Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lent 5

Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Throughout Lent,
we have journeyed with Jesus through a series of encounters:
into the Wilderness, to encounter Satan;
to the Mountain of Transfiguration, to encounter Moses and Elijah;
to a well in Samaria, to encounter the much-married Samaritan woman;
to Jerusalem, to encounter the man who was born blind.
And in today’s Gospel, we journey to the village of Bethany
where Jesus encounters Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus.
But even more, today he encounters death, grief, and sin.
And this is fitting on this last Sunday before we enter Holy Week.
For in the raising of Lazarus, we see a foreshadowing
of the great combat between life and death
that is the drama of Holy Week;
we see the encounter between death
and the one who is himself resurrection and life.

In the Gospel of John, it is this story,
even more than in the Passion story,
that allows us to see the humanity of Jesus:
we are told of the love that he has
for Mary and Martha and Lazarus;
we are told how in the face of Lazarus’s death
he is “perturbed and deeply troubled”;
and when he is taken to Lazarus’s tomb
we are told, “Jesus wept.”
It is in this story, perhaps more than any other in the Bible,
that we see Jesus’ solidarity with us,
who ourselves must encounter death.
We will all, of course, encounter death when our own life ends.
But that is not what I would like to focus on today,
for our encounter with death is not only at our ending;
in the midst of our lives we already encounter death.

We encounter it in the loss of family members and friends,
the loss of the presence of those whom we love.
In today’s Gospel Jesus encounters death
in the grief of Martha and of Mary,
and also in his own grief, in his own weeping.
Martha and Mary believed, and Jesus knew with divine certainty,
that death was not the last word for Lazarus:
“whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”
But this did not stop their grief or tears.
They still felt the pain of loss. 
And so too in our own encounters with death and loss;
our faith does not prevent us from feeling grief.
No matter how firmly or feebly we may believe
that Jesus is himself resurrection and life
and that he shares his risen life with us,
we still find ourselves longing for one more conversation,
one more goodnight kiss,
even one more frustrating argument
with the loved ones whom death has taken from us.
Those whose faith in eternal life is most certain
still long for the time to be shortened
until the day of death's final defeat.

Our encounter with death in the midst of our lives
is not, however, limited to physical death.
We encounter death also in the experience of sin,
the spiritual death that separates us from God and our neighbor
as surely as physical death separates us from those whom we love.
This separation ought to grieve us as much as, if not more than,
the separation of physical death.
There is a long Christian tradition of interpreting the story of Lazarus
not simply as a story of a mighty miracle worked by Jesus
but also as an allegory of God’s power to triumph over human sin.
Lazarus laid in the tomb represents humanity,
entombed in spiritual death;
Jesus’ crying in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out”
shows us God’s desire that we confess our sins,
bringing them out into the light of day;
Jesus’ command that Lazarus be untied
is a symbol of our being freed from the bondage of sin:
we who were dead in sin become alive to righteousness
through him who is himself resurrection and life
and are freed from the bondage of our separation from God.

In our grief and in our sin,
even in the midst of life, we are in death.
To whom can we turn for comfort?
We turn to the one who loves us,
to the one who weeps over our dying,
to the one who opens our graves,
and who calls to us in a loud voice: “come out!
Come out from the tomb of death!
Come out from the tomb of grief!
Come out from the tomb of sin!
Come out and be unbound,
for I am the resurrection and the life.
‘I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.’”