Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Yikes. Are you feeling the burn? Yet another marathon-length reading from the Gospel of John, our fourth in five weeks. Even though it’s the year of Matthew’s gospel, during Lent we are treated to a John mini-series. So it might be good to do a little re-cap, to review of all the interesting characters that Jesus has met this “season.”
“Previously in the gospel of John,” or what we could call, “How I Met our Savior”: Jesus had a late night meeting with perplexed Nicodemus the Pharisee. Next, Jesus talked to the woman at the well, victim-of-gossip turned town evangelist. Last week Jesus healed a man born blind and created a giant controversy for the whole town. And today, for this last Sunday before Palm Sunday, the season finale, his greatest accomplishment to date: Jesus comforts his friends Mary and Martha, then raises Lazarus from the dead. Well, really, for John it would be more like a mid-season finale, because this story is only the half-way mark, pretty much right in the middle of this gospel. And in so many other ways is this story central to the Gospel of John. We have the great confession - that Jesus is the messiah – though it comes from the lips of Martha and not Peter. The raising of Lazarus is giving us a foretaste of what is to come. It is the watershed moment that sets into motion the events that we will be remembering during Holy Week – Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. It is, according to John, the incident that begins the conspiracy by the religious leaders to end Jesus’ life. In John, by raising Lazarus, Jesus is signing his own death warrent.
But… that’s all part of the teaser trailer for next time: “Tune in next week for the second half of ‘How I Met Our Savior’.” So let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk about THIS week.
How was this week in your life? Was it pretty average, things going along according to schedule, no surprises, pretty run-of-the-mill? Did things go especially well for you this week? Did life seem to “go your way?” Did you find yourself unexpectedly surprised by some good things? Or was it “one of THOSE weeks”? Where nothing seemed to go right, one setback after another throws you for a loop, with hardly a moment to catch your bearings?
Let me share with you a little bit about my week. A week ago last Saturday, I attended the funeral service for the mother of the council president at St. Mark’s in Hamilton, where I am the vice-pastor, helping them through their pastoral transition while they call a new pastor. The woman was nearly 90 and had lived a full life when she had a stroke the week before. And then, the evening of the same day of that funeral, another member of St. Mark, this time a man in his 40s died, after suffering from a long illness. His service and burial were on Wednesday. Then, on Thursday, I attended a discussion for church leaders at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton, on the topic of navigating end of life issues for patients and families. And through all of this week about death, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus hovered over me.
Mary and Martha were having “one of those weeks” too, where time seems to stop and all semblance of normalcy goes out the window. This time there is no bickering about who will cook and who gets to listen to Jesus. Their brother was ill and near death, and so they called the one person in the world that they believed and hoped could help – their friend Jesus. Only Jesus didn’t come right away. He didn’t arrive in town until Lazarus had been dead for four days.
If I had been Martha or Mary, I would have been furious. From their point of view, while Lazarus was alive, something could have been done. He could have been healed. But death is final. Death is the one thing we cannot escape, and we are mercilessly captive to its power. From our perspective, death is the end for those of us left behind.
And Mary and Martha do lay this statement at Jesus’ feet, along with their grief and sorrow: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Buried in that statement perhaps is the question: “So where were you, Lord?”
Where were you, Lord, when Lazarus died? And where were you in the life of the young man from St. Mark’s who died? Or when the stroke happened to the mother of their council president? Where were you, Lord, when I lost my job, or my hours were cut, or my child got really sick, or my grandchildren stopped going to church? Where ARE you, Lord, in the crazy-busy grind of life? Where is the “Resurrection and the Life” when my life feels more like death?
When Mary and Martha asked this question, they were not lamenting to an aloof and unavailable god somewhere far away, hoping that perhaps someone was listening. No, Mary and Martha were speaking face-to-face with Jesus, the flesh and blood son of God. They were speaking with Jesus, the man who walked and talked, and taught and healed. Jesus, who got thirsty, and who felt sadness, and who wept as his heart was breaking over the death of his friend Lazarus and the pain it caused his friends. Jesus, who broke down and cried.
How foolish and insensitive of Jesus, it seemed to everyone around, for Jesus to then dry his tears and shout at the tomb: Lazarus, come out! Until, that is, Lazarus, still dressed in his burial wrappings, emerged from his own tomb.
“Where were you, Lord?” He is there, in our tomb with us. He is there, calling us to come out. He is there, calling life out of the darkness of death, just as he did that day at Lazarus’ tomb, and then again on that Sunday morning we call Easter.
Where is God calling life out of death in your life, right here, right now? Or, where has God called life out of death in your life in the past?
This week, It’s been just over six months since my Grandpa, my dad’s dad, had a stroke and later died. He was eighty-seven, and had lived a full and satisfying life, working the land and raising nine children. His wife of over sixty years, my grandma, had died of bone cancer ten years before, and he still missed her terribly. Sometimes he wondered what he was still doing here, but he still tremendously enjoyed his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In September he had a stroke that left him unable to speak or swallow. He had made it clear that he did not want to live as his aunt had, many years ago after her stroke, with very little quality of life. But his strong heart meant that it was almost two weeks before his body gave up the fight. It was so hard to watch as he got weaker every day. But the remaining time that we spent with him was the greatest gift he has ever given me. I was able to spend time with my family as we sat around his bed, holding his hand and telling stories. The memories of those days, like the memories of my grandpa, will be with me forever. It was a holy time, with the space between life and death blurring together. And for me, God was bringing the gift of new life of strengthening my relationships with my family out of the grief and sadness of his death.
What about for you? Where can you see the power of life overcoming the power of death? What cold and dark tombs is God calling you out of? And how can we, as the community who surrounds you and loves you, help to unbind you once God has called you forth out of death?
The final hymn for the funeral at St. Mark’s on Wednesday was A Mighty Fortress is our God, chosen by his family because it was a favorite of the young man who died. If you recall, that hymn reminds us that that death does not have the final word. “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse; Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.”
Death does not win the day. Because we believe and hope and trust in the one who is the Resurrection and the Life, we can see through death to see the coming life emerging; we can look through Good Friday to see that Easter IS coming. Amen.