Today is the end of my rope in this gospel: the raising of Lazarus ... four days rotting in the tomb Lazarus. I’m fond of the King James Version here. “Take ye, away the stone!” Martha replies, “But Lord, he stinketh.” “Now you will see the glory of God. Lazarus, come forth!” He does, grave clothes and all. Mummy style. “Unbind him and let him go.” Lazarus is free and I am lost. It is not a miracle that I comprehend. I can’t imagine being at table with Lazarus for the rest of this gospel: risen from the dead, four days decomposed. I also can’t get over the fact that Jesus could have stopped this whole charade before it got started.
Everyone in this text knows that Jesus could have saved Lazarus while he was sick. After all, Jesus healed a random beggar, blind from birth. Mary and Martha send for Jesus. Jesus replies, “No, it is for the glory of God.” Jesus returns to his meal. “Lazarus is dead.” “Now let’s go.” This passage doesn’t help me to believe. It makes me angry. This isn’t glory; it is a journey into darkness. Today many are sick. Many have died and there is much darkness that threatens us all.
Jesus loved his friend Lazarus the texts says. Mary and Martha love their brother. I have always imagined Mary and Martha angry confronting Jesus. Anger is a part of grief. Martha wants to have a little talk with her friend before he gets to the funeral home. Mary repeats the same words later: “Lord if you had been here, my brother, would not have died.” Those are the sort of words uttered in the heat of emotion that you later wish you could take back.
I want to pause here, for a moment, and point out an important fact about love. It is not possible to love without suffering, at least on this side of the last day. To love someone means, in part, to be subject to their suffering. It means to open our hearts to the sinking of their hearts. It means to sit beside them when they weep. And yes, sometimes it means to walk away to protect ourselves: our self whom we are also called to love as a sacred gift of God. One can choose not to love, I suppose; but if God is love, as this gospel and the whole of the Bible seem to imply, then God is not omnipotent, God is vulnerable, vulnerable to us.
Jesus arrives and sees everyone weeping. It is the moment when many of us cry at a funeral or visitation. I have seen it many times. A family member greets a friend just arriving as she enters to the door. The narrow viewing room is lined with chairs; a few of them now are filled and gentle music is playing in the background; the lilies and roses and air-conditioning not quite mask the sharp chemical smell of embalming. It is such a long walk from that door to the casket. “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.
It is interesting to me, that this verse, lies at the very center of this long chapter. The revelation of the divine presence in Jesus occurs before this verse, nearer to the beginning. This verse now sits within it, like a wounded lamb embedded in the throne of God. We have been assured, much more directly than in the other gospels that Jesus is the presence of God with us. Almost literally in John, Jesus is Easter walking around the open pages of Scripture. “I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and everyone who lives and believe in me will never die.”
I find it to be an odd twist in this story, that after we place our trust in Jesus, we are led back into darkness. We would prefer faith that dwells in the light. A faith that is Easter only. Largely this has been the faith of the church in Christian history, a faith in the church triumphant. It is not the faith of the Bible, Old Testament or New. In both testaments God suffers because God chooses to love ... and love is vulnerable. When the church has been in a position of power, our God has been unmoving and omnipotent, and our love masquerades as certainty, victory, and control.
Douglas John Hall has said: “As it has turns out, a faith that is accessible only in the night is not the religion that the world wants. But if darkness is indeed humanity's real situation, then a religion that leads us away from it into realms of light is nothing but a deception. The only light worth having is light that illuminates the darkness.” The church that follows its God is a church that lives in solidarity with the suffering of the world. God choses not to be God without the cross. Jesus wept.
Following this God is not easy. I’m not sure I want to. My experience in these texts these last four weeks is of being relentlessly pursued by Jesus, God’s light-giving Word. Wherever you are on your journey in faith, know that God is after you, relentlessly pursuing you, calling you to new life, whether you want it or not. Francis Thompson, a 19th century poet, describes the experience of being chased by God in his poem, The Hound of Heaven: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him.” Lazarus has found a way to escape; he is sealed behind the stone cold door of a tomb.
If you have been following John closely, we have been hunted by the living God on every page. Nicodemus hid in the shadows; he was almost a believer, but afraid of what the world might think of him. Jesus called him to be born from above, to step into the light of life. The Samaritan woman at the well, to avoid the ridicule of her peers sought water at a time of day when she knew she could be alone; Jesus met her and gave her the eternal water of God’s acceptance. The blind beggar was minding his own business, not asking to be healed or for the consequences; Jesus made him whole.
Now. Lazarus. Lazarus, finally finds an escape from the relentless pursuit of God. He’s dead, four days in the grave. Dead to Life. Hiding from the hurt of the world, hiding from the demands of loving. Whatever else it may be. This is spiritual death. Locked away from God. All of us have been there. Friends, not even the grave itself can stop Jesus from finding you. This is the promise of the gospel. Come out of your tomb and live. The Christ is that force in the world before whom you are called to life in all it’s fullness. On the last day surely, but just as surely today. Now. Awake your souls! Dead bones live! Be light for the world!
Each of us will die one day. And I know in the face of this pandemic that is our deepest fear. But that’s not the point of today’s text for me: the question before me today is have I lived? Have we made our lives count for the good? New every morning is your love, great God of light. Jesus is that presence in the world before whom we are called to life, life in service to God’s steadfast loving of the world. Surrender to it. Lazarus, come forth!
Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey in faith today, no matter what you have done, no matter what you have left undone, no matter what private burden you carry. Jesus is here, calling you to come out of that tomb of self loathing to new life. When I was young, it bothered me that Lazarus for the rest of this gospel would live with the signs of his death on his hands, his feet. Then, Jesus called me out of my death to new life. At 43, I came out as a fully alive human being well past the age our glamorous culture values. When I did, my friends can tell you, I looked like a wasted away man. Skin and bones. On the other side of this pandemic the church will look different; our world will be forever changed. My well washed hands already look like 50 year old sandpaper. Friends, don’t worry about your scars, your imperfections, your age. For heaven’s sake, Lazarus was four days decomposed. Can these bones live? In the presence of a Lord like this who can keep them in the grave!
-- Pastor Mark
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess