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Lazarus, Come Out!

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Apr 06

The Fifth Season in Lent

Text:  John 11: 1-44

I can’t really remember the first time I came to understand the concept of foreshadowing but it may well have been while watching The Wizard of Oz as a kid on our family TV.  As a child, those black and white images of the sinister Miss Gulch riding her bike and that dreadful music was almost as terrifying as the black and green Wicked Witch herself.   That “da-nat da-nat da-na-na, da-nat da-nat da-na-na” music from those opening scenes still freaks me out.  All the other major characters who appear in Oz are there at the start as well, from the soon to be scarecrow Zeke to the sham carnival worker who would become the great and mighty Wizard himself, albeit the one behind the curtain.   It was the black and white back story that so powerfully set up that Technicolor epic of a new life and a new world.

I wonder if much the same can be said for our gospel story for today. What a narrative! And its told with such fascinating and heart-wrenching detail. If we aren’t careful, we can forget that this was never intended to be a stand-alone story. In fact, it is the last of seven so-called ‘signs’ that are laid out in the first half of John’s Gospel.  Each of the signs are miracle stories -- turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, to name a few, and this last sign, the raising of Lazarus. They all carry the same purpose -- to exalt and glorify Jesus. Jesus says it himself in verse 4 – this illness, this whole story, does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory so the Son of Man may be glorified through it. The ‘signs’ are meant to lift him up, to extol him, and ultimately to prepare the readers for the far bigger story that’s about to happen, that of Jesus being raised from death to new life. The signs, and especially this one, are like the black and white warm up for the full color drama of Holy Week and Easter. In fact, in John, it’s this very story about Lazarus that confirms and spreads Jesus reputation as a genuine threat to the earthly powers that will ultimately have him crucified. As Fred Craddock has mentioned, Jesus knows all to well that when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, the time has come for him to go in! [1]

Having said all of that, let’s try not too get too hung up on questions of fact or historicity, about whether this miraculous story actually happened, about whether this dead man actually came back to life.  At least cut me some slack until Easter for those sorts of questions.  For now, I'd like us to see this account as primarily symbolic, as a carefully crafted narrative intended to prepare us for us for both the pain and the world-turned upside down joy that comes next.  It doesn’t take much to see John was lining up the details with earlier accounts of the passion.  Some of the same key players are there, as they were in the events surrounding Jesus death, even Thomas who doesn’t seem nearly as doubtful in this setting.   The tombstone being rolled away, the grave cloths, even the question “where have you laid him?” are all features that show up again in accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. There are a few other key moments in the story to which I need to call your attention.

First, the two word statement, widely heralded as the shortest verse in scripture: “Jesus wept!” We sing it as a round every year at Good Friday, and for good reason, since Jesus shows a similar display of sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his death.   Beyond this further foreshadowing though, the phrase is profound in and of itself. Martin Luther and others point to this line as a quintessential symbol of Christ’s humanity.  Luther said: “Christ’s gestures are so human that a man might never have thought that he was God.”  But for what is he is weeping, after all?  For his beloved friend Lazarus, no doubt, and for his family.  But I wonder if his tears and turmoil don’t also transcend the immediacy of his personal relationships with this family?  What if Jesus not only was weeping for his friend, but for the human condition of death and suffering writ large, a condition of which he himself will soon be acutely aware. The writer of this gospel believes that Jesus knew how this story would end. It could well be that the deep and spiritual disturbance Jesus is feeling has to do with the anticipation of his own death, and of the amazing and glory that will follow it when he is raised. John Calvin notes that Jesus tears means he comes to the tomb of Lazarus not so much as a friend attending a funeral but more like and I quote “a wrestler preparing for the contest.” Meanwhile the fifth century, Pope Leo I, referred to this passage when he discussed the two natures of Jesus: "In his humanity Jesus wept for Lazarus; in his divinity he raised him from the dead."   His tears say I’m a human being.  And yet his words and actions say “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Maybe the lesson here is that we ought not let our ideas of the resurrection become too abstract, nor let them travel too far from the historical reality or the immediacy of our human suffering.  Death and grief and pain and sorrow are inextricably intertwined with new life and hope and joy. 

 I’m reminded of an excerpt of prayer that I’ve shared with a few of you written by Howard Thurman, a mentor to Martin Luther King.  Hear his words: 

Our little lives, our big problems---these we place upon Thy altar!

Brood over our spirits, Our Father,

Blow upon whatever dream Thou hast for us

That there may glow once again upon our hearths

The light from Thy altar.

Pour out upon us whatever our spirits need of shock, of lift,

of release

That we may find strength for these days---

Courage and hope for tomorrow.

In confidence we rest in Thy sustaining grace

Which makes possible triumph in defeat, gain in loss, and

love in hate.

We rejoice this day to say:

Our little lives, our big problems---these we place upon Thy altar!"

 

I’m grateful to Thurman for the perspective held by his contrast:  Our little lives. Our big problems.  On the one hand, the phrase “our little lives” teaches me humility, especially when I compare my short time on this planet to the grand scheme of time and eternity.  On the other hand, “our big problems” lets me take my life seriously, with compassion and without diminishing those seemingly insurmountable dilemmas of human life and love that we all face from to time.  I wonder if Jesus had something like this contrast in mind while standing at the tomb of Lazarus, both the recognition of that intimate and immediate and utterly human moment – that big problem of a dear friend’s untimely death, but also a perspective to hold and cherish that and all of the other little lives and deaths around him in the light of God’s enormous love, a love that was about to be made known at Easter as never before! 

Imagine seeing our own little lives, our little deaths even, and our big problems and setting these all before an altar of God’s eternal love.  Could we dare to think of our tears, and those of Jesus, not as ends in themselves but as foreshadowing and a preparing the way to see and know a love that is stronger, more vibrant, more colorful than what we can now know? My guess is we could all come up with a few stories of our pain or loss, or even for that matter of some great and abundant joy, that have pointed the way to a deeper awareness, a lasting spiritual lesson, or a broader spectrum of vision with which we can see a once gray world in a new and bright array. If nothing else, this story may serve as a reminder that our human tears and trials are always part of our larger story that, eventually, will reveal God’s love and presence. 

Eventually. This brings me to one further element of the story that bears highlighting.  Did you notice they all needed to wait a few days for Jesus to show up?  I can’t answer why he waited or made them wait, but it may have been to give them even more time to understand what he had been telling them all along, that he and God’s love were and are and would always be for them a great light -- a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it, not even the darkness of a sealed tomb.  We also know there are times in our lives when we need to know God cares, when we too want to cry out, as Mary and Martha do, “Lord, if you had been here!”  If only you had been here, my brother, my father, my mother, my child, my neighbor, my very soul, would not have died?  Just think of those thousands of firefighters marching in love this week.  If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.  It's a way of asking – “where were you then, God?”  We know there are times when we wished we could see the tears in God’s own eyes if only to be assured that the divine presence was truly with us in our despair, or in our outrage over how unfair and unjust life can sometimes be.  Here, Jesus tears show us that he gets it.  He’s with them at the grave and he’s with us. And yet they and his words and his answers to Mary and Martha’s question tell us he’s also and always got his eye on a bigger picture, a broader perspective, a larger, divine drama that constantly surrounds and enfolds the intimate particulars of our short lives.  It's a broader perspective that connects us with ages past, and ages to come and to a faith, hope and love that abides through it all!  Even and especially in those excruciating moments of our private grief and pain, we can be assured that God’s life is bigger, that’ God’s story is larger, that God’s love is strong and with that knowledge, all manner of thing will be well!

The story of Lazarus invites us to take just this longer and broader view, not only of the gospe, but of our own lives.  Can we imagine that our present grief and pain, all those drab and gray and soul-killing moments in our lives are just part of the plotline, one that recalls and foreshadows a larger story of God’s abiding love?  Consider what is that present heartache or minor headache making room for, and what are the lessons to be learned from it.  After Jesus is done with his own weeping, after he is done with a moment of breaking down, that’s when he is ready to let God break in.  He says, “Lazarus, Come out” so that he can go in to occupy and bear witness and sanctify that place of all human separation and suffering and death.  He takes up the cross that he might know the fullness of the cry of victims and perpetrators, of those who are sick, in mind body and soul, of those who are dying, of those who are dead.   Friends, this is what we mean when we speak of God’s love made known through Jesus Christ.  It means, “come out, Lazarus, and let me in! And I will make holy your darkest, most despairing, most stench filled tomb.  “For I am the resurrection and the life. And those who believe in me even though they die, will live.”  Can we hear Jesus even now, calling us from behind our own stonewalls, calling out of our tombs, saying that the story doesn’t end there, that the story can never end there.

As one commentator has noted, “Amid painful circumstances and death-dealing social realities we yearn for [new life] and the unbinding that releases us to dream [and hope] beyond the boundaries[of reason].”   Lazarus, come out.  Unbind him and let him go!  Unbind yourselves, all of you, and give yourselves to a larger story, a more colorful hope, a more abiding and resurrected love that outlasts death.   

Even now, as we prepare to come forward to share the feast, we too can set our little lives and our big problems at the altar of God’s presence, at the table of love.  Even here and now, we are invited into that larger story that at once recalls and foreshadows the glory of God. Amen. 



[1] The insights in this paragraph are gleaned in part from various exegetical commentaries written by Fred B. Craddock, i.e. “A Twofold Death and Resurrection” which can be found at  http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=710

 

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