if this mayor had Lazarus in mind when he considered enforcing this law. Or maybe he was thinking of all of those bones in that body put back together and given new life.
The story of the dry bones in Ezekiel is familiar: “The toe bone connected to the foot bone.”2
We know this morning’s gospel story: Lazarus being raised from the dead.
Were any of you raised in churches that required you to memorize bible verses? Here it is, the verse that you all memorized: Jesus Wept!
Let’s consider for a moment these tears of Jesus. Was it the inability of those around him to see who he was, understand what his life and mission was that got him down? “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;” but they just didn’t seem to get it; well this is confusing.
Was he swept up by the sea of emotion soaking the scene as mourners gathered around the tomb of a dear friend? When Jesus saw her weeping, and those who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
This may have been in fact a more dramatic scene than at Steve’s house when Brett Farve announced his retirement this week. Maybe?
But I wonder if these tears weren’t motivated by the future events that would soon take place in Jesus’ life. Jesus was going to raise Lazarus from the dead…Perform the greatest sign--power to conquer death itself. And, because of this miraculous life giving act…many believed, so from that day on they powerful leaders plan to end his life. Could this be why Jesus wept? He saw in that tomb of Lazarus…his own future? Was Jesus ready for this moment? Was he ready to die?
Rapper Notorious B.I.G claimed that he was ready to die in his 1994 album released when he was just 22 years old; he was killed just 3 years later. Martin Luther King, Jr, days before he was killed spoke at a rally and told the world that he had been to the mountain top, lived and experienced an amazing life, he had seen the hope for the future. He was ready to die, and he did just a few nights later. Even, our beloved Alice Martinez, 96 years old, every time I visit with her asks and wonders when “St. Peter is coming for her.” She is ready to die. (She has just recovered marvelously from pneumonia). Was Jesus, who was around my age when this scene took place, ready to die? Are we?
We have all lost loved ones. We witness daily the reality of death. No law can prevent it from happening. We know that our lives will end. This is why we have seasons like lent.
The Lenten journey provides us an opportunity to think long and hard about this life, it’s meaning and how we live it. What really matters? It’s a time for spiritual growth, introspection, and searching for God. This is hard to do. I told myself that I was going to pray more regularly during lent. I guess I did a bit more, but not like I’d planned to do. I told myself that I was going to be more intentional about listening to others, and not let the distractions of my own thoughts and things around me win over my ears…Friends were over yesterday and I had a hard time listening to the conversation with the basketball game on in the background. All these things compete for my attention: T.V. (when I’m somewhere there is a T.V) and radio. projects. adds. these things tell me to look out for number one. And the minute I begin to look outside myself and my own problems I get bombarded by a world of hurt and pain and worthy causes that overwhelm my heart and mind to inaction. Every week, our mailbox here at church is flooded by some cause that is worth giving to.
A natural response might be retreat…live in your own little world, turn the T.V. back on and be mesmerized by an alluring make-believe world that calls itself “reality.” Disengage, fall into everyday routines, and become blind to what’s going on around. Numbing effects of meaningless news and meaningless events. Not to mention the paralysis of fear. Is this living? Or a kind of death? But really who wants to face death?
Listen to an excerpt from the poem, “Self help for fellow refugees,” by Li-Young Lee:3
If you happen to have watched armed men beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house and into the back of an idling truck
before your mother jerked you from the threshold
buried your face in her skirt folds
try not to judge your mother too harshly
don’t ask her what she thought she was doing.
turning a child’s eyes away from history
and toward that place all human aching starts.
It is no mistake that before we get to Easter in just two weeks, these passages from Ezekiel and John insist that we leave the safety of skirt folds, and go to a graveyard;4 and there confront the aching we have experienced and pray that God will find us there and give us life. Before we jump to resurrection, we must first face our fears, and move into those unpleasant places of our very existence, Those places where dreams have been buried. Where we have experienced hurt and pain. Where life not longer seems to exist.
Can these bones live? Can these bones live? A forgotten Israel far from its homeland struggling to overcome the pain of exile and seeming absence of God.
Life has been sucked out; there is nothing left but dry bones.
Jesus hesitates before going to the grave-site. He gets the message but he doesn’t go. Jesus doesn’t go. He stays, He waits, two days he delays saying: This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be gloried through it.” For John, the Son of God is glorified in and only in death. So basically he is saying if we go do this thing with Lazarus I will die. Was he ready to die?
Finally, after two days, he tells his disciples: It is time. They’re not stupid, they know that with every step toward Bethany, he’s on step closer to Jerusalem where the hornets are waiting to swarm over him. “You march to your death,” they shout in protest. Until one, Thomas, says, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.”
This story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead is odd in so many ways for us.
Are we to believe that Christ can bring the dead back to life? Through this miracle are we given a deeper faith? Can we confess with Martha: Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world? For me, something even more significant is that Jesus resigns to the fact that he must put an end to death, not by going around it, but by going right to where it is. Right to the graveyard.
But he doesn’t go alone; disciples are there. Mary and Martha are there. And it is there in the midst of the crowd, tears and wailing, he asks: “Where have you laid him?” “Come and see,” they say. Jesus weeps. These are healthy tears to be sure…most tears are. The words, Come and see, provoke tears.
The very words he spoke to early disciples when asked: Where do you live? He said, “come and see.” These are the same words Philip said when Nathaniel asked: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Come and see. The Samaritan woman shouted to her village after she had encountered Jesus at the well: Come and see!5 Come and see: A call to discipleship. A call for obedience. Come and see. Jesus friends, without even knowing it, were telling him to come and see tomb where he would soon lie. And Jesus wept.6
Come and see is Jesus’ invitation to identify with all of us. Identify with the struggle to live in faithful obedience under conditions of suffering and death; to live in faithful obedience when retreat and avoidance is so much easier…but is not life giving. Jesus knew disappointment, shame, betrayal, and misunderstanding. Should the shepherd ride in the Prius while the sheep walk along on the dirt road? Should the girlscouts sleep on the cold ground in the dark woods while the leader relaxes in a nearby motel?7 Were Jesus not to have gone through these things, would we pray in his name? Would we sing, “Que Amigo nos es Cristo? Would we have a Friend in Jesus, were he unwilling to confront the reality we all must face?8
And so instead he goes to the extreme. He sets the example. He shouts: Lazarus come out. and now, “the path before him is clear: [For] just as the rule of nature demands the death of the seed in order to have life; Jesus shows us that the rule of discipleship demands the giving of life in order to have life.”9 In this graceful act of obedience, yes, Jesus calls the corpse out of the tomb, making room for his own that will soon be placed there.
And yet in some strange way this is a journey that he takes toward life. This step toward death, in the deepest place in our heart, we know is a step toward life not only for Lazarus, not only for the One who would be raised from the dead, but also for all of us!
Through trust in God we are given life in the spirit: the courage and power to face our fears, confront the powers that would subdue our spirits, numbing our lives to a state of nonexistence. Through prayer, our bones rise up and come together, they are given sinews and flesh. Through obedience the breath of God breathes new life in to each and every one of us.
Today we install 5 officers elected in January of this year to provide life to this church. Two of these five have had to face death head on recently. Kathy lost her father in December. And Diane lost her husband, Dick, in January. Even now,
Donna is confronted with cancer taking over her sister’s body. And yet somehow, these three, and all five of these officers, are willing to say here I am Lord. I have heard your call to come, and the time is now. I am ready to die, to give my life in service so that there may be life in this community. Now I don’t want to suggest that by becoming a deacon or an elder the church community takes over your life. I mean you can still sleep. But, it was fascinating to hear the conversation when we gathered here on Wednesday for officer training. Each went around and shared stories that in some way each said: For a long time this church has given me life. People have served on session and as deacons, and it has made a difference in my life. Now I feel like it is time. It is my time to give something back. To give of my life so that there may be life here in this place on 841 W. Manhattan.
This is great group you, the congregation, have elected. This give me hope. May we all experience the joys of life and the joys of relationship, through the gift of your service. May we all be challenged to life and to hope. A life in which we are called to discipleship: a life of faithful obedience. Which means that we are called to die, to give of our lives in love so that we, and others may live.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
2 James Weldon Johnson
3 As Heard on NRP’s Weekend Edition, Saturday March 8, 2008: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=87784720
4 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Can These Bones Live?” Christian Century, March 13, 1996, p 291.
5 Fred Craddock, “Jesus Wept” Journal for Preachers, Easter 2000, 36-38.
6 Fred Craddock, “Jesus Wept” Journal for Preachers, Easter 2000, 36-38.
7 Fred Craddock, “Jesus Wept” Journal for Preachers, Easter 2000, 36-38.
8 Fred Craddock, “Jesus Wept” Journal for Preachers, Easter 2000, 36-38.
9 Fred Craddock, “Jesus Wept” Journal for Preachers, Easter 2000, 36-38.