Todays readings for 5th Sunday in Lent Ezekiel 37:1-14 Psalm 130 Romans 8:6-11 John 11:1-15
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton
The stench of death is one of the most offensive smells, to the human nose, that there is. It is not something that we in our comfortable world encounter very often, but for those in the arenas of war, or places where there has been a natural disaster it can be the terrible reality of the decomposition and disintegration of life as we know it. The smell of death, even if it only exists in our imaginations, symbolises for us as humans everything that is offensive and abhorrent about death itself. Death, which is loss and grief and the end of relationship. Death, which is separation.
This chapter of John’s gospel is concerned with death. Not only is it the story of the death of Lazarus, but it is also the catalyst in this account for the death of Jesus himself. It is a story of grief and loss, of delay and weeping, of suffering. This chapter of John is the pivotal chapter it marks the end point of Jesus’ signs and wonders, there are no more after this story of Lazarus, it is the final iteration of discussion of light and life. It marks the beginning of the end for Jesus and his disciples and they move into a new phase. The gospel of John has a chiastic structure and this is the midpoint around which it pivots because from this moment on, out of death comes life. Resurrection is present in their world even before Jesus’ own resurrection.
This Gospel, as I think I said a couple of weeks ago, is written from a profoundly Greek philosophical stance, with everything seen as dualities so here in this chapter we have the ultimate opposition, that of death and life. We are more used to hearing it around the other way aren’t we, “life and death”. That is the way we think of existence: we have life and then we have death, but here Jesus reorients our poles so that we have death and then we have life.
And that is so in the passage that we read from Ezekiel as well, isn’t it? In Ezekiel’s vision the dead are not just dead but dried bones, completely without life. This vision is in the context of the Babylonian Exile. The Jewish people feel as if God has abandoned them and left them to die in exile, ‘how can they sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?’, they ask. And Ezekiel’s vision is that through the prophetic word new life can come- but do you notice that it is animated through the breath or Spirit, the ruach. So here, even the driest bones can be brought back to life, from death comes new life.
And it is the same for Lazarus, four days dead. In Jewish belief this means that the Spirit has completely left the body. This is not resuscitation, it is the picture of resurrection- life after death. And what of the Johannine community, who have chosen discipleship and so are dead to their friends and family and to the society that has raised them? For them this story of resurrection brought a knowledge of the new life that they were living out of the ashes of the old. And what about us? We may be approaching our own deaths just as Jesus was approaching his, as we read in this passage. There are only two certain things, they say, death and taxes, and so we are all heading in that direction. And what about us as a church? The Anglican Church here in Melbourne, as we know it today has prognosis of about 15 years of life. Is there any hope for us as a church? Can the dry bones be reanimated? Life, for Ezekiel, comes through the Word and through the Spirit.
In Lazarus’ case the Word himself speaks and the Spirit returns.
When we meet Lazarus, for the first time in this gospel, in this narrative, he is already ill. And do you notice that he is described in the terms of his sisters? That is very interesting and points to the fact that Mary and Martha were significant figures in the early church. He already has a relationship with Jesus, that is clear, because when the sisters send a message about Lazarus, they say, “Lord, he whom you love is ill”. So does Jesus rush back? No, he stays away for a further two days before he announces to his disciples that they will go to Jerusalem. This is the final journey back to the centre and even the disciples realise that it will be the end for Jesus. Thomas, bravely says to the others, “Let us go too, so that we may die with him.” But Jesus is still talking about light and doing God’s work, just as he was with the man born blind.
Now there is the interesting moment of confusion that I feel is very revealing about death and suffering and Jesus’ response to them. Jesus describes Lazarus as having “fallen asleep”. This is not the first time that Jesus has used these words for someone who has died, that is also how he describes Jairus’ daughter. For me this signifies that for Jesus, death is a temporary state. Jesus explains in clearer language that Lazarus is dead. And then he says that he is glad that he wasn’t there so that the disciples, and everyone else, will have the opportunity to see God’s power revealed. This Is going to be a concrete example of what he has been teaching about life, abundant life. Then we have the interesting conversations with both sisters. And they both say the same thing, “if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died”. I think that this is the kind of thing all of us say to God, when someone we love, that we have been praying for dies, “God where were you?” IF you had chosen, you could have healed, why didn’t you show up? We sent you a message but you didn’t come. Now, we know that Jesus had been so sure of God’s power flowing through him that he had delayed on purpose, so that we might have that concrete example of resurrection, something tangible to hang onto in our moments of dismay and despair.
Both Martha, who meets Jesus first, and Mary are deeply grieving and their grief touches Jesus. Even though he is about to do this work of power, that he has delayed in order so to do, he weeps. Jesus is deeply moved by their grief, and by his own. He loves Lazarus, he loves Mary and Martha and he cries with them. So Jesus walks beside us in our grief. When we cry out to him for healing for someone we love, he understands our grief and pain. He carries our sorrows.
Martha, before the sign or miracle of God’s glory affirms the truth. “Jesus says, I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” and Martha says, “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” And her belief is love, it is trust in Jesus.
“Where is he?” Jesus asks, and they answer in those words so significant for John’s gospel, “Come and see.” Here is the final call to discipleship, the call to be disciples right to the end, and here it is that Jesus begins to weep.
They all go together to the tomb. And in this narrative we have parallels with Jesus’ own death. ‘Take away the stone,’ says Jesus, whose power will roll away his own stone. And then Martha, ever practical says, “there will be a stench”. There will be the frightful smell of corruption but Jesus will not be stopped he speaks, well more than speaks, shouts out to Lazarus to come out. And out he comes with his hands and feet bound with the strips of cloth and the head cloth still over his face. All these details there to parallel the resurrection narrative of Jesus himself. “Unbind him”, Jesus says, “and let him go”. This is the moment when Jesus conquers death, he unbinds the dead and lets them be free, and he unbinds us too from the fear of death, and sets us free to worship him. And for what? What amazing thing does Lazarus do after he has been resurrected? Well, the next time we see him he is reclining against Jesus at the table eating the feast that represents the great banquet of the Kingdom. Lazarus has been raised for relationship with God, for joining in the banquet, for the great dance of the Trinity. Lazarus, of course, does not live forever in his human body, presumably he dies again, just like everyone else, but he certainly wouldn’t have been afraid the second time, would he?
Life is resurrection, resurrection is life. Ezekiel sees a vision of dry bones return, through the breath of God, the power of the Spirit, to life. The woman at the well tastes the living water of life and participates in the resurrection, the man born blind receives his sight and participates in the resurrection. Lazarus receives back his bodily life but continues in the power of the resurrection to share bread and wine with Jesus and the community of believers. The Johannine Community receives resurrection life even thought they are dead to friends and family. Through the Word we are called to come out of our tombs and receive resurrection life right now. We the church, the body of Christ, receive the power of the Holy Spirit moving in our life together. The body of Christ is animated by the Holy Spirit.
Resurrection is love, and relationship. We are called like Lazarus to sit at God’s table with him. Resurrection is the great dance of the Trinity in the midst of our life here and now.
This is a story that brings us great and abiding hope. Nothing is beyond the power of God’s life and love. My prayer for us is that we might be full of the joy of resurrection life as we live in our world.