5 Lent Year A – March 26, 2023
We have two very powerful stories presented to us today…the story of the dry bones and the story of Lazarus. Two big and powerful stories. Both remind us of the physical realities of our experience of death. In Ezekiel the prophet is dropped in the middle of a valley of dry bones. In John, Jesus weeps in response to the lamentations of Martha and Mary and the others. And we are warned of the stench of death.
Our Lenten journey, has taken us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death last Sunday and now leads us to the dry bones of Ezekiel and the tomb of Lazarus and the gift of life out of death.
We can’t help but notice that in John’s story, Jesus weeps. When Jesus weeps, he honors the complexity of our gains and losses, our sorrows and joys. Raising Lazarus would not bring back the past. It would not cancel out the pain of his final illness, the memory of saying goodbye to a life he loved, or the gaping absence his sisters felt when he died. Whatever joys awaited his family in the future would be layered joys, joys stripped of an earlier innocence. Joys shaped by the sorrows, fears, and losses they’d just endured. In Lazarus’s case, his future would be nothing like his past. Forever afterwards, he’d be known in his village as the “One Who Returned”. Perhaps that bizarre fact would make him a hero. Perhaps it would make him a pariah. We aren’t told. But, either way, life would be new and strange and scary. Jesus’s tears honor the reality of human change: he grieves because things will never be the same again.
The gift of joy is a paradox. The Greek word literally means “for the heart, in its deepest place of passion and feelings, to be well.” Joy often brings a deep sense of delight. Yet, whenever you are around people who are very joyful, you will likely see tears. These are tears of joy, wonder, gratitude, satisfaction that come from a deep place in a person’s soul, when someone has experienced a kind of greatness so amazing, almost too great to behold.
And it is the same for the tears of sorrow, and tears of pain or loss, burning the eyes like the salt of the sea, and coming from a place as deep and endless as the ocean. Tears of sorrow expose a person’s deepest vulnerabilities, longings, and losses. The paradox of joy is delight so deep it brings tears from the same place as sorrow.
Jan Richardson writes about being struck that Jesus does not go into the tomb to pull Lazarus out. He does not enter his realm to haul him to this side of living. Lazarus has to choose whether he will loose himself from the hold of the grave: its hold on him, his hold on it. Only when Lazarus takes a deep and deciding breath, rises, returns back across the boundary between the living and the dead: only then does Jesus say to the crowd, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Not until Lazarus makes his choice does the unwinding of the shroud begin, and the graveclothes fall away.
Love is linked inextricably to death in John’s gospel, and that is also true in the story of Lazarus’ family. Their relationship with Jesus does not mean that bad things do not happen. He does not prevent Lazarus from dying. But he is ultimately present to them, and God is glorified even in something that feels initially un-redeemably painful, and this beloved family is part of God’s glory.
Being in relationship with Jesus means facing death and grief with him and learning that still, in spite of the death and the dryness and the finality of the door at the entrance to the tomb of our hopes, he can still be said to be life. “I am the resurrection and the life”, Jesus says. Nothing is ever so dead that it keeps him from being that, for himself, and for us.
And in John that life is not only a future hope. Abundant life is always ever now.
As we approach Holy Week, next Sunday is Palm and Passion Sunday, having Jesus at our tombs also means that we must follow him to his. We must endure the silence of his Saturday even as we endure the silences of our own. But we endure them knowing already that Sunday, that Easter, will surely come, that when we are walking in the garden of our grief, we will meet him again.
The God-life is not about believing all the right things about Jesus. It’s not about being able to recite the creed without crossing your fingers or believing that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish or having an instant, now-you’re-saved, “born again” experience. It is about being willing to let go of everything you think you know and allowing yourself to be drawn into the mystery that is God. “Believing,” as John uses this word, does not refer to some intellectual process that happens in your head. To “believe” in something is to give your heart to it. The God-life then is about giving your heart to God. Your broken heart. Your disbelieving heart. Your divided, angry, fearful heart. Your hard heart. You do not, of course, have the power to transform your own heart, but you do have the power to offer it, no matter what condition it is in, to the God who is able to make all things new.
The raising of Lazarus is a sign that death will not have the last word. We will be raised. Our journey is not to the grave, but through it. The Lord who weeps is also the Lord who resurrects. Joy. Yes, remember joy, the ‘gift of joy’. God is calling you, and me, out of death into the abundant life of Christ who cries out to you: Lazarus, come out!
No bones are too dry. No stone at a tomb entrance is too heavy. Resurrection is not a confession. Resurrection is not a theory. Resurrection is not some sort of ambiguous promise. No, resurrection is real. Resurrection is relationship with God. Resurrection is now.
What lies ahead is a sunrise. May you find the presence of God in every detail of your life because Christ is Risen. Amen.