Lent 5/A 29 March 2020
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
All of us are doing a lot of waiting these days: waiting for the latest statistics of infections, hospitalizations and deaths; waiting for the daily Coronavirus Task Force briefing; waiting for new guidelines from the CDC; waiting for a phone or Skype call or email message from family and loved ones we cannot visit to give a hug or receive a kiss; waiting for the restrictions to be lifted; waiting for church services to resume . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting . . .
And as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers sang: “The waiting is the hardest part.”
Christians around the world wait for Easter, wondering how different it will feel this year not to be gathered together to proclaim once more those glorious words that open the Eucharist: The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!
But hang on! We are almost there. We have been on this Lenten road since Ash Wednesday: about 28 of our 40 days. We are in the home stretch.
Throughout this Lenten season we have been reading long stretches from the fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to John. This Gospel is usually set apart, noted as being very distinct, different from the so-called synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. And that is true, for in many ways, the Gospel of John is not so much a biography of Jesus as it is a lyrical and theological meditation on Jesus Christ and his reconciling work in the world.
There are several hallmarks of this particular Gospel. One is that the author uses a recurring motif in the way that Jesus spoke about who he was and what he was up to. The motif that is repeated throughout the text is that Jesus and the Father are one, and whomever follows Jesus will also participate in this same divine unity.
In this way, the Gospel of John reads much like how a Bach fugue sounds - it visits the same theme, over and over, upside and right-side, inside and out. Always the same message: The Father and the Son are one, and those who listen to Jesus are included in that same intimate relationship. It’s a heady, sometimes confusing mix of pronouns and swirling associations, but the message is clear throughout John’s Gospel: God claims us as his people, his children through Jesus Christ.
Another hallmark of John’s Gospel is the fact that it contains no miracles. Oh, miraculous things do happen in this Gospel, of course, but the writer does not call them miracles. Instead, the word “signs” is used, and Jesus’ signs are used to great narrative effect. Every time Jesus offers a teaching, he then certifies the teaching with a sign. The signs take up the first half of the Gospel of John, and today’s sign, the raising of Lazarus, is the seventh sign, the last sign before Jesus’ arrest, trial and Passion.
Seven is, of course, a tremendously important number in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. Seven is the number of holiness, the number of completeness. The raising of Lazarus is sign number seven, with the eighth and final sign being the Resurrection of Jesus. Eight, then, becomes a sacred number for Christians; eight becoming the eighth day of the new Creation in Christ. We are made new creations in Christ at baptism, which is why many baptismal fonts are octagonal. But that is for another day, another sermon. Here, in today’s Gospel reading, we have the seventh, the most perfect sign that Jesus performs: the resurrection of Lazarus.
Finally, another hallmark of John’s Gospel is that he does not use the terms “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven.” Those terms are used frequently in the other three gospels, but for John, he wants to convey something different with his use of the term: The Kingdom of God is not so much established by Jesus, the Kingdom of God is Jesus.
Such is the content and context of the Gospel of John. So what can it mean then that we have this story of Jesus being asked to come heal his sick friend, and yet he delays going? Jesus even says that the unnamed sickness that Lazarus has does not lead to death.
But . . . it does. The Gospel record is quite clear: Lazarus dies. This is not some trick or hoax. He is dead. More than three days dead. “Lord, already there is a stench.”
Can you imagine the anxiety of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters? Here they have been traveling with, working with, and likely funding Jesus and his ministry. They have witnessed wonders and miracles and signs beyond description. Their brother, who is also a dear friend of Jesus, is ill and near death. Lazarus’ illness was serious, and the sisters knew that Jesus had it within his power to heal their brother.
Can you imagine their supreme disappointment and frustration and disbelief when Jesus says that he will not come straight away, but will wait to visit Lazarus? “Wait?!” the sisters may have cried, “But, he will die!”
And Lazarus does die. It’s heartbreaking, for there is a complete and utter finality in his death. We need to get our hearts and minds around this fact. Mary and Martha are living in a pre-Resurrection world. And in that pre-Resurrection world, death is death, the absolute end of all things.
After four days, when Jesus does finally come to Lazarus, the sisters and the village are in full mourning. Martha greets Jesus when he comes, not with words of welcome but words of accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” One wonders what was going through her mind. Was she ready to stop following Jesus? Was she in that empty space in her spirit where grief besets us? Grief is grief, even for those who walk with Jesus. Why did Jesus not act? Where was he?
At this point, we are met with what is, in the King James Version, the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept;” or as translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “Jesus began to weep.”
It’s an important point. Weeping comes from deep empathy, and love, and grief. Twice in this passage we are told that Jesus is deeply moved, or disturbed in his spirit. Jesus is not some all-seeing, distant, stoic God. Our God is a feeling, empathizing God. Jesus acts out of this empathy, out of this “co-feeling,” which is the literal translation of “empathy.”
But something else happened. It doesn’t appear to have caused Jesus to raise Lazarus, but it is certainly a part of the story, and we ought not to ignore it. You see, all this talk of miraculous raisings and Jesus’ empathy has overshadowed an important point of this story: Mary and Martha begged Jesus to heal their brother, and they are let down by him. When Lazarus does in fact die, they mourn and appear to be even angry with Jesus for not acting. And it is right there in that hard, desolate place of loss and grief that Jesus speaks new life into existence: “Lazarus, come out!” As God the Father spoke life into being at the Creation, now God the Son speaks new life into being. And here, we see that death having the last word is not in God’s plan.
Certainly each of us has had those moments of wondering where God was in a time of trial or loss. “Why did God let her die?” “Where was God when I needed him?” All of us have wondered at God’s apparent distance, even departure. But sometimes, in that space of wondering, Jesus shows up, even after the death and the loss. His arrival is prompted by our raw grief. And into our time of sorrow, Jesus speaks new life into being.
The truth of the matter is that being as close as we are to our own experiences, we often lack the proper perspective to see God in the midst of things, even in loss. To be sure, we may not recognize God’s empathic presence with us, but we can trust, somehow, that he is present.
But it is the waiting for Jesus that is the lesson from Mary and Martha today. Even though all hope is lost – Lazarus has died – they still wait; for what they are waiting for, they do not actually know. But they wait for something. And it is in the midst of this waiting that God moves. It is in waiting past the point of hope that God sometimes moves. And the waiting is the hardest part.
Be patient with God. His understanding of the timing of things is different from yours. Even when all seems lost, hold on for a while longer and allow God to act on your heart in his own good time.
Here, near the end of Lent, is as good a time as any to be reminded that God moves in God’s time. Maybe, since we all lack it, God will grant us the grace to be patient with him, and allow him to surprise us with life and resurrection . . . in a few days more.
And the waiting is the hardest part. But wait in hope. Wait in grace. Wait in peace. Wait in the truth and the promise of new life.