Monday, April 07, 2014

Lent 5A

“What bible readings do you suggest, pastor?” she asked as we sat across the table from the funeral director.

“How about Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...’”? I asked

“Perfect. Mother loved that psalm. She had a copy of it on her bedroom wall.”

“Also, what about Romans chapter 8, ‘Neither death nor life...nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Lovely. I think she would have appreciated that message.”

“For a gospel reading, how about John 11?”

“Which one is that?”

“‘I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me shall not perish, but whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’ It’s the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.”

“Absolutely NOT!” she snapped. “No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life. How dare you suggest that story!”

She looked at me as if she couldn’t tell if I were a monster or moron. Or just some religious nut spewing biblical nonsense.

I was shocked by her vehemence, but could see her point. She was still trying to come to grips with the fact that her mother had died. She was drowning in details and trying to just get through the next couple of days. She didn’t have time to reconcile the Christian proclamation with her own understanding of life and death.

“No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life!”

She wasn’t saying anything that everyone else wasn’t thinking. They probably said the same thing about Lazarus. No one is raising him from the dead. He is NOT coming back to life.

He’d been dead for four days. Tradition said that the soul had since departed and what was left in that tomb was an rotting, empty, shell.

When Jesus arrived on the scene he must have seemed terribly insensitive. People were grieving. He even wept.

When Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” I’m sure that some of Mary and Martha’s friends wanted to put a hand over his mouth and hustle Jesus back to where he came from. How would you respond if some preacher just showed up at family member’s funeral and starting pounding on the coffin, and shouting “Wake up! Wake up!”?

This was NOT a pleasant scene.

It got even worse when Jesus demanded that the grave be opened. And when the stone was pulled back, the smell probably reached their noses before Lazarus appeared at the entry way. This was no sanitary resurrection, because death is not clean.

I’m sure Lazarus emerging from the tomb was met with mixed reaction. His sisters I’m sure were overwhelmed with relief that they got their brother back. Others might have been terrified at such an industrial-strength display of God’s power. Still others probably didn’t know what to think.

For the reader, questions remain. Was his body healed?  Was his skin repaired after days in the sweltering tomb? What could he tell us about his experience during those four days in death?

Not everyone was glad to see Lazarus alive, however. For some of the the religious leaders, Lazarus being raised from the dead created a problem. Seeing Lazarus walk around again would create a huge support base for Jesus, which would catch the attention of the Romans, who would then act swiftly and mercilessly to protect their rule.

If Jesus became too popular, the Romans would step in. If Jesus became too powerful, then Caesar would protect the peace by killing Jesus’ supporters.

But if Jesus died, then the Romans would stand down. If Jewish leaders dealt with the Jesus problem themselves, then the Roman problem would take care of itself.

So there is a direct line between Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and his own execution.

“It is expedient than one man die than to have the whole nation destroyed,” admitted Caiphas, the high priest. Many bible commentators call Caiphas “ruthless” for sentencing Jesus to death to spare the country.

But I’m not sure that’s true. “Ruthless” isn’t the word I would use to describe Caiphas. I can see the bind he was in. Despite the way history reports it, I’m sure Caiphas wasn’t happy about sacrificing one of his fellow Jews to satisfy Roman anger. It wasn’t a perfect solution to the Jesus problem because their wasn’t one.

I’m obviously not saying that I agree with Jesus being executed. But I understand the reasoning behind it. At least in this situation.

But what Caiphas didn’t know, was that he was sending Jesus to his death not just to “save a whole nation,” but to save the whole world. Jesus’ death wasn’t just for his own people, but for all people everywhere. His death was political. And it was universal. The cross wasn’t just an isolated event on a lonely hill just outside the city. It was an event that grabbed history with the force of its love.

And unlike Lazarus who appeared from the grave still wrapped in his grave clothes, still bound to death, Jesus rose from the dead with his grave clothes neatly folded and tucked away. He wouldn’t be needing them any more.

“No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life!”

That’s true today. But that’s not true tomorrow. There will be a day when our grave clothes will be neatly folded and put away forever. 

There will be a day when the strength of Jesus’ death and power of his resurrection will flood the universe with love. 

There will be a day when the whole world will rise and meet its God. There will be a day when tomorrow lasts forever.
Our God is in the LIFE business. Our God is always putting something there where there wasn’t anything there before. Our God never gives up on us or the world, but our God takes our deaths and destroys them, and calls us out of the tombs of our lives.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of second chances.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of forgiveness.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of strength when we are afraid.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of hope, when the world seems to be against us.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of confidence, when circumstances demand that we step out in faith, not knowing where our foot will land.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of seeing new opportunities and fresh possibilities when we fail.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of comfort when we grieve.

“I am Resurrection. And I am Life,” Jesus announces. “I am the power of God that is making all things new. I am God’s creative energy that gave birth to the universe. I am the one who will not let death defeat YOU or anything God has made.

“I am breaking open the graves that the world has created.”

“I am breaking open the graves of hopelessness.”

“I am breaking open the graves of failure.”

“I am breaking open the graves of hatred.”

“I am breaking open the graves of greed.”

“I am breaking open the graves of cruelty.”

“I am breaking open the graves of selfishness.”

“I am breaking open the graves of sadness.”

“I am breaking open the graves of death, so that you will rise to a new and better tomorrow, meeting God’s abundant future today, unbinding your mortality, and greeting God’s eternity in your life - at this moment - to claim the joy and freedom that comes from knowing that your days will never end. ”

“I am resurrection. And I am life,” declares  Jesus.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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