April 2, 2017

“Dead Ends”
John 11:1-45

[This sermon is based on a sermon in the series: “A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series” Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016]

There comes a point in every trial or tribulation when it seems difficult to go on, as if all possibilities for the future are lost. We are speaking of those times when in life when we can no longer do what we used to be able to do.  Perhaps because of a chronic illness or financial problems, the loss of employment or a divorce, or a physical condition that makes each day difficult.  We are talking about where life has suddenly grown empty.  We are talking about what those first moments must have felt for Mary and Martha as they stood beside their brother’s grave.  Their world changed forever.

The road to Easter runs through a cemetery.  As in so many times in life, we struggle before we arrive at our destination.  Despite our best efforts, the future seems sealed away. Things die. Ideas. plans. hopes. There is a point in every difficult test where there seems to be no vision for relief or revival.

On Wednesday evening we focused on Psalm 130, where the psalmist, from a place of deep despair, speaks “out of the depths.” There are many synonyms for “despair” which make very clear the sense of hopelessness and pain associated with that deepest of human emotions: desperation, distress, anguish, misery, or wretched. And in that place of darkness there may well be no hope or anticipation for anything better in life. Even if there is, the one in this darkness is usually too dispirited or pessimistic to be able to rise above it.

In his despair the psalmist turned to God with this cry: “…I call for your help. Hear my cry, O Lord. Pay attention to my prayer. Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive…?”

Human beings have come over time to understand death and what happens to bodies after death in great detail. In various ways our ancestors have artfully or brutally found places to put the bodies and sometimes actively engaged the decomposing body to facilitate a complete end. Whether in caves, in holes, in fires, or on towers, the body decayed and people understood well how it happened. Death was a one way street. The fact that our modern society is largely unfamiliar with death does not change its reality or finality.

As if we did not know the biology of such things, the prophet Ezekiel is asked: can these bones live?” If I join the prophet in his loathsome valley, I know what my answer would be: “Are you kidding? Dry bones are just that, dry and dead.” Ezekiel is more circumspect, as he answers, “YHWH God, you know” (Ezek 37:3). In the gospel lesson Jesus leads the disciples into a dangerous situation for him and his followers, because some people there want to kill him. It’s likely Lazarus is going to die. So Thomas says, “let’s go and die with him.” If ever there was a ‘dead-end’ and a place to avoid, this is it. Thomas predicts it. Even Jesus plainly tells them “Lazarus is dead.” Yet he, at the same time, insists this is not the end.

Today’s readings from the prophet Ezekiel and St. John challenge what we do know about death, literally and metaphorically. These are not healing stories. It is not an account of feeding large crowds. It isn’t the provision of water from a rock. It does not involve spit and the dust from the road. No. Every possibility for living has ended. Life is over; only the stench and decay remains. There is no reason to be emotionally invested or newly concerned. Wondering what could have been or what had been promised would be like being mired in a long-ago past. In both situations hope is dead, appropriately, and into this valley of death God drags the prophet Ezekiel, and Jesus drags his disciples. The prophet and the family and friends of Lazarus know that life is no more. Before their eyes, however, that reality is defied. Life returns to the lifeless.

But it doesn’t return quickly or easily. Delay. Delay. Delay. I am reminded that the Israelites spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt until Moses lead them out. And then they did not take a direct route but wandered in the wilderness for another forty years until entering the promised land of freedom. This is the story of our lives.

Why doesn’t Jesus drop everything he is doing and rush over to see Lazarus? “Don’t you realize how needy I am?” “If you love me, why don’t you respond immediately?” Those are the questions we demand of each other, aren’t they? Ah, but it is not the people who respond most urgently and most anxiously who love us most. Often, the people who are willing to drop everything and help us are the ones least equipped to help.

What is seemingly the worst outcome happens. The neighbors come, other members of the faith family come. They come to do what we all do, bring some food, some consolation, some affection. They immediately come. They comfort, but the situation remains. In the Hebrew tradition, we might do this for seven days, literally ‘sitting shiva.’ Cover the mirrors, don’t bathe, and don’t go to work. It is customary for the mourners to sit on low stools, or even the floor, symbolic of the emotional reality of being “brought low” by the grief. Upon leaving an Ashkenazic shiva house, visitors recite a traditional blessing: “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The sadness is communal.

Some friends come, but later. The friends who help us most are those not driven by the tyranny of the urgent, those not in the biggest hurry, those who are not most anxious, those who do not panic. The ones who love us most sometimes take longer to arrive than others. Maybe it is after the hustle and bustle of the initial attention that the mourners receive and when the initial visitors have left that it all becomes real. Then a friend comes. So it was with Jesus. He heard the news that Lazarus was ill, and he waited two days to respond. It was a long time. It was not because he did not love Lazarus. It was because his strength did not need to respond according to urgent schedules and anxiety. This kind of strength, this kind of health, is beyond our notions of time.

When Jesus finally arrives on the scene, you can hear the dejection in the sister’s voices. “If you had been here,” they say. The King James version, with it’s poetic language records Martha, the sister of him that was dead, who “saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” He stinketh. This is the absolute recognition of the end without possibility of a different resolution.

So, today we stand in the stench, sorrow, and maybe even blame of death, and God acts to revive us again. We have a foreshadowing of what is to come next week, a little encouragement as we prepare for the hardest week of the church year. We also have a reminder that our brutal, death-filled world can be flooded in the reality-shattering light of God again.

11:40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’

The raising of Lazarus is not the only sign. You may have noticed that after Lazarus comes out of the tomb Jesus turns to the crowd and commands them: “untie him and let him go.” The people are not simple observers. Those interested in this miracle are charged with something to do as well as to believe. Yes, the raising of Lazarus from death to new life is entirely Jesus’ work, and yet Jesus invites the community to participate; that is, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.  The community has a chance for resurrection too.

We will soon see that death is not the end. There is no ultimate separation from the love of God. The breath of the prophet enlivens the bones that have given up all flesh. If this is so, then what power can death have over us? What limit is there to God’s love for this world? The answer is, that despite all appearances otherwise, there is no limit to God’s love. None. Nada. We can participate in this miraculous reality, or simply be observers, an audience, which of course is not what Jesus had in mind. We are capable of heeding the call of our savior. We can embrace this good news with our lives. Depending on it, hoping in it, the future is not a dead end.