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 Gospel of 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 on 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 community. And today, for this last Sunday before Palm Sunday, the season finale, his greatest accomplishment to date: raising 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 in the gospel, right in the middle of John’s 21 total chapters. in more ways than one, this story is central to the Gospel of John.
This 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 warrant.
Jesus had become practically part of the family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Lazarus was near death, and so they called on 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 it was much too late, when Lazarus had been dead for four days. What was Jesus thinking?
Both Mary and Martha, in their grief and sorrow, lay this heart-piercing statement at Jesus’ feet: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Buried in that statement is an accusation: “So, where were you, Lord?” I imagine they were furious with grief. From their point of view, while Lazarus was alive, something – anything - could have been done. He could have been healed. But now? By the time Jesus actually gets there, it’s too little, too late. Death, after all, is final. Death is the one thing we cannot escape.
Where were you, Lord, they seem to ask, when Lazarus was on death’s door? Where were you Lord, while we waited for you? Where were you, Lord, as we sat by his side as he took his dying breath? Where were you Lord, when we buried his body in the dark, cold tomb? Where were you, Lord?
Martha and Mary say out loud what many of us might be thinking. We may be sitting in our own kinds of dark tombs at the moment. Tombs that are dark and smell like death. Lord, if you had been there…. We wouldn’t have lost that job, the bills wouldn’t be piling up… Lord, if you had been there, we would not have gotten that cancer diagnoses, or had a tough time with that round of chemo. Lord, if you had been there, gun shootings would not happen and people would not die at the hands of violent people. Lord, if you had been there, our grandkids would still be going coming to church and the future would not seem so scary….
The Psalmist who wrote Psalm 130 puts words to what is in our hearts while we wait in these tombs – out of the depths we cry to the Lord, and we wait for an answer with our very souls, with every fiber of our beings.
Lord if you had been there, our world would not seem so dark and full of death, filling in the news we hear every day. Lord, of you had been there, we would not have to wait here in the darkness of our tombs.
Hospital waiting rooms seem to have a tomb-like feel to them, don’t they? Especially if you have ever waited all day or all night in one of them. When I lived in NJ, I also worked as a part time chaplain at the local hospital, which included a weekly overnight on-call shift.
Because of the wonders of technology, I didn’t have to stay at the hospital all night – the ER could call me on my cell phone if there was an emergency. So, from 8 PM to 8 AM on Thursday nights into Friday mornings, I kept my phone by my side at all times, and slept with one ear open, waiting and listening for the sound of that special ring I set for the hospital number. When the morning came and my clock showed 8 AM, I would thank God for another quiet night.
But not every night was this way. One night it rang at about 12:30 AM, for the family of a woman who was fine one minute, and in cardiac arrest the next. For the next 5 hours, I sat with that family in the hospital waiting room, waiting for what would happen next, then waiting to hear that she would not recover, then waiting for the last family members to arrive to be present for her last breath… waiting for the sun to rise on the first morning that family would face without their beloved wife, mother, and grandmother.
Another night I was called, and I arrived after a woman had died, and her husband and her adult children stayed at her side and continued to gently and lovingly touch her face and her hair. They rubbed her hands with scented lotion and brought a little humanity to their loved one in that cold and sterile emergency room cubicle.
I’ve been on the flip side too, waiting all day in a waiting room subsisting on prayers, uncomfortable chairs, and mediocre coffee for hours at a time, just last year while my Dad was in surgery. We waited in a couple different waiting rooms, drank the coffee, sat in the chairs, ate the hospital food, waiting for the surgery to be over, and then waiting to visit my dad afterward. The outcome of our waiting was a good one, of course, but I know first-hand that it is not always true in every case. Where are you Lord, when the news is not good, and the on-call chaplain needs to be called in? Where are you Lord, when the night is dark, and it seems like the dawn will never come?
At the beginning of the Gospel of John, there is a poem about light and darkness. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God… what came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … and the word became flesh and lived among us.”
Mary and Martha spoke face-to-face with 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, pain, and rejection. And who wept with anger and sadness 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 unbelievable, how daring, how incredible of Jesus to then shout at the cold, dead tomb: Lazarus, come out!
Until, that is, Lazarus, did just that.
“Where were you, Lord?” We ask. He is there, in our tomb with us. He is God with skin and a face, and has experience all that we have experienced, even the dark dead tomb of Good Friday.
He is also there, calling us out of the tomb. He is there, calling the light of life out of the darkness of death, just as he did that day at Lazarus’ tomb. Even though it will cost Jesus his life.
Lazarus died again, eventually. Every one of us will have laying in real tombs someday. Everything around us may die away and change into until the world becomes strange and unrecognizable. Even Jesus was given into the power of death and the grave, and was shut away in a cold, dark tomb for three days.
But Jesus lives.
After waiting for three days, other Marys who followed Jesus discovered that this place of death now stood empty. The dark night was over, and the light of dawn had arrived.
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 look through death to see the coming life that is emerging, like sun after a long day of hard rain.
It is true that death, and tombs, and waiting is always present in our lives, and Good Friday is on its way,
But after that, always comes Easter and Resurrection and Life. AMEN.