The United Churches – November 1, 2015
In my work as a Hospital Chaplain I have infrequently been present in the Emergency Room when people arrive without a pulse and are resuscitated. Things are usually very chaotic and dire upon the person’s arrival. Usually the medics who have brought the person in from the field are still working on them while pushing in the gurney and everyone including physicians, nurses, pharmacy, x-ray, respiratory therapy and me are standing ready to receive the person and provide help. Physicians receive the report from the field while quickly and usually quietly giving commands to the rest of the team for treatment. Tubes are inserted, drugs are pushed, paddles are charged and things move very fast. Many times, the person receiving care reestablishes a heart beat and further treatment is immediately given. I haven’t seen anyone spring back to life, but I have also seen people make miraculous recoveries. I have not seen anyone make this kind of recovery if they have been “down” as we politely call it for an hour, let alone 4 days.
Lazarus, this text tells us, had been dead for four days. He is really, really dead. He isn’t in a coma, he is not asleep. We are told that he has been dead for four days, because after four days, the people of this time believed that the spirit left the area. It was the Jewish custom to bury the dead immediately but they also believed that the soul lingered near the body for three days. On day four, Lazarus is really gone. If you scan back in Chapter 11 of John toward the beginning of the chapter you read that Jesus learned of Lazarus’ impending doom from a message that he received from Mary and Martha. He doesn’t do what most of us would do in a similar situation. He doesn’t run to Lazarus. Any of us would run to the side of a beloved friend that was dying and we would hold vigil and we would pray and hope and cry and reminisce.
Jesus stays put. He doesn’t stay put because he does not love Lazarus. He stays put because he does love him. Jesus wants to demonstrate the power of the resurrection.
He eventually travels to Bethany and when he gets there, mourning is in full swing. Martha comes out to meet Jesus and she chides him for his absence, for not getting there soon enough to save her brother, at the same time she affirms her faith in Jesus by telling him that she believes that God will give Jesus whatever he asks. Jesus tells Martha that they don’t have to wait for the resurrection on the last day, that he in fact is the resurrection and the life. “Everyone who lives and believes in me will not die. Do you believe this?” Martha right there, on the spot, affirms her faith in Jesus. “I believe.”
Jesus essentially repeats this whole scene with Mary. At the same time, observing her grief and tears, Jesus is overcome with his own grief and anger. Mourning and grief are palpable in these verses. Verse 33 says that “Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” It is hard to get the right feeling from the English translation. The first verb in Greek is not simply a strong feeling, but has a connection to anger. It is fused with passion and pain. We might say in our vernacular that Jesus was really pissed. He is physically sickened and disturbed. Then he begins to sob. He was angry and groaning deeply in his spirit. He was, appropriately so, an emotional mess.
I have seen a lot of people die, and I have held the hand and petted the brow of a lot of dead people. I have felt sad, and I have shed some tears. When my own step dad died, when my in-laws died, when my friends Bob and Jane died, my emotions ranged from crazy to depression. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t get up off the couch. It is a relief to me to see that Jesus himself, got pissed and weepy and had an emotional meltdown. Grief is real, it is deep, it is emotional, it is work. Event the incarnate God is broken in his heart and his soul by the death of his friend Lazarus. Death grieves God. Death breaks our hearts and stirs our souls.
It is within this context that we tell the story of Jesus offering new life to Lazarus. Death stings. Death stinks. No perfume or pat answers can remove this. In the midst of his tears, Jesus prays to God and then in a loud voice commands Lazarus to “come out!” The miracle is that this smelly, dead man comes out of the tomb at the simple command of Jesus. The community is told to remove his grave clothes and Lazarus has another chance at life.
We are invited to see ourselves in this story. The sequence of the Gospel of John is opposite of what my children got to do in preschool every Friday: Show and Tell, for John it is Tell and Show. At the beginning of the gospel we are told that Jesus is the light and the life of the world. Though out the gospel we see signs of light and life. The man born blind receives his sight and Lazarus is raised from the dead. Jesus gives light and life. We can see ourselves in Lazarus whose name is shortened from Eleazar which means “God helps.” He is from a town named “Bethany” which means “house of misery.” In short, this story reminds us that God helps us in the midst of our misery. We are not alone. This story reminds us that we come from death to life in this present moment, not just in a future event.
In just a few short chapters in this gospel, Jesus will face his own death. We have the hindsight to know how that turns out. Jesus is resurrected, he is transformed. He is apparently transformed so greatly that at first people don’t recognize him. God through Jesus transforms death forever.
Our reading from Revelations describes the promise of the new heaven and the new earth to Christians in seven different churches who are enduring martyrdom in the early church. In the midst of their trauma and horror they can think about the most beautiful thing they could imagine: a new Jerusalem, a beautiful bride God coming to us, God’s people and wiping away tears and pain and mourning. Heaven is a mystery. Heaven defies explanation, even with our best imaginations.
I love the of The Chronicles of Narnia written by CS Lewis. In the last book in the series: The Last Battle, Chapter 16, Lewis writes beginning with Aslan the Lion: And as Aslan spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
For all of our saints who have gone on before us they have finished the cover and the title page of this life and they have begun the first chapter of the great story, the one that goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before.