He was a dazzling young man, in his late twenties, full of passion for just about everything. He was handsome, well-educated, from a well-to-do family. He had done well in school, and it had seemed effortless. He had a wide circle of friends who did everything athletic with him – kayaking, sailing skiing, mountain-climbing. He loved taking risks and going off on rugged back-country adventures.
Until the fateful day. Why did he decide that day to hop on his motorcycle, why did he decide at that moment to pass a bus, and why was the taxi coming this time at just the wrong moment? Why did it all happen? Why are some lives snuffed out before they have burned with the brightness they were made for?
Those were the questions his family and friends were asking in the aftershock of his death. Their stunned confusion sounded a lot like what we just heard in our lesson from the Gospel of John this morning. Lazarus was ill, and his sisters Mary and Martha sent for their good friend Jesus. But when Jesus arrived, Lazarus was dead, and so Jesus got an earful from Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Isn’t that the natural cry of grief? ‘Lord, where were you when we needed you?’ It’s the cry of the heart in the face of the world’s pain.
Lazarus is in the tomb. Death is the great enemy. Philosopher Ernest Becker wrote a book called The Denial of Death where he says that we human beings spend our lives terrified of death at an unconscious level. Our drivenness, all the proving ourselves, our ambition, the great achievements in culture and history, are driven in significant part by our need to shore up our selves against encroaching death. Nagging in the back of our minds is how fragile our lives are.
Churches used to be the biggest buildings around. As big as this one is, there are hospitals around here that are bigger – pushing back death. The percentage of our nation’s income going for health care is skyrocketing far beyond that of any other nation. Every news program and newspaper gives you your daily dose of health news. We don’t like death.
And death comes in plenty of forms. I know people whose daily lives are a battle against the death of mental illness, or alcoholism, or cancer. Or there is the death of someone who’s had the door slammed in his face at work. Or people living constantly inside the tomb of prejudice, or are the objects of fear because they are from another country. Or death comes as we sense in ourselves a long drift into a life that has lost its purpose and meaning.
Whole peoples can go through death. Just listen to someone back from Iraq talk about the fear and despair he saw there. The nations of central and southern Africa know plenty about death as AIDS destroys more and more of their young adult population.
Life itself sometimes seems to be a battle between life and death.
Over the past weeks the Gospel of John has been telling the story of Jesus’ own battle against the power of death. A prosperous man comes to Jesus in the night searching for a deeper, more authentic life. A woman living in the death of being a hated outsider in her culture meets Jesus at a well and finds the acceptance she has long been searching for. And a blind man after a lifetime of social and religious ostracism reaches out to Jesus for healing. And then in today’s lesson Jesus faces death head-on when he learns Lazarus is dead. John puts Jesus’ reaction simply: “Jesus wept.”
And so here, just before Jesus faces his own death, he stares the great enemy in the face. And what has been a series of skirmishes between life and death turns into a full-blown confrontation. Is there a power that can overcome even the worst that death can throw at us?
It’s a strange question to be asking before we get to Holy Week and Easter. That’s where the full struggle will be engaged. But John is saying that God’s answer to death—resurrection and eternal life—isn’t just an Easter thing. It’s happening every day. New life, resurrection, eternal life, is something we can receive right now.
Do you remember what happens in the story? Martha in despair runs out to meet Jesus as he arrives in Bethany. Jesus tries to reassure her. “Your brother will rise again,” he says. “I know he will rise again,” replies Martha. But somehow that hope in the bye and bye future doesn’t help when you’ve lost someone you love, any more than it does when the minister says to a grieving family, ‘Now, now, just relax. Don’t you believe in the resurrection?’
And so Jesus throws Martha a curve: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
“Do you believe this?” he asks Martha. The Greek word we translate “believe” also means “trust.” And that’s what Jesus is really after. Do you trust me that there is more life yet for Lazarus?
In other words, he’s talking about new life now. New life for Lazarus, and for that matter for the man who came in the night, and the Samaritan woman and the man born blind. When all these came to Jesus their mind wasn’t on eternal life. The blind man wanted to see, the Samaritan woman wanted to find her own place of dignity. Lazarus’s sisters wanted their brother back.
And in each case what Jesus gave them was new life right then and there – healing, forgiveness, acceptance, a new start on their lives. And in each case he said he was giving eternal life here and now. “Whoever believes in me may have eternal life.” Eternal life, resurrection, is something happening now.
Nowhere is it more dramatic, though, than with Lazarus. Jesus finally comes to the tomb and orders the tombstone rolled away. And then he shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” And of all things, the dead man rises and emerges bound up like a mummy. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus says. And there he is, alive again.
Scholars will argue that this isn’t a resurrection; it’s a resuscitation, because, after all, Lazarus will still face a final death. But it’s a story about God’s power to meet us in our tombs, when we feel there is no way out. New Testament scholar Raymond Brown calls these “sign” stories – signs of the ways Jesus is continually breaking open the tombs of our lives, until in this last story it’s death itself that he defeats. Whether or not you can accept this moment as actual fact is beside the point. John is saying that in ways we cannot fathom, no death is ever the final end.
In him the Creator of the universe, the Source of everything that ever has been and will be, is at work, and those who trust him, who take that life into their lives, can experience healing and eternal life here and now. Eternal life isn’t something we simply hope for in the future. It is a depth and strength and power for living Jesus wants to give you now.
Think back to times when things seemed so dark you thought you’d never see light again. The relationship had dried up, the child was losing her way, the job was defeating you. But somehow, through nothing you could do on your own, you found yourself turning toward hope, and light began to enter. Someone reached out to you, you found a new strength, a new way to face things, and you began to feel your way forward. Resurrection now. Eternal life.
Sitting in my office, she recounted how she had spiraled all the way down in her alcoholism. She eventually lost most of her friends and her job; even her family pulled away from her. But slowly she had emerged from this hell of isolation. “I am so sorry I had to fall this far,” she said. “But I wouldn’t take anything for what I know now of God’s power in me.” Resurrection now.
Resurrection can come for nations too, though it can be painfully slow. Our first lesson from the prophet Ezekiel sees Israel as a valley of dry bones. Across the world are nations faced with tombs of hatred, poverty, and oppression. “Unbind us!” their people cry. And then the Spirit of God breathes into those dry bones new beginnings. We saw it in Eastern Europe’s slow emergence from the tomb of Communism.
In all these stories we’ve been hearing Jesus has one message to give: God always has more life to give. And to lay claim to that, to trust it, to let God’s resurrection energy live inside us, is to be in eternal life here and now – and to taste now the peace and healing that we will know beyond death.
Eugene O’Neill once wrote a play called Lazarus Laughed about what happened when Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead. From the first time Lazarus’ friends see him after he has been raised, he is full of joy and laughter.
“What did you see on the other side of death?” they ask. And Lazarus answers, “There is no death! There is no death! There is only life!” And he bursts into a laugh that O’Neill describes as full of acceptance of life and a profound joy. Everything about his manner of life from that point on expresses deep joy and delight – as if everything has a new luster because of what he has learned.
In the play, after Jesus’ death, Lazarus preaches about the living Christ who could free people from the intimidation and enslavement which the fear of death brings. His great confrontation comes when he faces the cruel Caligula, heir to the Roman throne. Caligula brings Lazarus before him and threatens him with torture and execution. But Lazarus looks into his face and laughs softly, and says to him, “Death is dead, Caligula, Death is dead!”
The biggest change in Lazarus, after experiencing Christ’s new life, was that he wasn’t afraid any more. He could hope.
By the Christian light, no pain or loss is ever lost to God. No mistake or failure. But through them God weaves a new world – a self more capable of love and beauty, a world more open to forgiveness and healing and life.
Next week, on Palm Sunday, it will be Jesus himself making his own way into the tomb of death, and as his own prayer in Gethsemane shows, it’s the last thing he wants. But watch next week how Jesus does it. He walks serenely, with confidence in a power not his own.
“I am resurrection and I am life,” he says. “Those who believe in me, though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die.”
Eternal life, resurrection, is for now.