Out of the Depths
It was many years ago now that a former minister of mine lost his son in a car accident. The son was in his early twenties. The pastor of course took the next Sunday off from the pulpit and drove the 150 miles to the city in which the son had lived and died. There the extended family gathered, they wept, they held the memorial service, and then had to return to their homes to try to pick up some kind of normalcy in their shattered lives. Many kind words were said to my old pastor, by many kind people who wanted to help ease his pain. People said, “God called him home,” and, “he’s in a better place” – words too simplistic and kind for a father in excruciating pain. What he said to his congregation when he returned to the pulpit – what he said was his deep spiritual learning in the end of this all – is simply that when we cry, God cries first and hardest. When we cry – when a loved one is gone or our hearts are broken over any loss – God cries first and hardest so infinite is God’s compassion. God does not gloat or chastise, God does not say “there there.” God loves us so much that God cries first and hardest. When Jesus Christ arrives in Bethany and sees the profound suffering of Mary and Martha he meets them, emotionally, in their agony and Jesus weeps too. Jesus, the very son of the God who is Love, cries his eyes out. Of course he does – he who loves us all so much as to die for us, adds his tears to our own when our hearts are split open by grief or sorrow.
He had told his disciples that he wanted to wait a while before walking on to Bethany – he had heard that Lazarus was deathly ill, but, our text suggests, Jesus hesitated to go because to wait might cause a leap forward in the faith of all. And when Jesus gets there he witnesses their agony and cries with them. We hear that Lazarus has been dead for four days. The Jewish belief at the time was that after 3 days of death the soul permanently departed the body. The point here is, Lazarus was really, really dead. He was completely, “obviously,” past any hope of reviving. He is sealed up in a tomb behind a big stone and no one wants Jesus to open it. After 4 days Lazarus stinks. Everyone in the neighborhood covers their face with a rag when Jesus says to roll away the great stone that seals the cave tomb. Maybe Jesus did, too – he was fully human as well as fully divine, and he had a fully human nose. The stone is rolled away, Jesus calls out the name “Lazarus!” Some seconds pass, and then – dead man walking! He’s wrapped in strips of cloth, his mouth is gagged; had the stones fallen off his eye lids or were they underneath the wrappings around his face? Did people start to pull away the bands they’d so recently wrapped with care? What was weak, famished Lazarus thinking, he who had actually come back from what Hamlet called, “that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns”? What did that first sip of cool water taste like to him? And how about the astounded people of Bethany who watched this all happen? What would we have done, or thought, or believed, had we been there?
Our biblical texts throughout this season of Lent have placed us right there, in the midst of what we read is going on. On the first Sunday we heard of Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the wilderness, as Christ was tempted to abandon the mission he’d received from God for the sake of immediate power and acclaim. We are not Christ, but we live with infinite temptations to deny whatever is our calling in order to feed other, unhealthy desires for self-advancement at the cost of our ethics. The next Sunday we read of Nicodemus, a good and learned man in need of conviction, someone trying very hard to understand Christ and to be his follower. Nicodemus is us – he’s well-intentioned and struggling; he yearns for the conviction to manifest his faith in public and especially in front of his well-heeled and highly intelligent colleagues; he’s trying to understand Jesus, and what it means in the most practical sense to follow him. And he’s finding it all very hard. Last week we heard about a blind man whose sight was restored thanks to Jesus. That blind man is groping humanity, stumbling since birth, impeded from fully experiencing the world around him. He is the possessor of eyes but he cannot make them function until Jesus opens them up for us all, redeeming us from the sin that shuts down our senses. And now we come to Lazarus. He is Everyman. His name is a variation of Eliezer, which means “God helps.” In particular, “Lazarus” means “helpless.” His is us. He is bound up. He is gagged. He is decaying, he is smelly, he – and we – are behind a big old rock and beyond the light of day. We are, in our own individual ways, dead. We are wrapped tight in cloths and our mouths are stuffed – they are gagged with a ball of more cloth. There are stones on our eyes – placed by others, even the well-meaning – to keep our stubborn eyelids down. And we must be kept removed from others because we reek. These aren’t the reflections of one who thinks that human life is awful. This is not to deny the goodness of the human body and the world God has made, our loving and our struggling, the indescribable beauty of every human soul. We are now physically living, but into what tombs have we stuck ourselves today? In what ways have we gone stinky, like Lazarus? In what ways are we asleep, as Jesus describes him?
In our gospel passage, Jesus first prays his thanks to God for hearing him in his prayer. Then Jesus summons Lazarus to hear him. He says that sheep respond to one voice – that of their shepherd – and we are to do the same, to respond to the voice of our shepherd Christ. Through the thickest sleep of death, Lazarus hears the voice of Christ calling to him, and he responds. From whatever tombs we have made our home, we are to do the same. His sister Martha tells Jesus that she knows that Jesus is the resurrection – that he is the means to eternal life. Jesus tells her “I am the resurrection and the life” – yes, I am the way to resurrection, but I am the life – the way to real life in the here and now. Yes, your brother and all the faithful will be resurrected in the end and eternity will be theirs, but I am also “the life” here and now. Look at the wrapped mummy walking out of the tomb. If any will listen to me, they will gain not just life after death but real life in the present, while we live and breathe. Life beyond death would come to Lazarus, but Jesus wants him – and us – to also have it now.
We are Lazarus, and we are now in the grave, but there is new life to be had if we will love (and permit ourselves to be the beloved of) Jesus of Nazareth. There will be life beyond our physical dying – in 2 weeks on Easter we shall sing at the top of our lungs “he hath ope’d the heavenly doors.” Christ makes a welcome place for us when our time on earth is through. But like Lazarus, he summons us from death to life right now. He calls to us from the far side of the heavy stones that we roll between ourselves and the sunlight. He tells us to take the stones off our eyes and really see what’s around us. He tells us to take the cloth ball out of our mouths and let our tongues speak out – speak truth to power, love to those who hate, hope to those who despair. He tells us to take off the bands of material that act as a straight jacket, that confine us and prevent us from serving, from building, from embracing. Those bands may be made of fear, or low self-esteem, or obsessive desire for self-advancement, or hopelessness, or boredom, or consuming busyness with things that ultimately matter little. Jesus says it’s time to cast them off and live. What if you heard Jesus’ voice today, if you heard him calling your name, bound up in the cold and dark and stink as you were – what if you heard him call your name – what would it stir? Alison, come out! Paul, come out! Nancy, John, Donna, Sitraka – come out! What would it be in you that struggled to shake off its heaviness, lethargy, stiffness, and started to move? And who, like Mary and Martha, would tearfully be waiting, joyfully be waiting, incredulously be waiting, for you to move to life from death? Out of the depths, as the Psalmist says, a voice calls to us in our deepest darkness and when we hear – when we discern that voice – it gives us capabilities of rising and thriving that we never had on our own.
Perhaps I’ve made this sound like an easy choice – to listen for the voice that can bring us to life in this life and the next. It’s not easy, though, is it? To come out of our tombs today we would need to confront a lot of things – all the things that put us in those tombs. A whole lot of honesty stands between where we are now and where we want to be, and that can be very hard. To come out of those tombs means taking pennies off our eyes, the ball of linen out of our stuffed mouths, the wraps from around our limbs, the shame from around our consciences and the fear from around our hearts, the skeletons in the family closet, the past pain we dare not exhume, the embarrassments, the failures. That is simply hard and scary work.
But the Christ who can revivify out of the depths a really dead man is infinitely able to revive us among fellow living humans if we will but listen for his voice. The love, and mercy of God and Christ are infinitely more powerful than all that entombs us. Let us listen for their voices, and permit them to ungag us, unbind us, loosen us, free us. Will we recognize ourselves when we look in the mirror – when we see the person we once knew before we let ourselves be bound and gagged? Out of the depths we hear the divine voice, and we are recalled to life. Amen.
Joseph Donders, Praying and Preaching the Sunday Gospel (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988)
Karoline Lewis, www.workingpreacher.org; 3/9/08