The Raising of Lazarus :: Fr John 20170402
Three friends were discussing death and one of them asked: “What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?”
The first of the friends said: I would like them to say, he was a great humanitarian, who cared about his community.
The second said: He was a great husband and father, who was an example for many to follow,” said another.
The third friend said, I would like them to say, “Look, he’s moving!!”
A humorous take on a rather grim subject. It has often been remarked that our culture has a rather acute fear of death, and often tries to deal with it by either ignoring it, or making light of it, like the example I just gave. Because death is not an easy subject, and it is one that is ultimately unavoidable.
Which is perhaps why our Old Testament lesson, from the prophet Ezekiel, is so famous and such a beloved scene dearly loved scene, where of God breathes life into the dried up bones in the valley, occurred at a very difficult time for the people of Israel. Jerusalem had been destroyed, its armies routed and the people and been expelled into exile across Mesopotamia, all because of their rebellion and refusal to listen to God. And now they are paying the price. But God, gives Ezekiel this vision, this awe inspiring vision of Him breathing life into dead dried up bones, giving them flesh and sinew, promising that this will be Israel, that He will breath life into and resurrect the nation of His own people, an outpouring of His Spirit and grace. This was a powerful and profound promise, one the Jewish people would cling to throughout their suffering and hardship, because what could be more inspiring or freeing than an image of death being reversed?
So imagine what it must have been like for the crowd gathered before the tomb to see Christ call out to the dead and bring the dead back to life. Suddenly, the imagery of the vision given to Ezekiel is no longer just an inspiring and symbolic one, because it has literally just occurred right in front of them!! They looked up and cried out “Look, he moved” and it is no laughing matter, death was reversed right in front of their eyes…… As Jesus Himself said, “I AM the resurrection and the life…” And John displays this FACT powerfully in this scene. Where God has not only fulfilled the prophetic vision of Ezekiel figuratively, but literally as well, as Lazerus, walks out of his own tomb, alive once again.
But the question is…why this particular story? Though it is the only recorded instance in John’s Gospel of Jesus raising someone from death, it is not the only one that we know of. The other synoptic Gospels record multiple other instances of Jesus doing what is impossible, raising the dead. So from that perspective, this was nothing new, it was once again Jesus doing what Jesus does best, the impossible. But there is one thing unique about this time: in this instance, in this scenario, Jesus has a personal and intimate connection with the dead. He knew Lazerus and loved Him. He knew Mary and Martha and cared for them. And so, when Jesus arrives at this scene, John goes out of his way to detail all of the emotions that He goes through. Though most English translations say that Jesus was “greatly troubled in His spirit”, a more literal translation of the Greek is that He was angry….. But angry at what? At the mourning of the people, at this lack of belief in His ability to solve the problem? Well I don’t think so because, to be honest if that were the case, then Jesus would have been perpetually angry at His disciples at all hours of the day.
No the answer lies with the next detail that John includes, and that is that Jesus, the God Incarnate… wept. The shortest verse in all Holy Scripture. Jesus wept, and wept even though He knew that in a few short seconds, He would solve the problem. He could have simply said “Do not weep, I am about to do something miraculous”, but He didn’t…and John, took note of that… Now, I don’t believe that this is all to indicate not that Jesus was emotionally all over the place, but that He is revealing what the reaction of the heart of God is to death itself AND the suffering and grief it brings upon us: a reaction of anger and sorrow.
And furthermore, it shows something else…. That God is fundamentally with us in the midst of our suffering, sorrow and hardships. EVEN when He knows that the outcome will be more glorious than we can imagine. And that….. THAT is just as much the purpose of His coming in the first place. He did not come only to win victory over sin and death, but also in order to be there with us in midst of our struggles to endure them….. as He too endured them with us…and as He too wept with us. That is an important thing that we must not miss.
When I was in Pittsburgh, there was a lady who was part of the church I was serving at who passed away. Now, she came from a very very large African American Pentecostal family, so at her funeral, they actually outnumbered us Anglicans attending by at least 10 to 1. And one of her nieces, who was a preacher and evangelist, was invited by our church to give the homily, and I have to say, it was one of the most profound and awe inspiring homilies that I have ever heard. She spoke powerfully about the hope we have in Christ and how death is not the end because Jesus won. And the congregation stood and applauded and raised their hands and shouted out “Amen.” And then we came to the Eucharist, and it was rather awkward because this mixing of liturgical and non-liturgical worship sort of came craishing together and people were lining up to recive the bread and wine and we were only at the confession.
But when we got to the actually Eucharist itself, it was as if a dam broke. Because all of the family and friends didn’t began weeping and wailing and the grief in the air was palpable. And for a moment, it was almost as if all of that hope, in victory after death and of resurrection had been forgotten. And I was stunned and the service just sort of ground to a halt and I ended up simply walking over with a tissue box and standing there not really knowing what to do…. But… in a sense… a liturgical beauty came out of this because all the weeping and mourning family… gathered around the altar… laying their hands upon it as they grieved and turning their tear stained faces towards the cross upon it. And they kept saying thank you Jesus…thank you Jesus
And what I realized in that moment was that, there was no forgetfulness of the victory over death in that moment, it was still remembered… but with IN THAT MOMENT THEY were ALSO embracing of the fact that all their anger and sorrow over their loved ones death wasn’t being pushed aside by that Christ’s victory… but was being shared fully by their God, fully in that moment. Because just as they wept, Jesus once wept as well….And that is worth giving thanks for.
It has often been remarked that when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God’s reaction seems extremely harsh and almost uncaring. But John reminds us throughout his Gospel time after time that Jesus and the Father are One. That when you saw and knew Jesus, you saw and knew the Father as well. And so when John saw Jesus’ reaction at Lazerus’ tomb, He saw a glimpse of what the heart of God was since the very second that sin and death were first introduced into our reality. And for God it was no laughing matter for Him, it was nothing to joke about, or to uncomfortably ignore, but something that filled Him with anger and sorrow…and ultimately led Him to take action…. Which we, in just a few short weeks, will remember with joy and thankfulness. That Christ did indeed win over sin and death. And that one day we too, like Lazerus, will awaken to the sound of God calling our names. But until that day comes, we have the knowledge of a God who shares in our sorrow, and shares in our anger, and who invites us to come to Him in the times when it is too much to bear, because He bears them with us. For He is not only the God who wipes away our tears, but He is also the God who weeps with us. And for that, I give thanks…for that I say Amen, until I hear Him call my name into eternity.