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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

It was a dire situation. Their brother Lazarus was dead. He was a not an old man and, even though the expected lifespan was considerably less than it is today, the death of Lazarus was still untimely and premature, not the kind that comes mercifully after a long life or as a release from a lingering, painful, debilitating illness.

Most likely from an influential family, Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, were friends of Jesus, whom they welcomed to their home in the village of Bethany, a little under two miles from Jerusalem. Jesus often stayed there when visiting the Holy City. He was not there that day, the time of his friend’s death. Threatened by Jerusalem’s authorities, he had traveled down the ancient road to Jericho, then to the safety of Transjordan where John had baptized.

John’s account describes a typical Jewish burial. Wrapped in linen strips, Lazarus’ body was buried the same day he died; his tomb a cave, sealed with a stone, outside the village. His sisters then began the customary 30 days of mourning at home, receiving the condolences of their friends and neighbors.

By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus was dead four days, the point the rabbis claimed no trace of the soul remained in the body. Decomposition had set in. Hearing that Jesus was coming up the road, the two sisters left their home to express their grief. John’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus saw their profound sorrow he began to weep. The older translation was more succinct. It is that classic line, “Jesus wept” and is the shortest verse in the Bible.

The underlying Greek word for “wept” in the original text gives us a much better picture. In our sanitary approach to such things, we might imagine a single tear running down his face. What the Greek text gives us is that Jesus burst into tears. In fact, the word suggests that he “shuddered” as a horse does when it snorts. His entire body shook with deep emotion.

Sermons have often used this verse to point out how much Jesus loved Lazarus. I’m sure that is true, yet this is the only time in the Gospels when we’re told that Jesus weeps over a death and he clearly witnessed many, perhaps even his own foster father Joseph’s.

I don’t think Jesus was just crying about his friend’s death. I think his tears were about the tragic frailty of life, the senseless death of young life, the randomness of death, the loss of any loved one, at any time, any place. In that moment, more than two thousand years ago, we see the utter humanity of the Son of God weeping for Lazarus and for anyone whose lives had been ended in death and would ever be ended by it certainty. That would be all of our dear ones. That would be us. I think Jesus wept for all creation that lives and dies.

But I also wonder if his Divinity did not surface in those tears as well. Did Jesus weep because people who had come to know the power of God working through him, who had seen him work all kinds of wonderful works, did not anticipate anything astonishing

Ezekiel, from whom we hear in the first reading, was a sixth-century B.C. prophet and priest whose voice was one of forgiveness and salvation for God’s people. God gave him a vision of a valley filled with many bones—bones that were very, very dry—and God asked Ezekiel if these bones could come to life again.

Ezekiel was baffled by this and so God told him to speak to the bones and say that they shall live again. These were the bones of his beloved people, the people of Israel, who had been conquered, captured, and hauled off by their enemies, the Babylonians. Do you see what happened there? God gave Ezekiel the power to summon God’s breath, to summon God’s blessing, to call God’s blessing on those dry bones and make them dance.

The texts we hear today confront us with the mystery of life and death and while they speak to the promise of the life to come—resurrection, eternal life, the afterlife—they say much more about but life on this side of the grave and how we are called to live it more fully and generously. If the present COVID-19 pandemic teaches us anything, it might make us more and more grateful for life as God wants us to live it.

We don’t know exactly what happened next in this story but I bet there was a big party that night with lots of food and wine and dancing. Legend has it that Lazarus was thirty when Jesus restored him to life and lived another 30 years. What if we were given an extra thirty years to live?

No matter how young or old we are, what if, when the end came, God intervened and said, “Not ready for you, yet. Here’s thirty more years for you.” What would we do differently—not in the sense of looking back with regret but rather looking ahead with great anticipation?

The most difficult thing we are asked to believe may not be that Jesus raised Lazarus or that God raised Jesus or that there is life after death. The most difficult thing we are asked to believe may be that God loves us so much with all our warts and failings that God wants to resurrect our lives now, adjust them from an old way of life to a new way of life—literally from life to life.

What the raising of Lazarus means for us is that God offers life not only for the future, but for now. Jesus came to make this life abundant. If this story is to have any meaning for us, we need to ask ourselves the question: “Do we really believe in God’s love as a power that can raise us up?”

We may be inclined to think that the most potent words in this passage are found in the roaring command of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out.” I don’t think so. That is a directive intended for the deceased. John tells us that “the dead man came out, his hands and feet and face bound with strips of cloth.” I think the most powerful words we hear in this text are “Unbind him and let him go!” These are words meant for the living. They were addressed to the bystanders, his friends—to us. Jesus is speaking to us in these words, telling us that whatever it is that keeps us from knowing the abundant life God wants us to experience, we may need to be unbound and freed from it.

We may not literally get a second chance at life, that extra thirty years, like Lazarus did—but, in a sense, we all get a chance, maybe lots of chances, to do it better, to move from an old way of life to a new way of life, to live it more fully, more creatively, more generously.

And that’s really what Lazarus has to tell us this morning: living life as a glorious gift and living it in the blessed hope and assurance of the resurrection to life eternal. And that sure is good news, mighty good news—even though it’s embedded deep in the heart of Lent, even though it’s coming to us in the midst of a global pandemic.

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