April 2, 2017
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Ryan Slifka
It’s not Easter yet. We’re still a few weeks away. A few weeks left in Lent, this season of penitence. Where we get to say extra prayers of confession, we get to repent extra hard. And we get to wear purple. I remember this time last year, someone said to me “I know we have to do this stuff, but I can’t wait for Easter. I’d kill for some music that wasn’t in the minor key. Easter will arrive soon enough for us. But to get there we have to make our way past a dead body in a tomb. The tomb of a dead man named Lazarus.
But even now while we continue to sing songs in the minor key, we get little glimpses of Easter. Sundays aren’t actually counted in Lent because every Sunday is a little Easter, even in the season where we aren’t supposed to sing “hallelujahs.” And that’s what we get in this morning’s reading. A little sneak preview of the main event. This story of Lazarus who has died is the movie trailer for what God will do in and for Jesus. A little Easter before the big one. And it’s an event that is so powerful, so filled with hope, that it’s like earthquake that ripples outward. And shakes alive everyone in its path. Including people like us… way down the line.
A few days earlier, a crowd tried to stone Jesus in Jerusalem. So he ducked out to the wilderness, safely across the river Jordan, just out of stone-throwing range. And while he’s there, he gets word that his friend Lazarus is unwell. Like really ill. Like just about to die sick. Jesus has performed several miracles that have brought people back to health. Jesus gave a paraplegic the chance to walk, and if you remember last week, he brought sight to a man who was born blind. So Lazarus’ two sisters, Mary Magdalene and Martha, also friends of Jesus, hope he can perform his magic on their brother. Come quick, Jesus, or it’ll be too late. He’ll be too far gone for even you.
But as urgent as they are, Jesus decides to stick around on the other side of the river for a few days. And by the time he arrives on the scene he’s not only missed the boat on saving Lazarus’ life, he’s also missed the funeral. Lazarus has already been dead for three days. Or, as Martha says in our reading today “already he stinketh” in the words of the old King James version. Can’t beat it some times. Jesus is too late to save Lazarus, and both Martha and Mary Magdalene scold Jesus, staring him down with tear-filled eyes. “If only you were here sooner, Jesus, our brother would still be alive,” they say. “If only you cared enough to be here when we called you. Then our brother wouldn’t be dead.”
If only you were there. If only you cared. Then we wouldn’t have to go through with this, we wouldn’t have had to suffer this pain. We wouldn’t have to suffer the loss of our friend. Their words echo our own fears and our own doubts. If only there were a God, or a God who cared, then we would be spared our suffering. Then the world would be spared its suffering. This is probably why Easter Sunday services are always more popular than Good Friday. Why we prefer upbeat gospel hymns to depressing dirges in the minor key. Because so much of our spirituality is built around doing our best to avoid suffering, sin and pain, that when we actually face suffering then none of it seems to make sense. Everything seems to fall apart. Or when we face suffering, we try to find some way to escape it or numb it. Sometimes with explanations about how everything happens for a reason. It’s just a bump in the road on our way to greater things. If only you were here, they tell Jesus. Then we wouldn’t have to feel this pain. In Mary Magdalene and Martha’s words we hear the echoes of our own losses. Our own suffering, our own sorrows. Our own pain. We don’t want to hurt. We don’t want to die. If only there were some way out. Some way around it. But as much as we want it, there is no way around death. And there’s no way around life’s suffering. Like Lazarus, like Mary Magdalene and Martha we will meet it. One day or another.
Jesus doesn’t rescue Lazarus from death. Jesus doesn’t rescue Martha or Mary Magdalene from suffering, from experiencing the loss of their brother. He stands before them as they break down, they cry. As they are consumed by heartbreak. But Jesus doesn’t back away. He doesn’t pat them on the back, say there-there and try to resolve everything. Even Jesus himself weeps over the death of his friend. Jesus does nothing to erase their feelings, to fix everything and make it better. No, Jesus does something far more powerful. Jesus gives them hope.
“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks. And they reply, “come and see.” They lead him to the tomb. There’s this huge stone laid in front of the tomb, one that keeps the stench of death at bay. “Roll the stone away,” he says. And you can imagine the stink rushing out of the grave as light pours in. Jesus prays. “Father,” he says, staring into the heavens. “I thank you for having heard me.” “I knew that you always hear me,” he prays. “But I’ve said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” And so he turns his eyes from the sky, back towards the tomb. “Lazarus!” he shouts. “Come out!” And Lazarus does what he’s told. And with each step he takes towards the sunlight. With each step he takes towards Jesus, the bandages that were once wrapped tight begin to fall away. Step-by-step. One-by-one. “Unbind him,” Jesus finally says. “And let him go.” And it says that many of those who were gathered there saw this. And they believed in him. This whole episode changed everything for them.
Lazarus still died. And his sisters still experienced grief. Jesus did nothing to stop this from happening. But Jesus doesn’t turn away from their suffering. Jesus joins them there at the tomb. Jesus doesn’t run away from death. Jesus doesn’t avoid it. Instead, Jesus stares death right in the face. He takes it head on. And with a powerful word, Jesus breaks its power. He calls forth new life in the midst of death. Lazarus dies, but is raised. Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene and Martha, and the crowd gathered around have their hearts broken. There’s no side-step. There’s no way to avoid it, there’s no detour around it. But from inside their broken hearts, Jesus summons courage in the midst of suffering. And he summons hope in the midst of pain. And despair. The raising of Lazarus is as much for Mary Magdalene, and for Martha as it was for Lazarus. Resurrection is for the living as much as it is for the dead.
Resurrection is for the living as much as it is for the dead. As much heartache as life brings us. As much as we’d like to avoid our suffering and our pain. As much as we’d like Jesus to arrive on time to have it just erased, deleted from human experience. As much as we want that, it’s just not the way it is. Nor should we expect it to be otherwise. That’s the bad news. No matter how much we want it.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that what we have instead is both more powerful, more amazing, more beautiful than that. What this season of Lent teaches us is that life with God is not something that will keep us from hurt, pain or death. But it says that it’s precisely there that God comes to us, comes along side us, and will carry us through. We’ve got is a God who even now raises us from the dead. A God who puts an end to death by working through it and overthrowing it instead of going around it. We’ve got is a God who is creating life and healing in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss. We’ve got a God who is creating faith in the midst of despair. We are not guaranteed a life without suffering or pain. But we’ve got a God who is resurrecting us from each big death, and each little death, showingusby hisownexamplethattheonly roadto Eastermorningrunssmack through Good Friday. There’s no way around. But there is a way through it all.
After all it’s "I am the resurrection and the life," Jesus says to grievingMartha. Not "I will be" but"Iam"—righthere, right now—resurrection and life for anyone willing to believe that it might justbe true. Resurrection is as much for the living as it is for the dead. And it’s as much for us, as it was for Lazarus. And it’s as much for us as it was for Jesus.
Do not be afraid. Only believe. So you may have life in Jesus’ name.