The Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 10, 2011
We are held by a love that will not let us go… a love which reaches out to us again and again until it has us completely. That love takes on human flesh in Jesus Christ. He lived, taught, healed… and died… so that we could have his life poured into ours, filling our sorrow with peace and hope… and binding us to him forever.
I’m a 6th grade teacher at Mandan Middle School. This past week my social studies classes finished a unit on the Middle Ages. When we study world history in 6th grade we occasionally tackle some rather heavy topics. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen this year’s students more somber or more stricken than when they learned about the Black Death.
As they considered statistics, studied maps, listened to 1st person accounts, looked at art from the period and read summaries of the plague, they became very quiet and serious. It was clear the topic really got to them.
They tried to imagine the experience of this horrific disease that swept through the towns and districts of Europe taking the lives of up to 2/3 of the population.
What would it be like to see this “thing” come into your world and, in short time and in a horrible manner, take the lives of most of the people you knew.
The gruesome nature of the sickness and death… the randomness of the affliction… the innocence of the victims… the sense of powerlessness before this monster that they couldn’t understand and couldn’t restrain or escape in any way… the totality of the destruction… and simply the concept of watching everything you’ve ever known and loved die before your eyes.
It was, for my students, an unsettling reminder of the human being’s mortality. Well, that’s how today’s gospel lesson is for me. It always unsettles me… disturbs me.
There is so much in this long story to reflect on. However, it’s easy for me to get stuck on one thing.
Every time I read (or hear) the story of Lazarus, who died, but then was brought back to life…. Every time I read about the terrible sorrow of those who loved Lazarus and wanted him so badly to live. Every time I think about this good man, a friend of Jesus, who died tragically before his time, only to have Jesus step in and reverse the death… give the grieving people back their loved one… Every time I read this text and think about it, my thoughts fly to people I have loved or known who suffered tragically, unfairly from sickness or accident… who died leaving grieving family and friends. I think of all the desperate, faithful prayers to God. I remember the hope… and sometimes firm confidence that God would bring healing. But God did not step in and prevent the death… did not grant healing or recovery. The loved one died… and the survivors’ terrible sorrow remained terrible sorrow.
That’s where my thoughts go every time I hear this story… so the story always casts a shadow over my mind… raises troublesome questions… when I hear it.
But if I can get past this one thing, then there is a lot of stuff in this story that is wonderful and rich, life-affirming and hopeful. This story points to an even greater gift than the incredible miracle of resuscitation.
The story is about Jesus’ love for his friends. It draws our attention to his affection for them (“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus…” the text explains) and describes how deeply he was affected by their sorrow (“[Jesus] was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved…. [He] began to weep.”) But most importantly, this story stresses Jesus’ love for his friends by showing us how Jesus brings the dead back to life.
What wakes Lazarus from the dead… what brings life back into Lazarus after death has claimed him… is Jesus’ love. And that is where our attention should be in this story.
Some people take from this story the idea that we must have faith in the power of God, so that the power of God might be unleashed and heal us. “Look at what Jesus did with Lazarus… so believe, people, that God will heal you or your loved one… and it will be done!” We focus on what we can do to make this kind of miracle happen in our lives.
But that’s not the way this story goes at all. Even though Jesus calls on the people to believe… they don’t. Yet their lack of belief doesn’t affect the outcome at all. If it had, Lazarus would have stayed stinking in his tomb.
Look at the story. Everyone wants Jesus to come in order to save Lazarus when he is ill. But Jesus arrives too late. Lazarus dies. Martha and Mary scold Jesus for coming late: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Others present consider the same thing: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
They believed (or hoped) that Jesus could heal a seriously ill man. But neither the crowd that had gathered, nor Jesus’ good friends Mary and Martha, nor his own disciples had any inkling that Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life. Martha seems to hint at such a hope, but even when Jesus declares to her that Lazarus will rise again, she cannot fathom it. There is no faith, because they cannot even comprehend what they can hope for. When Jesus asks to have the stone before the tomb rolled away, Martha protests: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
There is no hope for a return to life… no faith that it can be done… only sorrow in the crowd of mourners. This is a very important point of this story… but we often miss it. It is… entirely… the love and power of God in Christ that makes this miracle happen… that fills the dead with life. Nothing else contributes to the miracle. Nothing.
This is also the lesson Ezekiel is given in his vision of the valley of dry bones. God speaks to the lifeless bones of the valley: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” He invites Ezekiel to prophesy God’s word. We are all called to be a part of God’s work of proclaiming and delivering life in the midst of death. But we don’t produce it in any way. We don’t add to God’s work. He doesn’t need us. (He doesn’t need our faith).
God’s work will unfold of its own power. But because of God’s great love for us, he insists on having us along to be a part of what he is creating. He will give us life. He will outlast our resistance and our apathy. He will carry us beyond our doubt. He will, in the end, sweep away all obstacles that stand between us and him… sin, regret, emptiness, despair… death… simply because he is God and he loves us, and because he has the power to do so.
That’s what we need to see in these passages… the one from Ezekiel and the one from John… and everywhere in scripture.
The Gospel is about life… God giving his life to us… and his life growing in us. Though we try to hide it and deny it, death is all around us and within us. Lazarus was brought back to life… but he had to face physical, earthly death again. Jesus’ gift to Lazarus and his friends recorded in today’s Gospel lesson was indeed great… but it wasn’t the final or greatest gift of life Jesus would give Lazarus.
Greater than the gift of resuscitation is the gift of life God gives us as we live our daily lives… the gift of forgiveness, love, faith, hope, grace, wisdom, maturity. These things make living worthwhile… make living rich. These things lead to growth in us. They create strong, good bonds between people… family, friends… even strangers and… even enemies. They make it possible for us to endure all things in hope.
And, of course, God’s gift of life includes the gift of life eternal. It is the promise that God’s love for us is the final word over our being. His life, that cannot be silenced or stopped by death, will be our final gift.
Today’s Gospel lesson is meant to encourage us to put our trust in God’s love and power.
It shows us that though the sorrows of sin and death may overwhelm us, we are never lost… even when we feel we are so far gone that hope is unfathomable. Even then, we know we are immeasurably loved by the one who created us… the one source of true and eternal life.<
We are held by a love that will not let us go… a love which reaches out to us again and again until it has us completely. That love takes on human flesh in Jesus Christ. He lived, taught, healed… and died… so that we could have his life poured into ours, filling our sorrow with peace and hope… and binding us to him forever. Amen.