Sermon for Lent 5, Year A
April 2, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14 Psalm 130 Romans 8:6-11 John 11:1-45
I don’t know how you envision the scene in today’s gospel reading, but until I went to Israel, the image that came to my mind was based largely on my imagination as a child and loosely on an artist’s painting. In that image, Jesus and the others are standing on level ground, the stone has been rolled to the side, and Lazarus is walking out in bandages – looking somewhat like a mummy. The expression on everyone’s face (except Jesus, of course) is one of stock and disbelief. And, until I went to Israel, tombs brought to my mind a person’s final resting place – like a mausoleum in a cemetery.
Now, however, I know that tombs were not the final resting place of a person’s remains in the time of Jesus. They were instead a place where a body was placed until all that remained were the bones. The bones were then taken out of the tomb and the tomb reused.
Lazarus’ tomb – or the tomb in which tradition says his body was placed, is now a tourist stop and it is just up a narrow and steep street from a church built to remember the miracle of Jesus raising him from the dead. We sat in that church and read today’s gospel before walking up to his tomb. It is not on level ground, a door has replaced the stone, and lights have been added inside for us to see where his body might have been placed. For Lazarus to get up and walk out would have required him to walk up a flight of steps in the dark – assuming that the steps carved into the stone were not added later for us tourists. In the tomb are two or three places were bodies could be laid – so I do imagine that the stench would had been horrific after four days. And, I think it would have been much more likely that, being wrapped as he was, he would have had to crawl most of the way out.
So, as I read this gospel lesson now, I also think about how amazing it was that the people did as Jesus commanded and removed the stone from in front of the tomb. Jesus raising him from the dead captures our attention, but if we back up a step and look at this story I wonder why anyone would consider removing the stone. Even Martha says they should not remove the stone because her brother has already been dead four days. But Jesus to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” The next verse says simply, “So they took away the stone.” Think about this a second – who among us would have removed that stone?
I cannot imagine doing so myself. But perhaps there are people in this crowd who have witnessed some of the miracles that Jesus performed – or perhaps they are thinking the sooner Martha sees the truth, the better. It is time to put this behind and accept her brother is dead. All Jesus offers is false hope and by rolling away the stone she will realize it.
You heard the rest of the story, Lazarus is raised from the dead and Jesus tells them to unbind him, to let him go. As a result then, we are told, that many of the Jews who had come with Mary believed in Jesus. This suggests they did not roll away the stone as an act of faith, but instead just to shut Jesus up.
If I had been there, this is likely the reason I would have done it – if I would have done it at all. Even now, I must admit I have difficulty believing this story. I’m not saying I don’t, because I do believe what I think to be possible and what is actually possible are two different things. Truth be told though, I identify with Lazarus in this story because I often find myself in the dark, bound up and confused by what is happening. What I believe to be possible is based on my knowledge of science and my experience of the world – which is admittedly limited, and often has proved to be wrong.
In fact, it was not until a friend told me he read the books of the Bible as stories, that I began to read it without questioning everything I was reading. The Bible is full of contradictions and stories that defy our understanding of nature. By reading it as stories rather than history, I quit doubting the authenticity of the stories and began asking myself why each of these stories are included in the Bible and why people today are still reading them.
Eventually two things happened for me. First, through Education for Ministry (or EfM), and with the help of various mentors, I began to understand that the Bible is more than mere stories.
For the people of Israel, it is their story. It is used to teach their children who they are as people – God’s chosen people. People who are loved by God, despite making mistake after mistake. There are many lessons contained in the scriptures, but many of them have to be understood in context. And, like today’s story of Jesus raising a man from the dead, the context in which this story takes place is much different from today. In that day, raising people from the dead did not involve CPR, defibrillators, or miracle drugs. Prophets, holy men of God, were known to have done what Jesus did through prayer alone.
Remember Elijah and the widow’s son. Elijah calls upon God for help, and the widow’s son is raised from the dead. There are other stories, not in the Bible, but from the time of Jesus, of people being raised from the dead. Again, I ask, why did these stories in the Bible survive AND, why do we continue to study them today? Jesus said, roll the stone away – and they did!
The second thing that happened to me when I started reading the Bible as a collection of stories was that I found myself believing it is possible that Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead. Note, I said possible. I don’t know and I don’t need to know. What I do know is that the Bible contains the truth that we need to experience true life.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God?” If we believe, we will roll away the stone and see that Christ does indeed offer us life. And what is it we need to believe – simply this. God’s love is sufficient and offers us life. In Roman’s, Paul tells us that it is the Spirit of God who raised Christ from the dead, and if Christ is in us, that same Spirit dwells in us offering us life. It is the Spirit that frees us from whatever binds us in this life and it is the Spirit that enables us to come out of the darkness and see the light of Christ’s love for us.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, free us from our doubts and concerns and help us see your love that surrounds us. Grant us peace in our hearts and life that, having been freed from darkness, we may shine forth your love to others. We ask our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.