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Monday, April 11, 2011

Come Forth!

Lent 5, Yr. A
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

With an Ezekiel appetizer of skeletons and zombies, our 45-verse gospel serves up a hearty main dish in today's proclamation feast! I have a dessert sampler for you, with a few ideas to accent the incredible richness of John's story of life and death, friends and siblings, calls answered or not, questions asked and points proven. So, shake out your napkins and settle in for the next course…

First, just an observation: Peter gets his very own feast—the Confession of Peter, on January 18th—to celebrate his acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ. Why doesn't Martha? Or, for that matter, the blind man from last week's gospel? Martha couldn't be clearer: "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." I don't really expect the church calendar to change on this, but when next January 18th rolls around, maybe we could think of it as "The Confession of Peter, Martha, and All the Unnamed Faithful." Just a thought…

Next, did you notice the long-winded, meandering feel of this story? It's got drama, it's got pathos, it's got tension and creepy scenes…and they practically get lost in the telling. We know Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters dearly, but he doesn't rush to them when he hears Lazarus is deathly ill. Instead, Jesus preaches to his confused disciples that this really is about glorifying God, not about Lazarus at all. When he does go to Bethany, he seems more interested in talking to Martha about his salvific role in the world than, once again, the more obvious issue of Lazarus's death. For a few verses, he responds in true grief and anguish; we see his human side and the story seems back on track. But before we know it, he's preaching again, this time talking to God, though not exactly in prayer…more like "for the record." Finally, 44 verses later, we get to the point, as Jesus calls forth Lazarus from the grave. In other words, this is not a single coherent account! What helps is to see this not as a simple re-telling of an incident but rather as a story woven through with layers of interpretation offered to us through the words of Jesus…an op-ed rather than a front page news article. I encourage you to go back and read it through at least twice, once for the events—which are dramatic but brief—and then again to see how those events have been used to allow Jesus to explain himself; then the flow makes more sense.

This is, in many respects, a story about human hopelessness. Not simply frustration or anger or impotence, but really an increasing sense of "abandon all hope, ye who enter here," the dry bones strewn lifeless on the floor of the valley. Lazarus is sick…but Jesus doesn't go. Abandon hope. Jesus decides to head back to Judea, where he'd been driven out with the threat of stoning and can't anticipate any warmer a welcome this time. Abandon hope. He waits until he knows Lazarus is dead, and when his disciples get confused by his saying Lazarus has fallen asleep, he's blunt in correcting them. Abandon hope. Jewish tradition suggested that the soul stayed near the body for 3 days…but by the time Jesus gets to Bethany, it's been 4 days, too long. Abandon hope. Martha runs out to meet him, bereft because Jesus has come too late but still holding on to the idea that Jesus could yet heal Lazarus. Instead of heading straight to the grave to do so, Jesus gives her some theological mumbo jumbo about being the resurrection and life. She quickly agrees with him, but runs back to the house with her brother still dead. Abandon hope. In the shortest verse in the Bible—"Jesus began to weep"—as Jesus approaches the tomb, even he seems to have been overcome by despair. Abandon hope. And so on, right up to the description of the stench from the decaying body that's sure to fill the air as soon as the stone is rolled away. Absolutely, for sure, positively: Abandon. hope.

By the time we're into adulthood, pretty much all of us have been down that path. Relationships hurt or broken; disappointments and de-railed dreams; un-employment or stressful employment; unwise choices and bad behavior; dark nights of the soul; the grip of addiction; accidents, illness and death. It's not, for most of us, all of life, but it is an undeniable part. Maybe for a day with situations that looked awful but resolved themselves quickly; maybe for weeks or months with losses that struck deeper; maybe for a long, long time with the griefs that tear at our very heart. In these periods, every fiber of our being says, "Abandon hope."

Into the midst of that shadow walks Jesus. We might be deeply wounded that he didn't come when we called, or furious with him for being too late, or so blinded by hurt that we can't even see him coming down the road. But there he is, weeping with us. And in a loud voice—the voice that calmed the seas, the Word spoken at the beginning of creation—he calls us forth. With his Spirit, he breathes fresh air into the stench of death. When we 've abandoned hope, he brings resurrection and life.

I don't know how he does it. I don't know why God lets things get so bad in the first place. But I do know that Jesus does something we can't: he calls us, from whatever our tomb may be, into a new way of being in the world. The One who is the resurrection and the life draws us into that reality. We'll be different from how we were before—can you imagine the change in Lazarus?--but with the community of those who love us to unbind us as we emerge from that dead place, we have the chance to live with a renewed vision and purpose. By the love and resurrection power of our Savior Jesus Christ, we can be, not Dead Men Walking, with the spectre of death surrounding us, but New Creations Rising, with the Spirit of God dwelling in us.

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