A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
February 18, 2018
Jesus’ friend, whom he loved, Lazarus, was dead. He was buried. He was in the tomb 4 days, and every good Jew knew that the soul never stayed with the body after 3 days. So he was dead, dead, dead.
And Jesus arrives on the scene.
Martha rushes to him and 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.”
She acknowledges that she can’t see any life in this situation, but she also seems to acknowledge a willingness to rely on God’s imagination instead of her own. “Even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Their conversation continues, and it is clear that Martha can imagine some of the good news—resurrection of the dead and eternal life. That good news is not for NOW. That good news is for the future. “I know he will rise again on the last day,” she tells Jesus.
Mary also comes to Jesus and she makes the same statement of faith. She too, believes in Jesus’ eventual power of death, of good news for some point in the future. Jesus has different words for her.
And it is clear, when they get to the tomb and Jesus tells them to roll away the stone, Mary and Martha aren’t ready for resurrection and new life quite yet. Eminently practical Martha, with no need of imagination says, “Lord, minor detail here, if I may. But already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
“Failure of imagination alert! Yes, Martha. Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
And so they roll away the stone, choosing to disregard everything they knew to be true about the way the world works, choosing to trust that God could see life where they only could see death. It must have seemed more like a zombie apocalypse than a moment of good news, though, waiting to see what Jesus was going to do with an open tomb.
“Lazarus! Come out!”
And Lazarus hears the voice of the shepherd, and gets up from his tomb and walks out into the light, still wrapped in his grave clothes.
While this is a story about Mary and Martha and Lazarus, it has some other important actors in it too. Mary and Martha are not alone in their grief. The community has gathered with them. And when Mary goes to see Jesus, the women go with her. Everyone’s grief is different, and personal. But it isn’t really private. These women don’t say anything, and they don’t offer platitudes. They stand with their friend who is in pain, so she’s not alone. And they cry with her as she and Jesus cry.
And there are people at the tomb.
Jesus commands the crowd to “Unbind him”!
Jesus is the one who calls Lazarus to life. But the crowd has work to do.
I don’t know how comfortable you would be with this task, but no law abiding Jew would touch a dead body casually. And I suspect they were all trying to figure out how the law applied to formerly dead bodies.
But again, like Mary and Martha, they trust in the voice of their shepherd.
And they unbind Lazarus, freeing him of the trappings of death.
This story has reminded me why we gather as the church.
We could be doing lots of other things today. Why do we take time out of our routines to gather together with other people to worship, to gather as church? I could talk for hours about the reasons we worship. But I want us to think about why we gather together in community.
Because community is messy and complicated. And as often as we love each other, or almost as often as we love each other, we hurt each other. We support each other in life, in death, and also when new life happens.
Yes, there is eternal life and resurrection at some point in the future. This story calls us to proclaim that there is also NEW LIFE right NOW. Our faith compels us to unbind people and call them into life today. To let go of their belief that death, war, and corruption have the last word. We need to unbind people so they can work to rid their lives of addictions and despair. We need to unbind people so they can believe that they are beloved children of God, deserving of new life today.
New life isn’t always easy.
The community is called to the somewhat indelicate task of unshrouding the formerly dead Lazarus, so that he can return to life. How well do we do with that task? It is great to talk about new life, but how do we do when formerly dead Lazarii, Lazaruses (is that the plural?) show up in our midst? How well do we obey the command to unbind them, ushering them back into life? Or do we, instead, push them back inside?
I know we’d never admit to doing that. But consider addiction. When someone climbs out of the tomb of addiction, it is often the people who love them the most who have trouble with their new life. We have learned how to deal with the death of addiction. Sometimes it is life on the other side of it that makes us the most uncomfortable.
And this new life isn’t even easy for the formerly dead Lazarus.
How do you walk back into life once you’ve comfortably settled in a tomb? What must it have been like for him, who once was certain that there was no future for him, to discover that there was, indeed, a future with hope? Would people invite formerly dead people over for dinner? How would he fit in the community?
And his very life was testimony to the power of Jesus Christ, he was another sign pointing to Jesus, which also made Lazarus unpopular with the religious leaders. When your life is testimony to the Good News you’ve received, things can be risky.
We are now in the season of Lent, which is a time of preparation for Easter. You’d think that maybe after experiencing the resurrection of Easter for over 2,000 years now, Christians would be better prepared for it. Somehow it still seems a shock.
The rhythm of living, dying, and rising is the story of our faith, and the rhythm of our lives. We worship a man who rose from the dead. After he had lived. And after he died.
If we pretend death isn’t necessary, and try to skip from living to rising, we deny the promise of faith.
If we pretend the messiness of life in community isn’t necessary, the living, living, living together through pain and joy, we deny the promise of faith.
If we pretend resurrection isn’t possible, we deny the promise of faith and will be unable to see miracles in our midst.
I was thinking about the Me Too movement, and the women who have come forward to share their stories of abuse. Those stories are stories of life, and of death. Where is the resurrection in those stories? For the women who have been abused? For the men who have abused? Are we looking for it? Are we willing to usher it in? Or do we want the abusers to just stay in their tombs? Ultimately, of course, the call to new life, the call out of our tombs, is God’s call. We are the ones who have to be ready to unbind people from the sins of their past behavior. We are the ones, once God has called people by name, who have to be ready to unbind people from the wounds of their pasts. It is the community that walks with people out of their tombs and into the new life God is, even now, preparing.
Lent prepares us, again and again, to be Easter people, those who are looking for resurrection and trust God may be imagining new life where we see only death. And when we see people who are called to new life, as Lazarus was, we are called to unbind them, bringing them into new life that they can’t even imagine, and maybe we can’t imagine, as they take those first steps out of the tomb. Martha says to Jesus: ‘But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ May that be our prayer too. May we have eyes to see the new life God is creating.